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Cal expert previews the Arizona game, makes a score prediction

arizona-wildcats-cal-golden-bears-preview-interview-blog-garbers-willcox-pac12-football-2021 Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats are back in Tucson for their final two home games of the 2021 season, starting with a Homecoming matchup with the Cal Golden Bears on Saturday.

Cal (3-5, 2-3 Pac-12) has won its last two games, beating Colorado and Oregon State at home, and comes to Arizona Stadium playing its best football.

These teams haven’t played since 2018, when the UA knocked off Cal 24-17 at home. So to better understand the Golden Bears, we reached out to Rob Hwang of Write for California. Below are his thorough answers to our half-assed questions:

AZ Desert Swarm: Cal looks like it’s playing its best coming into the Arizona game, which is different from the Wildcats’ last few opponents. What’s been working better, or at least differently, the last few games?

Rob Hwang: “We can break it down two ways. For the defense it has been the emergence of younger players not over the last two weeks, but guys getting game time and taking that next step as Pac-12 athletes. We’ve been devastated by long-term and short-term injuries that have forced our younger guys and depth to start playing as starters or in the two-deep. They were thrown into the deep end but a lot of them are starting to show the can swim.

“For the offense, it’s been a limiting of mistakes and executing. Our first full season with Bill Musgrave and this new offense, and it’s clear that the offense is a pro-style setup where our menu changes depending on the defense we’re playing, so the identity of the team was never set in stone. That has turned into our identity of an offense that adapts to what they feel gives them the best opportunity to win after watching the film.”

QB Chase Garbers has never been a big name, but he’s quietly having a solid 2021 season. What is contributing to this?

“He’s just always been that guy. He makes some really simple mistakes but he also makes up for it with some insane (plays). I think he’s finally comfortable in the offense and knows when he can scramble when he should throw it away, but also he knows when to change out of plays and audible into something that’s a better look against what he’s seeing. He’s not perfect by any means, but he’s finally commanding the offense on the field like the coaches have said he does in practice.”

The Bears ran for a season-high 255 yards last week against Oregon State, and the offense has shown a lot more balance of late. Do you expect this to continue?

“It has, but like my answer above, I think its a causation of what the staff sees on tape and figures how they can beat ____ this week. Comparing these last two games to the TCU game is night and day with the Run/Pass splits. I believe for OSU it was a 75/25 split for the Run/Pass. I haven’t done my research on Arizona enough yet to tell you what I think the staff will prep for the gameday menu.”

Arizona coach Jedd Fisch said Cal’s defense under Justin Willcox has always been fundamentally sound, yet the Bears’ season tackling grade (according to Pro Football Focus) is second-worst in the Pac-12. How would you describe the play on this side of the ball?

“The easiest way to answer this is that the first half of the season we’ve had a huge tackling issue, which goes back to the point that a lot of young guys were thrust into situations and playtime that they did not expect. Fast forward to post-bye week and halfway through the Oregon game, the team started to get it and the missed tackles early in the season are no longer found the last two weeks.”

Cal hasn’t beaten Arizona since 2009 and hasn’t won in Tucson since 2006, a run that’s included some wild games like the Wildcats’ 45-44 overtime victory in Berkeley in 2017 and the infamous “Hill Mary” comeback win in Tucson in 2014. Do you have any explanation for this?

“I can say that I never want the bears to EVER play in the state of Arizona ever. Doesn’t matter who we play. My only explanation is we have some long-lost historical Native American lineage of Oski that was wrongfully buried somewhere in the Phoenix area and it haunts our team anytime we set foot in that (state). Until we exorcise the spirits of Oski, I believe this curse will stay activated.”

Prediction time: Does Cal stay home and get its first win over the UA in a LONG time, or do the Wildcats add another chapter to their ownership of the series by snapping a 20-game losing streak and storming the field in celebration? Give us a score prediction.

“In a weird way, I’m thankful it’s not a Pac-12 After Dark game. It means random shenanigans have to be exempt from this game, and by that I mean we may see two interceptions instead of four. At the same time, being favored by 12 points in a day game in Tucson, against a team that has nothing to lose? I’m scared. I’ll throw on my brave face and say, we exorcise demons in back-to-back weeks. Bears win, 27-17.”