Down in the ‘Dirty T’: Cal football strives to clean up act on road against Arizona

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A week ago, Cal football was No. 24 in the nation, ranked in the AP Top 25 for the first time in nearly three years. After failing to bag a win against then-No. 19 Oregon, however, the Bears shot back out to where many would say they belong — out of the national spotlight — and left a feeling of uncertainty in the air.

Now, Cal (3-1) heads to Arizona to face the Wildcats (2-3), who kicked off the season on a sour note but have displayed growth from week one to week five. The Bears will rely on their impressive defense to dilute Arizona’s potent offense while their developing two-quarterback system attempts to establish a consistent passing game.

“We know where we could go; we know that the (Oregon) performance wasn’t so much what we wanted,” said senior offensive lineman Patrick Mekari. “We see the sparks, we see the energy, we see the potential of what we could be.”

Arizona’s man of the hour is quarterback Khalil Tate, but the early-season Heisman hopeful has struggled to find his footing this season. While the Bears can’t easily erase the memory of Tate rushing for a nasty 137 yards in last year’s 45-44 double-overtime loss to the Wildcats, it’s safe to say that Tate’s play looks a little different this year.

A combination of battling a sore left ankle and transitioning into a more pass-focused offense has hindered him to a meager 69 total rushing yards over five games. The junior has been limited in practice this week, and head coach Kevin Sumlin has discussed the idea of sitting his starting quarterback, though the Bears are preparing with the expectation that Tate will play.

“They’re playing better and better every week,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “It’s a tough offense to prepare for. … They’re potent — there’s no doubt about it.”

With Arizona’s offense focused on its passing game, Tate has a talented group of wideouts at his disposal. Redshirt senior Shawn Poindexter, who is 6’5’’ and the team’s leading receiver, has nearly 400 yards in 2018, averaging 21.72 yards per reception. With his size and strength, Poindexter should exhibit a similar ability to catch 50-50 balls as Oregon’s Dillon Mitchell and Stanford’s JJ Arcega-Whiteside.

Cal’s secondary, which played lights-out for the first three games of the season, met its toughest challenge of the season against Mitchell and Oregon’s skilled receiving core. While the Wildcats don’t have Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert, Arizona’s offense is due for a big game.

“Your mindset still has to be, ‘I’m going to lock this guy down,’” said Cal junior cornerback Josh Drayden. “Everybody in the (Pac-12) has good receivers — we have good receivers, so facing them every day in practice, that prepares us.”

Another mighty aspect of the Wildcats’ offense is 5’6’’ running back J.J. Taylor — small but shifty, the redshirt sophomore is averaging 105 yards per game in 2018.

The Cal coaching staff has made it clear — it has no intention of ditching its two-quarterback scheme featuring Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain, despite inconsistency heading into the thick of Pac-12 play.

While Cal’s offense is starting to click week to week, both of Cal’s quarterbacks have to produce better throws to their receivers if they wish to make something of this season. That being said, Cal’s unique running ability at the helm has continued to challenge opposing defenses and should open up the playbook.

“When you do certain things in the quarterback run game, the defense has to make decisions on how they want to defend you — it’s math,” Wilcox said.

Against Oregon’s very strong run defense, Cal averaged six yards per carry, and running back Patrick Laird began to once again look like the budding star who stole fans’ hearts last season. In 2017, Laird put up 130 rushing yards against the Wildcats, but he has not found the same explosiveness this season, and is due for a breakout performance.

High-stakes matchups, often considered “must-wins,” are typically reserved for the tail end of the regular season. But Cal remains a program that has everything to prove, and because of this, every loss simply counts so much more than a win.

Christie Aguilar covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @caguilarsports.