With Arizona set for a 7 p.m. home game on Saturday against California to open up Pac-12 play, we quizzed our resident Golden Bear expert Ryan Gorceyr, who runs our network's California site, about just what the Wildcats will be facing.
WA: In terms of health, where is Cal and how much did the bye week help?
Gorcey: As opposed to last year, when the Bears lost 139 man-games due to injury (with the vast majority of that coming on the defensive side of the ball), Cal is as healthy as can be. There are dings and dents, of course, but nothing preventing anyone from playing.
Hardy Nickerson is still a bit slowed as he works back from offseason foot surgery, but he’s seen action in both games, though it’s been limited. Austin Clark, who started at defensive tackle alongside Mustafa Jalil (who missed all of last season) against Northwestern, didn’t play last week due to soreness and swelling in his knee, but he’ll be ready to go, and is practicing in full. Safety Avery Sebastian (who tore his Achilles in the second quarter of the first game of 2013 after making 11 tackles) has seen increasing reps in games and in practice, and he’ll continue to see his workload ratcheted up against the Wildcats.
6-foot-1 corner Darius White – a JC transfer – hasn’t played yet after jamming his shoulder in fall camp, but, like Sebastian, he’s been working back and should play this week. Corner Joel Willis has been battling a shin issue, and I wouldn’t expect him to play.
WA: Cal underwent major defensive changes from last season. What are they and what will be most noticeable on Saturday?
Gorcey: In a word? Tackling. In two words: Tackling and experience. The youngsters who saw time last year are now veterans after having battled through a horrendous 2013 that saw them learn a ton of lessons, particularly cornerback Cameron Walker, who played safety last year at 160 pounds, but is now 180.
Michael Barton has been a revelation at outside linebacker, and having a healthy Jalil in the middle and a healthy Brennan Scarlett on the edge (he’s tested the same as Jadeveon Clowney in offseason work) alone make this defense immensely better than last year.
As for tackling, Cal’s open-field hits have been much surer and more fundamentally sound. There aren’t a whole lot of shrugged-off tackles or missed tackles as there were last year when opposing offenses were able to get behind the defense. The Bears are keeping things in front of them, mostly, and wrapping up much better than last season.
WA: How has Cal's running game been and how has Dykes approached using it?
Gorcey:The biggest factor in the running game has been freshman quarterback Luke Rubenzer. The Arizona native has mixed in with starter Jared Goff to great effect. He really provides a change of pace, and was the leading rusher in the first week against Northwestern.
The Bears have been much more balanced in the run game with the addition of Rubenzer, and freshman running backs Vic Enwere and Tre Watson have been mixed in with veterans Daniel Lasco and Khalfani Muhammad. All four backs provide something different.
Enwere is a 225-pound sledge hammer who can get the tough yards, but he still needs a bit more polish before Cal depends on him in crucial situations. Muhammad is probably one of the fastest players in the league, as far as straight-line speed, and doesn’t have a ton of side-to-side shake, but if he gets in space, he’s tough to bring down and deceptively strong for his size.
Lasco has been a bit of a mixed bag. He telegraphs his moves and has a lot of big motions when he’s running, but he’s big, strong and fast – a rare combination. He’s no picnic to bring down, but he can sometimes get a bit too cute for his own good.
WA: Northwestern has lost its first two games of the season, both home games. Is there a feeling that Cal's improvement is still an unknown?
Gorcey: A bit, certainly. But, beating a Big Ten team on the road in the opener, particularly with the lull they had in the third quarter of that game, was a big step just for the psyche of the team. As Goff said on Tuesday, it hasn’t been the wins that have given the Bears confidence, but confidence that has resulted in wins.
The focus this year hasn’t been on the opponents, but rather on the team itself. That interior locus of identity has really helped in practice and preparation, which has been the real difference from 2013. This team is a lot more prepared, and a lot more confident in that preparation. That said, this week is a huge test to see if this team is truly for real.
For me, the 55-14 win over Sacramento State was a big indicator of just how far this team has come. It’s been a while since the program beat a team they should beat as badly as they should beat them. They didn’t play down to their opponent, which plagued teams of years past.
WA: Kenny Lawler scored three touchdowns against Arizona last season. How has he looked so far and is he the biggest threat?
Gorcey: Lawler certainly hasn’t been a surprise for those of us who see the team on a daily basis and who saw him as a recruit, but, as Goff said in the preseason, this group is one of, if not the best group of receivers in the conference, if not the country.
Lawler is certainly the most acrobatic, but Chris Harper is a preseason Biletnikoff Award Watch List member, and Bryce Treggs is perhaps the most complete receiver, due to his diligent route-running and perfectionist work ethic. Beyond those three, Hawaii transfer Trevor Davis is a true down field threat with a ton of speed and shake, and Maurice Harris has some of the surest hands I’ve seen.
The big guys on the inside – Darius Powe, Stephen Anderson and Ray Hudson – provide more speed than your average tight end, with a lot of physicality. Hudson has been used whenever the Bears go to true-tight-end sets, where he’s attached to the line, and is a very good blocker. That said, when he’s out in a pattern, he’s shown very sure hands.
WA: Luke Rubenzer has had success running the ball. Is there a strategy to how he is being used and what makes him so dangerous?
Against Northwestern, Rubenzer was used as a change-of-pace, running quarterback, and we saw a bit of an expansion of his role two weeks ago against Sacramento State, with more passes and handoffs, instead of him just taking the snap and running. He was a record-setting passer in high school, and set the national record for career completion percentage, so he’s a lot more than just a pair of legs.
That mix of creative running and accurate passing makes him very tough to defend, particularly when defenses have to adjust on the fly from playing pro-style passer Goff, who’s truly perfected the back-shoulder fade. I’d bet that Rubenzer throws more this week than he has in the previous two games, especially if the running game can’t get going against the Wildcats’ stout front seven.
WA: Is there a feeling that this game is any different because Dykes is returning to Tucson?
Sonny has a lot of fondness for Tucson. His first daughter was born there, and that’s where he really became a name in college football, due to what he did with the Wildcats’ offense. This week, he called Tucson one of the best college football environments in the country, but apart from some nostalgia, I don’t think there’s much else separating his return to Arizona from any other game.