Down in the south, Ole Miss football has a bad taste in its mouth.
Two years ago, amid a maelstrom of NCAA recruiting violations, the Rebels traveled to Berkeley for an SEC vs. Pac-12 matchup under the bright lights of California Memorial Stadium.
After leading for most of the low-scoring affair, an errant throw from Ole Miss quarterback Shea Patterson was clutched by Cal linebacker Cameron Goode, who put the visitors to bed with a game-sealing pick-six.
Life often comes full circle, and more than two seasons later, Ole Miss finally gets another crack at Cal, with both sides once again firing all defensive cylinders.
Following the NFL draft selections of star receivers D.K. Metcalf and A.J. Brown in April, an influx of lesser-known faces have taken on increased roles at Ole Miss. Early returns suggest that the team is still ironing out the details, as the Rebels’ offense enters Saturday with six fumbles (four lost) and just a 40 percent conversion rate on fourth down.
Still, the Bears are wary that their opponents haven’t forgotten about what transpired the last time the two teams met on the gridiron in 2017.
“There’s a lot of change,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox of Ole Miss’ program. “They’ve got a lot of talented players, no doubt about it, that jumps off the tape. It will be a great challenge for our team in every phase.”
The Rebels (2-1, 1-0) will play the Bears in more favorable conditions than two seasons ago — hosting in the friendly confines of the historic Vaught-Hemingway Stadium, on top of an 11 a.m. local time kickoff. This equates to a 9 a.m. kickoff on the West Coast, which Cal will depart from Thursday morning.
The Bears (3-0, 1-0), the newly minted No. 23 team in the country in both the AP and Coaches polls, will travel to Oxford with plenty at stake. Under Wilcox, Cal is 8-0 against non-conference opponents, a streak that will be tested as the Bears also take aim at their first 4-0 start to a season since 2015.
It’s been 13 years since Cal traveled to an SEC school, but familiar faces await in Mississippi, particularly those wearing headsets. Ole Miss offensive coordinator Rich Rodriguez and defensive coordinator Mike MacIntyre coached against Wilcox and Cal at Arizona and Colorado, respectively, combining for a 5-1 career record against the blue and gold.
“We know a couple of their coaches; we’ve competed against them for a long time,” Wilcox said. “We know what kind of coaches they are and they’ll have those guys ready to play.”
Rodriguez’s attack, led by redshirt freshman quarterback Matt Corral and breakout sophomore receiver Elijah Moore, features a spread offense that traditionally utilizes the read-option and attempts to involve multiple playmakers in the offense.
“He’s really good at coaching that system, and there’s different wrinkles, and he’ll play to his players’ strengths,” Wilcox said of Rodriguez.
Fresh off a second consecutive win over a ranked Washington program, Cal’s offense rattled off 20 straight points to open up its week three win over North Texas, but was outscored 17-3 over the latter three quarters. In the second half, several regular starters did not play due to minor injuries, including Goode, fellow outside linebacker Tevin Paul and starting tailback Christopher Brown Jr. Left tackle Valentino Daltoso sat out the entirety of the contest due to injury.
Against a Rebel defense that has surrendered just 106.3 yards on the ground per contest this season, quarterback Chase Garbers will likely be forced to find a rhythm through the air, with or without Brown at 100 percent.
As all eyes lock in on an offense expected to piece together a more complete game, it’s task will be compounded by a hostile and humid environment on the road. Fortunately, the team expects most rotation players that have not been ruled out for the season to be active and ready for the Bears’ second road contest of the month.
“They’re doing some good things in practice, but we’ve got to execute better in a game,” Wilcox said of his program. “We’re three games in and we know we’re capable of being much better.”