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Notre Dame’s Opponents: Cal’s offensive struggles continue to undermine quality defense

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 07 Cal at Washington

SEATTLE, WA - OCTOBER 07: California’s head coach Justin Wilcox leads his team onto the field before the game between the Washington Huskies and the California Bears on October 7, 2017 at Husky Stadium in Seattle, WA. Washington won 38-7 over California. (Photo by Jesse Beals/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images)

Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Descriptions of Cal have not changed much in the last few years. “If the Bears have an offense …” starts most sentences that were meant as compliments.

It has been a consistent concern for head coach Justin Wilcox, struggling to recruit the playmakers needed to elevate a program. Yet, he turned down a reported job offer from Oregon, his alma mater, and instead signed an extension in Berkeley this offseason.

In five seasons leading Cal, Wilcox is a respectable 26-28, but beneath the surface of that record, the problems quickly become clear. Wilcox is only 15-25 in conference games. For that matter, the Bears have not had a winning record in a season of conference play since 2009, going 34-69 in those 12 years.

Why did UCLA and USC so gladly leave behind Cal and Stanford as they jumped to the Big Ten? In part because they left them behind long ago on the field.

Cal has one of the five-worst rosters, talent-wise, in the Pac-12, and it did last year, too. The teams below and around the Bears have all endured coaching instability, but Wilcox’s job has remained secure throughout his tenure. Finishing 5-7 last season did not change that, especially since the Bears were competitive in five of those seven losses, going 0-5 in one-score games.

One of those losses came against woeful Arizona despite Cal’s defense giving up only 10 points. Losing on that kind of afternoon is difficult, but it becomes borderline understandable when three offensive linemen and the starting quarterback are held out due to health and safety protocols.

The only Power Five team to need to move a game in 2021 due to COVID issues, Cal essentially lost twice during that outbreak: once to the Wildcats and once in public perception.

The Bears made up that postponed game against USC on Dec. 4, the delay meaning neither team playing had bowl hopes and the only other games being played that weekend were conference championship games. Cal won, 24-14, against the coachless Trojans.

Start with quarterback Chase Garbers. A four-year starter, the Bears typically found success when Garbers was healthy and returned to offensively staggering, at best, when he was out. Garber finished his career with 6,582 passing yards and 50 touchdowns through the air, adding another 1,174 yards and 11 scores on the ground. Per Athlon, Cal went 19-11 when Garbers played more than half a game. Without him, the Bears were 2-10 since 2018.

Safety Elijah Hicks also warrants mention, a late-round draft pick to the Chicago Bears, but trust can be put in Wilcox that he will find ways to fill defensive holes. Clearly, he long struggled to replace Garbers, not to mention his preferred target Trevon Clark (33 catches for 658 yards and four touchdowns) and his backfield-mate running back Christopher Brooks (transferred to BYU).

Cal ranks No. 107 below at 53 percent returning production.

Wilcox’s next attempt at winning without Garbers will hinge on Purdue transfer quarterback Jack Plummer. He started against Notre Dame last September, going 25-of-36 for 187 yards and a touchdown, splitting time with Aidan O’Connell who was far more efficient, if also turnover-prone.

Plummer has enough of an arm to broadly garner respect, but it will be hard to respect Cal’s offense until it proves worthy on the field, especially considering Plummer will be helming a conservative, pro-style offense.

Receiver Jeremiah Hunter averaged 18.5 yards per catch last year, and sophomore J.Michael Sturdivant was a consensus four-star prospect, even chased by Notre Dame, so Plummer should have an option or two to turn to.

Consensus four-star running back Jadyn Ott will join junior Damien Moore to lead the backfield. Moore finished 2021 with 100 carries for 517 yards and six touchdowns despite barely playing in the final four games of the season. They will be looking for space behind an offensive line returning just two starters with 51 career starts.

Cal continues to have a couple worthwhile players offensively, but nowhere near enough to field a complete attack. SP+ rates the Bears’ offense as No. 100 in the country. If Plummer and Hunter develop a downfield rhythm, it will be often undone by a pass rush blowing through a suspect line. If Ott and Moore form a two-headed rushing attack, opponents will be able to stack the tackle box and not worry about multiple receiving threats.

Here is Wilcox’s specialty. Cal allowed 22.2 points per game last year. To turn again to SP+ ratings, the Bears have the No. 39 defense in the country heading into the season.

There are playmakers throughout the front seven, led by Washington transfer linebacker Jackson Sirmon and defensive end Brett Johnson, who may be Cal’s best overall player and returns to the lineup after missing 2021 due to a car accident.

With no help from its offense, the Bears held Arizona to 10 points last season. Anytime a Power Five opponent manages only one trip to the end zone, that warrants praise and given the offensive shortcomings that day, it is all that much more impressive.

Wilcox has never struggled on defense, hence the annual backhanded compliments of “If Cal has an offense …”

The Bears should have won a bit more last year, but they still would have posted a losing record in Pac-12 play. Opening the season with two losses by a combined seven points to Nevada and at TCU set back Cal further than it could recover from and played both an obvious and a figurative role in the Bears opening the season 1-5.

Their start should be the opposite of that this year. Kicking off against FCS-level UC Davis and FCS-equivalent UNLV should have Cal at 2-0 when it arrives at Notre Dame as a three-touchdown underdog. After the Irish defensive line has feasted, the Bears will get a rematch against Arizona.

Presume Cal is then 3-1 with eight games to play. Topping a season wins total Over/Under of 5.5, per PointsBet, should be within reach, right?

Not so fast.

The Bears will likely need to win three of their four games against Washington State, at Colorado, at Oregon State and on the weekend before Thanksgiving against Stanford. The first three of those all rank below Cal in total talent, per that first chart up top, so winning those games should be manageable, but the Bears did lose to Washington State last year, so nothing can be taken for granted.

SP+ considers the Washington State and Stanford contests nearly a pick’em, admittedly far ahead of time right now, and expects Cal to split the Oregon State and Colorado matchups.

So to take this season description one step further: The Bears likely will need to beat both Washington State and Stanford to reach a bowl game, all after a cushion of a start, although a cushion that will abruptly end at Notre Dame.

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