BERKELEY -- Every weekend this autumn, the folks who love Cal football have been waiting for Cal football to love them back. You know, with just one great and wonderful game. But every weekend, Cal football barely provides a slight hug.
Should people be upset by that? Any fair person understands the many challenges faced by new head coach Sonny Dykes and what an uphill road he faced. But still ... you figured that one of these weeks, if the players were sharp enough and received enough breaks, it all might come together for the Bears in an upset victory over a Pac-12 opponent.
Saturday was not that day. Again.
Saturday was USC 62, Cal 28.
"When I took this job, I knew it wasn't going to be rainbows and puppy dogs," said Dykes.
Yes, but did he expect so many blinding dust storms and feral pigs? Because that's what this Cal season has felt like.
Saturday was the seventh time that the Bears have given up more than 40 points and the third time they've given up more than 50 points. Cal is 0-7 in the conference and 1-9 overall, the only victory being over lower-tier Portland State. And the tough part is figuring out how to place it all in context, judging progress or the lack of it.
Dykes offered his version.
"Experienced, tough, grown men win games in the Pac-12," he said after Saturday's loss, noting the number of freshmen on his team's depth chart. "That's not what we are right now. That's who we're going to be."
There are two traditional methods for a new coach to revive a losing program, the sort that former coach Jeff Tedford left Dykes. One method is to take the talent on hand and utilize it much better, producing a leap upward in on-field execution, which can be a quick turnaround. The other method is to recruit better players and fit them into a proven system, which takes longer.
On the face of it, Dykes seems to be attempting a third method. He is taking the players he inherited, mostly young and of varying talent levels, and slotting them into a proven system while waiting for them to mature -- but also waiting for better recruits to arrive.
No one knows the timetable for that third method to succeed. But the answer, obviously, is not 10 weeks into this season.
Dykes said as he watched the Stanford-Oregon game Thursday, a television graphic noted Stanford had 15 seniors on its two-deep defensive depth chart. Cal has four seniors among the top 44 players on its offensive and defensive depth chart.
"We were forced to play a lot of young players before they were ready to play," Dykes said. "It has been tough this year, but it is going to pay off. In a weird sort of way, the experience they have gotten this year and the hard luck will help our team respond faster. We are going to get this thing right. I don't have a doubt in my mind."
Should the rest of us have doubts? There are some good signs, including the play of freshman quarterback Jared Goff and freshman running back Khalfani Muhammad. But are dropped passes and missed tackles the result of inexperience, or badly taught technique, or well-taught technique not executed well? Saturday, the previous week's Bear advancement, which resulted in a respectable 5-point loss to Arizona, did not carry over.
Dykes probably came closest to the truth when he noted that, occasionally, a young team can win a game or two early, gather momentum and begin to think it's better than it really is. But the opposite occurred with Cal's players, who "lost confidence and lost their way" after facing a rugged early schedule and bad defeats.
But to the team's seniors, who played their final home game Saturday, it all really stinks.
"We feel like we're so much better than our record shows," said senior wide receiver Jackson Bouza. "To the outside world and to anyone who isn't a part of this Cal football family, it doesn't seem like we're going anywhere. But inside the locker room and inside our facilities, we can see the change every day."
Asked to provide specific examples, Bouza mentioned that players now show up for meetings on time, attend class more diligently and sit in the front row of classrooms to promote more engagement with professors.
That's all fine. Perhaps it will pay off eventually on the field. But for now, Bouza was right. From the outside, you need X-ray glasses to see any rainbows or puppy dogs. Things are so dismal that many Cal fans are apparently going to spend Nov. 23 anywhere else but at the Big Game. The Stanford football office, via tweet, reported that Cal has returned 1,200 tickets from its allotment for the matchup in Palo Alto.
Dykes thanked the fans who did show up Saturday, especially those who stayed deep into the rout's second half. Next week when the Bears play at Colorado, another winless team in the conference, it will be Cal's final realistic chance this season to provide a bright moment for those loyal followers.
They deserve a bigger hug than they got Saturday.
Contact Mark Purdy at firstname.lastname@example.org. rdy.
Quick scores propel USC past Cal. PAGE 5