When the Cal football team suits up Tuesday, it will be the last time many put on a Bears uniform. It also just happens to be the first time Cal has played in more than a month and an opportunity to play on a national stage.
Playing in their first bowl game in four years, the Bears (7-5) will be facing Air Force (8-5) in the Lockheed Martin Armed Forces Bowl in Fort Worth, Texas at 1 p.m. CT/ 11 a.m. PT.
Cal will look to send junior quarterback Jared Goff off in dramatic fashion, in what is likely to be his final game as a Bear. With the junior almost certainly looking to declare for the NFL Draft at the conclusion of the year, the offense will try to fully utilize Goff’s arm.
“We are here to win the football game,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “We are trying to make sure we focus all of our attention on Air Force and playing well and try to put our best foot forward and try and win the ball game.”
Goff finished the year eighth overall in the Football Bowl Subdivision, or FBS, with 4,252 passing yards and fourth overall in yards per game, averaging 354.3 yards. The Bears have also been successful at scoring through the air, as Goff also finished the season with 37 passing touchdowns, fifth most in the FBS.
With a set of receivers — most of whom are seniors who will also be playing for the Bears for the final time — that has shone in moments this year, Cal will attempt to use its ability to score on big plays downfield. Junior wide receiver Kenny Lawler is among a talented group of receivers who have been able to do this successfully. Lawler easily leads the team with 10 receiving touchdowns, despite battling an injury in the later half of the season.
Air Force, however, will present one of the toughest passing defenses that the Bears have seen all season. The Falcons are only allowing an average of 190.4 passing yards per game, 23rd in the FBS. No team that Cal has played is ranked ahead of Air Force. Despite Goff & Co.’s success in the last two home games of the year, scoring a combined 102 points and 1,440 total offensive yards, the offensive unit has shown weaknesses throughout the year, especially on the road.
Cal will look to its run game, which has been composed of a back-by-committee approach, to shoulder the load, especially with the absence of senior running back Daniel Lasco because of injury. Lasco appears to only be playing on special teams in the bowl game which will give junior Khalfani Muhammad and sophomores Vic Enwere and Tre Watson an opportunity to make up for difficulties that the Bears have through the air. The Falcons, however, give up an average of 146.7 rushing yards per game, to the Bears’ average of 155.7 yards on the ground per game.
While the Cal offense will have to perform at the top of its ability, the defense also will need to excel against an Air Force offense that is unlike any it has seen this season. The Bears will have to be tough against the run as the Falcons, who use the triple-option, have two runners that can create problems for Cal. Running back Jacobi Owens and quarterback Karson Roberts have had strong seasons combining for 1,765 yards. The Falcons also rank in the top 20 of the FBS in time of possession, averaging 32 minutes a game, as a result of their success on the ground.
Being faced with such a successful running game could cause trouble for a unit that has allowed an average of 203.5 rushing yards per game this season and has struggled to stop running quarterbacks.
The ability of the Bears to end the season on a high note could come down to their capacity to shine in areas where they have struggled this year.
“We started 5-0 and then we hit a rough patch, so there were a lot of lessons to be learned,” said senior tight end Stephen Anderson. “But to be able to pick it up and kinda work everything out and identify what the issues were, especially to win a game like we did against Arizona State (the last game of the season) … hopefully we will come out victorious again on Tuesday.”