There’s no longer any doubt that Cal football and head coach Justin Wilcox can deliver stunning upsets. But Arizona is a very different school from the sorts that have sputtered out against the Bears this season, and Wilcox just needs to show he can deliver when people come to truly expect victories.
Ole Miss and Washington State left Berkeley with surprise losses largely because they couldn’t hold on to the football and their passing-oriented offenses giving away possessions against a strong secondary. The Wildcats keep things on the ground much more than either of those squads, and against a Cal team that relies on winning the turnover battle, that could be a key to the Bears’ success.
“It’s one of the great challenges of the Pac-12,” Wilcox said. “Excellent coaches and players, and then the variety (of offenses). Like this week, you’re going from a traditional Air Raid type offense and then getting into quarterback runs … that’s one of the great challenges. And it’s fun.”
Sophomore quarterback Khalil Tate has emerged as a game-breaking threat with his running ability since coming off the bench in Arizona’s week six win over Colorado. In that game he put up one of the most eye-popping stat lines in recent college football history, completing over 90 percent of his passes with good yardage, and rushing for an absurd 327 yards on 14 carries.
“Last week you’re against a Heisman Trophy contender, and this week, you’re playing against the reincarnation of Michael Vick,” said defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
Arizona might also be particularly well suited to exploit the absence of Cal inside linebacker Devante Downs, who will miss the rest of the season after sustaining a lower body injury against Washington State. Downs had emerged as a defensive leader and was a huge part of the run stopping effort. Jordan Kunaszyk has also played well at the same spot, but without Downs the Bears defense unquestionably takes a hit.
“I really feel for (Downs) because the guy has just been a warrior and played extremely hard,” Wilcox said. “It’s never easy, and it’s something that he’ll bounce back from but it’s tough right now, and for the rest of the guys it’ll be next man up.”
On the other side of the ball, Cal’s offense played turnover-free for the first time against Washington State. Quarterback Ross Bowers looked more confident in the pocket than he had all season, delivering the ball far more accurately than before and avoiding the fumbles that had plagued him all season.
The Wildcats have done a good job of forcing interceptions this season, racking up eight picks over six games. Junior safety Demetrius Flannigan-Fowles leads the team with three interceptions, living up to the title of Pac-12’s top playmaking safety that Pro Football Focus anointed him with before the season had begun.
“(The Arizona defense) really moves around well,” said offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin. “That’s the biggest thing I noticed. They aren’t necessarily huge in spots, but they move well. Their (defensive) coordinator does a great job of mixing it up. … They definitely aren’t afraid to bring pressure and get in your face that way.”
If Cal can get things going in the run game like it did against Washington State, it will help to neutralize the effect of those ball hawks. After pitiful output on the ground against Oregon and Washington on the road, Vic Enwere put up 102 rushing yards in a resurgent effort. A team total of 106 yards won’t take away anyone’s breath, but it’s far better than the combined -32 yards from the two prior weeks.
Don’t expect Enwere to suddenly turn into a workhorse back though, Patrick Laird is expected to return this week and his speed and receiving ability make him a better overall fit in Baldwin’s scheme. Enwere will continue to get snaps in short-yardage scenario, and last week’s performance will boost his snap count even more, but it’d be a surprise to see him take more than 50 percent of the looks in the backfield.
It’s no doubt been an exciting season for the Bears, but the path to bowl eligibility is no given at this point. We’ve seen a lot happen at Memorial Stadium, but not a simple victory over a well-matched opponent. They can’t all be highlight wins.