After a slow start doomed the Arizona Wildcats (2-3, 1-1) at USC, the Wildcats stay at home this week and await the visiting Cal Golden Bears (3-1, 0-1). Both have struggled on offense, but Cal has been able to grind out close wins against opponents, including BYU, whom Arizona lost to.
Cal’s reputation took a bit of a hit against Oregon last week, and it’s been hard to judge the Golden Bears this season. Who is this team at heart?
Nick Kranz: At heart, Cal is a defense-first team that will try to scrap and claw their way on offense for just enough points to win games. In many ways, Cal’s playing style is very similar to Kyle Whittingham’s Utah, right down to a limited offense with talent issues for skill positions.
boomtho: Honestly, if Cal’s reputation took a hit, it means that people haven’t been watching the games. Cal really showed themselves to be the same team vs. Oregon as they were in other games. Specifically, on offense, Cal is limited (with Brandon McIlwain running being the strongest offensive threat) and somewhat turnover-prone. On defense, Cal is really solid with a few standout performers (our LBs Evan Weaver and Jordan Kunasyzk have been tackling machines) and solid DBs, but no pass rush to speak of. Oregon scored two defensive touchdowns vs. Cal, which may also be distorting people’s perception of how Cal’s defense fared.
What’s going on at quarterback up there? Will we be seeing Chase Garbers, Brandon McIlwain, or some combination on Saturday?
Nick Kranz: Garbers and McIlwain have received split playing time in every game so far this season and we don’t have any real reason to expect that to change against Arizona. The real question is the percentages. Garbers got the majority of the snaps against both BYU and Idaho State, but McIlwain got the bulk of the playing time against Oregon. The coaches haven’t really explained if it’s a match-up decision or if it’s based on who played the best that week in practice of if they’re just going with the hot hand based on plays made in the game or something else entirely.
If you had to put them into bins, Garbers is the pass-first guy and McIlwain is the run-first guy, but Garbers is pretty confident with his legs and McIlwain’s competent throwing the ball. There are upsides and downsides to both and nobody outside the program really knows what the short- and long-term plans are at the position.
boomtho: I would expect to see 2 QBs—Garbers and McIlwain—play meaningful snaps during the game. Garbers will be the “throwing QB” (although he has good elusiveness and is a fairly good runner himself). McIlwain will be the “running QB” (he’s led Cal in rushing for two of the four games) with mixed ability to throw the ball effectively and consistently (he has great arm strength, but his accuracy and touch aren’t all the way there yet). Both QBs will be held back by inconsistent pass-blocking and a lack of explosive playmakers at the RB and WR positions. I’ll mention the third-string QB, Ross Bowers, who entered the year as the presumptive starter and lost the starting job after a bad half—only to say he likely won’t play.
What is the general feeling around Justin Wilcox in his second season?
Nick Kranz: Wilcox generally has strong fan support. Even his most fervent backers probably didn’t expect him to turn around Cal’s defense so quickly, although he’s starting to get muted criticism for Cal’s mediocre-to-bad offensive production and mixed reviews on the recruiting trail. Generally, the consensus is that he’s a good cultural fit for Cal and that he generally appears to be on an upward trajectory in terms of wins and on-field performance; fans aren’t exactly expecting him to immediately take Cal from their 5-win threshold of recent vintage to 8–10 wins immediately. Cal fans are sadly well-trained to be patient.
boomtho: Wilcox has done a wonderful, wonderful job in his two years at Cal. He basically took Sonny Dykes’s players, who were probably a bottom-15 or -20 FBS defense, and transformed them to a good-to-great defense without bringing in a ton of new talent. He’s hired a great defensive staff, balancing experience (DC Tim DeRuyter) and youthful recruiting energy (DB coach Gerald Alexander). He’s also done a really nice job with in-game clock management and game theory decisions—this was a chronic problem under the previous staff, so it’s so refreshing to see Wilcox consistently make the right calls in high-leverage situations. I think most Cal fans are super happy with Wilcox and are more worried someone else will try to poach him.
Cal’s lineup is full of upperclassmen. Are there any young, lesser-known players we should keep an eye on?
Nick Kranz: Other than Cal’s quarterback duo? Honestly, not really. Cal’s two best cornerbacks (Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks) are both sophomores, but they were also full-time starters as freshmen last year, so they’re pretty familiar names. Sophomore Cameron Goode was likely going to have a breakout season as an edge rusher, but he picked up a season-ending injury in Cal’s first game of the season. Jeremiah Hawkins is a starting sophomore wide receiver who probably represents Cal’s best deep threat, though this isn’t an offense that tries to throw downfield a ton.
boomtho: Cal is getting most of its production from upperclassmen, although some (e.g., grad transfers TE Ian Bunting and WR Moe Ways) are new to Cal. In terms of true underclassmen who are producing, there definitely aren’t a lot—the biggest name is Brandon McIlwain, who is a redshirt SO. In addition, a few guys have made small splashes: WR Jeremiah Hawkins, WR Nikko Remigio, CB Cam Bynum, and CB Elijah Hicks.
With both teams’ offenses struggling so far, who on defense will decide this game?
Nick Kranz: I’d be inclined to go with Cal’s secondary, one of the stronger units on the team. They’re not perfect and were punished a bit by Justin Herbert last Saturday. But they’ve also made iffy quarterbacks look bad and are top 10 in the nation in interceptions per game. I’m still not super convinced by Khalil Tate as a drop-back passer and it wouldn’t shock me if a couple of Cal interceptions swung the game in favor of the visitors.
boomtho: For Cal, it’ll primarily be our LBs, Weaver and Kunasyzk. They’re both at 39+ tackles for the year—the next closest Bear is Tevin Paul at 15. The gap is huge—and if Weaver or Kunaszyk get nicked-up or have an off day, Cal will be in trouble.
What, if anything, scares you about Arizona?
Nick Kranz: Well, 2017 Khalil-Tate-as-a-runner terrified the bejeezus out of me, but he hasn’t done anything on the ground yet this year. In absence of that, I think Arizona’s traditional ground game behind J.J. Taylor worries me, though Cal’s defense has generally been pretty stout against the run to start the year. Also, I know enough history to generally be fearful of a night game in Arizona, where Cal has experienced our fair share of horrors.
boomtho: Khalil Tate is the obvious answer, so I’ll add the trip to AZ on top of that. Cal has really struggled in second halves at Arizona in recent years, so it’ll be a good test of Cal’s conditioning and resiliency to see if they can maintain high intensity for four quarters.
Lastly, what’s your score prediction for the game?
Nick Kranz: I think that Cal’s defense is at least a little bit better than USC’s and BYU’s defenses, so I think that Cal has a solid chance of holding Arizona in the low 20s or lower. I really don’t have a good sense of how productive Cal’s offense will or won’t be. I’ll go with Cal 24, Arizona 17
boomtho: I’ll go with Cal 24, Arizona 20.
Cal and Arizona kick off at 7 p.m. MST at Arizona Stadium on Saturday. The game will air on Fox Sports 1.