I was really high on this team heading into the Oregon game. I believed that this team could, in theory, be at least a .500 team that could sneak into a low-end bowl game and build off of this season. There is still a shot, even if only mathematically, that this could happen. That said, watching this team play in Autzen Stadium this past weekend, as well as the news that came out of Berkeley this week (the dismissal of Chris McCain, the quarterback battle, and Kameron Jackson’s questionable status this weekend), plus the fact that Connor Halliday will be a definite starter this weekend, puts the grim reality of this season in perspective. This game is a must win for Cal.
Cal has one win in four games. They are without defensive players Nathan Broussard, Austin Clark, Mustafa Jalil, Brennan Scarlett, Avery Sebastian, Sione Sina and possibly Jackson. Plus, they kicked McCain off the team. That’s eight players who are not starting/adding depth for this team. They looked absolutely awful against Oregon, which isn’t a surprise when considering that Oregon is the best team in the nation and Cal has renamed their team name to the Walking Wounded. And now, after facing three ranked opponents in four games (and losing all three of those games), they need to win five of their last eight games in order to have a shot at playing in the post season.
For that to happen, for Cal to take five of the last eight, Cal must win against Washington State. But this isn’t the only reason for this game being labeled as a must-win. The Walking Wounded need to feel what it’s like to win a game before they completely disconnect from this season.
When teams are deflated, for whatever reason, they tend to play like they don’t care. We saw it in 2004 when Cal was robbed of a Rose Bowl berth after Texas head coach Mack Brown publicly lobbied to play in the Rose Bowl. Then Texas, because they always gets what they want, got to play in Pasadena while the better (and rightful) Cal Bears had to settle for the second-rate Holiday Bowl. They played deflated and, because of that, they lost 45-31 to Texas Tech team that, while talented, was not as good as that year’s Cal team was.
Now, this team is very close to playing the rest of the season like that 2004 team played in San Diego that season. Not because they got robbed or some sort of injustice happened, but because they have gotten the bad luck of dealing with the worst injury bug I’ve seen since the 2011 San Francisco Giants, and they’ve had the toughest schedule this season. And now, with a beatable (but tough) team rolling into town this weekend, if they don’t win, they could press the quit button and mail it in for the rest of the season.
The game itself will be hard fought. The 3-2 Cougars are just a few pieces away from being a really good team, and their tough defense will keep them in most games. This one included. The Cougars don’t need this game as much, but getting their fourth win with six games to play essentially assures them of their first bowl berth since the 2003 Holiday Bowl (which they happened to win against Mack Brown’s Longhorns. See? Everything comes full circle).
The key to Cal winning tomorrow is that they must play a solid defensive game. Solid for Cal. They don’t have to hold the high-octain Cougar offense to 17 points like Stanford did last weekend. But they do have to cause turnovers (something that the Cougars often do) and they need to do it throughout the game.
They must have a solid night from the three (or two, depending on if Khaifani Muhammad plays) runningbacks. They have to at least match their best totals on the season – if not better them – against the rough front seven of Washington State. Quite frankly, we do not want to see Cal have to throw their way out of a deficit because, while I fully trust Jared Goff, I know how talented the ball-hawking secondary of the Cougars is. I don’t need to see a freshman quarterback deal with a gang of senior defensive backs who have dealt with every decent-great Pac-12 quarterback over the last four-to-five seasons.
The final thing that must happen in order for Cal to win this weekend is for the ball to bounce Cal’s way. The coaches, the players, the alumni and the fan base all have to get something to get excited for. A win, a few lucky breaks and a good game may ignite the bruised and beaten Golden Bear nation. They need it to happen this week. If not, the season will roll into an endless rabbit hole that never quite gets to the other side.
Ultimately, Sonny Dykes cannot let Mike Leach call the kind of game that he usually does. The fast-paced, no-holds barred game that Leach teams run. Cal has to put up some sort of fight. They have to somehow make this game a defensive battle.
If they win this weekend, it gives these players, this fan base and the staff something to fight for, something to believe in. That’s why it’s a must-win. Anyone who knows anything about Cal football knows damn well that they have to win this weekend. There is no way around it. Sonny Dykes knows it, Jared Goff knows it, I know it… and I hope you know it.
Imagine the explosion within the Memorial Stadium stands if they can figure a way to get back into the postseason? Maybe, they can string together a few wins, get themselves bowl eligible, play in a bowl game, build for 2014 and beyond, and bring in a solid recruiting class.
If they lose… well, if they lose… let’s just say that Haas Pavilion opens for business on October 31st with an exhibition game against Humboldt State and the women’s season opener against Vanguard the next day.