Tale of the Tape: Why Zach Kline deserves a shot at Cal’s starting QB job over Jared Goff

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Trailing 35-3 early in the third quarter against Oregon State, Cal quarterback Jared Goff dropped back to pass after a play fake to running back Khalfani Muhammad. Eyeing a streaking Chris Harper down the right sideline, Goff geared up to throw the deep ball. Earlier in the game, Goff had hit Harper on a 45-yard highlight-reel connection, but this time the ball never reached Harper. Instead, the ball — and maybe the starting quarterback job — slipped out of Goff’s grasp and fell to the turf. Oregon State recovered, and the freshman headed back toward the sideline, where he would sit idle for the remainder of the game.

Enter Zach Kline.

Remember him? As a highly touted recruit out of Danville, Calif., he signed with Jeff Tedford’s Bears in September 2010. But Tedford was canned after the 2012 season, a year Kline spent redshirting on the bench. Along with a new head coach came a new quarterback recruit in Goff. After a highly documented quarterback competition that lasted through most of the summer, Goff was awarded the starting job, and Kline was relegated to the bench once again.

Against Oregon on Sept. 28, Kline suddenly found himself thrust into action as Goff showed an inability to hold on to the football in a torrential downpour. Kline performed admirably in the monsoon, throwing for 165 yards and his first career touchdown. But Goff’s struggles were chalked up to the weather, so he started the next three games against Washington State, UCLA and Oregon State.

But with Goff’s benching on Saturday and Kline’s steady performance against a Beaver defense that had limited Cal to just three points, it appears that a legitimate quarterback controversy is brewing in Berkeley. It is currently unknown who will start against Washington on Saturday, but I think it’s crystal clear who should.

In a nutshell, Kline outplayed Goff on Saturday. While Goff turned the ball over three times against Oregon State and posted a QBR of 26.2, Kline only committed one turnover — the result of a miscommunication with his receiver — threw two touchdown passes and compiled a QBR of 81.1. He showed an ability to escape pressure in the pocket and run with the rock, picking up 28 rushing yards on four attempts.

Most importantly, when Kline entered the game, Cal’s offense immediately came alive. In 15 plays, the offense racked up 88 yards and its first touchdown of the game. Granted, the drive occurred during garbage time, but with Goff under center, Cal’s most successful drive of the game lasted just five plays — for 53 yards and a field goal. With Kline taking snaps on its final drive of the game, the Bears went 65 yards on 10 plays and found the end zone again.

I don’t have much against Goff — he has thrown for endless yards, has shown touch on deep passes and is extremely accurate on the short passes that the Bear Raid thrives on — but he just doesn’t possess the raw throwing ability that Kline does. Kline demonstrated his cannon of an arm on his third pass of the game — a 12-yard completion on third down to wide receiver Richard Rodgers. It’s a play that is buried in the box score, but it’s also a throw that demonstrated why Kline should start against Washington on Saturday.

Looking at the tape, Cal comes out in the shotgun formation with Kline and running back Jeffrey Coprich in the backfield. Kenny Lawler lines up on the right sideline and runs a comeback route. On the left is Bryce Treggs, who executes a quick out route. Rodgers is the slot receiver on the play, with his route being a simple crossing pattern over the middle. From the camera angle, it appears that Cal only has 10 men on the field.

Oregon State plays man-to-man coverage across the field with two safeties providing coverage support over the top. The Beavers successfully penetrate the Bears’ offensive line, and Coprich, who stays into block, is forced into a one-on-one situation against linebacker Jabral Johnson. The linebacker blows past Coprich and flushes Kline out of the pocket to his right.

Without Lawler gaining any separation on the right sideline, it appears that Kline has no one to throw to. On the far left, Treggs is out of the picture, and Rodgers is blanketed over the middle of the field.

The smart decision is for Kline to simply throw the ball out of bounds — he’s off balance and without an open receiver. Instead, Kline rifles a pass across the middle of the field toward Rodgers, who snags the pass with one hand and picks up the first down. In doing so, Kline violates a basic quarterback rule: Never throw the ball across the field without planting your foot in that direction. Without stepping into the throw, the ball’s velocity should be slowed down considerably, which makes it an interception just waiting to happen. But because of Kline’s arm strength, the ball not only gets to Rodgers in a hurry but is also placed in the one spot that the covering defender, Tyrequek Zimmerman, can’t reach. It’s the kind of throw that has coaches shaking their heads at its onset and praising the quarterback at the conclusion of the play.

I don’t think Goff could have made that throw — most quarterbacks can’t. But Kline can, and that’s exactly why he needs to start on Saturday. Because of his arm strength, his upside is higher than Goff’s. Even if Goff is ahead of Kline in terms of making the correct reads, it’s something that Kline can learn.

At 0-4 in Pac-12 play, Cal’s season is already lost. We’ve seen Goff play, and we know what he brings to the table. Why not let Kline show you what he can do for four quarters?

Maybe I’m just a sucker for a tight spiral. Regardless, Kline deserves a shot at the starting job. He earned that on Saturday.

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.