Arizona has a severely different offense from Washington State’s air raid. Can Cal’s defense keep the same level of play against a run-heavy team?
Vikram Muller: (Washington State head coach) Mike Leach seemingly refused to run the ball up the middle, where it has hurt the Bears most this season. So, yes, the Cal defensive line looked great, but also with such a disparity between pass and run plays, it was certainly easier for Cal to plan accordingly and for the defense to look good. That being said, Arizona has one of the best run offenses in the nation and will surely exploit the Bears shaky front.
Andrew Wild: The defensive line took a huge step up against Washington State, but now that Devante Downs is out for the season, the run defense is going take another step back. I would definitely say that Downs was the best run stopper on the team. Fellow inside linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk is better in pass coverage and outside linebacker Alex Funches still sometimes takes awkward pursuit angles. We’ll likely see safeties dropped further into the box than in previous games to make up for his absence.
Austin Isaacsohn: This team, especially this defense, is very up-and-down from week to week. With Downs gone, I just don’t see any way this defense doesn’t have a down week against a team that’s really going to pound the ball. The Bears need to get another lead at home to force the Wildcats to be one-dimensional, but if Cal gets behind at all, this game could get ugly pretty fast.
Are the running game’s signs of life from last week to be believed?
VM: Arizona has allowed more yards this season than Washington State. The Cal offensive line communicated well and was able to get a solid push downfield against the Cougars and should make its mark on the Wildcats defense as well. I do expect signs of life, but a performance as dominant as (Vic) Enwere’s last week? Unlikely.
AW: I definitely wouldn’t be expecting another 100-yard effort from any running back. Early in the game, the offensive coordinator was using bubble screens as a replacement for the run game, and we only saw Enwere take the bulk of his handoffs after the game was out of reach. I still think the offensive line doesn’t run-block well enough to commit to handing off the ball 20 times a game, and with the return of Patrick Laird, we’ll see running backs used more in the passing game again.
AI: It’s actually the aspect of the offense I’m most confident in. (Ross) Bowers remains a largely unknown quantity from week to week, but the experience in the backfield has provided somewhat of a safety blanket for this group, especially at home. Enwere and Laird actually complement each other pretty well and can compromise a defense in a few different ways. I think they both have nice games against Arizona.
Can the offense play turnover-free again (or at least get close)?
VM: Bowers had a reasonable amount of time in the pocket, and it showed. Whether it was more the extra time or an improved decision-making on his part is hard to tell, but the offense should be able to limit the turnovers. Bowers has been very turnover-prone, often trying to force a pass instead of throwing it away, but with a defense that has made leaps and bounds of improvement, he may feel less pressure to throw the risky passes.
AW: Bowers made a real jump in terms of his comfort in the pocket and confidence in making throws into tight windows. He made a few really impressive throws over the heads of linebackers dropping in coverage that would have gone for interceptions in other games, and if he’s not spinning out of the pocket and into pass rushers, his fumbling issues should be helped. I don’t expect zero turnovers, but I don’t think last Friday was a fluke.
AI: I’m unsure. I think it’s pretty likely that this game turns into a bit of a shootout, as Arizona’s allowed 34 points per game in its last three contests, and the Bears’ defense was a sieve for three weeks before a very fluky-looking game from a Heisman-candidate quarterback last week. If he has to be tossing the ball all game long just to keep his team in it, I just don’t trust Bowers to not turn it over once or twice.