1) What has stood out to you during year two of the Sonny Dykes era?
The offense is much more cohesive and coherent. Last year, there were the types of growing pains you expect when a new system is installed, and, added to that, the running game was a mess. Daniel Lasco was dealing with a load of nagging injuries, and Brendan Bigelow proved to not be the answer many Cal fans had hoped. Beyond that, there were a spate of injuries that cost Cal over 120 man games. The starting center and right guard – Chris Adcock and Matt Cochran – went down with injury, and the starting left tackle at the beginning of the season – Freddie Tagaloa – was replaced midway through the year because of performance issues. This year, the offensive line has played nearly every game together, meaning that Jared Goff has not only had more time, but he’s been more confident stepping up into the pocket. The more consistent line has also helped the running game immensely, and over the last three games, Lasco has rushed for 317 yards by himself. I don’t think anyone can discount the impact that the offseason death of Ted Agu had on this team. They’ve bought in at a tremendous level, and that locker room togetherness has helped this team play tougher down the stretch.
2) Progress from year one to year two has been tremendous, from 1-11 to 5-4. Does the coaching staff, players and fans feel satisfied that the program is going in the right direction?
There have been no shortage of folks who doubted the Sonny Dykes hire, and while those doubters are certainly less in number this year, there still remain folks who maintain that this kind of offense is not conducive to having a good defense. That said, those who saw what Dykes did in his second year at Arizona, and his second year as the head coach at Louisiana Tech knew that some improvement was coming, though I don’t think anyone predicted the kind of improvement we’ve seen. I set this season win total at 4 before the start of the year, and they’ve already exceeded that. That said, the Bears’ wins this season have come against what’s turning into a moribund Northwestern team, an FCS school, and three Pac-12 opponents with a collective record of 9-20, so it’s prudent to put that into perspective. <i>That</i> said, Cal couldn’t beat any Division I opponent last year, and the games they’ve lost – against Arizona, UCLA and Oregon – have shown glimpses of that toughness. Cal was within a last-second Hail Mary of the Wildcats, and lost to the Bruins by just two points. Both of those teams have been regulars in the top 25 this year.
3) The Bears suffered a couple of tough, close losses this year. What did that Oregon State win mean to the teams psyche, avoiding losing a 4th-straight game?
Cal won for the first time in Corvallis since 2006, and really, it showed that toughness I was talking about earlier. The game was very close down the stretch, and two big plays by cornerback Caleb Coleman – a fourth-down stop inches short of a first down and a crucial interception – showed a lot of defensive maturity for a team that was historically awful last season. While the defense this year hasn’t been a world-beating unit by any stretch, they have shown some toughness and grit at times, and that showed on those two plays, as well as at the end of the Washington State game.
“I think more than anything else, it was kind of the next step,” Dykes said on Tuesday. “We just want to keep moving forward as a program, and any time you have a chance to win, wins are hard to come by. Everybody in the league is competitive and good, and when you have a chance to win a ballgame and you’re able to pull it out, it does a lot for you.”
Here’s another stat: Cal has as many road wins this year (3) as they’ve had in the previous three seasons. That said, this season’s been a weird one in the Pac-12 -- road teams have won two-thirds of the time in conference play this season. The Bears do, however, really like going on the road. It decreases distractions, Dykes says, and helps the team focus on the task at hand.
4) The Cal offense has been much more balanced the past couple of games. Can you talk about how the run game has improved over the past couple of weeks?
It all starts up front for the run game. Against Oregon, Lasco said, the Cal offensive line had the “game of their life,” and he repeated that sentiment after the game against Oregon State. Last season, the Bears’ line was patchwork, to say the least, and this year, they’re much more experienced, and, more importantly, healthy.
Lasco has really developed not just since last year, but over the course of the season. Early on, Lasco was a bit hesitant to hit holes, and even during the middle portion of the season, he was reticent, because he almost didn’t believe what he was seeing in front of him. But, it’s been no mirage. He still worries at times that the holes are too good to be true, and that he’ll get ear-holed on the other side, but that’s not been the case. A lot of Lasco’s production of late (he had 101 receiving yards against Oregon, to go along with 85 rushing yards) has just been confidence. He’s running behind his pads better, hitting those holes harder and really exploding out the other end. He also brings a toughness that Cal hasn’t seen out of its running backs in quite some time, and the players respect that. He was named a team captain for a reason, and it seems that he’s finally believing in himself as much as his teammates did at the start of the season.
“I think it’s experience,” Cal offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said of Lasco’s improvement throughout the season. “A couple things happened in the offseason. He knew that if he didn’t get better, he was going to get beat out. Number Two, he took great pride in getting better as a player, and as a leader, and I think when our people chose him as a leader, I think that he already was one. Now, he’s stepped everything up.”
Beyond Lasco, true freshman jackhammer Vic Enwere has really come on strong in the past two weeks, and in practice. He’s showing a lot more maturity in the way he runs, and more discipline and patience. I think it’s fair to say that a light has turned on with him, and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin attributes that to Enwere realizing that, when Franklin says if you don’t practice well, you won’t play, he means it. After being stifled against Washington (six carries for 21 yards) and not seeing a single carry against UCLA, Enwere has rushed for 94 yards on 11 carries over the past two games, with two touchdowns. He’s a load to tackle, and when he spells Lasco, there isn’t much relief for defenders because of how hard they each run. It’s fitting that it’s two Texas boys doing the heavy lifting.
5) Players have talked about the importance of this game, what is your take on how important it is for the team to break this losing streak?
I think the streak is more of a Cal-community-collective-trauma deal than anything else. Most of these guys were still in elementary school the last time the Bears beat the Trojans, after all. I will say that the players have really dialed up the focus this week. At the beginning of the season, former Bear defensive back and NFL head coach Herm Edwards told the team during a fall camp meeting that it isn’t about who they’re playing every week; it’s about who their opponent is playing. Basically, the reverse of the old, ‘It’s not you; it’s me,’ bromide. The players have remained on-board with that particular point of emphasis, though every now and then, you can see that there’s a bad taste in their mouths that’s just aching for expression. For the Los Angeles-native-heavy wide receiving corps, it’s certainly a niggling irritant in the back of their minds. But, that’s all it’s seemed to be. If it’s anything more than that, the Bears are doing a good job of hiding it. That said, I think there’s a quiet confidence that this could be the year, but heck, I’ve been saying that since I was in school. That’s why they play the games.
6) Sonny Dykes was asked if USC blitzes a lot. He didn't exactly say yes, but he made it sound like the Trojans do. We reported they actually rush more than four players only 10% of the time, is this some coaching gamesmanship going on here? How do you think Cal handles pressure overall?
I honestly think Dykes was being a bit cagey because he didn’t want to give anything away, as far as the game plan is concerned. The first thing I thought when I saw your report earlier this week (great stuff, by the way) was that Dykes said that partially because the offensive tackles – particularly Steven Moore – have had a lot of trouble with blitzing outside linebackers, and saying “they don’t blitz” even in practice may lead to some unconscious let-up. I think you’re right on with thinking it’s a bit of gamesmanship, in that Dykes and the offensive staff probably assume that USC will want to take advantage of some of the holes in pass protection, and therefore up their blitz percentage. That said, for the past two games, the offensive line has handled blitzes better than they had in the middle part of the season, and particular attention has been paid to getting the tackles ready to face wide-set defensive ends and outside linebackers, as they did against UCLA and Washington.
As for handling pressure, I’m actually fairly surprised that Cal has the second-fewest sacks allowed in the conference after they allowed the third-most in the league last season. Maybe that’s me looking at this line through the lens of last year’s bunch, or maybe it’s because we’ve seen so little effective pass rushing from Cal’s defense, so any pass rush looks spectacular from our vantage point; I don’t know. I will say that the strength of the line is in the middle, with senior center Chris Adcock and true sophomore left guard Chris Borrayo, who’s easily the toughest and most hard-nosed blockers you’ll see. That’s why Lasco runs behind Borrayo so much.
7) What is the trash can drill?
First off, I have to give props to my colleague, San Francisco Chronicle beat writer Mike Vernon, who hit the trash can in his first day working the drill. Basically, whenever the Bears go into special teams work, the quarterbacks do some work on the side, rolling out, making quick throws on the run and the like. The trash can is brought out to have the quarterbacks work on touch and accuracy on throws like the goal line fade, which Jared Goff has become remarkably adept at. The quarterbacks work on hitting it while stationary, after dropbacks of varying lengths, rolling left and rolling right.
8) Can you talk about Cal getting healthier at the receiver position?
Before Kenny Lawler and Trevor Davis went down, Cal had 36 passing plays of 20 yards or more, with that pair combining for 11 of them. With Lawler out most of the Oregon game, and Davis out for the past two, the Bears have had just seven total passing plays of 20 yards or more. This is an offense that will nickel-and-dime you to death and then hit a big play with the defense on its heels. Without those two downfield threats – Lawler and Davis are probably two of the faster receivers, with Lawler behind only Khalfani Muhammad for the title of “Fastest Man on the Team” – the offense has had to turn to the run game a lot more, and frankly, that’s not entirely a bad thing. That said, cutting off the top of the defense is something this offense did very, very well over the first six games, and to be able to get back to it now, against a tough USC secondary that has 11 interceptions, I think is going to make this game a lot of fun. It’ll be strength-against-strength in that regard, and I’m pretty excited to watch those one-on-one battles.
Having downfield threats also helps open up the run game up front, and anything Cal can do to loosen that Trojans front, make them think twice and maybe drop an extra man into coverage, that has to be something they exploit. Having those two receivers back, plus Lasco humming along, will really help the play-action calls that the Bears were so good with early in the season.
9) How has Jared Goff progressed? Do you expect him to have a huge night on Thursday?
I said it in our weekly Three And Out video: Goff is truly starting to emerge as an elite passer. He’s fourth in the nation in passing yards (3,119), 15th in QB rating (154.9), sixth in completions (233), fourth in touchdowns (27) and among the top five of touchdown-to-interception ratios (27:4 ranks just behind Marcus Mariota’s 29:2 and Cody Kessler’s 25:2, as well as Baylor’s Bryce Petty, who owns a 21:3 ratio). Two of those interceptions really weren’t his fault, being deflected off of receivers’ hands. He’s able to use his eyes to look off safeties, his pump fakes are pretty impressive to watch, and I think he’s better than anyone I’ve ever seen at the back-shoulder fade (a throw, by the way, which Lawler excels at catching). He’s anticipating his throws more, taking care of the football, manipulating the pocket, making better decisions and he’s been just mobile enough to keep plays alive. His receivers, with another year under their belt, are on the same page with him, when he does scramble, and he’s been able to get yards with his legs when plays break down. There are times where he does try to force a ball and throw a guy open, or maybe throw into double coverage, because he’s competitive and wants to do a little too much, but those times are few and far between. If the Bears take that Year Three step that other Dykes teams have in the past, I’d expect he’d be in the mix for at least some Heisman talk.
As for having a huge game, boy, it’s tough to predict, especially given how the USC defense seems to excel at ball hawking, but he’s had two fairly <i>eh</i> games, by his standards, and he’s just about due to have another big one, and he’s got his favorite toys back, so I certainly wouldn’t put it out of the realm of possibility.
Ryan Abraham has been the publisher of USCFootball.com since 1996. You can follow him on Twitter at @InsideTroy or email him at email@example.com .