By Morris Phillips
BERKELEY, Calif. — Coach Justin Wilcox hates it when his club loses the turnover battle, linebacker Evan Weaver–ever the perfectionist–never minces words when assessing the Bears’ defense, and running back Christopher Brown Jr.–a new voice in the mix–was simply doing what he was taught to do, in impacting the Cal football record book in just his first, collegiate start on Saturday.
If you’re keeping score that’s one positive, and two negatives, for the Bears on the occasion of their 2019 opener. But that positive–Brown’s 197 yards rushing, setting the record for a Cal running back in his first start–was significant enough to carry the Bears past UC Davis, 27-13 at Memorial Stadium.
Brown bludgeoned the Aggies for four quarters, carrying the ball 36 times as the Bears overcame an early 10-0 deficit and methodically wore down UC Davis in the opener for both teams. Brown’s 5-yard touchdown run late in the third quarter, broke a 13-13 tie, and gave Cal a lead they wouldn’t relinquish.
“That’s what we expect of him,” Wilcox said of Brown. “He’s a big, physical guy and this is his type of game–give it to him and let him break tackles. He’s a hard guy to bring down. It was great to see him out there.”
The 230-pound Brown played sparingly as a freshman in 2018. But with Patrick Laird departed, he’s stepped into the feature back role flawlessly. And his preparation–as he and Wilcox noted after the game–couldn’t have been more effective. Fourteen of his 36 carries came in the fourth quarter, and none went for more than 26 yards. Throughout, Brown was a tireless nightmare for the Aggie defense, which eventually wore down in the final minutes.
“My plan was to follow my coaches’ rules,” Brown said after he easily surpassed Jahvid Best’s first start in 2008 totaling 111 yards rushing. “We have been doing the same thing all of camp and the plan was not to change anything from practice. The same as we have been doing all along meaning going through eye progression, reading the correct gaps, doing what Coach (Nicholas) Edwards teaches us to do day-by-day.”
Brown’s contributions were vital with the Bears fumbling the opening kickoff, and falling behind 7-0 less than two minutes into the contest. But the adversity didn’t end there. The Bears turned it over twice in their first four possessions and punted twice. UC Davis didn’t just settle either. The Aggies ran 25 offensive plays to Cal’s 10, and capped the longest drive of the day with Max O’Rourke’s 40-yard field goal that put UC Davis up 10-0. With an upset of Stanford in their recent history, the minds of all involved started racing with UC Davis off to a roaring start.
But Wilcox remained calm and resolute which rubbed off on his football team. Afterwards, he explained.
“There wasn’t any panic. The guys stayed with it. We knew there would be some adversity in this game,” he said.
Quarterback Chase Garbers, who would bounce back to throw a pair of touchdowns to Kekoa Crawford, didn’t overplay the slow start either. Garbers finished 16 of 28 for 238 yards passing and one pick.
“The fumble off the opening kickoff was definitely a momentum swing for them, putting them in our red zone. I think that attributed to it. I think also offensively we came out too loose,” Garbers said.
Defensively, beyond the rough start, Cal held its own. The Aggies were limited to 264 yards offensively stretched across 68 plays, and they accomplished little outside of their fast start. Still, defensive leader Weaver, didn’t like what he saw, saying the Bears accomplished little of what they set out to do. Still, he promised the Bears would be far better on Saturday when they visit the Washington Huskies in Seattle.
“Going forward it’s just how we respond,” Weaver said. “Can we clean up those little mistakes?”