Cal football seeks third straight win of 2018 campaign

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Amanda Ramirez/File

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After two hard-fought wins, the Bears can breathe a sigh of relief.

In the wake of games in which Cal had to deter near-comebacks and hold on to leads by literally holding on to the ball after late-game onside kicks, the Bears will take on a far easier opponent as they return to California Memorial Stadium to face FCS program Idaho State (1-0).

The Bears haven’t lost to an FCS team in, well, ever. Not since the NCAA adopted the new title for the subdivision in 2006 — and barring a catastrophe, this year won’t be any different.

The Bengals have one blowout win under their belts this season, a 45-10 defeat of Western State Colorado University — which lends minimal insight into what they are actually capable of. Idaho State generated a massive 479 yards of total offense, but that’s a less impressive statistic when taking into account its opponent — a Division II program whose defense ranks 126th out of all DII schools.

That being said, it is worthwhile to look at where all of that yardage (and all of those touchdowns) came from. Redshirt senior running back James Madison gained 114 yards and three touchdowns on 19 attempts while junior wide receiver Mitch Gueller tallied 81 yards and one touchdown on just four receptions. Those are the Bengals’ two most consistent producers.

“Last week, we played a really physical offense,” said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter. “These guys stretch in a different way because they’re a high-tempo team.”

Idaho State has a penchant for longer drives, moving the ball up with steady gains. Redshirt senior quarterback Tanner Gueller (younger brother of Mitch) has been the starter under center for the past three years but doesn’t always like to make risky throws. He’ll likely opt for shorter gains on safer passes and short runs, which the Bears coverage shouldn’t have trouble containing.

The Bengals tend to pursue a balance between their run and pass game, a flexibility that would seem lethal if the Bears defense weren’t playing collectively some of its best football in years.

Speaking of Cal’s defense, it’s working like a well-oiled machine — something that the blue and gold faithful hasn’t seen in quite some time. DeRuyter has revamped what was left of Sonny Dykes’ gutted defensive unit into a highly respectable one that now leads the nation in interceptions.

“The guys in our secondary and in our defense have some good ball skills,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “And we’ve got to continue to do that, because obviously the turnovers are huge and have been a difference for us in the first two.”

What this game should be for the Bears is a chance to fine-tune some of their remaining rusty gears before Pac-12 play begins. The Idaho State defense isn’t anything special, which should allow Wilcox and Cal offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin to play around with some of their offensive weapons.

Redshirt freshman Chase Garbers will earn the start, but redshirt sophomore Brandon McIlwain will see solid rotational minutes and might get the chance to show Cal fans more of his arsenal that they saw glimpses of against BYU.

“I just tell (Garbers) before the game that it’s just a fancy practice,” Wilcox said. “There’s people in the stands, we’re still going to have first down plays, second downs, third downs. We have to rely on our training and what we’ve done before and not invent anything.”

And while redshirt senior Patrick Laird has seen a ton of minutes at running back, his backups, junior Marcel Dancy and redshirt sophomore Derrick Clark, will likely get a huge opportunity to separate themselves from the rest of the pack.

All in all, the lack of a tough Bengals defense will allow the Bears to generate more offense than they have in their first two games. If all goes according to plan, Cal will run away with this one and enter its bye week with three wins under its belt before beginning Pac-12 competition.

Sophie Goethals covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter at @sophiegoethalss.