CAL vs. ARIZONA: Keys to the Game

BERKELEY -- After breaking down the numbers from Arizona's first three games, we take a look at what the three biggest keys to the game will be this Saturday, as Cal opens Pac-12 play against the Wildcats in Tucson. And, yes, they include Luke Rubenzer.

BERKELEY -- With the Pac-12 road opener on the horizon for Saturday, when California takes on Arizona at 7 p.m., it’s time to go into the keys to the game as we kick off the week of practice. Remember: Disclaimer: There has yet to be an open practice this week (that comes today at 3:30 p.m., so follow along!), so the strategies delineated herein are just conjecture.

1. Arizona’s biggest weakness: Pass defense. While the Wildcats (3-0) are third in the Pac-12 in rushing defense, they rank 10th in passing defense, allowing opposing quarterbacks to complete 64.6% of their passing attempts for 7.1 yards per attempt.

Arizona’s opponent last week – Pistol-packing Nevada – went from rushing for 214 yards on 56 carries the week before against Washington State (including 100 yards on 16 carries by quarterback Cody Fajardo) to rushing for just 108 yards total on 40 attempts against the Wildcats. Instead of running the ball, Fajardo completed 29 of 39 passes for one of the best completion percentages of his career (he topped the 74.4% mark six times, including in 2012 against the Bears), piling up 321 yards through the air.

Fajardo and the Wolf Pack very nearly took down the Wildcats, coming away with a 35-28 defeat thanks to two late touchdown grabs by Cayleb Jones.

It just so happens that Arizona’s biggest weakness is Cal’s biggest strength. The Bears’ passing offense ranks fifth in the Pac-12 after two games, but their 9.2 yards per attempt ranks third in the league. Sophomore quarterback Jared Goff ranks third in the league in passing efficiency (182.0), and his stable of receivers – led by Chris Harper, Bryce Treggs, Kenny Lawler (who hauled in three scores last week, including The Snag), Maurice Harris and Trevor Davis -- is perhaps the best in the Pac-12, if not the nation.

Cal is third in the Pac-12 in third-down efficiency, converting 17 of 33 opportunities in two games. 10 of those conversions came via the pass. In fact, on third down, the Bears are 10-for-14 on third down when they attempt to pass, with one interception. Given the Wildcats’ strength against the run (third in the conference after three games), the pass increasingly looks like the perfect way to exploit their defense, particularly when Cal needs to keep the chains moving. Nevada did just that last week, prompting head coach Rich Rodriguez to say “we couldn’t stop anybody,” on third down, as the Wolf Pack went 8-for-16. Nevada’s ability to stay on the field and keep quarterback Anu Solomon and running back Nick Wilson on the bench resulted in a 35:48 to 24:12 time of possession differential, meaning Arizona’s defense was worn down. If that sounds familiar, that’s because it’s the exact thought process behind the Bear Raid.

For comparison’s sake, the Bears were dead last in the conference last year in third-down conversion rate, with a 33.6% mark.

Expect a lot of nickel from Arizona on Saturday.

“They know what they’re doing, defensively,” said head coach Sonny Dykes. “[Defensive coordinator Jim] Casteel’s been around, running some 3-3 stuff, and they know what they’re doing.”

How can the Bears exploit the nickel, other than just running the passing game as usual? Two words: Luke Rubenzer. The Wildcats sold out to stop the run and the Pistol last week, and Rubenzer is as much a running threat as Fajardo, if not moreso, so having him in the game will likely draw more attention up front, leaving passing lanes open to the outside. Rubenzer has not attempted more than six passes in either of the first two games, so it stands to reason that we may very well see him pass out of a QB run look in order to keep Arizona off balance.

2. Speaking of Nick Wilson … The one-time Cal recruit has been nigh-unstoppable over the first three games for the Wildcats, ranking second in the Pac-12 in rushing with 449 total yards and averaging 149.7 rushing yards per game.

The freshman out of Fresno (Calif.) Central East is responsible for many of the Wildcats’ most explosive plays, owning eight of their 20 rushes of over 10 yards, and three of their rushes for more than 20 yards.

Having both Mustafa Jalil and Brennan Scarlett healthy up front will help limit the running game, as will the development of Trevor Kelly -- who got a ton of time last week against Sacramento State – and a now-healthy Austin Clark, who was dealing with some knee soreness that kept him on the shelf two weeks ago.

“We’ve got to be able to stop the run,” said Dykes. “It’s going to be important for us, and I think any time you play Arizona or a Rich Rodriguez team, you’ve always got to stop the run. That’s going to be the most important thing that we do this week.”

3. Anu guy at quarterback: Freshman Anu Solomon has been transcendent at times, ranking third in the league in passing (311.3 ypg) and tied for second in touchdown passes, with just one interception, but he also owns the lowest completion percentage (62.7) among Pac-12 quarterbacks with at least two starts.

“They have good receivers, and they throw the ball well,” Dykes said. “They’ve gotten a lot of big plays out of their passing game, so we’ve got to do a good job of doing both (running and passing), and that’s a hard thing to do. It’s tough when they’re as balanced as they are.”

The passing game has produced 26 plays of more than 10 yards in three games, and 12 plays of more than 20 yards. Solomon owns three of the team’s 20 rushes of over 10 yards, as well, and has rushed 23 times for 121 yards, averaging 5.3 yards per carry.

Solomon has also punted once this season, just as Goff did late last year against Colorado. Is that a trick the Wildcats pull out again? Likely not, but it’s still something that has to be practiced for, just in case. Given Rubenzer’s 38.7-yard punting average in high school, and his own running ability, he may wind up being a good player to help simulate that once or twice.

Back to the passing game, Solomon is seventh in the Pac-12 in passer efficiency (again, remember, he only has one pick to eight touchdowns), but Jones is bound to get more run. Rodriguez said of him after Saturday’s game: “He’ll only get better and better,” and at 6-foot-3, 215 pounds, the redshirt sophomore transfer from Texas is sure to be a big target against Cal’s DB corps that has not a single man on the two-deep taller than 6-foot, though Darius Allensworth has plenty of length to him without being the tallest guy out there. That could change if indeed, as Dykes says, Darius White (6-foot-1) is available to play.

“I don’t know if we’re the Steel Curtain or anything quite yet,” Dykes said of his defense, which, in stark contrast to last season, is third in the Pac-12 in total defense. “I think the guys think that we have an opportunity to have a good defense, and I think they’re excited about the improvements they’ve made, and realize that we have a long way to go, and we’re going to get tested often in this league, particularly this week.”


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