The Bears’ last hopes of bowl game eligibility were extinguished by UCLA, and USC will be their last matchup of the season. What’s still at stake for Cal?
Kabir Rao: Beating Stanford, UCLA and USC in consecutive weeks was always going to be a long shot for this team. After the Bears’ Big Game performance in Palo Alto, it appeared things were on the come-up, but last Saturday’s embarrassment at the Rose Bowl quickly brought Cal back down to Earth. Saturday night’s showdown between the Bears and the Trojans will be the last Power Five college football regular season game of 2021. Now that they’ve been eliminated from postseason contention, the blue and gold have little to play for but pride. Cal has plenty of seniors to honor, so the team will no doubt be extra motivated to get its veterans one last win in Strawberry Canyon. Beyond the present roster, the Bears taking down a traditional powerhouse could also help reassure future recruits that this program is still headed in the right direction.
Jesse Stewart: Well, strictly speaking, there’s nothing tangible at stake for the Bears on Saturday. But it will undoubtedly be incredibly important for those seniors to take their last walk out of Memorial Stadium with a W in hand. Also, it’s worth noting that this is the annual Joe Roth game, where Cal football honors the late quarterback, who died in 1977 after quietly fighting melanoma for ages while playing high-level football for the Bears. Roth’s signature win as a quarterback came against USC as well, as he scored three of Cal’s four touchdowns in a massive upset to help secure the Bears’ Pac-8 co-championship title. While this game may not matter in the greater scope of the college football landscape, the moment those throwback Joe Roth jerseys go on, the Bears will be all in.
Will Cooke: The last time Cal finished a season not mired by COVID-19 with a record of 4-8 or worse came in 2013 when the Bears won just one of their 12 games. It was head coach Sonny Dykes’ first season in charge, and he’d inherited a team that went 3-9 the year prior. In other words, a loss Saturday night would make this Cal’s worst season in eight years and place head coach Justin Wilcox squarely on the hot seat. While I don’t think athletic director Jim Knowlton will give him the ax before spring football starts, 4-8 certainly looks a lot worse than 5-7 and would mean that the Bears have to overachieve in 2022 for Wilcox to keep his job. For fans who want to see a new face at the head coach position, Saturday is a lose-lose situation. A win sees Wilcox beat two in-state rivals, barely miss out on a bowl game and bolster Knowlton’s confidence in him. A loss would be, well, a loss to USC.
Who will come out on top Saturday?
KR: It will probably be a close one, but this is the Trojans’ game to lose. Despite questions surrounding the quarterback position and a season-ending injury to star wide receiver Drake London, USC boasts more talent than Cal across the board. It’s hard to figure the Trojans out — they’ve suffered some ugly losses this year, but they also found themselves on the cusp of upsetting then-No. 13 BYU at the Coliseum last weekend. Similarly, the Bears have had some impressive victories this season, but they have also fallen prey to trap games against Washington State and Arizona. Cal has not beaten USC in Berkeley since 2003, and I don’t expect that to change Saturday night — or anytime in the foreseeable future given that the Trojans just lured Oklahoma head coach Lincoln Riley to Los Angeles.
JS: I think Cal will pull this one out. USC currently has the 98th-best defense in total yards this year and is 106th in points allowed per game (32.5). That being said, the Bears will need to have more ball control than they did against UCLA if they wish to stand a fighting chance against a team that is more talented on paper. Last week in the Rose Bowl is what happens when Cal is unable to keep pace with an explosive offense. The Bears should fare better this week, and given their extra motivation, it could be a very surprising outcome for a certain head coach out of Norman, Oklahoma.
WC: The Trojans will win this one handily. USC will be brimming with excitement and eager to prove to its new head coach, as well as to the nation, that the Trojans are not to be trifled with any longer. Even though USC’s defense has struggled this year, Cal’s offense is sputtering at the wrong time, as evidenced by last week’s 42-14 loss to UCLA in Pasadena, in which quarterback Chase Garbers threw two interceptions and had 20 rushing yards, his fewest since Oct. 2 against Washington State. And just last week, the Trojans put up 31 points against then-No. 13 BYU. Running backs Vavae Malepeai and Darwin Barlow combined for 180 yards on the ground to complement a 23-35 throwing performance from quarterback Jaxson Dart. The team and the program are trending upward, and I don’t think Cal will get in the way.
This might be Garbers’ last game for Cal. If that ends up being the case, what legacy has he left behind?
KR: On the field, Garbers has certainly made his mark. As Wilcox discussed last week, it’s rare to see a four-year starter continue to show improvement, but Garbers has done just that over the past few seasons. He currently ranks as the Bears’ all-time leader in rushing yards and rushing touchdowns by a quarterback and is just the second Cal signal-caller to win multiple Big Games at Stanford. Garbers has led signature wins over forces such as Ole Miss, Oregon and Washington, but his lasting legacy will always be his knack for showing up against that team from Palo Alto. Garbers may have sparked some controversy off the field, but nobody will ever forget his game-winning touchdown run to bring the Axe back to Berkeley in 2019 — that play will likely go down as one of the most iconic moments in Cal football’s history.
JS: Garbers, whether you love him or love him a little less than some, is undoubtedly one of the top statistical quarterbacks in the long and storied history of the Golden Bears. As Kabir mentioned, he is the top rushing quarterback in Cal history, is one of the top passers and capped off his career with two wins against Stanford in Palo Alto, a feat that no quarterback has accomplished since the 1920s (when the game was much closer to rugby than the modern era of football). Looking forward for Garbers, he does have the option to stay one more year at Cal or transfer elsewhere, as COVID-19 gave all student-athletes an extra year of eligibility. Or, he might just declare for the 2022 NFL draft. Whatever the future holds for him, one thing is certain: Chase Garbers will forever be the man who helped bring the Axe back to Berkeley.
WC: For all of the grief Garbers gets over his team’s inability to win games, the man is a winner. He was the crown jewel in Wilcox’s first recruiting class in 2017, which was just 14 players deep and ranked dead last in the Pac-12 by a long way. When Garbers first stepped foot on campus, there was little hope that Cal would win very much at all in the coming years before Wilcox had a chance to recruit. His clutch performances, albeit inconsistent, have helped keep the Cal program above water and provided fans with bragging rights and priceless memories. The numbers lie a little bit, but no right-minded Cal fan can criticize Garbers for recent losses. No matter what he decides to do this offseason, he’s a winner, and he’ll be missed when his career in Berkeley is finally over.