By Andrew Gorringe
Utah Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Cal Secondary
Travis Wilson and the Utah offense are running at peak efficiency after 4 games in to the 2015 season, and are coming off their best game of the year in a slaughtering of the Oregon Ducks. Wilson showed that he is an upper echelon PAC 12 quarterback against the Ducks, and did with a less than 100% healthy left shoulder. Not bad. While Wilson’s passing numbers aren’t prolific, his efficiency numbers are. Wilson has completed 68% of passes for 513 yards, and has a 4:1 TD/INT ratio, with the lone interception being on an end of half hail mary. Those numbers are also better than they appear on the surface, as Wilson has only played in 8 ½ of the 16 quarters of football this season due to injury, and being replaced at the end of the Oregon game due to it being a blowout. As efficient as Wilson has been through the air, he’s been even more dangerous and efficient on the ground, as he’s averaging nearly 9 yards per carry, and has 3 rushing touchdowns. Wilson’s decision making, confidence and poise have been on point all season long, and if that continues, Utah will only continue winning games.
Utah’s wide receivers are led by true freshman Britain Covey, and sixth year senior Kenneth Scott, as both had big games against the Ducks. Covey leads the team with 17 catches for 182 yards and 2 TD’s, and Scott is close behind with 12 catches for 124 yards and 1 TD. Covey has proven that he has the ability to get open no matter who is guarding him, and it seems like nothing but good things happen with the ball is thrown to Kenneth Scott, as it has resulted usually in a big play or defensive pass interference. True freshman Tyrone Smith has started all 4 games as well, and has 7 catches for 57 yards. WR Bubba Poole and WR/TE Caleb Repp round out the group, and Ute fans are excited to see more of Repp after his 2 catch/2 TD performance against Oregon, which was his Ute debut.
It’s been a mixed bag for the Cal Bears secondary, as they have had some very good performances through 5 weeks of the season, but have also had a couple no so good performances as well, but there is one thing that they have done consistently this season, and that’s intercept the football. Cal is currently T-2nd in the nation in interceptions, with 7 of their 10 coming from the secondary. The secondary is led by corner Demarius White and safety Demariay Drew, who both have 2 INT’s on the season. Drew also ranks 2nd on the team in tackles, with White at 4th. Also lining up at safety is Stefan McClure, who was named the PAC 12 defensive player of the week after returning a fumble for a touchdown, while also having 6 tackles and a sack. Overall, this is a solid group. They have their weaknesses and have shown the ability to get beat, but they have also been very opportunistic with turnovers.
Utah Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Cal Linebackers
Is there anything Devontae Booker can’t do? We know he’s a punishing runner and an elite pass catcher out of the backfield, but it turns out that Booker can throw the ball pretty well too. Booker’s 22 carries for 98 yards on the ground against the Ducks were pretty pedestrian by his standards, but his TD pass to Britain Covey wasn’t, as he perfectly executed the HB Pass. Though Booker didn’t rack up a ton of yards or run for any touchdowns against the Ducks, his runs were very effective and picked up multiple, crucial first downs. While Booker’s numbers aren’t as high as he probably hoped they would be, just his presence in the backfield is a positive effect for the Utes, as teams must game plan around stopping him, or they face being run all over. In relief of Booker, Joe Williams continues to provide solid runs and catches out of the backfield, though he needs to become a more patient runner. Tight ends Siale Fakailoatonga and Harrison Handley are both very solid tight ends for Utah, and while neither is a big play threat, they both are very reliable pass catchers and above average run blockers. Not much more needs to be said about them other than they are solid.
The biggest weakness for the Cal defense is there linebacker’s group, as they have some solid players, but they lack speed, which can be exposed. A very bad Texas team racked up 286 rushing yards and 6 TD’s on the ground vs Cal. Hardy Nickerson, Jalen Jefferson and Jake Kearney will start at the 3 linebacker spots, and Jefferson leads the team with 26 tackles. This is a group that has been exposed at times during the 2015 season.
Utah Offensive Line vs Cal Defensive Line
At the beginning of the season, most believe the Utah offensive line would struggle protecting the quarterback, while excelling in run blocking. In the words of Lee Corso, “not so fast my friend.” The offensive line has been excellent so far in 2015 at protecting the QB’s, as they have only given up one sack in 4 games, while they have struggled at time generating enough push in the run game to get Devontae Booker going. Against Oregon, the O Line turned in their best performance of the season overall. The pocket for Travis Wilson was clean almost the whole game, and the big uglies helped lead the offense to 273 yards and 6.5 yards per carry against the Ducks. Offensive guard Isaac Asiata has proven that he is one of the conference’s best pulling guards, and the right side of the offensive line has been nothing but solid with JJ Dielman and Leka Uhatafe. The lone area of concern still remains at left tackle, though the rotation between Sam Tevi and Jackson Barton over the past two weeks seems to be working. Unless one steps up and takes the starting job by force, I’d expect we continue seeing a rotation at that pot.
The Cal defensive line is led by pass rush specialist Kyle Kragen, as he leads the sack happy Bear’s defense with 4 sacks on the season, and the defense as whole has totaled 18 sacks this year, more than 3 per game. The Bears have speed off the edge with Kragen and Jonathan Johnson, while James Looney and Tony Mekari line up at both defensive tackle spots. Cal likes to use speed to create pressure on opposing QB’s, as they lack a lot of size of the defensive line. Both interior starters weight just 280lbs, while both defensive ends come in at 245lbs. This has led to the defense being exposed up the middle so far, but they have been able to counter act that by getting a fierce pass rush on the opposing QB. Against a bruising offensive line like Utah, that has been very good about protecting the QB, the lack of size could hurt the Cal defensive line.
Cal Quarterback and Wide Receivers vs Utah Secondary
There’s no question what the strength of this Cal team is, and it rests on the shoulders of future NFL QB Jared Goff, and his group of spectacular wide receivers. Goff is arguably the top quarterback in not only the conference, but the entire country, and is well deserving of the hype. Goff has completed 70% of passes for 1,630 yards and 15 TD’s, and has thrown 4 INT’s on the season. Those stats are even more impressive when you consider the fact that out of 130 college teams, Goff ranks 115th in average time allowed in the pocket, with just an average of just 2.33 seconds. Simply put, Goff can make all the throws on the field, and he can make a defense pay very easily. He’s not perfect, and can certainly be rattled when consistent pressure is put on him, but he’s an exceptional QB.
With an average of 35 pass attempts per game, there are a lot of opportunities to catch passes for the Cal receivers, and they’re led by two of the conference’s best, Kenny Lawler and Bryce Treggs. Lawler might be one of the most underrated players in the nation, as his highlights show routine one handed touchdown catches, and he has totaled 399 yards on 27 catches, with 8 TD’s this season. Lawler is big (6’3-195lbs) and fast, and is one of the best at catching contested passes. Treggs isn’t far behind Lawler in stats, as he has 272 yards on 17 catches with 2 TD’s in 2015. Treggs is the speedster of the group, and Cal likes to line him up in the slot in order to create matchup problems on safeties and linebackers. In total, 15 different players have caught passes this season, and 7 have over 100 yards on the season.
Improvement has been the name of the game for the Ute secondary, as the re-addition of Dominique Hatfield has sparked the Utah pass defense that showed vast improvement vs Oregon. Utah will rotate Hatfield, Cory Butler-Byrd and Reggie Porter at both corner back spots, while Justin Thomas mans the nickleback position, with Tevin Carter and Marcus Williams at safety. Williams leads the team in interceptions with 3, while Dominique Hatfield has quickly shown why he is considered an NFL corner. The secondary faced a group of very talented receivers against Oregon, and shut them down for the most part, but the QB throwing the passes wasn’t exactly at the level they’ll be facing this week. With two weeks to prepare, the Ute secondary will have to be on their A game to try and stop the vaunted Cal passing attack.
Cal Running Backs and Tight Ends vs Utah Linebackers
Running back by committee has been the approach that Cal has taken so far for the 2015 season, as four running backs have 20+ carries on the season. The headliner is Daniel Lasco, who has been hampered by a hip injury the past 3 weeks. Lasco is the Bear’s best running back when healthy, but is still a little banged up at the moment. Picking up the slack has been a mix of Khalfani Muhammad (350yds, 8.97 YPC & 1 TD), Vic Enwere (257yds, 4.76 YPC & 5 TD’s) and Tre Watson (97 yards, 3.59 YPC & 1 TD). Muhammad has been the lightning to Enewere’s thunder, while Lasco has been recovering from injury. Muhammad has exceptional speed and can outrun any defender on the field, and Enwere is a bruiser at 6’1-230lbs. The entire Cal offense only averages 39 runs per game, but they are effective when they do run, averaging a team wide 4.3 YPC. The RB’s are also heavily utilized in the pass game, with Muhammad being the best option there. Cal doesn’t utilize a traditional tight end, but do have a very good pass catcher at the position in Stephen Anderson. Anderson is more a TE/WR hybrid, as he’s only 6’3-230lbs, but can stretch the middle of the defense vertically. His big body provides QB Jared Goff a reliable option when looking to get rid of the football.
At this point, we all know what the Utah linebacker’s group is, and that is excellent. Jared Norris, Gionni Paul and even Jason Whittingham, who struggled mightily in the first 3 games, had terrific games against the Ducks, as they helped shut down one of the best rushing attacks in the nation. Oh, this group is also pretty good in pass coverage, as evidenced by Gionni Paul’s pass break up when he was lined up one on one vs Royce Freeman. There’s really no weakness with this group, and they are a big part of why Utah is 4-0 this season.
Cal Offensive Line vs Utah Defensive Line
Despite winning both games, it’s been a rough past two weeks for the Cal offensive line, as they have been flat out embarrassed by the Washington and Washington State defense’s, as they gave up 5 sacks to the Huskies and 3 sacks to the Cougars, while only helping the Bear’s running backs average just 2.73 YPC and 2.63 YPC, respectively. Those aren’t great numbers, and are a big cause of concern for Cal, as they’ll be facing as good of a defense, if not better, as they faced against Washington.
After two sub-par weeks of pass rush from the Ute defensive line to begin the season, the Utes finally dialed up the pressure against Fresno State and Oregon, and it proved to be successful, as the Ute D Line was straight up dominant in both those games. Kylie Fitts has emerged as a legit pass rushing threat while Hunter Dimick recovers from injury, and the rotation of Seni Fauonuku, Stevie Tuikolovatu, Filipo Mokofisi and Lowell Lotulelei at defensive tackle has caused nightmares for opposing offenses. Seni Fauonuku has especially been fantastic in 2015, as the senior seems to have re-focused all his attention on having a standout season, in hopes to show that he’s able to play in the NFL. Jason Fanaika and Pita Taumoepenu have rotated at the right defensive end spot, and Fanaika has proven to be dominant in run situations, with Pita T again being the pass rush specialist. When you take all that in to consideration, and then add in the fact that Hunter Dimick is expected to return vs Cal, you get a D Line that is poised to expose a struggling offensive line.
Utah Special Teams vs Cal Special Teams
Utah’s elite special teams have finally broken out of its shell for the 2015 season, as many were concerned after the first couple weeks that the unit had regressed from 2014. It’s safe to say that’s not the case, as the special teams unit was nearly perfect against Oregon. Phillips nailed two perfect FG’s at the start of the game, Britain Covey nearly broke off a punt return for TD early on in the game, and the fake punt and punt return were just brilliant calls by the coaching staff and players. The lone area of concern continues to be kickoff coverage, as the Utes gave up an 80+ yard return vs Oregon and Andy Phillip’s kickoffs have been short of the end zone nearly all season long. Still, this unit is special, and you won’t find any in the nation that are better overall than the Utes’.
Wide receiver Trevor Davis returns both punts and kicks for the Bear’s, and he has been just average this season, averaging 6 yards per punt return and 21 yards per kick return. Cole Leininger is a good punter, averaging 41 yards per punt, and Matt Anderson is 5 of 7 on his FG attempts this season, and 23 of 24 on PAT attempts. Overall a solid group, but nothing to write home about.