Justin Wilcox is used to awkward matchups with former colleagues.
The former Boise State defensive coordinator beat Oregon — his alma mater — twice while at Boise State. He faced the Broncos in 2012 and ’13 while at Washington, splitting those games. He took on Washington while at USC.
But Saturday’s game might be the most awkward yet.
Wilcox, who is a surprising 3-0 in his first year as the head coach at Cal, will lead the Bears against USC on Saturday in Berkeley. USC coach Clay Helton fired Wilcox late in the 2015 season, shortly after Helton was promoted from interim head coach.
Media reports late that season painted Wilcox as a key reason the Trojans struggled — even suggesting that he was in over his head.
Wilcox landed at Wisconsin, where he directed the nation’s No. 4 scoring defense last season and boosted his resume for the Cal job.
“Clay was great,” Wilcox said on the Pac-12 media teleconference Tuesday when asked about his dismissal. “It was good. ... We went through some things as a program. We didn’t do a good enough job on defense, which falls on me. I totally understand. That’s our profession. It’s not always the most fun. That’s the way it is — you’ve just got to learn from it.”
Wilcox had been a rising star in the coaching profession since his time at Boise State, where he was the defensive coordinator from 2006 to 2009 and was part of two Fiesta Bowl championships. He also was a graduate assistant at Boise State in 2001-02. He was the linebackers coach at Cal in between those two stints in Boise, and was a finalist for the Boise State job when Bryan Harsin was hired after the 2013 season.
Wisconsin coach Paul Chryst told the Wisconsin State Journal that he was comfortable hiring Wilcox after inquiring about what happened at USC.
“I was fortunate because I felt like I had a ton of people who knew that situation,” Chryst told the newspaper. “I think it’s: ‘What did you learn? How did you come out of it?’ And (it helped) when you knew what was in his control and what wasn’t. I think those things are what helps build you. We’re products of our experiences and how we go through them.
“Then when you heard the whole story — not from Justin, but from others — you’re pumped, actually.”
The saga at USC was strange to follow from Boise, where Wilcox developed a reputation as a terrific defensive strategist and recruiter, and was well-liked.
Now, Wilcox goes head to head with Helton — with the Trojans’ No. 5 ranking on the line at 1:30 p.m. Saturday (ABC). The Bears have beaten North Carolina and Ole Miss already this season.
“It’s going to be a great challenge for our team,” Wilcox said.
Wilcox is one of eight current Division I or NFL head coaches who have worked at Boise State since 2000. Five of those coaches were on the 2006 Boise State coaching staff. Here’s an update on the group:
Wilcox, Cal (3-0): He replaced Sonny Dykes after a 5-7 season. The Bears won 35-30 at North Carolina and rallied in the second half last week to beat Ole Miss. The upcoming schedule is brutal: vs. USC, at Oregon, at Washington, vs. Washington State.
Mike Sanford, Western Kentucky (1-2): The Broncos’ offensive coordinator in 2014 and a former Boise State quarterback, he took over a Hilltoppers program that went 11-3 last season, led the nation in scoring and lost coach Jeff Brohm to Purdue. It’s been a rough start for Sanford, with back-to-back losses as a favorite against Illinois and Louisiana Tech, with just 29 total points scored.
Dan Hawkins, UC Davis (2-1): The Broncos’ head coach from 2001 to 2005 is in his first year at his alma mater, and the Aggies are off to a good start. A win Saturday at FCS No. 18 Weber State would mark them as Big Sky contenders.
Jeff Choate, Montana State (0-2): The Bobcats are 4-9 in a season-plus under Choate, but a youthful roster dropped a 31-27 decision to FCS No. 4 South Dakota State in its most recent game. They’ll be tested again Saturday at No. 17 North Dakota. Choate was Boise State’s special teams coach from 2006 to 2011.
Dirk Koetter, Tampa Bay Buccaneers (1-0): Koetter, in his second year, has one of the NFL’s up-and-coming teams with the Bucs. They blew out the Bears in their season opener and are considered playoff contenders. Koetter was Boise State’s head coach from 1998 to 2000 and a finalist for the job when Harsin was hired.
Sean Kugler, UTEP (0-3): Kugler, the Broncos’ offensive line coach in 2006 and a veteran NFL line coach, returned to his alma mater to try to revive a dreadful program. That hasn’t happened — and the Miners have been outscored 150-37 this season, Kugler’s fifth.
He fired former Boise State offensive coordinator Brent Pease this week.
Chris Petersen, Washington (3-0): Petersen, in his fourth year since leaving Boise State, has the Huskies in contention for a second straight spot in the College Football Playoff. But the Huskies likely won’t face a ranked team at least until November, and it’s entirely possible they won’t see one until the Pac-12 championship game. Colorado coach Mike MacIntyre said this week the Huskies are better than they were in the Pac-12 title game last year.
Harsin, Boise State (2-1): Harsin is in his fourth season since replacing Petersen, with whom he worked for 10 years on the Boise State staff. Harsin is 33-10 — a record that would be considered eye-popping almost anywhere else. But following Petersen (92-12), Hawkins (53-11) and Koetter (20-5 in his last two years), a .767 winning percentage has left some fans grumbling.
Harsin checks the scores of his former colleagues each weekend.
“It’s great to see guys be in that position, with a chance to be a head coach,” he said. “I know they’re taking a lot of what they did here and applying it, just because this place is different. You learn a lot. There’s a lot of things you pull out of here.”
And the winner is ...
The oddsmakers have more faith in the Boise State offense than anyone who has watched the Broncos’ first three games would. The Broncos were favored by 15 1/2 points last week against New Mexico (won 28-14) and they’re favored by 12 1/2 this week against Virginia. The Blue is a daunting place for visitors — but not nearly as daunting as it used to be.
The Broncos haven’t won by more than 17 points in their past 10 home games. The offense has scored 10 touchdowns in its three games this year, and one of those came in overtime. The return of quarterback Brett Rypien should help — particularly if the offensive line has figured out how to keep him safe — and the outstanding defense should cause problems for Virginia’s pass-heavy attack. The difference could be special teams, where Boise State has been dynamic.
But don’t expect a blowout.
Boise State 24, Virginia 20
College football spotlight
National game of the week — No. 16 TCU at No. 6 Oklahoma State (-13), 1:30 p.m. Saturday, ABC: The Cowboys are a sleeper candidate for the CFP behind star quarterback Mason Rudolph. TCU’s Gary Patterson is known for his defense but can he contain the Cowboys? Not in Stillwater. Oklahoma State 41, TCU 35
Pac-12 game of the week — No. 7 Washington (-11 1/2) at Colorado, 8 p.m., FS1: The rematch of the Pac-12 championship game figures to be nearly as lopsided. Washington 37, Colorado 17
Mountain West game of the week — No. 22 San Diego State (-3 1/2) at Air Force, 5 p.m., CBS Sports Network: This is one of those famous trap games. The Aztecs just beat two Pac-12 teams, and now they have to go on the road and deal with Air Force. Expect a struggle. San Diego State 19, Air Force 16
On TV: Broncos at Bills (11 a.m. Sunday, CBS), Seahawks at Titans (2 p.m., Fox), Bengals at Packers (2:25 p.m., CBS), Raiders at Redskins (6:20 p.m., NBC), Cowboys at Cardinals (6:15 p.m. Monday, ESPN).
Broncos in the NFL: Watch Denver center Matt Paradis in the early game. The former Boise State standout from Council is the leader of an offensive line that has produced the most rushing yards in the NFL through the first two weeks.
Chadd Cripe is the Idaho Statesman sports editor. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org, 208-377-6398 or @chaddcripe on Twitter.