It took Justin Wilcox 15 games to get California into the national rankings.
Not that the second-year coach needed a vote of confidence from the media to know his program was heading in the desired direction.
“We’ve played three games and played well enough to win, but there is a lot of football left to play,” the Junction City native and Oregon graduate said during an interview with The Register-Guard on Tuesday. “The rankings piece, that’s a byproduct of winning games. We’d be more concerned with the January rankings than September.”
That’s a typical answer from Wilcox, who doesn’t look much further than Cal’s Memorial Stadium for opinions on his team.
The Bears may have the most impressive nonconference resume in the Pac-12 after going on the road to defeat No. 20 BYU 21-18 in between home wins over North Carolina and Idaho State.
“Success always gives validation to what you do, but since I’ve been here I never felt like the guys didn’t have that,” Wilcox said. “When you have 115 guys and ask them to do things different than before, not everything is seamless, but the attitude as a whole has been real good. They welcomed the coaching and that gives you a chance. We are still a work-in-progress, but the fact that the majority of our team has tried to do what we asked has given us the opportunity to improve.”
The win over BYU looked even better when the Cougars went on the road to beat then fifth-ranked Wisconsin the following week.
“We knew it would be physical and found a way to win the game,” Wilcox said of BYU. “We did not play as clean as we’d like on either side, but we did enough to win it. I thought the guys stayed in the game and did not flinch. That’s the best thing that came out of this game.”
Cal (3-0) entered the Associated Press poll at No. 24 this week for the first time in nearly three years as it prepares to host 19th-ranked Oregon (3-1) at 7:30 p.m. Saturday. Wilcox gets a shot at a signature conference victory early in his tenure when the Bears open Pac-12 play against his alma mater.
“Very, very talented team with good schemes,” Wilcox said of the Ducks, who ruined his return to Autzen Stadium with a 45-24 win over Cal last season, a game in which UO quarterback Justin Herbert broke his collarbone. “It all starts with the quarterback, he’s an elite player. They have a lot of speed on offense and are physical up front.”
California got an early look at Oregon during a bye week when the Ducks lost 38-31 in overtime to Stanford.
“We utilized last week for development and technique and got a head start on Oregon,” Wilcox said.
The Bears went unbeaten in nonconference play for the second year in a row. Last year, Cal dropped its first three Pac-12 games before finishing 2-7 in the conference.
Wilcox got a late start last year after being hired in January, but has his first full recruiting class and a second season with coordinators Beau Baldwin on offense and Tim DeRuyter on defense. Most of his staff returned, including longtime Oregon offensive line coach Steve Greatwood while Peter Sirmon — a linebacker who played with Wilcox at Oregon from 1996-99 — arrived as inside linebackers coach.
“The expectations of how we do things day-to-day, whether it is how we practice or run meetings and workouts, the expectations off the field and obviously our systems and language, that piece of it, there is no way to fast forward in the first year,” said Wilcox, who spent 11 seasons as a defensive coordinator at five different schools before getting hired at Cal, where he began his coaching career as linebackers coach in 2003. “I know the team better and when you know your team better, you know how to help them.”
Wilcox returned junior quarterback Ross Bowers, who threw for 3,039 yards and 19 touchdowns last year, but he was beaten out for the job by redshirt freshman Chase Garbers. The Bears have also worked in sophomore Brandon McIlwain, a transfer from South Carolina who doubles as a promising baseball prospect.
Garbers has completed 45-of-66 passes for 449 yards and six touchdowns while McIlwain has thrown for 85 yards and a score while running for 129 yards and a touchdown. Bowers hasn’t played in the past two games.
“Garbers is getting better and better the more he plays, he does not make the same mistake twice,” Wilcox said. “Brandon is a dynamic athlete who has done some nice things. Those guys have earned the right to play based on their performance in the spring and fall. Ross has improved a lot and it was not anything he did or didn’t do, those other guys earned the right for those reps.”
The Bears are scoring 30 points per game with yardage nearly equal between the run and pass. Cal is allowing 19.3 points while ranking third in the conference by allowing 302.3 yards per game.
“I think you are always looking for more,” Wilcox said. “We’ve played good in spurts but we know we need to play better to continue to have success.”