After running back Vic Enwere willed himself into the end zone during the second overtime Saturday night against Arizona, new Cal head coach Justin Wilcox quickly huddled with assistants on the sideline before nodding in agreement and signaling to his offense to prepare to attempt a two-point conversion. Trailing 45-44 in front of a Homecoming crowd at Memorial Stadium, Wilcox calmly made a gutsy decision to forego another overtime period to go for the win.
The two-point play failed when Arizona freshman linebacker Colin Schooler knocked away a Ross Bowers pass attempt, and the Golden Bears fell to 1-4 in Pac-12 play. It was a disappointing loss for the Bears (4-4), who missed a golden opportunity to improve their chances of reaching a bowl game. Nevertheless, Wilcox was confident the gamble was the right move. And even though Cal lost, it appears hiring Wilcox was the right move for the Bears.
Sonny Dykes never fit in at Cal. As exciting as the Bears were offensively under Dykes, the Texan was consistently linked to job openings in and around the Lone Star State, and after just one winning season in four years in Berkeley, Dykes and Cal agreed to a split, opening the door for Wilcox.
Just 40 years old, but with a decade of experience as a defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC and Wisconsin, Wilcox was charged with turning around one of the worst defenses in the nation. In 2016, Cal surrendered 42.6 points per game, which ranked dead last in the conference and 127th out of 128 FBS teams. The Bears allowed 272.8 rushing yards per game, which also ranked next to last nationally, and allowed 6.2 yards per carry, which was the worst mark in the nation. Cal surrendered 6.71 yards per play overall, which ranked 122nd, and the Bears allowed 518.3 yards of total offense per game, which sat No. 125 on the FBS leaderboard.
Diving deeper, Cal allowed an average of 522.9 total yards and 6.77 yards per play in conference games a year ago. In losses, the unit surrendered 573.9 total yards and 7.59 yards per play, and against three ranked opponents, the Golden Bears were gashed for a staggering 629.3 yards of offense and 8.62 yards per play. Oddly enough, Cal beat No. 11 Texas and No. 18 Utah, but the team was wildly inconsistent and finished 5-7 overall and 3-6 in Pac-12 play.
Given the poor track record on defense, inexperience on offense (Cal was forced to replace its leading passer, receiver and rusher), big-name non-conference opponents North Carolina (on the road) and Ole Miss on the schedule, and the general struggles first-time head coaches face, expectations were low for Wilcox in 2017. As one measure, Las Vegas oddsmakers set the over/under at 3.5 wins during the preseason, and those same oddsmakers have listed the Bears as underdogs in every game they’ve played this season against FBS opponents.
However, Wilcox has his team playing far better than expected through his first eight games, having already paid off for season-long bettors, after guiding the Bears to four wins. Three of those victories have been outright upsets, and the Bears have covered five times in seven games against FBS competition.
Cal still has a lot of work to do to become a great (or even good) defense, but Wilcox’s background has already paid dividends. In fact, the Bears have lowered their defensive numbers across the board. Through eight games, Cal has allowed 28.4 points and 433.4 yards of total offense per game and 5.65 yards per play. Opponents have managed 175.4 rushing yards per game and 4.4 yards per carry — an improvement of nearly 100 yards per game and 1.8 yards per attempt. In 2016, opponents racked up an average of 16.5 plays per game of 10 yards or more. With a tougher presence against the run, better tackling and fewer busted coverages, that number is down to 14.6 this year.
Furthermore, conference opponents have managed 408.0 yards per game and 5.53 yards per play and the Bears have held opponents to 425.8 yards per game and 5.77 yards per play in losses. Most impressively, Cal has held three ranked opponents — No. 5 USC, No. 6 Washington and No. 8 Washington State — to just 356.7 total yards and 4.65 yards per play. None of the three reached 400 total yards and only Washington (4.3) surpassed 4.0 yards per play.
The Bears were 1-2 in those games, but the win over the Cougars came in dominant fashion as Cal recorded nine sacks and forced seven turnovers in the 37-3 victory. Playmaking linebacker Devante Downs, who was the leading tackler in the conference, suffered a serious injury in the win. But the unit as a whole has shown marked improvement that should carry on even without Downs.
Last year’s team also started 4-4, but struggled down the stretch and finished 5-7, missing out on a bowl game for the third time in four seasons under Dykes. But with Wilcox making the decisions, it’s reasonable to think this year will shake out differently.
— Written by Nicholas Ian Allen, a member of the Athlon Contributor Network. Follow him on Twitter @NicholasIAllen.
(Top photo courtesy of www.calbears.com)