Prior to the 2002 season, the California Golden Bears decided to shake up a long dysfunctional program by hiring then-Oregon Ducks’ offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford.
In the two decades prior to Tedford’s arrival, the Golden Bears managed just three winning seasons, becoming a traditional afterthought in the Pac-10 conference along the way.
Tedford’s hiring revitalized the program, and sparked the memorable college careers of future NFL stars like DeSean Jackson, Marshawn Lynch, and most notably, Aaron Rodgers.
The Golden Bears’ returned to relevancy immediately under Tedford, who guided the program to eight consecutive winning seasons to begin his 11-year tenure.
A quarterback guru credited with developing the likes of Trent Dilfer (Fresno State) and Akili Smith (Oregon), two of Tedford’s best seasons at Cal came with Rodgers leading the Golden Bears’ offense.
After Rodgers was selected in the first round of the 2005 NFL Draft, the Golden Bears’ have largely been on a downward trajectory, much of which is a result of inconsistent quarterback play.
Tedford’s 2012 departure from Cal gave way to current head coach Sonny Dykes, a different type of offensive mastermind charged with reigniting the Golden Bears’ program with his “Air Raid” scheme.
Much like Tedford, Dykes hoped to restore Cal’s standing in the Pac-12, and though he didn’t have many productive pieces to deal with, he did inherit a star in the making in quarterback Jared Goff.
Cal’s talent was lean during Dykes’s first two years as head coach, but with Goff leading the Golden Bears’ offense from his first game as a true freshman, the program hoped Goff could propel the team to Rodgers-like heights.
Poised for a breakout season in his third year as a starter in 2015, Goff led the Golden Bears to a perfect 5-0 record, but suddenly, progress came to a halt.
On October 10, the Golden Bears dropped a 30-24 contest at Utah to snap their unblemished start. Cal had every opportunity to beat a then-undefeated Utah team, but Goff tossed five interceptions in a contest that proved to be a pivotal turning point in the Golden Bears’ season.
The loss was the first of five Cal would endure over its next six contests, as a season that could have lifted Goff and the Golden Bears to the same national prominence Rodgers helped the program achieve faded into disappointment.
Even though Cal is now contending for a winning record instead of a Pac-12 North title, ASU head coach Todd Graham said the Golden Bears are still every bit as dangerous as their 5-0 start to the season indicates.
“Very impressed with them, so when I look at the film, I thought I was going to see [some struggles], wow they’ve lost five of their last six, they haven’t scored that many points in conference, they’ve scored 35 or so, 30-35, but you look at the film and you go wow, they’re very capable, very dangerous, efficient, the key for them has been the same for us,” Graham said.
Graham believes turnover issues have crushed both ASU’s and Cal’s hopes of contending in the conference this season, as neither offense has protected the football well.
The Golden Bears’ have committed 15 turnovers in eight conference games, which is tied for the second-most of any Pac-12 team. Though Goff’s five interceptions against Utah account for one-third of those giveaways, the highly regarded signal-caller has still tossed eight other interceptions this season to give him a conference-worst 13 on the year.
“The only thing that has stopped them is turning the football over and they’ve had some issues with that,” Graham said. “They’re very well coached, very good offensive scheme, very well coached defensively, and on special teams so this is, it’s one of the bigger challenges we’ve had defensively.”
Even though Goff has demonstrated a propensity for untimely errors, ASU’s coaches and players were straightforward in their praise of the nation’s fifth-leading passer. With 441 attempts to his credit this season, Goff has only logged four more passing attempts than ASU senior quarterback Mike Bercovici but he’s thrown 10 more touchdowns as his 32 scoring strikes rank fifth in the country.
“Just smart, makes good decisions, got a great arm, very accurate, is mobile, and can move around, buy himself some time,” ASU defensive backs coach Chris Ball said of Goff. “Just from top to bottom just an all-around very good quarterback.”
While Cal’s stock has faded nationally since their showdown with Utah, Goff’s profile has not. Even with a high turnover total, many NFL draft experts project Cal’s third-year starter as a potential first round draft pick this spring if he elects to forego his senior season.
Sophomore SAM linebacker D.J. Calhoun played against Goff in high school when Goff led his Marin Catholic team to a 31-28 victory over Calhoun and fellow Sun Devil Jalen Harvey El Cerrito squad, and Calhoun said Goff’s best attributes are his field vision and lightning-quick release.
“He (Goff) has good eyes, that’s what it is, and his arm is amazing,” Calhoun said. “He knows how to get the ball out quick, fast and in a hurry.
“Jared, he can’t really run that much, but he’s excellent, an excellent quarterback. I played him in high school and you know, there’s going to be a little rivalry thing with me, him and Jalen Harvey, but you know, he’s a great quarterback and they’ve probably got five receivers that are nice.”
That quick release allowed ASU defensive coordinator Keith Patterson to reminisce about scheming against another college quarterback he’s faced with a similar style.
When Patterson was the defensive coordinator at West Virginia, he coached against current New York Jets backup quarterback Bryce Petty’s Baylor Bears, who torched the Mountaineers for 347 passing yards in a 70-63 victory in 2013.
The game was only Petty’s fourth career college start, but Patterson remembers how polished Petty’s release looked during that contest.
“There were some pretty good quarterbacks in that league (Big 12) at that particular time,” Patterson said of his days at West Virginia. “I would say, I believe it was Bryce Petty of Baylor cause the ball just comes out so quick and they’ve got you spread from sideline to sideline and it’s no doubt a unique challenge.”
Patterson suggested one of the most difficult parts of stopping Goff is shutting down his deep receiving corps.
Cal has six players with at least 32 catches this season, including top receiver Kenny Lawler who leads the Golden Bears with 10 touchdown catches.
Though Cal’s offensive scheme is most similar to Washington State’s, Graham said Cal’s diverse receiving talent is on par with a more versatile group at USC.
“Really good, receiving corps is as good, obviously I’d put USC at the top of that list with those guys that they have, but these guys (Cal) are definitely up there at the top,” Graham said. “Just in really how that matches up, these guys are dangerous.”
ASU senior cornerback Lloyd Carrington went a step further than Graham, saying the Golden Bears’ receivers are the best group ASU will be tasked with stopping this season.
The Sun Devils haven’t fared well against elite passing teams this season, surrendering an average of more than 300 passing yards per game and a conference-worst 8.0 yards per completion.
“I would say so, they’ve got, I honestly think they’ve got the best receiving corps we’ve faced up to this point,” Carrington said. “It’s a bit more difficult as far as keying in on who you want to take away as far as how the offense goes.”
Patterson elaborated on the challenges of facing a balanced passing attack, saying Cal’s lack of an every down. go-to threat makes it harder to teams to be as sound defensively.
While Cal’s offense ranks second in the conference in passing yards per game, the Golden Bears do not have an individual receiver that ranks among the top 12 players in the Pac-12 in receptions per game.
“He (Goff) has five receivers, receivers that have somewhere between 40 and 50 yards per game receiving,” Patterson said. “Then he has a tight end that has probably 30 to 35 yards per game receiving. Then he has a running back that probably has another 35 or 40, so it isn’t just like you can bracket people or zero your coverages on one guy, there’s seven guys that you better know where you are and you better be sound.”
The Golden Bears’ “Air Raid” offense isn’t just predicated on spreading the ball to different receivers, but it also focuses on spreading its receivers and spacing the field at the line of scrimmage.
Carrington said the Golden Bears like to align specific receivers on each side of the field, which means ASU’s defensive backs won’t be lining up against the same player on each down.
“They move them around, but for the most part, they go by left side and right side, so I have a pretty good idea of who I’ll be seeing in specific downs and it just depends on which way the ball is going,” Carrington said. “I have a game plan for each guy.”
Many of the Golden Bears’ “Air Raid” tactics are borrowed from Mike Leach’s Washington State system, but there are slight variations.
Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin learned the scheme from Leach when Leach was the offensive coordinator at Kentucky and Franklin was the running backs coach, and after the two parted ways, Franklin adapted the system in his own image.
The main difference between Franklin and Leach’s offensive philosophy is the incorporation of run plays, as Franklin’s system is much more dependent on an effective running game.
Cal ranks 10th in the Pac-12 with an average of 157.3 rushing yards per game, but that total is nearly double of Leach’s Washington State squad which averages 84.4 rushing yards per game.
“All the spread offenses are all under the same umbrella, but there’s always a little variances in the scheme that make them all different so they have their own, the Tony Franklin system obviously, it’s a little bit different than Mike Leach and those guys in their version of the spread,” Patterson said.
After Washington State dismantled ASU’s secondary in the second half of the contest between the teams in early November, it wouldn’t be surprising to see Franklin borrow from Leach’s game plan for this Saturday’s game.
The Cougars destroyed the Sun Devils on slant routes in that game, and with Goff’s quick release, it’s highly likely the Golden Bears will test ASU early in that regard.
However, Ball said the Sun Devils have corrected their mistakes from that game, and attributed ASU’s missteps to blown coverages.
“Against Washington State we hurt ourselves, those are things we got corrected,” Ball said. “We went back and looked at that game, we hurt ourselves by not doing what we were supposed to be doing, blowing coverages, but we’ve gotten that fixed.”
Cal’s offensive execution against ASU’s pass defense has the opportunity to play a significant role in a developing narrative for the Golden Bears.
If Goff and his receivers can light up the Sun Devils and seize their seventh victory of the year, the Golden Bears would head into a bowl game looking for their first eight-win season since 2009.
A successful performance would also further the model of progress Dykes and the program have made under the Golden Bears’ first high-profile NFL quarterback prospect since Rodgers, who helped lead the program’s resurgence under Tedford.
However, a still-hungry ASU squad coming off a Territorial Cup victory is standing in Cal’s way. While the Sun Devils have been frustrated in their failure to live up to expectations, the team is in search of its third straight victory and Graham insists his team is determined to make the most of its remaining contests.
“We’re just not like that. I’m really sincere about that,” Graham said. “Whether you’re winning or losing or whatever, it’s kind of what you do every day. It’s a body or work. It’s not as reactive as most people think. This game is about who wants it, that’s what this game is about. I feel good about where our guys are, it’s important to our guys.”