The biggest surprise two games into Cal football’s season isn’t the fact that the team has managed to win two straight games or that the defense actually looks competent — it’s the fact that freshman quarterback Luke Rubenzer isn’t redshirting. Instead of saving a year of eligibility for the mobile signal caller, Sonny Dykes has decided to utilize him this year by designing a specific package for Rubenzer.
With a two-quarterback system, however, comes both scrutiny and plenty of question marks. I have three specific questions. Will the Rubenzer package throw off starting quarterback Jared Goff’s rhythm? Does the package offer enough upside that it’s worth taking snaps away from Goff. Or, more simply, is the package working?
I’m not sure answers to those questions exist yet. Cal has only played two games this season — one against an FCS opponent. Still, debating the viability of the Rubenzer package this early in the season has its value, because it gives us an indicator that Dykes might continue trotting out Rubenzer, and, more importantly, because it allows us to assess — and this is my third question — if Dykes should keep playing Rubenzer.
With that, let’s go to the tape.
We’ll start with Rubenzer’s first career touchdown: a 60-yard pass to Darius Powe this past Saturday against Sacramento State. The Bears, already up 14-0, line up in the shotgun. To Rubenzer’s left is running back Daniel Lasco. Cal is also featuring four wide receivers on the play — three on the right and one on the left. Powe is one of the wideouts on the right, and he runs a simple drag route to the middle of the field.
After receiving the snap, Rubenzer fakes to Lasco then spots Powe wide open in the middle of the field. He hits his receiver in stride, and Powe outraces everybody, eventually ending up in the end zone.
It’s actually a pretty simple play. The pass isn’t anything special — it’s an easy throw to a receiver in space, and the route design isn’t complex. The reason Powe is so wide open is because Sacramento State bites on the fake handoff to Lasco. If you watch the play, you’ll see three defenders in the second level take a few steps toward the line of scrimmage. When Rubenzer backs out of the fake handoff and begins surveying the field, the three defenders are caught in no-man’s land. They’re too far away from Rubenzer to force any sort of quarterback pressure, and they’re too close to the line of scrimmage to help in pass coverage.
You also have to assume that the Hornets are eager to defend the run because of Rubenzer. In Rubenzer’s first game, he relied primarily on his legs, running 11 times and throwing the ball only five times. It was pretty safe to assume that Rubenzer was going to run rather than throw. Unfortunately for Sacramento State, Rubenzer made them pay for that assumption.
But a holistic approach to examining Rubenzer’s passing reveals he’s been pretty underwhelming as a passer. Through two games, Rubenzer has completed five out of nine passes for 103 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Sure, the sample size is small — he’s only attempted nine passes — but the tricky aspect of assessing a player who only gets limited snaps is that you’re always going to be dealing with small sample sizes.
One could argue the sample size is even smaller when considering that four passes — including his lone passing touchdown — came against an FCS school. Also keep in mind that 60 of his 103 yards came on Powe’s touchdown. Still, I think it’s safe to assess that Rubenzer is more dangerous as a runner than as a passer.
To analyze Rubenzer’s rushing productivity thus far, let’s take a look at two specific plays: his one-yard touchdown run against Sacramento State and his seven-yard run against Northwestern on Cal’s first drive of its season.
Rubenzer’s touchdown run against the Hornets is a run to the outside, and like his touchdown pass, it’s also a fairly simple play. With so many of the Hornet defenders stacked close to the line of scrimmage and with so many protecting the middle of the field, Rubenzer simply has to make it to the corner of the end zone before the defenders can read the play, react to Rubenzer’s movements and shed their blocks. Cal’s blockers do their jobs, and Rubenzer gains the corner for the touchdown.
The second play I want to examine is a run we’ve seen more than a few times when Rubenzer checks into the game. Unlike the touchdown, this play calls for Rubenzer to run inside between the tackles, while his running back acts as a lead blocker. The Bears unveiled this play on their opening drive against Northwestern two weeks ago.
Facing a third and four at the Northwestern 13-yard line, Rubenzer takes the shotgun snap and moves one step backward. This one step allows Lasco to get in front of his quarterback and take on any incoming defenders. Because the offensive line takes care of the defensive line, Lasco is able to plow ahead to the second level, where he combines with a Cal offensive lineman to block a linebacker. As a result of this blocking, Rubenzer picks up the first down.
As a whole, Rubenzer is tied for the team lead in carries with 17, he’s second in yards with 82 and his 4.8 yards per carry ranks third on the team. Again, it’s a small sample size. So far, I think you have to say that using Rubenzer as a runner is working, but just barely.
Returning to my three questions from earlier, I don’t think Goff’s rhythm is ruined by playing Rubenzer — Goff has been pretty outstanding so far. I don’t think the Rubenzer package is doing enough damage to opposing defenses that it warrants taking Goff — arguably Cal’s best player — off the field. Goff is completing nearly 68 percent of his passes, is averaging over nine yards per attempt and has only been picked once.
Still, I think Dykes should continue to roll out the Rubenzer package, but only if he thinks his freshman quarterback has room to improve as a passer. If Rubenzer can improve as a passer — which is a big “if” — it’ll open up more rushing lanes for him. It’ll turn the Rubenzer package into something dangerous.