Cal promises improvements after bowl debacle ends encouraging season

A Cheez-It Bowl official tried to cut short Cal’s postgame news conference after a 10-7 overtime loss to TCU late Wednesday night, but Jordan Kunaszyk wasn’t quite ready to give up the microphone.

He had one more thing to say.

“It’s been my greatest pleasure being a Cal Bear and representing this university,” the senior inside linebacker said. “I love this program. It’s definitely heading in the right direction. I promise that, with the leadership we have.”

Kunaszyk was making sure Cal supporters didn’t lose perspective after the Bears lost a bowl game marred by offensive ineptitude to end a season that had displayed such promise for a resilient roster, a series of historical wins and a dramatically improved defense.

Cal finished 7-6, a win total it had bettered only once since 2009 (8-5 in 2015). During that span, the Bears won just 39.8 percent of their games (39-59).

This year’s leap came after Cal’s best offensive player, receiver Demetris Robertson transferred to Georgia, and its most dynamic defensive player, outside linebacker Cameron Goode, was lost for the season to a lower-body injury in Week 1.

And, four of the wins came after a three-game skid had the Bears on the brink of another wasted season. Instead, head coach Justin Wilcox cleared the room of his assistants and supportive staff and directed the players to have a candid late October meeting in Corvallis.

The Bears responded by winning four of the next five games, including snapping a 14-game skid in Pac-12 road games, ending a 14-year drought against USC and beating eventual conference champion Washington.

“I think the culture at Cal has definitely changed for the better,” graduate transfer receiver Moe Ways said. “They’re on the right path, going upward. There were big wins at USC and vs. Washington, program-changing wins. Being in a bowl game was a program-changing opportunity. … I think Cal is good hands, man. That loss definitely hurt, but you can’t take that loss and throw away the whole season.”

Of course, those culture-validating victories against Washington and USC were also quite telling about how much still needs to change at Cal. The difference in Los Angeles was a 22-yard safety on an errant snap, and the Bears had to grind out the victory over Washington while not scoring an offensive touchdown.

While the Bears’ defense has made a remarkable leap from allowing 42.6 points on 518.3 yards per game (both among the nation’s bottom five) in 2016 to allowing 21.3 points on 319.4 yards per game (both among the top 25) this year, their offense has gone the opposite direction.

Just two years removed from putting up 37.1 points on 513 yards per game, Cal averaged 22.8 points on 350.2 yards per game this season. The Bears are 110th of 129 FBS teams in total offense and tied for 108th in scoring after the Cheez-It Bowl debacle.

Cal quarterbacks Chase Garbers and Chase Forrest threw five interceptions that were returned for 147 yards, essentially making the TCU defense the Bears’ top receiver. Freshman Nikko Remigio led the way for the guys in blue helments with five catches for 21 yards.

“This game wasn’t pretty. Geez, not at all,” Forrest said.

Wilcox said he’ll immediately start an in-depth analysis of the entire program. He’ll break down the coaching staff, how it’s teaching the players, pregame approaches, in-game schematics and communication.

“What do we need to do to improve at every single level of our program?” said Wilcox, who inked a new five-year deal this month. “That’s my job: to help facilitate that. I know we have some great people in our program, but we have to improve. There are areas that we obviously have to get better. … There will be a deep dive, and we’ll discuss it as a group in January for many, many hours.”

Wilcox’s analysis will likely include feedback from many of the team’s 24 seniors, led by Kunaszyk and running back Patrick Laird.

Kunaszyk is a junior-college transfer who had 147 tackles while setting an example of unerring discipline that will be his legacy in Berkeley. Laird, who started as a seventh-string walk-on, led the team in rushing and receiving, and when he was too injured to finish the bowl game, he marched to midfield in street clothes to represent his squad for the overtime coin toss.

“That’s our whole team,” said Ways, who called Cal a roster of misfits. “We’re a bunch of guys nobody wanted. We were overlooked. All we wanted was an opportunity. We came together as a team, found a way to play together and changed the whole program.”

Rusty Simmons is a San Francisco Chronicle staff writer. Email: rsimmons@sfchronicle.com Twitter: @Rusty_SFChron

This post was originally posted at https://www.sfgate.com/collegesports/article/Cal-promises-improvements-after-bowl-debacle-ends-13493638.php.

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