New Math in Berkeley: A pair of pick-sixes equals win No. 7 for the Bears, 33-21

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY — Saturday afternoon at Memorial Stadium was another example of what the heck’s going on with Cal football–winners of four of their last five games, bowl eligible and eager to see the Stanford Cardinal a week from now.

The quick take: the Cal offense won’t necessarily scare their opponents, but the fastidiously prepared, super opportunistic defense will sneak in and steal all your food and drink if you’re not careful.

After the Bears turned a meager 211 yards of total offense into 33 points, and a comfortable 12-point win over Colorado, head coach Justin Wilcox did his best to explain how pedestrian offensive statistics could equate to a milestone seventh win of the season, and the most anticipated leadup to the Big Game in a decade.

“It’s not always going to be pretty but we took care of the ball,” Wilcox said. “We needed to sustain some drives better. I think we all know that. We have some things that we’ve got to continue to address and develop the players on our team, help them as much as we possibly can and hold them accountable. But, we took care of the ball and found a way to make some plays that really were the difference.”

Cal delivered those big plays in a manner that no one could recall seeing: a pair of interceptions returned for touchdowns in the game’s first two minutes, literally the fastest possible way to rip an opponent’s heart out with still 58 of 60 minutes remaining in a football game.

First, sophomore Elijiah Hicks stepped in front of Colorado senior Juwann Winfree and delivered Steven Montez’ telegraphed pass attempt to the house, a 34-yard interception and return just 1:11 after the opening kickoff.

Then with Montez facing 3-and-11 at his own 24, safety Ashtyn Davis came out of nowhere and delivered a pick followed by a 35-yard return that put Cal up 14-0.

Davis’ big play came 45 seconds after Hicks, and before the Bears had run a play on offense.

With plays that big, no additional hyperbole is needed. Thus Hicks explanation postgame.

“In practice we run that play all the time,” Hicks said. “I just had to cash in.”

Davis would go on to add another interception before halftime, as the Bears led 21-0, and 24-7 at the break.

So did Cal’s spectacular defensive display seamlessly lead to the offense? Well, no. With Colorado–losers of six straight coming in–providing gifts all over the field, Cal’s punting and punt coverage team took second billing in front of the sputtering offense.

After Cal’s first three offensive snaps went backwards, Steven Coutts unleashed a 47-yard punt that was fielded by Ronnie Blackmon, then knocked loose by Cal’s Traveon Beck. Quinton Tartabull recovered the loose ball, and Cal, already up 14-0 was back in business.

But seven plays from Cal’s offense didn’t bring them closer to an add-on score, it brought them to–after an offensive holding penalty–3-and-goal from the 18. But Chase Garbers’ nifty scramble gained 17 of those 18 yards, and his pass to Patrick Laird on fourth down resulted in a touchdown.

Unconventional? For sure. To recap, Cal led 21-0 with only 25 yards of offense.

When Colorado regained their wits after the early onslaught, they made a game of it. The Buffs defense responded, keeping Cal in check, while Montez and the offense made plays. Early in the fourth quarter, Montez hooked up with Winfree for a short touchdown pass and the Buffs trailed, 27-21.

At that point, the Cal offense had to do something, or be faced with an embarrassing defeat. And this time–with a Colorado mistake or two–they responded.

After Garbers scrambled for a short gain on 3rd-and-18, Colorado’s Drew Lewis got too aggressive, pushing Garbers after he was out of bounds. The resulting personal foul penalty and automatic Cal first down led immediately to Garbers touchdown pass to Moe Ways, his first as a Bear.

All About The Coaching: Cal’s improbable 15-14 upset win over USC rooted in strategy and adjustments

By Morris Phillips

How to end a 14-game losing streak in 60 easy steps. If it sounds complicated, that’s because it is.

What isn’t complicated is this: Normally stoic Cal head coach Justin Wilcox richly deserved to cut it all the way loose with his emphatic gesturing as his Bears put the finishing touches on their improbable comeback win at USC Saturday night.

And USC coach Clay Helton might want to skip listening to sports radio on his lengthier than usual drive home after the game.

Wilcox’s Bears ended their 14-game losing streak to USC at the Los Angeles Coliseum with a performance that was literally all over the place. But regardless of the methods, Wilcox predicted it, scripted it and willed it, giving creedence to his mandate that his football team win at least six games this season and go bowling for the first time since 2015.

“I appreciate what it means to be bowl-eligible. It’s hard to win in this conference and it’s hard to win at USC,” Wilcox said. “It’s a big deal for all the Cal Bears out there.”

To make it happen, Cal played dead in the first half, came roaring back into the game in the third quarter, and stay focused–if not productive–to seal the deal in the fourth.

Firstly, kick returner Ashtyn Davis flubbed the opening kickoff, briefly losing the ball, only to recover it at the three-yard line with a knee on the turf where he was ruled down. On the first play from scrimmage, Patrick Laird was dropped after a 2-yard gain, and Chase Garbers threw a pair of incomplete passes, forcing Cal to punt.

Inauspicious start for the Bears? Yes. It would continue.

Confident that it could key on Laird, and stop the Cal receivers in their tracks, the Trojans defense shined in the first half, limiting the Bears to three first downs and 60 yards in total offense. Meanwhile, USC would recover from failing to capitalize on excellent field position afforded by Cal’s poor first position. After seeing a fake field goal turned pass to the kicker blow up in playcaller Helton’s face, the Trojans stayed patient, scoring touchdowns on two of their four second quarter possessions to lead 14-0 at the half.

Helton, who assumed play-calling duties from offensive coordinator Tee Martin following back-to-back losses in the final two games in October, dialed up a pair of touchdowns that overcame the absences of reveiver Michael Pittman Jr. and running back Stephen Carr. With quarterback J.T. Daniels back from missing a game due to a concussion, the Trojans functioned admirally. After Daniels 23-yard pass to Tyler Vaughns for a touchdown, USC led 14-0 with more than half of the second quarter to go.

But things would change dramatically in the third quarter when a snap over Daniels’ head would result in a safety with Aca’Cedric Ware recovering the ball in the end zone with a pair of Cal defenders in proximity for a possible touchdown. The Bears trailed 14-2 at that point.

But superior field position would set up Cal’s first touchdown, and Traveon Beck’s interception would set up Cal’s second touchdown. After Garbers scampered in from five yards out, the Bears led 15-14 with time remaining in the third.

Over Cal’s next three possessions–all in the fourth quarter–Cal would run just 12 plays and gain 36 yards, jeopardizing their lightning rally in the third. But Cal’s defense made it work, coming up with a pair of sacks and timely pass breakups to keep the Trojans sinking in mud. As soon as USC reached midfield and approaching position for a lead-changing field goal try, Evan Weaver would come up with a sack of Daniels to force a punt.

Weaver would record a game-best 12 tackles and a second sack on USC’s previous possession.

With Cal needing first downs to bleed out the clock, they did just that, running 10 plays that evaporated the game’s final 4:50, and setting off a wild celebration on the Cal sideline while the majority of the Coliseum fell silent.

The Bears improved to 6-4 with games at home against Stanford and Colorado remaining that could turn Cal’s season from encouraging to extraordinary.

Meanwhile, the Trojans again blew a lead, falling to 5-5, and increasing the chatter across Southern California that Helton should be fired. If the Trojans can’t beat UCLA next week and/or Notre Dame after Thanksgiving, the rumblings will grow even louder.

The Great Escape: No. 8 Washington State avoids Cal’s upset bid with a touchdown in the game’s final minute

By Morris Phillips

Preparation, effort and playmaking put the Cal Bears on the precipice of the biggest upset in the Pac-12 Conference this season. But ultimately, the Bears were let down Saturday night by late-game execution in a frustrating 19-13 loss at No. 8 Washington State.

Aesop Winston Jr. caught a 10-yard touchdown pass with 32 seconds remaining to break a 13-13 stalemate, and the Cougars escaped with their Pac-12 title and national championship aspirations intact.

The improving Bears remain one game short of bowl eligibility, and the Cougars stay on track for possibly the biggest season in their program’s history, but it almost didn’t turn out that way.

“I think it’d be a war, and it was,” coach Mike Leach said. “It came down clear to the end and I was proud of our guys for sticking in there and finding a way to win when it’s tough.”

“We knew we could have won that game,” Cal’s Brandon McIlwain said. “Today it just didn’t go that way. Out team fights. We compete and we put ourselves in the position to win.”

The biggest component to Cal’s upset bid was their approach to limiting WSU quarterback Gardner Minshew, who had thrown for at least 319 yards in every game this season. While Cal gave up 334 yards passing to Minshew, they dictated how and when the graduate transfer got those yards with an intricate gameplan.

The Bears’ defensive line eschewed a powerful pass rush on Minshew in order to put themselves in position to limit big plays and tackle pass catchers in front of them. The byproduct of the unusual approach was numerous pass deflections at the line of scrimmage, and Evan Weaver’s interception that set up Cal’s first and only touchdown in the second quarter.

That strategic wrinkle alone put the WSU crowd on edge, mindful of Cal’s upset of the Cougars in Berkeley last November. The Bears supplemented the approach with a time-consuming pace on offense that moved the chains and kept Minshew and the Washington State offense on the sidelines.

The Bears finished the game with 69 offensive snaps, while the Cougars were limited to a season-low 66 along with an average of only 6.5 yards per pass attempt. But Cal needed to fortify their approach with a couple of timely big plays on both sides of the ball, and that never transpired.

Instead, with the Bears in position to take a fourth quarter lead, McIlwain threw an interception at the goal line, and prior to that Garbers was picked off as well. Garbers avoided disaster by stripping WSU defensive back Willie Taylor III on his interception return near the goal line. When the stripped ball miraculously bounded past several defenders and out of the back of the endzone, Cal retained possession.

That led to Greg Thomas’ 42-yard field goal to bring Cal even at 10 just 36 seconds before halftime.

Winston’s game-winner came after both teams squandered opportunities to break a 13-13 tie in the fourth quarter. The former San Mateo Serra and CCSF star was one of 11 receivers to catch at least one ball for WSU in the game, and the final drive proof that the Cougars depth wore on the Cal secondary. The drive covered 69 yards in six plays, following a Cal three-and-out.

Minshew completed passes to three, different receivers on the drive.

WSU improved to 8-1, 5-1 in conference, Cal fell to 5-4, 2-4. The Cougars remain on track to represent the Pac-12 North in the conference championship game, and if they win out, could gain a berth in the National Championship bracket.

Cal needs a win against USC, Colorado or Stanford to gain bowl eligibility with six wins.

Cal moves to 3-0, but wary of stiffer Pac-12 competition around the corner

By Morris Phillips

BERKELEY, Calif. — Linebacker Evan Weaver didn’t want to interrupt the celebratory mood surrounding Cal’s third straight win to open the season, but the defense mistakes were troublesome to him.

“It’s gonna get harder,” Weaver admitted. “We have a tough Pac-12 schedule, and it’s going to get harder to win these games.”

Beating Big Sky opponent Idaho State 45-23 was satisfying no doubt, but conference football is a different animal, and it was apparent that the Bears could be in for a rude awakening when Oregon visits Berkeley in two weeks.

“We scored a touchdown, and then the ball comes back and then we are out of bounds,” coach Justin Wilcox said. “We can’t have that. If it’s 10 out of 11 guys doing it right and one not. They’re trying, doesn’t mean they aren’t trying. No one on our team overlooked the opponent today, we just have to play better. It’s technique, it’s focus, and it’s training. We have to be better across the board, starting with me.”

At the top of the list of irritants, were the two fourth quarter touchdowns scored by ISU after the Bears went up 45-9 with 8:04 remaining. Both Bengals’ drives took less than three minutes and provided too little resistance for the tastes on the California sidelines. To the internal critics, it mattered little that the Bears substituted liberally in the final minutes.

“We made a lot of mistakes today, myself included. Really did not have a great game. It’s a team sport, and when you get individual stats, sure it’s cool, but if we were to play better as a unit, they wouldn’t have 23 points. That’s why I’m mad.”

No one was mad at quarterback Chase Garbers or safety Ashtyn Davis for that matter. Garbers delivered an efficient performance with 20 of 25 passing, three touchdowns, two of those to Jordan Duncan in the first half in which Cal built a 28-3 lead. Garbers was sacked just once, and got the vast majority of snaps over Brandon McIlwain, who sat likely due to ISU’s defense crowding the line of scrimmage. Nine different Bears caught passes preventing ISU from keying on anyone in the absence of leading receiver Kanawai Noa, who was a late scratch.

Davis came up with a momentum changing chase down tackle of ISU’s Mitch Guellar after a 63-yard gain that appeared headed for the endzone. Davis’ tackle at the 8-yard line allowed Cal to limit Idaho St. to a field goal in the first half.

But Davis was just getting started, adding a 89-yard kickoff return after the ISU field goal, and an interception after that.

The Bears have a bye this week before starting Pac-12 play at home against Oregon, the first of nine contests in as many weeks. The Bears are likely to benefit from not having any week night contests mandated by the Pac-12 television contracts.

Let’s Go 2-0: Prepared, Physical Bears hold on for big win at BYU

By Morris Phillips

If growth and maturity are gained with weekly gamedays, the identity-less Cal Bears reached the nascent stage on Saturday night in Provo, Utah.

Playing with the lead for the majority of the game, the Bears navigated the changing tides of the game, holding on for a 21-18 win to improve to 2-0. The Bears dominating defense led the way, holding BYU to fewer than 100 yards in offense in the second half.

“This defense really wants to just come and play every day and really dominate the football every single play,” defensive lineman Evan Weaver declared.

Without disruptive linebacker Cameron Goode, injured in the team’s opener against North Carolina, Cal’s defense figured to suffer without their singular star. Instead, Weaver, linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk and safety Ashtyn Davis played like stars, headlining Cal’s second half effort.

With Cal leading by 11 at key points of the third and fourth quarters, Cougars standout Squally Canada was limited on the ground, and quarterback Tanner Mangum was forced to throw. The Bears picked off Mangum twice to preserve their double-digit lead, with the interceptions being the byproduct of the Bears shutting down the BYU ground game.

“We didn’t do a great job in the first half of finishing tackling,” California coach Justin Wilcox said. “There were yards after contact for them. The possessions were a premium. In the second half, we made more of those plays on offense and that’s the difference.”

The two interceptions kept the Cougars in check, as did a three-and-out the Bears fashioned after Isaiah Kaufusi’s interception of Chase Garbers set up BYU at midfield with an opportunity to take the lead.

Offensively, the Bears fully committed to shuttling quarterbacks Garbers and transfer Brandon McIlwain in and out of the game, with last year’s starter Ross Bowers benched. Garbers connected with Kanawai Noa on a 52-yard pass play opening the third quarter, and McIlwain keyed Cal’s stubborn run game with 74 yards rushing. McIlwain bulled his way in from two yards to increase Cal’s lead to 21-10 at the outset of the fourth quarter.

Patrick Laird had a second, consecutive slow game, carrying the ball just 10 times for 30 yards. His production was seamlessly replaced by McIlwain and Garbers who combined for 129 yards rushing.