Even in late September, when the California Bears were undefeated and ranked 15th in the country, they weren’t asking much of their offense.
Score 20-some points, don’t turn the ball over, let the Bears’ staunch defense do the rest.
Then they lost their quarterback and for the next month, they got fewer than 18 points every game. Staunch defense or no, that’s not enough in the Pac-12.
Having followed four consecutive wins with four consecutive losses, the Bears try to start anew at 4 p.m. Saturday (Pac-12 Network) when they face Washington State in Berkeley, Calif. Both teams are 4-4 overall, 1-4 in Pac-12 play, and coming off a bye.
This isn’t exactly what Beau Baldwin signed up for.
The former Eastern Washington head coach, who led the Eagles to the Football Championship Subdivision title nine years ago, surely knew he would play second fiddle to defensive-minded head coach Justin Wilcox when they hooked up in Berkeley in 2017. But in Year 3, he didn’t expect to have the statistically seventh-worst offense in the Bowl Subdivision.
“I think you’re going to see a little spark these last four games,” Baldwin told reporters this week. “A lot of guys can start to splinter — the locker room can start to splinter when you go through any stretch where things aren’t successful. Our guys don’t do that.”
His optimism probably isn’t based on the health of Chase Garbers, the quarterback whose shoulder injury in Game 5 set the Bears reeling.
Baldwin and Wilcox are being coy, but it appears Garbers still is ailing and their starter this week will be UCLA transfer Devon Modster, who himself has been out with a head injury sustained three weeks ago against Oregon State.
That blow forced the Bears to start skinny true freshman Spencer Brasch in their most recent game at Utah. That’s when the wheels fell off. They lost 35-0, their first conference shutout loss in 25 years and the first time in 15 games they’d allowed 25 or more points.
The Bears still rank second in the conference in pass defense, which should bolster their confidence against WSU coach Mike Leach’s Air Raid offense.
They still have Evan Weaver, the inside linebacker from Spokane who’s averaging 2½ more tackles than anyone else in the country.
They still have Wilcox, who transformed Cal’s identity in record time, from the Leach-influenced Bear Raid of Sonny Dykes from 2013-16 to one of the most D-oriented programs in the West.
“He always runs a good defense,” Leach said. “As a matter of fact, there’s a ton of people that borrow and draw from his defense.”
Quarterbacks haven’t been the Bears’ only injury victims. They’ve also been hit at offensive line and receiver, and the result was 83 yards of offense and six first downs at Utah. They’re hoping to regain the services of galvanizing center Michael Saffell against the Cougars, who are 7½-point favorites.
For both teams, the bye week is an X factor. Which unit made more progress during the hiatus — the WSU defense that underwent an overhaul after the resignation of coordinator Tracy Claeys in late September, or the Cal offense that went south shortly thereafter?
For the Bears, one reason for hope is the learning curve of Modster, a junior who sat out the first three games this season, even in practice, to satisfy NCAA transfer rules. He and Brasch are presumably learning rapidly.
“They’re practicing better and better every day,” Baldwin said. “My confidence (comes from) the fact that, from the first half and middle portion of the season to the end, quarterbacks that haven’t had a ton of experience should take big gains in the last third of the season. That’s my expectation for both those guys.”
Grummert may be reached at daleg@lmtribune or (208) 848-2290.
WSU’s Mazza a Groza semifinalist
PULLMAN — Washington State placekicker Blaka Mazza, who is perfect in field goals and conversion kicks this season, made the 20-man semifinals Thursday for the Lou Groza Award, given annually to the nation’s premier kicker.
The sophomore from Texas has converted all 13 of his field-goal attempts, including one from 51 yards and another from 50, and is 41-for-41 in point-after kicks.
The finalists for the award will be announced Nov. 25, with the winner revealed during the College Football Awards Show on Dec. 12 on ESPN.