Now that Cal is two games into the season, what’s your biggest takeaway from this year’s team?
Christie Aguilar: The team has heart, and it is made completely evident on the field. From the coaching staff to the the starters to the scout team, the Bears seem more eager and passionate than ever to get it done on the field. Cal is riding a wave right now and will very likely head into Pac-12 play 3-0. But when that wave crashes, and the Bears are on the losing side of the stick, they need to use this same heart and bounce back — ultimately to avoid back-to-back losses.
Josh Yuen: There’s reason to be optimistic — after all, the team’s record is 2-0, no matter how it got there. But as good as the defense has been thus far, the offense has been stagnant far too often to compete with the best that the Pac-12 has to offer. It seems like Cal was in control for the majority of both of its wins, but each game should have been put to bed well before the nerve-wracking onside kicks that preceded each kneel-down.
Sophie Goethals: I’ve been thoroughly impressed with the defense in Cal’s first two wins — but with that being said, the near-comebacks at the end of games have been nerve-wracking, to say the least. I’d say that if the Bears can keep up the type of defense that they’ve displayed for every minute of a game, then they’ll be in fantastic shape to excel in the Pac-12 this season.
Andrew Wild: The defense is clearly the real deal, but the offense, while still dynamic, has not made the jump in consistency that was sorely needed last season. That side of the ball needs a lot more cohesion to win tough games on the road — something it couldn’t do last year.
Who has been the team’s most valuable player thus far?
CA: I don’t know if I am allowed to say a coach for this answer, but I am going to do it. Defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter is undoubtedly Cal’s most valuable player thus far — he executes, he’s tough, and he has held up through adversity. From having to replace outside linebacker Cameron Goode to having ballsy and efficient schemes, DeRuyter has anchored Cal in the first two games of the season.
JY: With a loud shoutout to Evan Weaver, I’ll go with Jaylinn Hawkins. Turnovers are contagious and can ignite a fire under a defense like no other (just see Miami). The Bears lead the nation in interceptions in the early going, with Hawkins and the three picks to his name being the primary reason why. Hawkins and fellow safety Ashtyn Davis are off to fantastic starts to 2018 and should continue to ballhawk efficiently over the next few games.
SG: Can I say the entire Cal secondary? The coverage on the pass game has been outstanding, from Jaylinn Hawkins to Ashtyn Davis to Camryn Bynum. They’ve worked so well as a unit that I think they all deserve a massive shoutout.
AW: Jordan Kunaszyk was left to make up for all the departing Cal linebackers, and he’s done an incredible job thus far. That positional group could have been a disaster going into the year, and he’s stabilized, allowing for the secondary to show off and make the big plays everybody’s been paying attention to.
Offensively, what do the Bears need to do differently to close out games rather than make things closer than perhaps they should have been?
CA: Cal needs to do a better job maximizing its time of possession on the field. The defense has done a great job of getting the ball back to its offense throughout the two contests this season, but that doesn’t necessarily mean the offense has capitalized.
JY: The offense needs to get going earlier and should have minimal problems doing so against the Bengals defense Saturday. Contrary to the high scoring that’s infecting the college football nation early in the season, Cal scored just one touchdown in each first half of both of its wins. No matter who is under center, Beau Baldwin needs to get all of his playmakers involved early. Kanawai Noa and Jordan Duncan made themselves known against BYU, but Vic Wharton III, Moe Ways and any of Cal’s tight ends have yet to truly establish themselves so far.
SG: Cal needs to tighten up its pass game. So far, the most lethal part of its offense has been the run from Patrick Laird or dynamic quarterbacks Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain, but in order to be a truly high-caliber offense, the Bears have got to perfect their aerial game. There are some very talented receivers on this roster, but they’ve got to be taken advantage of earlier and more often in order for Cal to pull away earlier and provide a cushion at the end of games.
AW: The run game needs to be more of a consistent threat to open up easier passes for Garbers. Handing the ball off to Laird can’t be an all-or-nothing proposition; the offensive line has to be able to get a steady push so that not every run is cut outside. Right now, the team’s completion percentage is far too low as a result of not being able to get to the simple throws Beau Baldwin would presumably like to see.
The team’s first two games have been full of surprises. What do you think today’s surprise will be? Or will there be none?
CA: If Cal establishes a solid lead early in the game and in the first half — if it doesn’t… I have no words — I would like to see the coaching staff experimenting with its depth at certain offensive positions. Sure, Derrick Clark’s fumble seemed to reaffirm why Patrick Laird receives the ball every snap, but this game seems set to give players a chance. From running back to wide receiver, the Bears have some young budding talent that could easily handle itself against Idaho State.
JY: For all the talk of a rotating quarterback system, the question of a backup running back has yet to be fully answered. If anybody, McIlwain himself has taken on that role in a “wildcat” position in the backfield, as Marcel Dancy, Derrick Clark and Alex Netherda have yet to see extended action behind Patrick Laird. One of those three will spare Laird after the starter reaches 15 or so touches and rush for a score or two to separate himself from the rest.
SG: Idaho State isn’t going to pose any huge threats to Cal, which frees up some room for Justin Wilcox and Beau Baldwin to get more creative on offense. With an average of 4.97 yards on each pass attempt, I would expect them to take more advantage of Kanawai Noa, Vic Wharton III and Jordan Duncan, perhaps looking farther downfield (akin to the Noa touchdown against BYU) than they have in their first two games.
AW: This one should be easy. Anything else would be a disaster.
Christie Aguilar, Josh Yuen, Sophie Goethals and Andrew Wild are the 2018 football beat writers.
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