Cal football: Behind the Bears’ surge to bowl eligibility

Four weeks ago, after a 63-19 beatdown at Oregon that should have chased away the last bit of confidence the Cal football team was grasping, quarterback Fernando Mendoza said the kind of thing only a starry-eyed redshirt freshman could believe.

“The only thing that really matters is winning,” Mendoza told reporters, “and we’re going to win those next three games.”

Turns out Mendoza knew what he was talking about and on Saturday night at the Rose Bowl in Pasadena, in what was the final regular-season game in the 108-year history of the Pac-12 Conference, the Bears completed that unlikely mission.

Their 33-7 shellacking of UCLA was the Bears’ third straight victory and gave them the six wins they needed to become bowl-eligible for the first time since 2019. Cal is most likely to wind up in the Independence Bowl on Dec. 16 in Shreveport, Louisiana.

“We just had a belief. We knew it wasn’t going to be easy getting those three wins, but we thought it was possible,” said linebacker Cade Uluave, who enhanced his status as a freshman All-America candidate Saturday night by posting 12 tackles, a sack, an interception and a fourth-down stop.

From 3-6 and riding a four-game losing streak in which they allowed 199 points, the Bears (6-6, 4-5) celebrated their big with linebacker Dave Reese standing atop a ladder to direct the Cal marching band.

Reese, who had three sacks, watched center Brian Driscoll lead the band after the Big Game win at Stanford a week earlier. “I saw nobody was up there, so I said it was my turn.”

Reese said no one was ready to wave the white flag, even during the lowest moments. “At the end of the day you can either turn around and walk away or walk toward the fight,” he said.

Mendoza, who took over as the starting quarterback in Week 6, had talked about the Bears wanting to burn the boats against Washington State, burn the forest at Stanford and burn the city at UCLA.

“Not a lot of people believed in us,” he said. “Everyone in that locker room really believed it.”

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