1. This week Sonny Dykes said his players are carrying themselves a little differently this year. How much do you see that on the field and how hopeful are you that last year was just result of compounding bad luck?
boomtho: I think it definitely is coming across on the field. Last year was a rotten year as a number of different factors conspired to destroy our defense: injuries, transfers, lack of depth, a bad to mediocre offense, and terrrrrrrrrrrible coaching. Cal fans were pretty confident (more so than most of the media) that the coaching, depth, and offense would be much better this year, and that has played out so far. I think it was Goff who said that "they felt they could beat anyone before NW" - the coaches have really done a fantastic job re instilling believe and attitude into this group.
Leland Wong: On the field, we finally see a competent defense that's making tackles instead of grabbing at air or chasing hopelessly from behind while the offense is executing like a well-oiled machine. The leap we've seen so far compared to 2013 is probably attributed to a few different factors. For one thing, this group of pro-style recruits had a full year to fully understand the intricacies of the spread system. Secondly, the team has yet to collapse into a heap of popsicle sticks and yarn due to injuries (fingerscrossedfingerscrossedfingerscrossed). Lastly, we have a defensive coordinator and not Andy Buh.
2. Jared Goff is the most talked about key to Cal's offense. What are you seeing from him this year that's different from last?
boomtho: Because of the terrible record, Goff flew a bit under the radar across the conference and country last year. Even last year, he showed great arm strength (our last few QB's honestly couldn't throw most sideline routes), touch, and pretty nice poise in the pocket. He's taken most of the qualities and honed them even further this year.
One big change we've seen this year is success in the red zone. We've been much better at finishing drives with TD's than last year, and that's a combination of a better run game (hello blocking, my old friend, it's been far too long!) and Goff being better. On the season, he's completing 67% of his passes for an average of 9 YPA (much of that is YAC, sure) and a 7:1 TD:INT ratio which is fantastic for a sophomore.
The last thing I'll mention is the group of WR's we have is ridiculously deep. I think we're average something like completions to 9 different receivers in two games, and there are a lot of guys who can hurt you in different ways - Davis has burner speed, Lawler and Hudson can make great contested catches, and Treggs and Harper run great routes underneath.
Nick Kranz: The biggest differences might be the personnel around him rather than Goff himself. The offensive line is stable and healthy after a year of change and turmoil, and the result is that he now has the time to make plays. That said, having a year to develop familiarity with the offense and to develop chemistry with his receivers has clearly paid dividends.
Leland Wong: The biggest improvement I've seen in Goff himself is in his arm. Namely, adding a lethal touch pass for fade routes, which he showed off against Sac State.
3. What else has the offense brought in terms scheme of that impresses you? And which players have most impressed you thus far on that side of the ball?
boomtho: I alluded to this earlier, but the blocking has been much improved. To date the pass blocking has been better than the run blocking, but the improvement in both has let the offense get into much more manageable 2nd and 3rd downs.
In terms of specific players, it's really hard to single even a position group out, let alone a few players. From the WR's, Mo Harris, Lawler, and Davis have all been better than I personally expected (Davis, if you don't know, transferred from Hawaii and had to sit out a year, so we were hearing rave reviews from scout team but hadn't really seen him till camp). Among the RB's, Lasco and Muhammad have been steady with flashes of brilliance, and the freshmen (Enwere and Watson) appear to be coming along nicely.
Nick Kranz: The biggest difference has to be the insertion of true freshman quarterback Luke Rubenzer as a Tim-Tebow-esque change of pace for maybe 10 snaps a game. Rubenzer is a gifted runner, and gives defenses a very different look than the more traditional pocket passing of Jared Goff. We'll see if Rubenzer is as effective now that he can't sneak up on defenses, but he's shown to be at least capable as a passer, so I don't think defenses will be able to assume that Cal will be running the ball every time he comes into the game.
Leland Wong: I'm going to do some light plagiarism here because the best answer is new wrinkles in offensive line play. I'm also not smart enough to go into the details of offensive line play, but our writer Scott Chong is!
4. Who are two or three defensive players to keep an eye on, and why?
boomtho: Jalen Jefferson has been a real handful this year. In the NW game, he racked up 16 tackles (11 solo) with an interception. The solo tackling in particular will be huge against AZ's big receivers - and the ability to drop back into coverage will be big as well. Another player that I think could be crucial is DT Mustafa Jalil. He has been a bit injury plagued through his career, but when he's played he's been massively disrupted. Given the ground success AZ has had this year, I think he could be the key to the DL slowing down Nick Wilson and the run game.
Nick Kranz: Gotta agree with boomtho on Jefferson and Jalil. I'll add safety Griffin Piatt to the mix. A sophomore seeing his first playing time this year, Piatt has shown impressive instincts and closing speed in intercepting two passes, and he's been collecting a decent number of tackles as well.
Leland Wong: Gotta agree with Nick here and say Piatt. He has two interceptions in as many games and they were both jaw-droppingly beautiful. You can also expect DE Brennan Scarlett to be a pass-rushing terror after missing all of 2013 due to injury.
5. What do you think one strength might be as Cal faces Arizona? Where would you expect them to succeed?
boomtho: I think our passing game is the obvious strength. AZ has allowed a lot of passing yards to date, and I think our offense is well positioned to exploit that.
Nick Kranz: Yeah, if Cal is going to win this game it will be on the back of an efficient passing attack. Cal's main advantage is the sheer number of solid receivers the Bears can send out play after play, and I think Goff's accuracy combined with Arizona's struggles to control the short passing game could result in lots of 5-10 yard receptions on crossing patterns, bubble screens, hitch routes and passing to the flat. I'm thinking those will be open because Cal really showed how dangerous their recievers can be over the top and on sideline fade routes against Northwestern and Sac St., and I suspect Arizona will have to respect that threat.
Leland Wong: Like many others, I'm expecting to see a great offensive exhibition in Tucson. I think the Bears can make some plays against the Wildcats with short to mid-range passes based on a little of what I've seen of Arizona this year.
6. What's the biggest worry when looking at this week's matchup?
boomtho: The biggest worry for me is going to be our tackling in space. Last year, we saw countless (and I mean literally countless! as anyone who tried to count them has been committed to a mental institution) instances of blown tackles leading to large games.We know Rich Rod's offense is going to try to get the ball quickly to playmakers in space with only 1-2 guys to beat, and it's going to be paramount that Cal continues to show the improved tackling we've seen this year.
Leland Wong: I hope the Cal offense will be ready to handle Arizona's unique 3-3-5 defense. The team will have less experience going up against it by pure virtue of how unique it is and the ability to pressure the quarterback from any player from any part of the field will be a challenge for our still-young offensive line.
7. I can tell you Arizona fans are a little worried about this week's game. How do you think this game will go?
boomtho: I can't get a great read on AZ, to be honest. Despite the gaudy offensive numbers, the games have been largely closer than I thought they would be (though it appears UTSA is going to be a tough opponent for most teams). I do like the fact that Cal has already played a road game (and won!) which I think will give them confidence. I'm going to strap on my blue and gold goggles and predict a 31-28 Cal win, based on not much else than homerism. Go Bears!
Leland Wong: The strengths of both these teams lie in the offenses, so I'm expecting a proverbial shootout that will be won by whichever defense does a better job of slowing down the opponent. It's still a bit too early to fully know what to expect out of either of these teams, but I'm betting they're both mid-level Pac-12 teams and this'll be a close one, hopefully with Cal coming out victorious.