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.”
“The difference between playing really well and not well at all is usually pretty small,” Wilcox said. “We never felt like we needed to remake everything. We just had to do the little things better, more often.
Wilcox embraced the players’ delirious reaction afterward.
“There’s nothing like that,” he said, pointing in the direction of the locker room. “That’s why a lot of us coach, because you can’t find that anywhere else.”
Here’s how the Bears put together their most complete performance of the season:
The offense: Cal knew running the ball against the nation’s top-rated rushing defense would be a challenge, but they stuck it with after Ott gained just 11 yards on nine carries in the first half. He wound up with 80 yards, giving him 1,260 on the season.
Mendoza overcame two first-half interceptions to pass for 178 yards with touchdowns of 13 and 14 yards to Jeremiah Hunter, who caught eight for 102 yards.
And the offensive line got better as the game unfolded, paving the way for a 10-play drive that consumed nearly 8 minutes of the fourth quarter. “Just chopping away at the clock,” Ott said. “It was over at that point. You could see they were defeated. It was fun.”
The defense: The Bears allowed 50 points in four different games this season and didn’t record a sack through their first four Pac-12 games. They held the Bruins scoreless on three different drives of at least 10 plays and they collected six sacks, giving them 13 the past three games. They also had three takeaways.
“I’m ecstatic for those guys,” Mendoza said of the defense. “At the end of the day, they aren’t those guys — they’re one of us.’
Special teams: The Bears’ kicking teams were ordinary at best most of the season. On Saturday, Lachlan Wilson punted three times for a 52.7-yard average (including a 73-yarder), with all three settling inside the 20-yard line.
Freshman Mateen Bhagani was 4-for-4 on field goals and the kick coverage team forced a fumble that set up a touchdown.
The biggest boost came from Ott, whose 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown in the second quarter gave Cal the lead for good.
“That was the first time I’d ever done a kickoff return in my life . . I ain’t done it in Pop Warner, I ain’t done it in high school,” he said. “ I was scared as hell and I couldn’t believe it. It was crazy.”
Sort of like the past three weeks.