One of the biggest stories of this wild Pac-12 season so far is the resurgence of California in the second year under Sonny Dykes. Left for dead after a 1-11 season last year (with no wins over FBS opponents), the Bears have become a dangerous team for Dykes in year two, thanks in large part to an excellent offense that has powered the Bears to exciting, high-scoring wins over Colorado and Washington State.
The offense is based on Mike Leach’s Air Raid scheme from his Texas Tech years, with the short passing game and tempo being the orders of the day. California runs the ball pretty well, especially once the offense gets into a rhythm, but it’s unmistakably a pass-first offense. On the year, the offense is averaging 6.4 yards per play, a mark good for 18th in the country.
It is an offense that seemed largely invincible until last weekend, when the Bears managed just 7 points and 384 yards against a stout Washington defense. The game was a weird one, though, with the first score of the game essentially being a 14-point swing where Jared Goff fumbled the ball on the verge of scoring, only to see Shaquille Thompson return the fumble 100 yards for a touchdown. The Huskies actually scored 17 points off of Cal turnovers, making the game’s final score of 31-7 look a little more dominating than the performance actually was.
To a larger extent than any other team this year, Washington was able to shut down Cal’s running game and put pressure on sophomore quarterback Jared Goff (6'4, 210). Goff has been fantastic all year at the helm of the offense, with 22 touchdowns against just three interceptions through six games, but against Washington he was a little less efficient than usual, throwing the ball 51 times for just under six yards per passing attempt and no touchdowns. The Huskies did an excellent job of pressuring Goff consistently with its front four, which allowed Washington to devote enough defenders back to cover California’s talented receivers. That Goff was still able to complete 68% of his passes while being pressured significantly all game is a testament to his talent and ability to play under pressure. In terms of an evaluation, Goff can make all the throws with accuracy and has the ability to fit the ball into very tight windows, as he showed frequently against Arizona. He’s a decent enough scrambler, and can be somewhat effective on the zone read.
Goff is certainly assisted by one of the most talented groups of receivers in the Pac-12. It’s probably the deepest receiving corps in the Pac-12, with five or six legitimate threats in the group. The unit is led by the two talented juniors, Bryce Treggs (5'11, 185) and Chris Harper (5'11, 175), and redshirt sophomore Kenny Lawler (6'3, 195). Treggs has established himself as one of the premier receivers in the Pac-12, with excellent speed and quickness. Both Lawler and Harper have been extremely productive this year, with Harper providing excellent skills in the open field, while Lawler, with his height, can act as a possession receiver with speed. Redshirt juniors Stephen Anderson (6'3, 215) and Darius Powe (6'3, 215) have split time at the Y spot, and both have been productive, with Anderson actually becoming one of Goff’s most consistent targets since filling in for Powe a few weeks ago when Powe hurt his shoulder. Redshirt junior Trevor Davis (6'2, 180) fills out the primary receiver rotation, and he’s proven himself as a legitimate deep threat this year, averaging nearly 19 yards per catch.
The offense’s numbers are especially impressive when you take into account that the offensive line, while certainly better than a year ago, would probably best be described as serviceable. It’s experienced, with the line averaging out at about a redshirt junior, so that certainly helps. As we said above, Goff is very good under pressure, and that has masked some of the issues that Cal has had up front. Additionally, teams have been reluctant to blitz the offensive line too much because of the very talented receivers. Even still, Goff has spent significant amounts of games under pressure this season, and much of that has to be attributed to the line, which just isn’t made up of great pass blockers. Redshirt junior right tackle Jordan Rigsbee (6’4, 300) is the most experienced in the group, with 30 starts under his belt between guard, tackle, and center. Redshirt sophomore left tackle Steven Moore (6'6, 300) started 11 games at right tackle last year before making the switch over to left this year, and he’s been decent, though not spectacular, protecting Goff’s blind side. True sophomore left guard Chris Borrayo (6'3, 300) might be Cal’s best overall lineman, and much of Cal’s improved line play over the last five games of last year could be attributed to him slotting into the lineup. Redshirt senior center Chris Adcock (6'3, 295) and redshirt senior right guard Alejandro Crosthwaite (6'4, 290) are the two old veterans in the group, and Adcock has provided a steadying force inside after sitting out most of the last year with an injury.
As we said above, it’s a pass-first offense, but Cal will run the ball to keep defenses honest. Redshirt junior running back Daniel Lasco (6'0, 210) is the primary tailback. Lasco has a good burst, is pretty quick, and runs with some toughness despite his lack of bulk. He doesn’t have elite top end speed, but he can pretty consistently get yards through the middle when Cal has a numbers advantage. Sophomore Khalfani Muhammad (5'7, 170) is the primary backup, and he provides a bit more deep speed than Lasco. Probably the next most significant element in the running game is freshman backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer (6'0, 185). Cal will use him in essentially Wildcat situations, with Rubenzer obviously having the ability to pass as well. He’s a good enough runner, and he’ll often come in on short yardage situations.
UCLA’s defense has been underwhelming for virtually the entire year, and last week was no different. The Bruins were unable to stop Oregon’s offense for most of the relevant portions of the game, and looked especially porous against the run. The Bruins were unable to defend Marcus Mariota on the zone read, and despite looking perhaps a bit hobbled, Mariota was able to exploit UCLA with his legs frequently.
It’s hard to diagnose any specific issue with the personnel. Certainly, UCLA is missing Anthony Barr, Jordan Zumwalt, and Cassius Marsh, who provided slightly more versatile threats with their combined skillsets as pass-rushers, run-stoppers, and edge-setters, but it does seem as if UCLA is playing a bit more passively than it was a year ago. Much of that may be due to the changes in the scheme that UCLA made, with some players looking decidedly more tentative than a year ago, and other players having to get out of position to compensate. Whatever the case, the defense hasn’t been effective this year, and it’s getting toward crunch time when it’ll need to be.
The defensive line hasn’t generated a significant amount of pressure on quarterbacks, though some of that may be simply a product of the run-heavy, pass-quickly offenses UCLA has faced this year. Generally, though, UCLA hasn’t generated a significant amount of negative plays, which has to fall on the defensive line to some extent. The interior guys, Kenneth Clark and Eddie Vanderdoes, have been generally good all year, but they’re mostly block-eating types of players, though they’re both good for the occasional rip into the backfield. The real issues have been on the edge. Owamagbe Odighizuwa hasn’t done a consistent job of getting off of his blocks this year, and Deon Hollins, on the other side, is too undersized to be effective as an every down player, especially against the run-heavy schemes UCLA has faced.
At linebacker, the brunt of the duties have fallen on Myles Jack and Eric Kendricks, and you can see some of the strain. In this scheme, where it is especially critical that everyone play their assignments perfectly because there is little pressure up front to force quarterback mistakes, Kendricks has often had to play the role of cleanup crew, getting himself out of position to make tackles or having to guess where a run is going to go. Jack hasn’t had a great year to this point, but he played very well at times against Oregon, so the hope is that he’s starting to come alive a bit.
This is going to be an interesting challenge for UCLA’s defense. The Bruins have been tripped up in the last two games by run-heavy schemes from both Utah and Oregon, but Cal presents a different challenge altogether. There’s every reason to think that the Bears could throw the ball 50+ times against the Bruins on Saturday, and that’s not a situation UCLA has been in this year.
Unlike with Oregon last week, where blitzing would have only made the situation worse against Mariota, Cal is a team that can and should be blitzed, since they do have some weaknesses in pass protection and Goff is not quite as mobile as Mariota. UCLA will have to be smart with it, though, because Cal’s receivers are talented enough that a small seam in the defense at any point could mean a touchdown.
From what we saw of Washington’s performance against Cal, we’re not certain UCLA will be able to duplicate it. The Bruins haven’t shown that level of dominance up front this year, and we have some doubts about the front four’s ability to generate enough pressure to force Goff into uncomfortable decisions. The Bruins will probably need to blitz him a bit, and that will likely open up enough opportunities for Goff to make some plays downfield.
This will be the biggest test for UCLA’s secondary this year. Wadood and Goodman really haven’t been challenged at safety in the last few games, and Fabian Moreau has been spotty at cornerback this year. All three will have to play very well to keep the clamps down on Cal’s explosive offense.
In the end, we think UCLA will be able to pressure Goff to some extent, but Cal’s offense is too talented, particularly at receiver, for the Bruins to shut it down in any real way.