Cal football looks to overcome embarrassment against Utah

Ethan Epstein/File

After last week’s meltdown at Arizona State, Cal football will look to turn things around back at home Saturday when it takes on undefeated No. 18 Utah.

Last year, both teams came into the matchup undefeated. But Cal could not overcome five interceptions thrown by its star quarterback Jared Goff as the Bears came up one play short of upsetting the Utes, falling 30-24.

This year, like last year, Utah is off to another strong start with a 4-0 record. Cal, however, has had a harder time this season, failing to close out two games it could have easily won to be undefeated.

The first step for the Bears to stay undefeated at home and get back into potential top 25 consideration this week starts on the defense.

“I want our defense to win games,” said defensive lineman James Looney. “That’s where your team is built, around your defense.”

Last week in the first half against Arizona State, the Cal defense was able to take away the Sun Devils’ greatest strength — their run game.

The ASU offense runs on about 61 percent of its total plays. Like the Sun Devils, the Utes prioritize the ground game running on 56 percent of their total plays. Both these teams need rushing yards in order to succeed. So when the Bears took away the ASU run last week, scoring became increasingly more difficult for the Sun Devils until they adjusted in the second half to come back and win the game.

Of the seven ASU offensive drives in the first half, four of them were three and outs. The Sun Devils saw very few first downs in the game and couldn’t move the ball up the field. As a result, they were forced to punt quickly.

Meanwhile, Utah is the No. 1 punting team in the country with a net average of 48.5 yards. Sophomore Mitch Wishnowsky is one of the best punters in college which means it will be absolutely crucial for the Cal defense to stop the run, prevent Utah first downs and prevent Wishnowsky from pinning the Bears deep.

Cal had 16 drives last week and of those, it had to start inside its own 15-yard line six times. Although the offense still managed to score points last week, poor field position against a team like Utah might be a different story.

“They do a great job pushing the pocket when they rush the passer,” said Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. “They’re big, physical guys. And they’ve got some speed guys off the edge as well.”

Although quarterback Davis Webb has recorded impressive statistics this season, a recurring problem in the team’s two losses has been his poor footwork when facing pressure from the pass rush. In these situations, Webb sometimes has a tendency to make off-balanced throws, which has sometimes led to untimely interceptions late in the game.

“(Utah does) a nice job of keeping you off-balance,” Dykes said. “They’re not really predictable in what they play and when they play it.”

If Webb is forced to consistently start drives off with his back closer to the end zone, it could result in a lot of mistakes and that can lead to lots of boos from the home crowd.

“When they get a good pass rush, the quarterback’s under duress and as a result of that, balls get intercepted and balls get tipped,” Dykes said.

The Utes proved last year that they are not afraid of the Bears’ high-ranked air-raid offense and know how to take the ball away.

As history has shown, the offense tends to make mistakes when it plays under pressure and forces plays. So, it will be up to the Cal defense and special teams units to do what they can to put the offense in the best position possible to succeed.

“I think this week’s going to be a good week for us,” Looney said.

Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact Ritchie Lee at [email protected].