Cal football pulled off a massive upset on Saturday, defeating the North Carolina Tar Heels 35-30, despite being 12 point underdogs. The road win marked coach Justin Wilcox’s first victory as a Cal Bear. Here are some takeaways from Cal’s season opener.
A New Era of Cal Football?
The win felt different. It wasn’t the, “Let’s score 60 and pray the other team doesn’t score 61” that Cal fans were used to under Sonny Dykes. The 2017 opener felt like a real game; the way football is supposed to be played.
This is the change the program desperately needed. While a shootout every couple of games is fun, a whole season’s worth is unsustainable. A team’s ceiling can only be so high when they are giving up 50 points a game.
So far, this transition can be attributed to Wilcox. The former Wisconsin defensive coordinator has already changed the culture of Cal football, and by the looks of it, for the better. The new style of play might not translate to much success with the inexperienced team this year, but will be a foundation for future Pac-12 contenders.
Bow Down to Bowers
The redshirt sophomore had a day to remember, collecting his first career win in his first career start. Despite a bumpy start, Ross Bowers finished with 363 yards and four touchdowns against two interceptions on 24-38 passing. He also added four rushes for four yards.
Despite the excellent stats, Bowers’ inexperienced play still showed through. On numerous occasions, Bowers panicked under pressure and threw the ball into heavy coverage. The young quarterback needs to learn to throw the ball away in those situations, or use his rushing abilities to get out of the pocket.
Bowers did show incredible upside, however. His arm strength and downfield vision will be tremendous assets for the Bears in the future. If he is able to utilize his legs as well, Cal’s offense could become a real force in the Pac-12, as it has been for the last five years.
Does Cal Have A Real Defense?
Perhaps the most impressive aspect of Cal’s win was their defense. 30 points surrendered may not sound like an impressive feat, but for a defense that gave up over 43 points a game in 2016, it is a welcome sight.
Early on, Cal’s run defense looked impenetrable. The Bears defense forced three straight punts, and limited North Carolina to just a couple yards per rush. Later in the game, the Tar Heels began to exploit the Cal defense with QB draws and sneaks, which opened up the rest of their run game. Yet the Bears only allowed 219 rushing yards overall, a sharp decline from last year’s average.
The Bears also found success defending the pass. The secondary allowed just 221 passing yards while forcing two interceptions. North Carolina’s two-quarterback pass offense was reeling, however, so the success may not be indicative of future play.
The Bears already look more defensive-minded, something that the program desperately needed. If Cal can continue to keep up the defensive pace they set on Saturday, they will continue to win games.
Where Was Demetris Robertson?
A freshman All-American last year, Demetris Robertson had high expectations as Cal’s top receiver this year. Yet the talented receiver was absolutely shut down on Saturday, collecting only 12 yards on three receptions. From the beginning, it was obvious that North Carolina’s game plan was to keep the ball out of Robertson’s hands. The strategy worked, as Cal’s offense began to stall without the help of Robertson’s playmaking abilities. By the end of the game, Bowers wasn’t even trying to force the ball to Robertson, rather choosing the easy coverages against other receivers.
The lack of production from Robertson is alarming. Future opponents will be able to use and exploit the strategy for containing Robertson, which could become a serious issue for the Bears. The Savannah native is an integral part of the Cal offense and will need to reestablish himself for the team to have success in the future.
Where Wasn’t Vic Wharton?
While Robertson was struggling under the tight coverage, Vic Wharton III had no trouble finding holes in the UNC secondary. The standout junior finished with 5 receptions, 156 yards, and a touchdown, highlighted by his 67-yard catch and run.
Wharton has proved to be Bowers’ favorite target early on, and could turn into one of Cal’s top wideouts later on in the season. This could take the pressure, and coverage, off of Robertson, opening up new possibilities for offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin.
Malik McMorris Is The Man
Fourth and one. Down by three. Malik McMorris is your man. The 5’11″, 285-pound fullback made quite an impact on Saturday, setting key blocks throughout the game and making a huge fourth down catch in the fourth quarter.
McMorris’ versatility is a big advantage for the Bears, who will be able to use him as a run blocker as well as an offensive threat.
The next play resulted in a touchdown, giving the Bears a lead they would not relinquish for the rest of the game.
Bowl Game Bound?
Now, this is a stretch. Vegas had Cal winning 3.5 games in the 2017 season, and with the hardest strength of schedule in the country, that seemed a little generous. Yet with the way Cal played on Saturday, the Bears showed they have the potential to sneak into a bowl game. Will they? Most likely not. But it is a happy thought in this young college football season.