Bears head to Utah with bowl hopes on the line

Michael Tao/Staff

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In what might have been the understatement of the century, Cal coach Jeff Tedford called his team’s performance against Stanford last weekend “a very frustrating day offensively,” noting that Stanford “won the line of scrimmage.”

This weekend, the Bears (3-5, 2-3 in the Pac-12) will head out to Salt Lake City for a 6:45 p.m. tilt with Utah at Rice-Eccles Stadium, where they might be poised for another frustrating outing.

The Utes (2-5, 0-4) have yet to win a conference game. Yet the program boasts the second-best defense in the Pac-12, surrendering just 333 yards a game.

Anchoring that unit is defensive tackle Star Lotulelei, a potential future top-five overall NFL draft pick who has recorded six tackles for a loss this season and averages four tackles a game despite seeing double teams every time he’s on the field.

“There’s not a lot of weaknesses to his game,” said Cal running back C.J. Anderson. “He’s everywhere: in space, penetrating, pass rushing, run game. He makes it happen.”

Cal’s offensive line is the weakest that Lotulelei and his defense have seen since opening their season against Northern Colorado. Based on what Stanford’s front seven did to Cal last weekend — holding the Bears to a paltry three yards on the ground while allowing Cal to convert just one of 14 third downs — the

Utes are probably salivating at Saturday’s matchup.

“Obviously, we played a good defense last week,” said offensive line coach Jim Michalczik. “But everybody has to work, and everything has to click. We’ve proven that, when we run the ball, we can be a solid offense.”

Utah’s defense bears striking resemblances to Stanford’s. The unit depends on its front seven to disrupt opposing offensive lines, allowing opponents just over three yards a carry, the 17th-lowest average in the country.

The secondary, however, is suspect, ranking 88th in the country in yards per pass attempt.

But Cal had the same plan for success heading into the Big Game in trying to exploit Stanford’s weak secondary.

Quarterback Zach Maynard failed to capitalize, connecting on 19 of his 31 passes for just 214 yards and an interception.

That added up to Cal’s second embarrassing home loss to Stanford in three years.

“We can’t have a hangover after a tough loss,” Tedford said. “Everyone was very disappointed, but you can’t let it drag you down day after day.”

Despite not having a conference win, Utah seems poised for a turnaround. After a rough start to the season, the Utes appear to be playing far better than their 2-5 record indicates.

The squad went toe-to-toe with UCLA at the Rose Bowl two weeks ago and followed that close loss by out-gaining No. 8 Oregon State in Corvallis last weekend by almost a 100 yards.

Now the Utes finally return home to take on a reeling Cal team that’s second in the nation in total penalty yards at 1,198.

“They haven’t been able to put it together this season and have had some struggles,” said Utah coach Kyle Whittingham. “But make no mistake — they are one of the more talented teams in the conference.

“It will take our best effort to get the win.”

But the Bears will likely also play with a sense of urgency because they need to win three of their remaining four games to become bowl eligible.

With matchups with both of the Oregon schools looming on the near horizon, a loss on Saturday would essentially put that goal out of reach.

“You’re not going to beat Oregon or Oregon State this week,” said linebacker Nick Forbes. “The only team you can beat is Utah.”

Connor Byrne covers football. Contact him at [email protected]