The Arizona Wildcats are hosting the California Golden Bears on Saturday night, with both teams coming off tough losses to USC and Oregon, respectively. Cal has surprised many with it’s 3-1 start, and even managed to reach the AP Poll last week. They’ll be looking to reach 4-1 with a road win over the Wildcats on Family Night.
Here’s who will either make or break the Golden Bears (3-1, 0-1 Pac-12) against Arizona (2-3, 1-1).
Patrick Laird, RB
Undoubtedly the most effective weapon head coach Justin Wilcox has, Laird has carried a lot of the load in getting Cal to where it is now.
Laird has 68 rushing attempts in four games, which is a pretty healthy sum in Wilcox’s offense, gaining 239 yards with two touchdowns. On top of that, he’s been dangerous in the passing game with 15 receptions for 90 yards. This makes sense considering he spent his freshman year playing receiver in Sonny Dykes’ Bear Raid scheme at Cal.
Laird is most important to this offense as a leader. A fifth-year senior who’s helped bridge the gap between coaching staffs, Laird has also been key in keeping the offense moving with questions at quarterback for the Golden Bears.
With Laird moving the ball on the ground and getting open in the passing game, Cal can get its offense going and win the game. Without Laird, it’ll be very tough.
Vic Wharton, WR
Another fifth-year senior who’s been one of the few signs of life in this Cal offense, Wharton will be key in keeping comfortable whoever plays quarterback on Saturday.
Wharton came to Berkeley from the Tennessee Volunteers, near where he grew up south of Nashville. After seeing very little playing time in his freshman season, he transferred, and has spent the last two seasons leading the Golden Bears offense. This year, Wharton has 144 yards on 17 catches, leading the team in receptions. He has yet to find the end zone, but based on his five scores last year that’s likely to change sooner rather than later.
Another leader on this offensive unit, Wharton will be key in keeping the Arizona defense off-balance if Cal is to win.
Patrick Mekari, LT
Once again a senior, and once again a guy named Patrick. Nevertheless, Mekari is absolutely one of the most crucial pieces to this Golden Bears squad.
A gifted lineman, Mekari has played in 27 games with 17 starts in three-plus seasons. Before the season started, Mekari was named to the Outland Award watch list, which recognizes the top offensive lineman in the country.
Being a left tackle means he hasn’t recorded any stats over his career. Nevertheless, he’s protected the blindside of Jared Goff, Davis Webb, Ross Bowers and now both Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain. With McIlwain’s frequent running, Mekari is crucial as a tackle, as he makes the block that determines if a read option play will be a success or failure.
With Mekari up front, a still-developing Arizona D-line may have issues getting to the quarterback again.
Evan Weaver, LB
Plugging up the middle of Cal’s defense is junior Evan Weaver, who will likely have another strong performance against Arizona’s struggling offense.
Out of Spokane, Weaver has dominated for his entire Cal career. With 26 games played and eight starts, Weaver has made skill-position players fear his prescense. This year, Weaver is leading the Cal defense in terms of tackles by a very wide margin. Weaver has 52 tackles in just four games this season, including 14 against a powerful Oregon offense. To top all of that, Weaver has four passes defensed, proving he can not only stop the run but cover receivers.
If Weaver is his dominant self and Arizona struggles to get its running game going yet again, he will have done his part in getting Cal a road win.
Ashtyn Davis, CB
Davis has perhaps been the most impactful player across Cal’s roster, showing his worth in many different areas.
A multi-sport star (he runs track), Davis is sixth in tackles with 11 so far. Much more importantly, though, Davis is one of two Golden Bears with multiple interceptions, with two to his name. Along with that, Davis has a pass defended to his credit.
When he’s not in the defensive backfield terrorizing quarterbacks, he’s returning kicks, which his track speed helps with quite a lot. On 11 returns this year, Davis is averaging 28 yards per return. He also scored a kickoff return touchdown against Idaho State.
It’s clear to see, when Davis is on, Cal has a great player both on defense and special teams. That’s huge in a close game like this one will probably be.