Cal has had an up and down start to their season. What have you been most surprised with this year?
Ryan Gorcey: The last three weeks, the defense. Against Hawaii and San Diego State, the Bears gave up a total of 582 yards on 85 rushing attempts (6.85 yards per rushing attempt). Against Texas, Arizona State and Utah, the Bears have worked themselves into better second-level fits. Cal held Texas to just 10 second-half points, and though they gave up 507 yards of offense, the defense had flashes of not just competence, but, dare I say, a shadow of excellence.
Then, the last two weeks, the Bears have allowed 340 yards on the ground on 104 carries – just 3.27 yards per rushing attempt – starting with holding the Sun Devils to 100 yards below their season average on the ground, and culminating in a goal line stand that saw Cal hold its ground on six plays inside its own 10-yard line.
This team won’t be confused for a defensive juggernaut any time soon, but the fact that the defense won a game, and were it not for offensive miscues, could have won another in the desert, is something that, three years ago, I’d have been put into the loony bin for saying.
Cal still hasn’t played a complete game yet – offensive gaffes and an onside kick returned for a touchdown plagued the Bears in their loss against Arizona State – and the defense didn’t hold up its end of the bargain for the first two and a half games. But, with Davis Webb winning the Pac-12 Offensive Player of the Week award this week for certainly, I think, one of his more mild performances – 22-of-35 for 3-6 yards, four touchdowns and one interception – it looks like things may be balancing out a bit.
Beyond the defense, I’d say my greatest surprise has been the lack of a running game. Cal’s offensive line returns four of five starters from last year, with only one really change in those four, with Addison Ooms taking the center spot from Dominic Granado (though both have seen playing time). The Bears also return their top three most productive running backs in Tre Watson, Vic Enwere and Khalfani Muhammad. The three of them combined have rushed for 699 yards, averaging 150.4 yards per game. As a team, Cal is second to last in the Pac-12, with 119.4 rushing yards per game.
What playmakers on offense should Beaver fans be aware of?
Gorcey: Everybody knows Chad Hansen -- he of 754 receiving yard on 55 catches, with eight touchdowns on the season – but Cal has started to develop other options, including explosive five-star Demetris Robertson, who’s hauled in 15 catches for 309 yards and five touchdowns already this season. Over the last two games, Robertson’s caught eight passes for 200 yards, and he’s only going to get better. Whether against press or off coverage, it doesn’t really matter for him. He’s got such a quick first step that he’s by his man in a blink. He’s still learning the finer points of the position, but he’s been a very quick study.
Slot receiver Melquise Stovall has caught 10 balls for 116 yards over the last two games, and is averaging 12.5 yards per catch. Cal can get him the ball in the quick game and the screen game, and so long as he gets the ball in space, he’s going to make people miss. Lots of speed, definitely a home run threat from anywhere on the field, and as we saw last week with both Stovall and Robertson, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital isn’t shy about putting them in different spots, including in the backfield (they both did play running back at times in high school).
Brandon Singleton is also a down field threat on the outside, as is Tennessee transfer Vic Wharton. Both can stretch the field vertically, and if we’ve learned anything about Davis Webb thus far, it’s that he loves to go down field.
If Muhammad does play, he’s proven to be far tougher and more powerful than his listed 5-foot-9, 175-pound size. I’ve seen him move piles of four and five defenders, and he had 74 rushing yards on nine carries in the first half alone against Arizona State, before a leg injury sidelined him.
Who are the playmakers on defense we should be on the lookout for?
Gorcey: If Allensworth is back healthy, that dramatically improves the secondary. Teams aren’t throwing to his side much when he’s on the field, and that’s allowed newcomer Marloshawn Franklin to come into his own on the other side.
James Looney – who made the game-saving stop last week, and who has 3.0 tackles for loss on the year – is a future NFL defensive tackle. He’s got nimble feet, moves like a man half his size, and a variety of moves inside.
He’s got a good partner on that side of the line in Cameron Saffle, who leads the defensive line with 35 total tackles, and leads the team with 5.0 tackles for loss, to go along with a tam-high 2.5 sacks. When Saffle goes inside, Looney will hold the outside, and Saffle is there to back up Looney when he bursts through the inside of the offensive line, too. Linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk is with the twos now, but he’s as big as some of the smaller defensive linemen I’ve seen in the Pac-12. At 6-foot-3, 235 pounds, he’s very fast, and hits like a ton of bricks. He’s still a bit raw, and his fits aren’t as crisp as the Bears would like, but he’s a very dynamic athlete who’s learning very quickly.
What is the injury report heading into Saturday’s match-up?
Gorcey: Evan Rambo is likely out, but we don’t know for how long. It’s not looking good for the erstwhile starting safety, who was a bright spot in absence of Damariay Drew (season; ACL) and Griffin Piatt (retired due to injury). Darius Allensworth and Khalfani Muhammad sat out last week’s game, with leg injuries, but both are expected to be back this week. No. 2 defensive tackle Luc Bequette is out with an unspecified leg injury, but it looks like it’s a knee. He’s the second-best tackle behind Looney, but he plays with the second line because they play the same side. His presence really helped the line stay consistent when the units were changed out, but as we saw last week, the twos held their own. Still, in the long run, not having him is a big blow.
What do the Beavers need to do in order to win on Saturday?
Gorcey: Attacking the secondary – weakened by the loss of Rambo, and a bit vulnerable up the middle. Also, quick slants over the middle continue to be a source of trouble because of the limited linebacker personnel (Ray Davison was dinged up on the second-to-last play against Utah, though it looks like he’ll be back, but that still doesn’t replace the losses of Michael Barton (transfer to Arizona), Hardy Nickerson (transfer to Illinois) and Jake Kearney (injury retirement). As head coach Dykes said early last week, teams are going to run on Cal until the Bears prove they can stop it. Two games, in my opinion, isn’t enough proof. No reason not to at the very least test that. Also, as we’ve seen against Arizona State and San Diego State, Davis Webb is a gunslinger, and while he’s certainly been as advertised, in terms of being able to step in for Jared Goff and continue giving an NFL-level performance at quarterback, he does force the ball at times, especially if Cal is in a must-score position. Pressuring him, forcing mistakes and getting the offense off the field, while dedicating to the run on offense would be a recipe for success for the Beavers, but Utah did that – owning the time of possession 42:01 to 17:59 – and didn’t come out on top.
What is your prediction including score?
Gorcey: Given the fact that OSU is at or near the bottom of the conference in scoring offense, total offense, passing offense and passer efficiency, I don’t see the Beavers scoring many points, no matter how suspect the Cal defense may be. I also don’t see them holding the Bears, defensively, given that they’re at or near the bottom of the conference in interceptions and sacks – the two things that they’d need to do in order to upset Cal, which is a 12.5-point favorite on the road. I’d say 42-20, Bears.