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Cal Football: Golden Bears Making Their Mark Under Justin Wilcox

Cal Football: Golden Bears Making Their Mark Under Justin Wilcox

Cal Football: Golden Bears Making Their Mark Under Justin Wilcox

LOS ANGELES — Traveon Beck played his first-ever competitive football game at Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum when he was just six years old. His team — the Carson Colts — lost to the Snoop Dogg-coached Rolling Heights Raiders.

"I was emotional before the game," said Beck following Saturday's 15-14 Cal win over USC. A cornerback from the nearby city of Paramount and recruit out of southern California prep powerhouse St. John Bosco, he had even more reason to be emotional afterward.

His interception of USC quarterback JT Daniels, jumping a route with impeccable timing, set up the eventual winning score. Beck blew up a fake field goal on the Trojans' first possession of the game, a tone-setter for both the cornerback individually and the rest of the Cal team on what become a historic night.

See, Beck's peewee football loss coincidentally mirrored his future football team's fortunes in the venerable stadium. Cal last won at the Coliseum in 2000, three years prior to the last time the Golden Bears beat USC in any capacity.

Saturday's victory locked up a bowl bid for Cal, the program's first under head coach Justin Wilcox and first since the 2015 season. But to earn bowl eligibility in the fashion they have plants the Golden Bears' flag in Pac-12 territory in such a way that sends a message beyond this postseason.

"[Wide receiver] Moe Ways talked about the losing streak that we've had," said linebacker Alex Funches. "He said, 'Into 20 years, you'll look at that you went to a bowl game. [Cal] did that three years ago.' Cal teams have not beat USC in [15] years, and we're the team to do that? That's going to be a lifetime [achievement]."

USC is languishing through an uncharacteristically down season, to be sure. The Trojans' 5-5 mark is their worst at this juncture in the season since 2001. That was Pete Carroll's first year building the dynasty that had Beck's southern California peers longing to one day wear cardinal and gold.

That doesn't change 2018 marking an important historic milestone for the program, which scored the majority of its 31 wins in the head-to-head series from the 1910s through the '40s. What's more, USC is the brand name of the Pac-12 Conference, boasting the league's most national championships and Heisman Trophy winners.

And USC isn't the only marquee program from the Pac-12 Cal's taken down this season. The Golden Bears were in position to make Saturday's "emotional" win a bowl-clincher as a result of two weeks earlier knocking off preseason Pac-12 favorite Washington, 12-10.

A common thread in those victory — aside from coming against each of the past two Pac-12 champions — is the dominance of the Cal defense. Such has been the program's look, in wins and losses.

Since October, the Golden Bears' noteworthy defensive accomplishments include:

  • Holding Arizona to 10 offensive points.
  • Limiting Washington to 250 yards of offense, 10 points, and scoring the game-winning touchdown on an Evan Weaver interception return.
  • Holding Washington State to just 19 points on the road.
  • Holding USC scoreless in the second half and allowing just 283 yards of total offense.

Season-long statistics reflect similar results.

Wilcox came to Cal in January 2017, replacing current SMU head coach Sonny Dykes. The Golden Bears had some success under Dykes with his "bear-raid" offense. After leading Cal to eight wins in 2016, Jared Goff became the NFL's No. 1 overall pick and now owns the Coliseum most autumn Sundays in his own right leading the Los Angeles Rams' offense. But the defenses throughout Dykes' tenure ranked among the very worst in the Football Bowl Subdivision.

From allowing 42.6 points per game in 2016, to just 21.1 in '18, Wilcox and his staff have engineered an immediate and remarkable turnaround. Former Fresno State defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter has devised effective schemes against a variety of opponents, while position coaches such as Gerald Alexander have the Golden Bears playing with confidence.

Whether head coach Wilcox, linebacker Evan Weaver, or Beck, various inflections of grit were used to describe the program's identity.

"Us going out and competing with teams, getting better every week, it shows the grit within our team; how strong we are; how resilient we are; how we can just go out and make plays, even through adversity," Beck said. "We were down 14-0 today. Just the strength to come back and beat SC on the road? That shows a lot about our culture."

Beck credits the style to Wilcox, which shouldn't be a surprise with his background.

As defensive coordinator at Washington under Steve Sarkisian earlier this decade, Wilcox oversaw a similar, instant transformation to that in progress at Cal. The Huskies allowed 35.9 points per game in 2011 before his arrival, then 24.2 and 22.8 the next season with Wilcox.

In a one-season stint at Wisconsin during the 2016 season, the Badgers held opponents to 15.6 points and an absurd 98.8 rushing yards per game. But if there's any stop in Wilcox's career that makes Cal's bowl-sealing win all the more sweet, it's his two seasons at USC.

Wilcox followed Sarkisian to Los Angeles in 2014 and seemed to become an immediate target of criticism from Trojans faithful. In current USC head coach Clay Helton's first game as the permanent replacement for Sarkisian — the 2015 Pac-12 Championship Game — the Trojans' defense surrendered more than 300 yards of total offense to Stanford running back Christian McCaffrey, and gave the dynamic playmaker multiple clips to add to his Heisman highlight reel the next week.

Wilcox was dismissed in the aftermath.

The Cal coach's time at USC was not given much consideration in the celebration of the Golden Bears; Weaver said he didn't even know Wilcox ever coached the Trojans.

All the same, something poetic could be gleaned in the excitement the often understated, almost stoic Wilcox demonstrated on the sidelines when running back Patrick Laird rushed for a victory-sealing first down. In his postgame press conference, Wilcox could not contain a noticeable smile.

One can understand showing some emotion. A lot of Golden Bears lost a lot of games at the Coliseum previously, no matter if the opposing coach was Helton, Carroll or even Snoop Dogg. Ending that losing streak is a significant step for the Cal program, and likely not the last such drought the Golden Bears will end under this regime.

Up next is The Big Game, Cal's annual rivalry showdown with Stanford. The Cardinal have taken The Stanford Axe every year since 2010.

And while it can't happen this season, perhaps this is the regime to position the Golden Bears to snap the most dubious streak in the Pac-12. This year marks the 60th anniversary of Cal's last trip to the Rose Bowl Game, the longest drought of all original Pac-8 members.

Maybe the 2019 Golden Bears can stake their "gritty," defensive identity around the mantra linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk offered:

"History's meant to get broken."

— Written by Kyle Kensing, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a sportswriter in Southern California. Kensing is publisher of Follow him on Twitter @kensing45.