The last time Cal head coach Sonny Dykes visited the Rose Bowl was in 2009. There, he watched U2 perform the most successful leg of the 360° tour.
“It was pretty awesome,” he said. “Hopefully, this trip is as fun as the last one.”
On Saturday, Dykes gets another chance to enter the iconic Pasadena venue — for a very different reason — when Cal (1-4, 0-2 in the Pac-12) takes on a surging UCLA squad at 7:30 p.m.
For the first time since 2005, the Bruins have a perfect 4-0 record. In their first three contests, they eviscerated opponents by 104 combined points. During a game that was played in honor of deceased teammate Nick Pasquale last month, UCLA left Nebraska stupefied by scoring 38 unanswered points in the third quarter, eventually earning a road win by 20 points.
The effort was as much a result of the team’s 504 yards of total offense as the defense’s ability to make key stops.
“That showed a lot of character for their team,” Dykes said. “In Lincoln, that’s a tough place to play … it’s rocking and rolling. For their guys to keep on playing and expect something good to happen shows a lot of maturity.”
Maturity, it seems, is what the Bears lack. Turnovers and fumbles, which Dykes calls the signs of a young squad, have plagued the team. Cal has put the ball on the ground 15 times, nine of which were recovered by opponents.
In the past two outings alone, the Bears racked up seven fumbles.
“That’s something we’ve consistently done this year,” Dykes said. “The result is we haven’t had a lot of chances to win football games.”
Nothing has killed Cal’s chances against UCLA quite like a firestorm of injuries. The defense in particular has been ravaged, with nearly two-thirds of the starters listed in the fall camp depth chart now unable to play.
On Tuesday, Dykes announced that defensive end Brennan Scarlett would most likely burn his redshirt this year after prolonged recovery from a hand injury last spring. Starting corner Stefan McClure underwent surgery Wednesday for a knee injury he sustained last weekend against Washington State.
“We’ll practice somebody and bring him along, and he’ll make progress,” Dykes said. “Then, all of a sudden, there’s a setback, and then we move somebody else to that position, and we have to start all over again.
“Every time we take a step forward, we take two steps back with an injury.”
Cal’s response has been to simplify the defensive scheme even more so new starters can learn and execute plays quickly.
Such a decision, however, is a double-edged sword, as it only makes it easier for an opposing team to exploit possible matchups — especially in the secondary, which sees a conveyor belt of new players each week.
“When your scheme gets a little vanilla, then people can find you,” Dykes said.
UCLA’s secondary is everything Cal’s isn’t: confident, steady and intact. In last week’s conference opener against Utah, the Bruins’ defense snagged six interceptions to hang on to a 34-27 win in Salt Lake City.
Such stats leave little room for error for quarterback Jared Goff, whose 504 passing yards last weekend broke Cal’s single-game record.
If anything, the true freshman is an echo of UCLA’s Brett Hundley circa 2012, full of promise and crazy stats. Last year, Hundley racked up school records in passing and total offense, in addition to setting a new NCAA mark in passing yards by a freshman (with 3,745).
With 1,821 yards already under his belt, Goff could break Hundley’s NCAA record. Yet the Cal playmaker’s inexperience still shows, whereas Hundley has only solidified his versatility. The redshirt sophomore has completed 65 percent of his throws for 1,059 yards thus far, in addition to rushing for an average of 60.5 yards a game.
But Goff doesn’t see Saturday’s matchup as a battle between him and Hundley.
“It’s never a quarterback versus a quarterback,” Goff said. “It’s just a team versus a team.”
Annie Gerlach covers football. Contact her at [email protected]