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Arizona vs. Cal: Experts break down the Golden Bears

A Q&A with our friends at California Golden Blogs

NCAA Football: Washington State at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

The Arizona Wildcats will go for their third win in a row Saturday against the California Golden Bears in Berkeley.

The Wildcats enter with a 4-2 record (2-1 in the Pac-12). The Bears enter with a 4-3 record (1-3 in the Pac-12).

We wanted to know more about Cal, so we got some insight from our friends (three of them!) at California Golden Blogs, SB Nation’s Cal site.

Here’s our Q&A.

What were the expectations for Cal this season, and have they exceeded them?

Nick Kranz: Cal fans (being homers like most fans) probably had ever so slightly higher expectations than Vegas, who called for roughly four wins for the Bears. But I would say that the hope for fans was a bowl game. In that regard, Cal has already matched the expectations of most neutral prognosticators and most fans expect that the Bears will get the two wins needed to get to a bowl game. When you take injuries into account, most fans think this team has already surpassed expectations.

Ruey Yen: With what was called by some to be the toughest schedule in the country, I would say that the realistic expectation for Cal coming into this year was even lower than what Nick said. Bears have taken advantage of the vulnerabilities of its opponents thus far (schedule turned out to be not as tough as originally predicted). At this point, it would be a big letdown if the Bears are to miss out on a bowl game. Unfortunately, that outcome is certainly plausible given the amount of season-ending injuries that have accumulated on an originally thin roster.

boomtho: The Vegas O/U was 3.5 wins, so in that regard Cal has already overachieved. More than that, the "eye test" has clearly shown that Cal has made a ton of progress—especially on defense. HC Justin Wilcox, DC Tim DeRuyter, and co. have transformed what was statistically a miserable defense into one that is getting pressure and forcing turnovers—at a great rate.

What are Cal's strengths and weaknesses?

Nick Kranz: Cal's biggest strength is their pass defense. They have a deep collection of CBs and linebackers that are all pretty good in coverage and DC Tim DeRuyter can dial up interesting blitzes from his 3-4 defense on passing downs. It's the main reason Cal was able to shut down Wazzu and Ole Miss, two heavily pass-based teams.

Cal's biggest weakness is the offense generally and the running game most specifically. Cal's best RB (Tre Watson) is out for the season and one of their back-ups (Patrick Laird) didn't play last week and might not be available against Arizona. That leaves one veteran (Vic Enwere) and a couple of true freshmen running behind an offensive line that has been less than consistent with run blocking.

Ruey Yen: Yep, in an 180-degree turn from last year, the Cal defense (with many of the same players) has done quite an admirable job thus far. Injuries (both turned out to be season-ending) to arguably the most talented player (WR Demetris Robertson) and another deep threat (Melquise Stovall) meant that the Bears had to lean heavily on the run game early.

Injuries to the RBs mentioned by Nick have then sapped what the Bears can do on the ground. OC Beau Baldwin's offense just cannot be as multi-faceted as it was for his Eastern Washington teams, given the lack of healthy players.

boomtho: Cal's strengths start on the defensive side of the ball. The team has somehow transformed a previously moribund pass rush into an effective one—and they're doing it while still only bringing 3–5 rushers.

They've done it through creative stunts and well-timed LBs rushing in, aided by the switch to 3-4 this last offseason. Cal also has a pretty deep secondary, with a lot of guys who are capable of both making plays on the ball and swarming to tackle. Beyond that, there's not a ton of strengths—although the OL and RB Vic Enwere, looked reborn against WSU last week.

The weaknesses reside mostly on offense, where the team hasn't really clicked. I'll also mention offensive skill position depth, given season-ending injuries to Robertson, Stovall, and Watson.

It seems like Justin Wilcox has done an admirable job so far. What is the fan base's impression of him?

Nick Kranz: We're pretty thrilled. He's incredibly level-headed, to the point that a cynic might call him boring. But when you get the job done, who would complain? He's made a bunch of smart coaching hires that all appear to be working pretty well and he's wrung something close to the maximum performance out of a roster that was pretty imbalanced to begin with and has only become more limited due to injuries. Cal fans haven't been this optimistic since the early/mid 2000s.

Ruey Yen: I have yet to see any shirts comparing Justin Wilcox to God akin to the praise that Wilcox's mentor Jeff Tedford received early in Tedford's Cal era, but I think that will change quickly IF the Bears can finally snap Stanford's recent Big Game dominance.

boomtho: As close to universal praise as you can get, if my read of online sentiment is accurate. He's seriously enacted an instant turnaround on defense, while making smart adjustments between games and between halves. A small portion of the fanbase is also quite excited that he's recruited more in our backyard than nationally.

What can you tell us about quarterback Ross Bowers?

Nick Kranz: He's been very up and down. Great performances against UNC and Ole Miss and an impressive bounce back game against Wazzu, but the three-game stretch against USC/Oregon/Washington was brutal.

His biggest strength is his toughness—he's willing to stand in the pocket and make tough throws and he's willing to put his body on the line to make plays. And he's more accurate and more willing to throw downfield than he's given credit for at times. But his pocket awareness isn't great, and as a result, lots of plays break down because he's not always great at dealing with pressure.

Cal made a bunch of changes to the offense to try to account for that last week and it will be interesting to see if that still works now that it's on film and the opponent can prepare.

Ruey Yen: Solid, but with plenty of room to grow. As seen in his SportsCenter top-10 play of the forward flip into the endzone last week, Bowers is not afraid of contact. He has talked about emulating his QB coach, former Washington Huskies great Marques Tuiasosopo,

It could partially be attributed to the offensive line not giving him more time, but we have not seen Bowers make the progression inside the pocket much. We have seen his arm strength at times, but opportunities of Cal receivers outrunning the defense have been rare given the injuries mentioned before.

boomtho: Bowers played a hell of a game against WSU after struggling for the preceeding games. Bowers is tough — shown by his willingness to extend plays and move the pocket — even when it means he's taking a hit (check out this scramble and flip for a TD). Before WSU, however, he was taking a lot of sacks (UW's D-Line DESTROYED our OL), and was relatively inaccurate, without a ton of arm strength to take shots down the field.

All in all, Bowers looks like a limited QB without a great grasp of how to read the field... which is totally reasonable, given it's his first season getting playing time and first season in this system.

The numbers suggest Cal has a poor running game. Is that the case, and if so, why?

Nick Kranz: Ha—see my answer above. It certainly doesn't help that opponents tend to bring players up in the box because they aren't too afraid of Cal's deep passing game. Cal finally got some push against a demoralized WSU defense in the second half last week. I'm not super convinced that will be easily repeated against other teams, but who knows?

Ruey Yen: Cal's total rushing yards against Oregon and Washington were 8 and –40, so the short answer is YES. I think the Bears only got over 100 yards against WSU because it was a rout after all the turnovers in Cal's favor. One-dimensional offense due to the dearth of skill players is the why.

boomtho: There's a lot of factors that have contributed, like Nick mentioned:

  • Defenses crowding the box without Cal presenting a deep threat (combination of Bowers and injury issues)
  • An OL that turned over pretty significantly from the previous year
  • A season-ending injury to starting RB Tre Watson

Cal did have a great game (especially second half) running against WSU, though. They may have figured out something schematically that will portend a better second half.

How did Cal eviscerate Washington State the way they did?

Nick Kranz: In my post-game article, I described Cal's defense as "Air Raid Poison" because Cal is good at flooding the field with seven or eight LBs and secondary players who are good in coverage while still getting pressure with unique LB blitzes. The defense is much iffier against the run, so when they don't really have to account for that, they can focus on doing what they do well.

Also, seven turnovers really do help. Some of those turnovers were great plays by the defense, but some were pretty, pretty fluky.

Ruey Yen: There was something special in the air last Friday night? I think the Cougars were just not used to both the expectation of being ranked in the top 10 and playing away from Pullman. A few lucky breaks (kickoff returned for a touchdown being called back due to holding and a bad throw being picked) set the tone for the Cal rout.

boomtho: Cal dominated WSU through an amazing, incredible opportunistic defense that was magnificent in getting pressure and creating takeways. Cal DBs made some wonderful plays on the ball, although I have to admit that a few of the INTs were quite fluky. Cal's offense was actually pretty underwhelming in the first half, but WSU got demoralized by the repeated futility on offense and Cal's offense definitely sharpened in the second half (see notes on the running game above).

How significant is the loss of Devante Downs?

Nick Kranz: It's funny, the players who got a ton of time against Wazzu due to Downs' injury (Jordan Kunaszyk and Gerran Brown) played great. But I don't think you can underestimate the cost of losing an all-conference-level performer. If nothing else, it puts a strain on Cal's middle linebacker depth, which might allow a team like Arizona to exploit tired players in the second half. And I think that Downs is particularly good against the run, something that Wazzu wasn't going to be testing. It hurts.

Ruey Yen: It is quite disappointing. The only comforting thing was how well his back-ups played last week, but teams can always use a player of Devante Downs's quality. His absence will be felt this Saturday against the tough Arizona running offense.

boomtho: I'll agree with Nick (again!)—while his replacements played well against WSU, Downs is a phenomenally talented guy who had finally put it together this year. I think he led the team in tackles, INTs, forced fumbles, and sacks at the time of his injury. It's especially poor timing for Cal given Khalil Tate is coming to town. I'm very much hoping this sample size was enough to at least get some NFL teams intrigued to use a late-round pick on Downs.

Who are some Cal players to know?

Nick Kranz: CB Camryn Bynum is probably Cal's best defensive player with Downs out. He had two spectacular interceptions against Wazzu and has been lights out in coverage all year long. He's a redshirt freshman, so he should be frustrating Pac-12 quarterbacks for a few years.

Offensively, Kanawai Noa is our best (currently-healthy) WR and has started to produce more than the possession receiver label he's had might indicate. Cal's offense was particularly impotent when he was out injured against Washington and immediately improved when he returned against Wazzu.

Ruey Yen: Malik McMorris, Cal's 300-lb fullback, is hard to miss. He has shown good hands and have made key catches on several 4th-and-short situations already this year. WR Vic Wharton is one of Bowers' favorite targets; the drama major is also known to exaggerate at times to (try to) earn penalties. Defensively, DE James Looney is the main threat to get the timely sack. LB Cameron Goode also has the knack to make game-changing plays like his pick-6 in the Ole Miss win.

boomtho: On offense, I'll mention WR Kanawai Noa and RB Vic Enwere. On defense, the whole secondary (Bynum, Goode, Elijan Hicks, and Darius Allensworth) is worth calling out.

What does Cal need to do to beat Arizona?

Nick Kranz: I think the game will very much hinge on Arizona's run offense vs. Cal's run defense. Arizona has one of the best running attacks in the country (maybe THE best with Tate as starter) and they've been both efficient AND explosive. Cal's run defense has really struggled to stop teams from getting consistent gains of 5–7 yards, but they've been really good at preventing long runs (8th nationally with only four runs longer than 20 yards all year).

So, can Cal's defense get off the field if Arizona keeps biting off runs of 5–10 yards in a row? And can Arizona get those huge runs that have fueled their offense over the last two weeks? And can Cal stop a running quarterback, which is a wrinkle the new Wilcox defense really hasn't faced yet this year?

Ruey Yen: My perception of Arizona has steadily improved over the course of this season. I had originally circled this game as one of the more winnable ones for the Bears. Obviously, containing Khalil Tate is a must. I think the Cal defense will need to win the battle of turnovers to pull this one off.

boomtho: I think three things stand out:

  • Contain Khalil Tate and force him to be a passer
  • Balance generating pressure with maintaining contain
  • Generate turnovers and actually convert those into points

Score prediction?

Nick Kranz: Arizona 35, Cal 27.

Ruey Yen: To balance Nick and because this game is in Berkeley, I'll go with Cal 34, Arizona 31 as the Golden Bears down the Wildcats.

boomtho: Arizona 38, Cal 28

Thanks again to our friends at California Golden Blogs for answering our questions for Saturday’s game. We answered questions for them about Arizona, which you can find here.