BERKELEY, Calif. (AP) — In two seasons as head coach at California, Justin Wilcox has helped turn one of the nation’s worst defenses into one of the better ones.
But for the Golden Bears to take the next step in year three under Wilcox, it’s time for the offense to carry its share of the load.
The difference between those two sides of the ball never was as stark as it was in Cal’s Cheez-It Bowl loss to TCU. The teams combined for nine interceptions in a 10-7 overtime victory by the Horned Frogs.
“The big things for us on offense, the obvious ones, are protecting the football,” Wilcox said. “At its core, when you have the ball you’ve got to keep it and when you don’t have it you’ve got to get it back. We gave the ball up too much last year, way too much.”
The Bears were worst in the nation last year with 31 turnovers, negating all the help provided by an opportunistic defense that ranked sixth with 28 takeaways. Cal threw multiple interceptions in six games, losing all of them, while finishing 7-0 when throwing one or fewer interceptions.
Making matters worse was the fact that the turnovers on offense weren’t a reflection of a unit that took risks that led to big plays. That led to a unit that scored just 21.5 points per game, ranking last in the conference and fourth worst in the nation among Power 5 teams.
“We have to get better at creating some explosive plays,” Wilcox said. “To think you’re going to drive the ball at 3, 4, 5 yards a play the whole field the whole game is very, very difficult. The primary indicators in scoring points is creating explosive plays, and we were not good in that area last year.”
If the offense can improve just a little bit, the Bears could be a dangerous team a year after upsetting Pac-12 champion Washington and ending a 14-game losing streak to USC.
Here are some other things to watch this season for Cal:
UNDER CENTER: Chase Garbers started 10 games as a redshirt freshman, completing 61.2% of his passes with 14 TDs and 10 interceptions. Garbers will likely be the man again this season although UCLA transfer Devon Modster could push him. The hope for the Bears is that a full season of experience will help Garbers this year despite losing his four top pass catchers from a year ago.
“Physically I’ve gotten stronger and faster,” Garbers said. “Mentally, being in the offense a full season has enabled my abilities to make the offense better.”
RUN TO DAYLIGHT: The Bears also will need to replace leading rusher Patrick Laird, who ran for 2,088 yards the past two seasons as the most dependable part of Cal’s offense. Chris Brown will likely start the season as starter after having 37 carries for 148 yards last season. But junior college transfer DeShawn Collins and Marcel Dancy also figure to be in the mix.
SENSATIONAL SECONDARY: The strength of Cal’s team last year was in a secondary that helped generate 21 interceptions, ranking second in the nation. Safeties Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis led the way and are back this season alongside a talented group of cornerbacks that includes Cameron Bynum and Elijah Hicks.
DEFENSIVE LEADER: Linebacker Evan Weaver will be the leader of the defense after recording 155 tackles, 8 1/2 tackles for loss, 4 1/2 sacks and two interceptions last season. Weaver reached double-digit tackles in 10 of 13 games and averaged more than 15 a game over the final four contests.
SCHEDULE STUFF: The nonconference schedule isn’t too strenuous for the Bears with home games against FCS-level UC Davis and North Texas before a road game at Mississippi. The Pac-12 slate is brutal, with road games against the top teams in both divisions. Cal travels to Washington for its second game, plays at Oregon and Pac-12 South favorite Utah in October, and then finishes the season with back-to-back road games against rival Stanford and UCLA.
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