Cal Football: Can the Bears Reach that Elusive Sixth Win?

PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 18: head coach Justin Wilcox of the California Golden Bears stands on the field during a time out of their game against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
PALO ALTO, CA - NOVEMBER 18: head coach Justin Wilcox of the California Golden Bears stands on the field during a time out of their game against the Stanford Cardinal at Stanford Stadium on November 18, 2017 in Palo Alto, California. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images) /

The Cal football teams finds itself one win shy of reaching Bowl eligibility, so can they win that elusive sixth game for the first time in four years?

In their second season under head coach Justin Wilcox, the Cal football team faces a similar question to their first season with the new leader. With four games left in the season, can Cal reach a Bowl game?

At the two-thirds points in 2017, a Bowl game was within sight for the Bears. They sat 4-4 and needed to win half of their final four games, but only won once and finished the season with a last-second loss to UCLA that knocked them out of postseason contention.

This year, the Bears are in a better position. Through eight games, they own a 5-3 record and need just one final win to earn a Bowl bid. They have four chances to get over the hurdle, so can they do it?

Their next game is going to be the toughest. The Pac-12 is a bit in flux, with only two teams within the conference being ranked in the latest AP rankings, but the Washington State Cougars have emerged as the best team in the conference. They are ranked 10th in the AP poll and eighth in the first College Football Playoff Ranking. They own a 7-1 record (4-1 in the conference), and are the only one-loss team in the entire conference.

Cal’s pass defense has been excellent this season. They’re the toughest team in the Pac-12 to pass against, allowing just 165.5 yards per game through the air, which is the eighth-best total in the nation. But the group of Camryn Bynum, Elijah Hicks, Ashtyn Davis, Josh Drayden, and company will be put to the test against the Cougars.

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Washington State quarterback Gardner Minshew, a graduate transfer from East Carolina, has entered the Heisman conversation with his tremendous season. He currently leads the nation with 3,183 passing yards, and his 26 touchdowns are fifth. He’s completing passes at a 71 percent clip, good for sixth-best in the nation. In his most recent game against Stanford, Minshew completed 40 of his 50 attempts for 438 yards and three touchdowns. He completed 19 straight attempts to open the second half.

If Cal can find a way to limit Minshew, who has thrown for at least 300 yards in every game, they might have a chance. The Cougars are gaining only 70.9 yards per game on the ground, the second-lowest total out of 129 teams in the nation.

After that, Cal faces USC at the Coliseum. The Trojans started the year as the 15th-ranked team, but quickly dropped off after losing two of their first three games. USC is 4-4 on the season and their offense hasn’t been up to the school’s usual standards, but Cal has lost 14 consecutive games to the Trojans, being outscored by an average of 17.5 points.

Last year against USC, Cal had one of their better efforts in the “rivalry” during this streak. They held Sam Darnold and company in check for the most part, and entered the fourth quarter tied at 13. But Cal turned the ball over four times in the final quarter and would be outscored by 10 at the end.

Cal’s penultimate regular season game is the Big Game, hosting rival Stanford. The Cardinal are also 5-3 at this point, but are coming off a stunning loss to Washington State in the final minutes that knocked them out of the top-25 for the second time this year. Stanford, normally an excellent rushing team, is averaging under 100 yards per game on the ground as Bryce Love deals with a nagging ankle injury.

Junior quarterback K.J. Costello has picked up the slack, completing over two-thirds of his pass attempts on the season for 17 touchdowns while being intercepted just six times. The defense also hasn’t been great, allowing 416.5 yards per game (ninth in the Pac-12, and 87th in the nation). Stanford has won eight straight Big Games, but only escaped with a three-point win last season.

If Cal can’t win any of those games, they’ll try to get that sixth win at home against Colorado in the season finale. The Buffaloes are 5-3 as well, but have dropped three straight games since a roaring 5-0 start. They have a rather solid offense and defense, but haven’t been able to put it all together during this three-game losing streak.

If the Bears are going to reach that elusive sixth win for the first time since 2015, their defense will have to lead the way. The defense ranks third in the conference in total yards per game allowed (312 yards, 17th in the nation) and fourth in scoring (22.3), but as mentioned earlier, is the toughest team to pass against. The offense hasn’t had nearly as much success, ranking ninth in the Pac-12 in total yards (393) and 11th in scoring (24.9).

The formula appears to be simple. If Cal wins the turnover battle, they’ll have an excellent shot at winning the game. They lost each of their first three conference games when they had more giveaways than takeaways, but that trend reversed in their last two games. They won the turnover battle, and won the game.

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Cal is facing some vulnerable teams. They own long losing streaks to USC and Stanford, but both teams appear to be beatable. They’ll have to be at the top of their game to win any contest in the Pac-12, but getting to a Bowl game for the first time since Jared Goff’s final season is at their fingertips.