BERKELEY -- For the first time since 2011, California is 2-0. Granted, the Bears have started off with a win over a Northwestern team that lost to Northern Illinois, and FCS Sacramento State, but 2-0 is 2-0.
While Cal’s defense is much improved, a great part of turnaround can be attributed to the two-pronged quarterback attack installed by coach Sonny Dykes. and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin.
Sophomore starter Jared Goff had impressed throughout fall camp, showing pinpoint accuracy and a strong arm, particularly on back-shoulder fades downfield (of which he hit two during the course of Saturday’s win over the Hornets), and was assumed to be the full-time signal-caller.
During camp, neither Dykes nor Franklin gave any indication that incoming freshman Luke Rubenzer would be an integral part of the offense in his first year at Cal, but in the trip to Evanston, Ill., last week, Rubenzer carried the ball 11 times and went 2-for-5 passing, surprising just about anyone who hadn’t seen Rubenzer take all the second-team reps during practice, including Northwestern coach Pat Fitzgerald.
“It’s something we will look at every week,” said Dykes. “That’s one of the things we will try to do, week to week look at how they are going to play us and [determine] what we think [the two-quarterback system] adds to us. Luke’s a good football player, he really is and he can run our whole offense and has the ability to run the football. He’s got some toughness and our players believe in him. I think he gives us a little bit of a different dimension so I would expect to see him all year. In what capacity? That will be determined as we continue to move forward on a game-by-game basis, but we expect him to be a part of our offense all season.
On Saturday, the pair switched out even more frequently, indicating that this two-quarterback system is here to stay. Dykes indicated that he prefers the system because it forces the opposing team to have to prepare for a second quarterback in addition to providing a change of pace to the offense.
“I think the quarterback run game just changes everything,” said Coach Dykes. “You got to commit an extra person in the box and so we feel like it certainly gives us a little something different. It makes us much more difficult to prepare for.”
Rubenzer began his day on the fifth play of the game, entering after three rushes and a Goff pass. His entrance immediately added another dimension to the attack as he tossed a 13-yard bullet to Bryce Treggs on a first-and-21. It was critical that he proved that he could throw to keep opposing defense from zoning in on his running ability, and to help the Bears get out of the potentially difficult long-yardage situations.
On a passing down, the Bears put in a quarterback who had made his hay with his legs the week before. What was the Sacramento State defense to do? Drop eight, or bring the house? With the Hornets caught in the middle, Rubenzer could work his magic.
“We had planned on him playing, and obviously they ran it with him,” said Sacramento State head coach Jody Sears. “I think he only threw one or two passes last week. All week long we kept telling the kids that he’s going to throw it. So we have to be sound in the run game, we have to be sound in the passing game and we have to be good tacklers, and we weren’t.”
Goff immediately checked back in, finishing off the drive with a touchdown pass to Kenny Lawler to take an early 7-0 lead. Rubenzer was not seen again until he stepped onto the field for the first play of the third drive. Again, he surprised the defense, which anticipated a run on the first down play, and hit Darius Powe on a crossing route for a 60-yard touchdown pass – his first in a Cal uniform.
“Jared Goff can throw a ball as good as anyone, but Luke can throw it too,” said Coach Dykes. “They’re different and they have different strengths but it is important that people obviously respect [Luke] being able to throw the football when he gets in the game. I think the more he plays, the more comfortable he’ll get throwing it.”
Rubenzer was shuffled in periodically after that, coming in every 10 plays or so. One of his biggest contributions is the added value he brings in goal-line sets, where the team is able to use a running quarterback to punch it in from close range.
Early in the second quarter, the Bears drove down to the Sacramento State two-yard line, thanks to a 30-yard back-shoulder pass from Goff to Maurice Harris. But, on two tries by sophomore speedster Khalfani Muhammad, Cal couldn’t punch it in. Enter: Rubenzer.
The freshman signal-caller came in with 10:31 remaining in the second quarter, and a third-and-goal on the one-yard line. With most of Rubenzer’s runs being up the middle, in the A or B gaps, usually on draws, Rubenzer instead ran to the edge, getting to the corner on the short side of the field and turning up, untouched, for his first career rushing touchdown.
“It helps to make us not one-dimensional,” said Lawler. “Luke can get in there and run the ball, but he can also throw it as you saw today. That helps with our offense and makes us more explosive.”
This switching continued until Cal went up 42-0, where Rubenzer took over the seventh drive for himself, from start to finish. Rubenzer marched the Bears down the field, going 1-for-2 passing for 11 yards (with a second completion wiped out by offensive pass interference) and rushing twice for 13 yards, before settling for a James Langford 33-yard field goal.
By the start of the second half, with the game clearly in hand at 45-7, both Goff (who finished 17-for-22 with 229 yards and four touchdowns) and Rubenzer were rested, with Goff coming in for a four-play, 80-yard touchdown drive that ended in a 12-yard scoring strike to a sliding Chris Harper late in the third quarter, and Rubenzer sitting out the entire second half.
“We felt like we lost some momentum,” Dykes said of reinserting the starters late after a muffed punt by Trevor Davis was saved by an end-zone pick from Griffin Piatt on the first play of the Hornets’ next drive. “Football is such a game of momentum. We fumbled the punt and we were fortunate that Griffin Piatt made the interception on the following play. We felt like, at that point of the game, the momentum had slumped to them. We were genuinely concerned about losing momentum, and our ability to get it back from them. We felt that, at that stage of the game, we had to put our first group back in, and score a touchdown to get a little more separation.”
The Bears were then led by Austin Hinder, Cole Webb and finally Joey Mahalic, for the remainder of the game.
Through two games, the two-quarterback system has proved to be effective and a game-changer for a team that occasionally struggled on offense last season. As Goff and Dykes said after the game, this is what the Bear Raid is supposed to feel like.
“That’s exactly how it’s supposed to go,” Goff said. “I talked to coach Dykes briefly about it, and asked him if this is how it’s supposed to look, and he said, ‘Yeah, this is how it’s supposed to be.’ It felt great.”
As the team enters Pac-12 play in two weeks, it’s absolutely clear that Goff is the No. 1 quarterback, but the addition of Rubenzer creates an added problem for opposing defenses to worry about in Franklin’s high tempo offense, and that’s all the Bears can ask for.
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