Finally — finally — after two years of Cal football, fans can be excited again.
This season’s palpable sense of excitement is not the same kind that Bears fans are used to. It is not the short-term (albeit delicious) excitement that came with beating Stanford at The Farm last year, or the suspenseful excitement of watching former quarterback Chase Garbers try to scramble for a first down on third and long.
It’s not the usual half-hearted, pre-season anticipation to see the same veteran skill position players return for what could be — but never was — a breakout season.
This new excitement won’t be fickle; it’ll be steady, like new starting quarterback Jack Plummer in the pocket. It won’t have that typical sour aftertaste of doubt: Freshman running back Jaydn Ott will eventually add his name to that long list of elite Cal running backs of the past 50 years, I just know it.
And better yet, this new excitement is deserved. It is the result of patience with head coach Justin Wilcox, patience that I lost on more than one occasion over the course of the last few years.
The gratifying but admittedly imperfect 21-point win over UC Davis this past Saturday was, above all else, the result of Wilcox slowly but methodically assembling talented recruiting classes and making valuable additions through the transfer portal. The best programs in the country are invariably built on talent. Wilcox’s years of quiet recruiting success finally manifested themselves in a game that felt like Cal’s to lose for the last three quarters.
After nearly all of Cal’s production at the wide receiver and tight end positions left to the NFL or transferred after last season, I doubted that Plummer would click with his young receivers in the very first game. But the young, talented trio of Jeremiah Hunter, J. Michael Sturdivant and Mavin Anderson put those doubts to bed. After watching the game highlights, I can’t help but wonder if Cal has one of the most promising young wide receiver corps in the conference.
Hunter joined the Bears in 2020, the year that the program stumbled through a shortened season, going 1-3. On Saturday, Cal’s clear WR1 earned 78 yards receiving, including a 27-yard reception and a touchdown. His stats on the day don’t do his performance justice. It seemed as though every time Cal’s offense needed to convert, Hunter was there to move the chains.
Sturdivant, the 27th-ranked wideout in the class of 2021, had a few impressive first-down catches over the middle of the field. Anderson, another former four-star receiver in that talented 2021 class, caught a touchdown pass in the fourth quarter to put the game out of reach.
By far the most eye-catching player on the field, however, was the freshman Ott. The highly coveted four-star running back in last year’s class had 130 all purpose yards on Saturday; the most for a Bear in his debut since five-time NFL Pro Bowler Keenan Allen had more than 150 in his Cal debut against UC Davis more than a decade ago. Grins abounded in the student section after he did his best Julian Edelman impression with seconds left in the half, wriggling his way to a first down on a check down pass from Plummer and setting up a short field goal.
The defense quietly did what it needed to do, holding Davis to 13 points. Was the performance perfect? No. Davis had nearly 400 total yards and converted on three 4th downs. And lest Cal fans forget that the Bears were down 7-0 on -1 yards of offense at the end of the first quarter.
But instead of that familiar nervous energy that permeated any game in which Cal started slowly, I felt an intoxicating confidence. It shone in Plummer’s face, and it was revealed on Davis’ failed fourth and one attempt at the end of the first quarter when senior safety Daniel Scott shot through the gap and made the tackle in the backfield.
Cornerback Craig Woodson’s pick-six to start the second half was the early dagger, and it felt too good to be true. But it wasn’t. Gone are the days, it seems, of biting fingernails well into the fourth quarter against lower-level competition, and rooting for the same reliable but tired group of fifth-year seniors. Cal, the second-youngest team in the conference, has some stars in the making.
Covering the spread against the Aggies doesn’t foreshadow a trip to the Rose Bowl. But Cal football is not the same as it was. It is talented and young, and that’s worth getting excited about.