Cal is - like us - a team in flux. In year two of former Duck Justin Wilcox’s rebuild, they’ve undergone a pretty substantial overhaul in both schematics & all-around philosophy.
To get a better picture of how they’ve changed last couple years, I spoke with a few writers over at California Golden Blogs about this Saturday’s game. The more I read, the more it seems like this might be a really intriguing - and tougher than I’d like - matchup. Take a look:
1. I think a lot of casual Pac-12 observers still associate Cal with Sonny Dykes’ uptempo Bear Raid offense, but in year two of the Justin Wilcox era those days are decidedly over. What’s the consensus on him thus far? How has the team’s identity changed under the new regime?
Joshua Morgan: The consensus of Wilcox is that he has done an amazing job so far as our head coach. We think that he is the exact guy that we needed. Sonny Dykes quickly proved that the Bear Raid offense would put up points but also allow tons of points on defense. It produced some frustrating teams to watch and I think we all knew that he wasn’t going to be the guy to get us to the next level. Under Wilcox, our team’s identity has done a total 180. Expect a stout defense that will surely give Justin Herbert a challenge as our secondary and pass coverage as a whole is arguably the biggest strength on the entire team. On the other side of the ball. expect a more conventionally-paced offense thanks to offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin.
Piotr T Le: One of the moments that turned me to a huge Wilcox supporter is the anecdote that he refused to interview with his alma mater’s, your Oregon Ducks’, head coaching job. This solidified my belief that he is serious in making an impact on the Cal football team as a HC and is not looking to leave Cal once a more plum job comes before his job is done. The team became more focused on loving football rather than loving being football players.
Nick Kranz: The consensus is largely very positive, for one obvious reason and a host of less obvious reasons. The obvious reason is that it somehow only took Wilcox and his coaching hires about one year to turn Sonny Dykes’ completely absent defense into a potentially top 10 nationally defense . . . which should be getting more attention for how stunning that accomplishment would be.
Less obviously, he’s been quietly competent in terms of his in-game strategy, has made generally well-received coaching hires on both sides of the ball, and has said the right things publicly, for whatever little that’s worth. He appears to be poised for a bowl this season, which sadly is a bigger deal than is used to be about a decade ago at Cal. Fans are more optimistic than they have been in 10 years because of how he has handled business in his 1.5 years on the job.
2. You folks have experimented with a QB menage-a-trois early this season via Chase Garbers, Ross Bowers, and Brandon McIlwain. Is it fair to say Garbers has locked down the starting job for now? Might we still see multiple QB looks going forward?
Joshua: For whatever reason, Ross Bowers has fallen off the quarterback picture. While it is fair to say that Garbers is the starter, we can almost guarantee that McIlwain will be rotated in. We saw him shine against BYU, and he provides an extra running aspect that provides for a nice change of pace. However, expect to see Garbers for the majority of the game (and don’t forget about his legs, either).
Piotr: Yes, though I still think it will be a week to week proposition. McIlwain has a weekly chance take over the job with improved play as a passer. Every week I will be looking at the passing and rushing statistics to see if there is a shift in the performance and snap counts.
Nick: I think that’s safe to say now, yes. The reality is that unless Ross Bowers has a mysterious, unreported injury, then Chase Garbers has done enough in practice to convince the coaches that his upside more than compensates for his inexperience, which is less and less of an issue with each subsequent game that he completes. The coaches do seem set on continuing to give Brandon McIlwain 10-20 snaps/game with a specific packages of plays, and to their credit it has worked reasonably well in an age when most are skeptical of a 2 QB system.
3. Who’s one Cal player for us Oregon fans to watch on offense, and what should we look for? Not necessarily your most prolific offensive player - let’s hear about guys that provide something unique for your team or are otherwise instructive.
Joshua: Watch for Marcel Dancy this upcoming week. Patrick Laird was and is the starter at running back, but Dancy played very well as opposed to an ineffective showing by Laird against Idaho State in our last game. Laird was probably limited since this was a game that we were going to win anyway, but Dancy looked great and surely earned himself some playing time for Saturday’s game.
Piotr: Mike Saffell RG for Cal. The mauler in the middle of the line has very high ability in pass-pro and run blocking. He is often used as a puller in the run game as well as a reliable partner for Ooms on double blocks on inside-zone runs and then peel into the LBs. Him and Ooms will be in charge of blocking the Oregon NT on pass-pro. Disruption up the middle will make or break the passing offense. I am a believer in the pass-rush being most effective between the LT and RT. If he can successfully be a force as an OL, then the Cal offense has a higher chance to being effective.
Nick: Kanawai Noa is the obvious choice as he’s Cal’s best, most reliable pass catching option. But he’s a pretty well known quantity at this point, so I’d instead point towards JC transfer running back Marcel Dancy, perhaps Cal’s best hope to revive a flagging run game. He’s looked like Cal’s shiftiest, hardest-to-tackle back in limited action, and Cal badly needs to build more explosiveness on the ground.
4. And how about one on defense?
Piotr: Oregon should be weary of passing deep between the hashes. Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis will be looking to up their respective INT counts. Both sport very good athleticism with a knack of coming down with 50-50 balls. Knowing where those two safeties are will help the viewer decipher what the defense thinks of the Oregon offense at the time.
Nick: LB Evan Weaver and Safety Ashtyn Davis are getting all of the attention right now due to gaudy tackling and interception numbers respectively, but Cam Bynum is probably the guy to watch generally and specifically against Oregon. He’s Cal’s best cover corner and will likely be the primary defender trying to slow down Dillon Mitchell. Bynum fared well against UNC’s primary pass receiver and will likely be trusted to handle his assignments without frequent safety help, which makes this one of the more intriguing one-on-one match-ups in the entire game.
Joshua: I would tell you to watch out for Evan Weaver, but I don’t think it will be hard to find him. Weaver has accumulated over 12 total tackles in each of our three games this season and should once again be a force on Saturday.
5. What’s an advantage Cal might be able to exploit against Oregon this Saturday?
Joshua: I think it is possible that our passing offense clicks on Saturday. If I can identify one major weakness from Oregon it would probably be their pass defense, and the our QB play has been trending up with each passing week.
Nick: If I’m Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin, and I look at what the Cal offense has done, and what the Oregon defense has allowed, I’m designing a pass heavy offensive game plan. The Cal running game has been mostly bad, and the Oregon run defense has been mostly excellent. Meanwhile, Chase Garbers is starting to flash the down-to-down accuracy that you’d want from a starting quarterback. As frightening as it may sound, I think Cal’s best shot is to put the ball in the hands of their redshirt freshman QB and tell him that we’re going to be throwing the ball plenty. That doesn’t necessarily have to mean bombing the ball downfield, as Cal is quite content to work with short slants, WR screens, and RB swing passes. It’s also worth noting that Cal’s pass blocking appears to be significantly ahead of their run blocking.
6. What’s a weakness or disadvantage you guys are worried about?
Joshua: Our offense is definitely a concern, however it has been all year and we have still won games. I also think the pass offense should suffer a lot less than our run offense due to the strengths and weaknesses of Oregon. However, like I said, we have won with these shortcomings. The one weakness I am worried about is CLOSING GAMES. If you look at the opposing scoring in our games, you can notice a pattern. We dominate the opposing offense in Quarters 1-3 and then let up in the 4th. It has almost cost us the game twice and turned a blowout into a mere victory against Idaho State. We haven’t lost yet due to this mysterious trend, but if any team can take advantage of this, it would be Oregon.
Nick: I think every Cal fan is worried that we’ll see a repeat of what Oregon’s offense did in 2017, which was basically running the ball for 5/6 yards a pop over and over and over again. There’s a lazy but terrifying line of logic that goes: if Oregon beat us pretty easily without Justin Herbert, then why should we expect to do better now that he’s healthy? This, of course, ignores various ways that Cal has gotten better as a team, primarily on defense, but it’s a fear that will be in the back of our minds until this Cal defense proves that they can control the Oregon run game.
7. And the obligatory predictions - let’s do the final score, plus one other key team or player stat. What say you?
Joshua: I honestly don’t think I can make a prediction for this game. I think Cal either edges out a close win or Oregon wins by a pretty significant margin. All week we have been saying that this game truly defines this Cal team, and I believe that the result could definitely go both ways. I am going to predict that the Cal defense forces a couple of turnovers and that Oregon has more offensive yards, but that shouldn’t be surprising.
Piotr: As much as my heart says “CAL WINS!” I think that the failures to produce consistent offense will doom Cal. The defense will do what it can, but as they play more snaps the ILBs (Weaver/Kunaszyk) will run out of gas since Cal seems to be hesitant to sub them out during games. The key stat I personally look towards every end of quarter is AY/A (Adjusted Yards per Attempt = (Passing Yards + 20*#YDs - 45*#INTs)/Pass Attempts). If Cal QBs can keep the AY/A ~ 7.5 and Herbert keeps his AY/A < 8 Cal has a good shot at winning. (Note: the comparisons aren’t linear but relative, larger is better but no real sense of magnitude besides certain thresholds ( ~7.5 = Average, >10 Elite).
Score Prediction - Oregon 17 : Cal 14. Vegas is right again.
Nick: Two thoughts I have going into this game: Until somebody shuts down Oregon’s offense, I’m going to assume that they have enough talent that they’re going to score at least a little bit. And until the Cal offense proves that they can consistently execute, I’m going to assume that they will struggle to string together multiple drives.
I have lots of faith in the Cal defense and the coaches that game plan on that side of the ball. I would be really surprised if Oregon exploded on offense the way that they are capable of doing against non-elite defenses. But Oregon scoring in the high 20s wouldn’t be some sort of huge shock. And while I do think it’s reasonably possible, I’m just not yet convinced that Cal’s offense is ready to keep up with that.
Put me down for Oregon 27, Cal 23, With Oregon out-rushing Cal by a significant margin (say, 150 to 50) as the marker of the game.
Thanks a ton to Joshua Morgan, Piotr T Le, and Nick Kranz for taking the time to chat!