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And In That Corner ... Unbeaten Cal Bears head to Notre Dame as two-score underdogs

Notre Dame has not faced Cal in 55 years, but that is hardly the reason the Bears are largely an unknown to Irish fans. Notre Dame’s scuffling start to the season has kept most Irish fans from looking ahead to coming opponents.

To remedy that, let’s turn to Alex Simon of The Mercury News.

DF: A couple weeks ago I know what I thought of Cal. I figured, head coach Justin Wilcox would undoubtedly piece together another stout defense while likely struggling to find offensive competence without quarterback Chase Garbers. That has been the common theme for the Bears for four years now, after all. But to be entirely honest, I have not watched any of Cal the last two weeks. Notre Dame kept me rather distracted, and the Bears beating up on FCS-level UC Davis and then slipping by UNLV was never going to get my full attention. So to start, does my summation about match your preseason expectations?

AS: Yeah, I would agree with that viewpoint. While personnel was going to have to change, Wilcox retained the offensive staff, led by coordinator Bill Musgrave. Garbers had been the starter for a *long* time, relative to college football, and yet the Bears barely cracked an average of 21 points per game in his four seasons as the primary starter. How the Bears would look without the dual threat Garbers provided (he ran for more than 1,000 yards in his career) was a major mystery.

And—wait, what now? Cal barely beat UNLV? The Rebels are one of the worst teams in the Mountain West. Even for the mediocre Bears, beating UNLV 20-14 may be alarming. Settling for two field goals inside the 15-yard line does not help the cause, and neither does missing another field goal deep in Rebels territory and throwing an interception in the red zone. Mishaps like that make a game closer than it needs to be, and in their own way, they make for vague optimism moving forward. Should there be? Were Cal’s struggles to finish drives specific to an off weekend or are they the result of the frustrating offense I long expected?

There is definitely an element of that frustrating offense, though they did move the ball well on their first two drives (each resulting in touchdowns). But there were signs of struggles in Week 1, as Cal had just one first down on its first four drives against FCS-level UC Davis and didn’t score until the middle of the second quarter. While they got off to a fast start against the Rebels, finishing with two touchdowns and 20 points on five-red zone trips against that opponent is a cause for concern.

What offensive solves might the Bears find? Despite being 0-2 and amid various forms of turmoil, Notre Dame’s defense has actually played pretty well this season. Marshall was able to run better than anyone expected, but some of that was because the game remained as close as it was. Cal, meanwhile, rushed for 121 yards on 28 carries (sacks adjusted) against UNLV. A quick check of cfb-graphs.com confirms my memory that the Bears ground game is only middling while UNLV’s run defense is rather dismal. Is there hope Cal might become the third team to run through the Irish?

It doesn’t seem likely that Cal can run the ball that well, but if the Bears do, then it’s likely because of their superstar freshman Jadyn Ott. He’s averaging 6.5 yards a carry and 8.4 yards a catch through two games so far. And it’s not like those are all from one massive play — his longest play from scrimmage is only 23 yards. Those numbers and the three touchdowns he’s scored helped him pick up Pac-12 Freshman of the Week honors for both games. While they have relied a lot on their transfer quarterback (who we will discuss soon), Ott’s the guy who could make the biggest difference.

Now, the Bears defense, Wilcox’s specialty. To ask vaguely, where is it weakest? Notre Dame’s offense has not found anything that works yet this season, and now it must recalibrate to some extent with junior quarterback Drew Pyne stepping in for injured starter Tyler Buchner. One has to think it will approach this week simply looking to beat Cal and not to reinvent itself entirely, so what is most likely to beat Cal?

An effective running game. The Bears have been stout at defending the passing game under Wilcox year after year, but the running game is where they’ve been weaker so far. They also lost one of their best defensive players, defensive lineman Brett Johnson, to injury before the season. Cal has had some very good safeties and linebackers under Wilcox, but if Notre Dame’s offensive line can get some push, the front for the Bears will surely be the spot where to hit them hardest.

Wilcox hung this season, to a decent extent, on Purdue transfer quarterback Jack Plummer (25-of-36 for 187 yards and a touchdown against Notre Dame last September). Reportedly, Wilcox had a chance to become Oregon’s head coach this past offseason. One of those situations seems preferrable to the other, so on a macro level, what is Wilcox thinking here?

Honestly, it’s tough to deduce, especially given that Wilcox is an Oregon alum and his entire family (dad, uncle, brothers) all played for the Ducks. But according to a February report from ESPN’s Kyle Bonagura and Adam Rittenburg, Oregon wanted to put conditions on Wilcox’s hiring, which would have required hiring or retaining specific staff members. Even if Oregon would be a better job on paper, the specific work environment seems to have made Wilcox realize that the full and total control over his program in Berkeley — even with its flaws — is better than Eugene. But the real question: is Berkeley better than the next opening that has interest in Wilcox?

The last couple of seasons have been rough for the Bears. To phrase this gently, a lack of harmony between the football program, the university at large and the city of Berkeley made it so the pandemic’s effects may have been felt more harshly by the Cal program than any other at the FBS level. It had to postpone a game last season, the only Power Five team to do so in 2021. What is the long-term direction for the Bears?

No matter what you read from people, it is almost certain to include playing football. On what level of commitment, though? It will continue to be a question, especially as fellow state system school UCLA prepares to go to the Big Ten with USC. The Pac-1210 staying together or adding some schools would help, but where Cal fits into that seems to be on the lower (or lowest) end of passion for football, with little support from local institutions. There is a level of autonomy that a Cal head football coach can get with his program (something that might have kept Wilcox for now), but several national college football pundits have said that it might be the least desirable Power Five head coaching job in the sport. So while Wilcox’s struggles to build an offense have been notable, he’s been good enough in Cal’s eyes to receive a contract extension. As my colleague Jon Wilner wrote at the Pac-12 Hotline: “If coaching contracts were based on the frequency of school-induced headaches, Wilcox would have a lifetime deal.”

Enough with the macro. Back to the micro. The unbeaten Bears are 11-point underdogs facing winless Notre Dame. Now there is a sentence. Anyway, how do you expect Saturday to unfold?

Notre Dame has a medley of questions to answer, ones that you have covered thoroughly all week here. But even with Pyne taking over and little offensive momentum coming in, Notre Dame should have the talent to move the ball and score on Cal. Defensively, the Irish have a real chance to make plays and keep another opponent’s point total low. It may be a third straight low-scoring affair from the Irish, but I’d take Notre Dame to win 24-10.

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