Are the Golden Bears About to Break Through?Jason O. Watson/Getty Images
Stefan McClure was having an unusual Saturday. The California senior safety had scooped up a Washington State fumble during a failed Cougars fake punt attempt and was racing for the end zone, but he couldn’t seem to hear anything happening around him. The assembled audience in Memorial Stadium, the hollers from his teammates, his own feet thudding into the turf, none of it seemed to be actually happening until the ground beneath his cleats changed from green to blue. It was his first career touchdown, Cal’s first fumble returned for a score since 2011 — and though McClure didn’t know it at the time, he had just lit the fuse on a 21-point third quarter that would power his team past Wazzu for an eventual 34-28 victory. That win moved the Golden Bears to 5-0, making them one of just two undefeated teams in the Pac-12.
But none of that registered. McClure knows, with a better sense of immediacy than most players his age, that any play could be his last. Injured for varying spans of every season he’s been in Berkeley, sidelined for 2012 and more than half of 2013, the awareness that his final season of college ball could be taken away from him without warning fuels his every step. “You get down,” he says, “those first couple weeks when you’re stuck on crutches and can’t do anything. Every chance that I get to play, I’m just thankful, and I’m going to leave it all out there.”
The process of expelling every particle of energy from his body against the Cougars offense leaves no available bandwidth for sense memory. “Really, in that moment,” McClure said on Sunday after practice, “it’s blank. You’re just running, and then you look back, and” — here he mimes a double take — “wait, that’s a touchdown!” That same sense of surreality accompanied McClure’s first career sack, less than 10 minutes of game time after his score. “All I could think was, ‘Oh man, oh man, I hope he doesn’t see me, I hope he doesn’t see me.’” His third-down takedown of Luke Falk forced the Cougars into a field goal attempt, which flew wide right, a distinct reprieve on a day with slim limits for error. McClure, responsible for two of a handful of plays that gave Cal a six-point victory, its third consecutive win decided by less than a touchdown, was awarded Pac-12 honors for Defensive Player of the Week.
A Golden Bear earning league defensive distinctions is something of a curiosity on its own,1 and a more than welcome development in Berkeley, where for a while now the program has been attempting to break the “how much offense can we put up before we need no defense whatsoever” barrier with limited success. Head coach Sonny Dykes, the noted pointsplosion enthusiast imported to replace Jeff Tedford in December 2012, fielded a 2013 squad that ranked 119th out of 125 FBS teams in yards allowed per play. Dykes brought in longtime Tommy Tuberville cohort Art Kaufman as DC before the 2014 season; that unit, severely constrained by injuries and inexperience, edged up to reach 107th out of 128 teams.
To clamber out of a well of that depth is a mighty task for any program. For a squad running an Air Raid system at anything approaching its desired tempo, defensive personnel management gets even trickier, owing to an increased volumetric need for capable bodies to perform opposite an offense that never gives it much breathing time on the sideline. “We’re playing two deep at linebacker, three deep in the defensive line, and we’re not quite there in the secondary,” Kaufman says. “Hopefully, we’ll get to where we can play five corners in a game, five safeties in a game, two nickels, and maybe a third guy. That’s our focus, because a tired player’s no good.”
A year ago, shortly after his inaugural game with the Bears, Kaufman gathered the 25 defenders who’d been on the field for the team’s season opener at Northwestern. “I said, ‘If you started in the game at a position you’ve played at before, stand up.’ And there was one guy that stood up. I said, ‘If you have not played at this level on defense in at least a year, or never, stand up,’ and I had 15 guys standing.” This season, he credits progress in technique and execution in part to Cal’s strength program, but mostly to muscle memory. “They don’t have to focus on what to do anymore. They can now focus on how to do it.”
Through five games, the Bears defense is allowing about 5.5 yards per play, down from 2014’s average of 6.27 and 2013’s 7.08, which places them somewhere in the middle of the national pack.2 Sacks and tackles for loss are both way up. The plus-eight turnover margin is a credit to all involved. Keep in mind that all of these numbers were put up against one FCS team, one Mountain West team, flailing Texas, and the two Washington Pac-12 outfits. Sturdier competition is on the way, and fast. But things are happening. When Dykes says, not excusing the side of the ball he’s less interested in, but plainly stating a fact, “I don’t need to have the best defense in college football,” he’s right for two reasons.
The first is that after last year’s abysmal showing, any flicker of life on defense constitutes progress. The second is that this is a Sonny Dykes team, and that comes with the Sonny Dykes–and–Tony Franklin offense, and it’s Year 3 of their tenure in Berkeley. And that means it’s time to start watching the sky for explosions.
“I’ve created a monster,” says Bears offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, grinning with the air of a mad scientist giving a laboratory tour. A Dykes collaborator since 2010, Franklin has never before had the same quarterback to work on for three consecutive years in this system. In junior Jared Goff, he’s found natural talent and supernatural composure, neither of which seems to have tapered off since Goff became the first true freshman quarterback to start a season opener for Cal in 2013.
“You knew you had something by his talent in that first spring,” Franklin says. “Watching him compete for the starting job, he wasn’t afraid. And then in that opening game, he had two tipped pick-sixes. Not his fault. He didn’t blink. During the season, he had bad performances. He had times when I benched him. And I mean, he did not blink.”
Two years later, in rare practice moments when he’s not actively throwing, Goff can be seen stalking around the turf observing the action with his arms behind his back, in unconscious imitation of his instructors. Franklin swears Goff is taller than he was as a sophomore. He’s developed a coachly midrange stare of vague self-dissatisfaction that he deploys in a press conference following a game with a margin of victory that is not to his liking, after a performance consisting of completions on 33 of 45 passes for 390 yards, one interception, and four touchdowns that Dykes will later characterize as “benign.”3 And he’s in such total command of everything, Goff has been granted the freedom to alter play calls on the field. This is familiar territory for Dykes, who went particularly loose on the reins with Graham Harrell during his time coordinating for Mike Leach at Texas Tech, but for Franklin it’s a first, and the adjustment process has been harrowing, like the parent of a student driver mashing a phantom brake pedal from the passenger seat.4 “I’ve never let anybody do that. Ever. It’s been hard for me to give up,” Franklin says. “I never want him to feel that he has the pressure to be right; I want it to be my mistake.”
Through more than 40 percent of their regular season, the Bears’ experiment with an off-leash Goff is showing promise: He’s completing more than 70 percent of his throws and has thrown four interceptions — only one of which Dykes can chalk up to a poor decision — and 15 touchdowns. Eight of those have been caught by Kenny Lawler, who appears to have that kind of alchemical mind-meld with Goff that springs from countless hours of summer reps. Up since the middle of Friday night with a stomach virus and vomiting throughout the game, Lawler still hauled in six passes Saturday for 105 yards and two scores, including this beauty:
“It’s comforting for all of us,” Dykes says. “When you put the ball in your quarterback’s hands as many times as we do, and you trust him, it certainly makes it easier to sleep at night.”
“He’s playing at a level right now that few people will play at,” Franklin says. “He sits in the pocket — bam! — takes it in the mouth, and turns around and throws a bullet for a touchdown. Time after time after time. It’s really fun to watch.”
Being fun to watch is nice and all, but it doesn’t necessarily fill the win-loss column. Cal hasn’t started a season 5-0 since 2007, but it’s easy to forget now that this time last year, the Bears were 4-1. It’s easy to forget, because after a 49-45 loss at Arizona, a 59-56 double-overtime win over Colorado, and a 60-59 win at Washington State in consecutive weeks, the team had nothing left in the tank. “We played 330 snaps in a three-game stretch,” Kaufman says. The Bears lost their next three games — all at home, to Washington, UCLA, and Oregon5 — went up to Corvallis and beat a listless Oregon State, then dropped their final three regular-season contests to USC, Stanford, and BYU to finish 5-7.
“I mean, we were dead,” Franklin says. “We were just done.”
Fast-forward five games into 2015, and here’s what Cal is staring down: a night game on the road this Saturday against undefeated no. 5 Utah, with the Utes coming off a bye week that’s afforded them plenty of time to bask in their 62-20 obliteration of Oregon. After a week off for themselves, the Bears have a Thursday-night game in hostile territory, this one against no. 20 UCLA. That’s followed by no. 17 USC at home on Halloween, and a visit to Eugene and the Ducks to kick off November. Questions are about to be raised on the field that demand answers. Will the ground game pick back up after a few weeks’ letdown and a pair of critical face-plants6 against Wazzu? Will Kaufman’s unit be able to hold its own against a sustained barrage of Pac-12 offenses? What kind of cohesion will the team display once the body-blow games start raining punches?
Ready or not, the time for Cal to transition from “consistently good television” to “consistently good football team” is now. In the macro view, there are advantages to making this run in this year, with the Bears’ race to relevance taking place against the backdrop of a Pac-12 that’s deeply talented and just as deeply tumultuous, with individual program destinies feeling less and less determinate with every passing week. In the micro, there’s Dykes’s very real concern that with what could be the season’s biggest game just days away, he hasn’t seen a complete performance out of his team yet. “We haven’t played as well yet as we’re capable of playing,” Dykes says. “We haven’t been able to put together four quarters of really good football. I don’t even know if we’ve been able to put together three yet. We know we can get it out of ’em; we’ve got to just do it.”
The Pac-12 is more than ready to make sure teams that fall behind get left behind. But let’s not let this moment pass without noting how remarkable it is that this school is even in the realm of realistic discussion of programs keeping pace, how this squad is two years removed from a 1-11 campaign in which it lost to every FBS team it played, and has equaled last season’s win total by the first week of October. This is California’s moment before the moment, and that can be scary, but there’s a grim egalitarianism to what it’s about to attempt. The Bears, after all, are afforded the same choice as anyone about to step into an abyss: Either you can fall, or you can fly.