After months spent running grueling plays under the hot summer sun, weeks spent memorizing complicated play names, days spent slinging around weights and hours spent icing sore muscles, the Cal football team is finally ready to go.
It’s time to put up or shut up.
“We’re in a good spot,” head coach Sonny Dykes said. “We’re looking forward to going out and playing.”
The Bears will get their first chance to make a statement Saturday night against Northwestern, whose Wildcats are favored by 11 points. The game is part of a home-and-home series, a rematch of last year’s season opener. The Bears kept that game close but ultimately lost by 14 points, 44-30, after now-sophomore quarterback Jared Goff threw a late interception that killed any shot of a comeback.
Cal’s roster looks pretty different this year, mainly because they have back a number of players who were injured before last year’s game. Guys such as redshirt junior defensive end Brennan Scarlett and redshirt junior defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil can make a huge impact as starters.
This time around, the Wildcats have been the ones bitten by the injury bug, losing senior Christian Jones, Northwestern’s top wide receiver, to a season-ending knee injury. Jones had five catches for 94 yards in last year’s game against Cal.
Throwing to the Wildcats’ receiving corps will be senior quarterback Trevor Siemian, who this year is the lone starter after two seasons of sharing the role with now-graduated Kain Colter.
The game will be a perfect opportunity for the Bears to test out their defense under first-year coordinator Art Kaufman, who has been given the task of restructuring arguably the worst defense in FBS football.
One of Kaufman’s changes was moving Stefan McClure, a redshirt junior, from corner to free safety, freeing up the corner position for redshirt freshman Darius Allensworth and sophomore Cameron Walker.
One blow to start this season is the quad injury suffered by redshirt junior Avery Sebastian. Sebastian will still travel with the team and is listed third on the depth chart but isn’t expected to play.
The Bears’ defensive line won’t have to face too much of a challenge, especially because Northwestern will be without running back Venric Mark, who transferred to West Texas A&M after Mark was suspended for the first two games of the season. Last year, Mark averaged a little more than three yards per carry in the three games he played before sitting out the rest of the season because of an injury. Northwestern is now expected to use a committee at running back.
Cal’s biggest strength is its receiving corps, which has been listed among the strongest in the Pac-12. The Bears’ depth chart has seven receivers listed as potential starters: redshirt junior Trevor Davis, junior Chris Harper, redshirt junior Stephen Anderson, junior Darius Powe, junior Bryce Treggs, redshirt sophomore Kenny Lawler and redshirt junior Maurice Harris.
In its fast-paced “Bear-raid” offense, Cal typically uses four receivers on just about every play, rather than having a tight end. In fact, there are no tight ends on the Bears’ depth chart. The Bears, with Treggs and Harper, are the only team in the Pac-12 that has a pair of 700-yard receivers.
That means Goff has plenty of options.
In last year’s game against the Wildcats, Goff threw for two touchdowns and 445 yards but also had three interceptions. Now, as a captain, teammates have said that Goff seems more in control and in charge of the offense — more able to pick up disguised defensive schemes.
Still, he’ll be facing another challenge in the weather: Evanston’s weather forecast calls for thunderstorms and an 80-percent chance of rain. Goff struggled last season in the rain against Oregon, but he has yet to decide whether he’ll wear gloves.
Dykes joked that, while the team has prepared for the rain, he’s seen days that call for a 100-percent chance of rain be cloud-free.
“In my next life,” he said, “I’m going to be a weatherman.”