As Anu Solomon’s Hail Mary attempt hung in the air, a Pac-12 contest hanging in the balance, the only certainty was that something special was about to happen. Either Arizona would pull out the miraculous win and hopefully parlay that momentum into something even more spectacular, or the Cal Bears would hold on, moving to 3-0 (and, ultimately, to 5-0, as it turns out) and putting head coach Sonny Dykes in a position to rapidly turn around his program.
A season earlier, Dykes’ first year in Berkeley was something of a disaster. Wins weren’t exactly easy to come by towards the end of the Jeff Tedford era at Cal, but it had never been as bad as that.
Cal failed to win a conference game and would ultimately finish at 1-11, the lone bright spot being freshman quarterback Jared Goff, a parting gift from the efforts of Tedford’s recruiting. However, as that pass floated through the Tucson sky, there was no need to trifle with semantics over who recruited who. A conference victory was up for grabs, and Cal hadn’t won one of those in nearly two years (Oct. 13, 2012 against Washington State).
When Arizona’s Austin Hill reached up and plucked it out of the air, nothing could have served as a more appropriate representation of Cal’s season. It was a microcosm of life as Cal knew it in 2014, impossibly close to doing something special.
Arizona went on to win the Pac-12 South. Cal would go on to finish 5-7.
The Golden Bears would get their Pac-12 win the very next week in a double-overtime thriller against Colorado. Ultimately, they’d take home three conference victories on the season, but Cal would also lose four games on the year by a single possession. They’d also give Oregon just about everything they could handle for a half in the first ever college football game at Levi’s Stadium in Santa Clara.
The marked improvement set the precipice for something potentially spectacular in 2015 for the Cal Bears.
Goff is on the verge of stardom. He was significantly better in every applicable metric in 2014 than he was in 2013, and this fall he’ll be the focal point of an offense that returns eight starters. All totaled, Cal returns 17 starters and analysts everywhere will look at this team as one set to make significant strides in the Pac-12 North standings.
The program has only been to a bowl game once in the past five seasons, but don’t ask anyone to temper its expectations. Yes, Cal has a difficult schedule in 2013 as it travels to Texas in non-conference action before the always brutal grind of a nine-game Pac-12 slate. However, Goff just might be the best returning player in the conference and Cal could be favored in as many as eight of those games.
Fans in Northern California have probably already earmarked eight or nine wins, and surely some have aspirations of darkhorse contention in the division. Realistically, seven is a strong number and bowl eligibility is an absolute must.
Sonny Dykes and Cal have to continue to show improvement in 2015, and they appear to be in position to do exactly that. It wasn’t that long ago that Cal was a consistently productive program, and it appears to be on that path again.
The Bears will need to make sure not to waste what could potentially be Jared Goff’s final season (he’ll be NFL Draft eligible in 2016 and scouts already have a pretty high opinion of him), and that should set them up to contend in the Pac-12 on a pretty regular basis, just as they used to less than a decade ago.
Dykes and Cal’s fate hangs in the air just as that Solomon pass did this past September. This time, I suspect they’ll bat it down.