Utah faces its first Pac-12 road test this week as they travel to Berkeley to take on Cal. UteZone caught up with Ryan Gorcey, publisher of Bear Territory to get his thoughts on the game and what to expect this Saturday:
UteZone: Cal has been in several nail biters this season, beating Texas in the final minutes while dropping games to SDSU and ASU. What, in your opinion are the chief causes for Cal's close losses? What did they do right against Texas that didn't happen in the two losses?
Ryan Gorcey: In one word, execution. Cal's two-minute execution, particularly against ASU and San Diego State, was lacking, whether it was drops or turnovers or special teams gaffes. Defensively, against San Diego State, the linebacker fits in the run game were particularly bad, but against Arizona State, those were more than just cleaned up; they were exceptional, as evidenced by the run game numbers. The Sun Devils held to 100 yards below their season average on the ground. Two fourth-quarter interceptions and third-quarter miscues on offense were what cost the Bears last week, but against Texas, we saw very crisp play on that side of the ball. The defense -- particularly if Cal is missing safety Evan Rambo and cornerback Darius Allensworth this week -- is what's held the Bears back, in general, with bad tackling being an issue in the first two games of the season. That seemed to be cleaned up over the last two weeks. In the end, if it's not been one thing, it's been another. Cal has yet to play a complete game.
UZ: The Cal defense has given up a lot of points this season, surrendering more than 40 ppg in the last three. What have been the causes of the Cal defenses struggles? On the flip side, what does the Bear defense do well?
RG: Tackling and run fits have been major issues on defense, but at times have been corrected. Not having the two guys they thought would be starting at safety (Damariay Drew and Griffin Piatt) has necessitated playing a lot of youngsters, and that's where you see the Bears get gashed on balls up the middle. That's also hurt in the run game, as Drew was the best safety in terms of run support. The lack of linebackers has hurt Cal in the run game. Hamilton Anoa'i missed the first game after missing the back third of last year with an ACL tear, and the Bears lost Michael Barton and Hardy Nickerson to graduate transfer, and Jake Kearney to an injury retirement. The Bears also lost seven defensive linemen from last year's team. That's been the root of the issues on run defense.
Against Texas and Arizona State, the second-level fits were better, but really, it was the play of the defensive line that was responsible for a lot of Cal's success against the run. Luc Bequette and James Looney are loads to handle inside, and Looney, in particular, has had his strongest games of his career in the Bears' two wins this season. If Tony Mekari can do anything -- and I mean anything -- to suck up blocks against Utah's veteran defensive line, preventing double teams on Looney, I think Cal will be able to stop the run and perhaps collapse the pocket, but that's a tall task against the Utes' veteran front.
UZ: The Cal offense has put up big numbers with Davis Webb leading the way. How does Webb differ as a QB from Goff? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
RG: Webb is much more of a gunslinger than Goff, and the interception numbers -- particularly late -- have shown that. Of Webb's four interceptions, three have come in the fourth quarter. That said, he has three years of experience in an offense very similar to this at Texas Tech, so his command of that offense -- checking to runs or changing tagged routes at the line -- is superb. Against San Diego State, he checked away from runs in the second half, even against six-man boxes, just as the ground game was starting to wear the Aztecs down. That said, he has superb arm strength, and while he's not incredibly mobile, he does what Goff did, in that he can slide the pocket, step up under pressure and feel pressure. He gives Cal a veteran hand that, with Goff leaving, they wouldn't otherwise have had. He's big, athletic, and tough to bring down, and he can shrug off hits. He'll make yards with his legs when he needs to, and, as we saw against Hawaii, he's not afraid to lower the shoulder. His physicality is what really separates him from Goff, but Goff didn't take as many chances.
UZ: How do you expect the Cal offense to attack the Utah defense? Are there any matchups that you feel are especially advantageous to the Bears?
RG: In offenses like this one, there are a few mesh routes over the middle that could give Utah trouble, especially given the speed that the Bears have at the inside receiver spots. Given Utah's experience on the back end, and lack thereof at the linebacker spot, I think Cal will try to attack the middle of the field with those mesh routes and quick slants. Bug Rivera and Melquise Stovall can do some special things in space, particularly off of screens. Attacking Utah downfield doesn't seem to be a winning proposition, at least at the outset, but if the Bears can take advantage of the personnel deficiencies up front and dedicate themselves to running the ball early, then hit the middle passes, I think the down field passes will open up.
Cal's run game is its best defense. If the Bears -- with Khalfani Muhammad, Tre Watson and the powerful Vic Enwere -- can control the clock, that keeps the uneven defense off the field.
Once the run game and short passing game is established, if Utah plays one-high and only has one safety back to keep an eye on Chad Hansen, the Bears have a much greater prospect for success. Hansen, also, isn't the only down field threat Cal can bring to bear, as Demetris Robertson has begun to come into his own as a pure receiver. He's explosive and has such an easy acceleration that he's going to catch some DBs off guard. I expect Robertson and Stovall, in particular, to do some unexpected things.
UZ: How do you expect the Cal defense to slow down the Utes? Which are the players that Ute fans should be paying close attention to?
RG: I would say that forcing Troy Williams to go down field -- where he's been hit-or-miss -- and taking away his ability to run (which I have a feeling he may try to do, given Cal's lack of success against the run) would be the ticket, but with the personnel losses on the back end, that doesn't look like too good an idea. That said, I think we'll see a bit more from Jaylinn Hawkins, who made the move to safety and looks like one of the better and more prepared youngsters in the defensive backfield. Cornerback Marloshawn Franklin has also been an instant-impact guy out of the junior college ranks, and has played very tight, physical defense. Quarterback-turned-safety Luke Rubenzer also has quite a nose for the ball. He's not the biggest or the fastest, but he has a very good feel for offenses.
Bringing pressure on Williams, and forcing him to make quick decisions, has to be the order of the day. The Bears have five picks in four games, and if they can jump routes down field, they'll be able to pick up some extra possessions for the offense. When Williams gets flustered, he tends to miss easy throws, but that said, Cal has only tallied nine sacks on the season (seventh in the Pac-12), so they're going to have to find pressure from somewhere. I think that somewhere will be Cameron Saffle, who saw his first college action last year against Utah. His motor runs white-hot, and the fact that he's put on 40 pounds of muscle since the day he got on campus allows that motor to have a lot of power behind it.
UZ: What is your prediction for the game, including the score?
RG: I think this comes down to Cal's run game. The Bears haven't been able to get it going, despite a veteran offensive line and two Doak Walker Award Watch List members in Watson and Muhammad, but they did show some signs of the engine turning over in the first half against Arizona State. Muhammad is generously listed at 5-foot-8, but I saw him move piles of five defenders three, four and five yards against the Sun Devils, and he did the same against Hawaii. He's got more power than you'd think, and he also has home run speed. Cal's inside run game has been strong when the Bears dedicate themselves to staying with it, but that's been infrequent. Given the personnel issues up front for Utah, I think Cal can control the ground. My biggest concern comes from the passing game, and its execution, particularly against a stout Utes defensive back corps. This may be the game we see the Bears flip the script and depend on the run, but I'm not counting on it. With the spread being just one or two points, depending on where you're placing your bets, this game is almost too close to call, especially because if Williams takes the lessons he learned late against USC and applies them against a depleted Cal secondary, the Bears are going to be under water. I think Utah wins this one by less than a touchdown, 41-36.