2014 is Goff’s chance to shine for Cal football

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It seems strange to say, but the Cal football team reached its peak during its first game of last season. It’s hard to pinpoint when in that 14-point loss to then-No. 22 Northwestern Cal nose-dived, but you could argue the Bears’ peak turned into a valley with 8:00 remaining in the fourth quarter — when Jared Goff’s tipped pass was returned for a touchdown. You could also argue it occurred when Goff’s pass bounced off Darius Powe’s hands and into Collin Ellis’ as he took his first interception back to the house. I’d argue, however, that it didn’t happen until there were less than 5 minutes remaining in the game.

Cal, trailing by seven, was just 50 yards away from tying up the game. But on first down, Goff targeted Chris Harper deep down the middle of the field. Harper, blanketed by two defenders, was by no means open. Still, Goff lofted the ball towards Northwestern’s end zone. The ball was picked, Northwestern drove down the field, the game was over.

Still, walking away from Memorial Stadium, I only had one lingering thought in my mind: Jared Goff was the real deal.

But come to think of it, I now realize how irrational my thinking was at the time. Jared Goff was a true freshman last season, starting in a brand-new offense that was new to the entire team. Even expecting Goff to be mediocre was optimistic thinking.

And by all means, Goff performed pretty darn poorly last season. Ignore the calls of “record-breaking season.” Sure, Goff threw for a lot of yards — the most in school history — but when looking at Goff’s efficiency from a season ago, the numbers aren’t exactly in Goff’s favor.

Goff completed only 60 percent of his passes and averaged 6.6 yards per attempt. Those numbers, especially, in an air raid offensive system, aren’t nearly high enough. I already mentioned this in our Pac-12 Punt-around, but it’s worth repeating: In Sonny Dykes’ last season at Louisiana Tech, quarterback Colby Cameron completed 68.8 percent of his passes and averaged 7.9 yards per attempt. Those are some numbers Goff needs to reach this season.

Look. We already know Cal’s defense isn’t going to be able to slow down many teams. At best — and this is the most optimistic way of viewing Cal’s prospects this season — Cal is a four-win team. More likely, they’re a two- to three-win team — which is why looking at how many games the Bears win shouldn’t be the primary way of judging the team.

I’m more interested in eyeing other areas of improvement — most notably Goff.

You’ll hear from quarterbacks and coaches at any level of football: Improvements from the first year spent learning a new offensive system to the second year in the same offense are dramatic. Goff and company aren’t spending practices learning the verbiage or running brand new plays. By now, the air raid should be ingrained in Goff’s mind.

Exactly one year ago, Jared Goff entered his first press conference as Cal’s starting quarterback. I can still remember the smile that tugged at his face when he was being asked his first question. It was awesome, seeing it all hit him at once, the magnitude of the stage he was about to set foot on. At that point in the season, you could see the innocence still present in the young quarterback.

Goff no longer has that innocence. By now, he knows how fast the words being written about him can change from “promising” to “disappointing.”

Saturday’s rematch against Northwestern carries plenty of weight for Goff. Zach Kline is gone, and, with him, any potential quarterback controversies. For better or for worse, Dykes has tied his future at Cal to Goff.

Saturday, in Evanston, Illinois — potentially in the pouring rain — Goff has his first chance to alter the narrative about him once again. He has a chance erase the memories of his ill-advised fourth-quarter interception from a year ago. More importantly, he has a chance to reward Dykes for his faith in him and evolve into the kind of passer we all thought was a damn near certainty a year ago.

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