Inside Slant

The Sports Xchange

November 27, 2018 at 9:31 pm.

Cal defense standing tall entering rivalry week

In 2009, the current head football coach in Berkeley was living in Idaho. And the current players in Berkeley were either in middle school or grammar school.

Justin Wilcox, the second-year Cal head coach, was Boise State’s defensive coordinator from 2006-2009. And 2009 was the last year in which Cal beat Stanford in the “Big Game” — during the tenure of former coach Jeff Tedford and when Jim Harbaugh was guiding the Cardinal.

Cal plays host to Stanford for the 121st edition of the rivalry Saturday. The Golden Bears (7-4, 4-4 Pac-12) have won four of their past five games and clinched bowl eligibility. Cal is fresh off a 33-21 win over Colorado that featured two interception returns for touchdowns — from Elijah Hicks and Ashtyn Davis.

Davis, who had two interceptions, was named the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.

Wilcox’s defensive mindset has taken over the program. Since October, Cal upset Washington 12-10 without scoring an offensive touchdown; edged USC 15-14 in Los Angeles for their first win at the Coliseum since 2010 and had the recent big plays against Colorado.

Stanford quarterback K.J. Costello threw five touchdown passes in a 49-42 win over UCLA last week.

“Every guy on the defense … has a good understanding of where they fit. And that’s made us so much better in every aspect of the game,” Davis said.

It has been a rapid change for Cal, which just two years ago had one of the worst run defenses in the nation and allowed more than 6 yards per carry under former coach Sonny Dykes.

The Cal defense has a different challenge this week than it probably expected it would in the summer. The Cardinal has reinvented itself from a power running squad to one doing damage through the air — namely from Costello to senior receiver J.J. Arcega-Whiteside (14 touchdowns).

Senior tailback Bryce Love missed time and has steadily returned from an ankle injury, and he did have 22 carries for 85 yards and a touchdown last week.

“That’s a testament to the coaches (at Stanford). Coaching is giving your players the best chance to be successful,” Wilcox said of Stanford’s offense.

“…Bryce Love is a fantastic tailback, and they’re going to get him the ball. He was the Heisman runner-up last year. He’s still in the backfield.”