Utah preview: Cal up to its old tricks (and treats) heading into matchup against Utah

Sam Albillo/Staff

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Despite how good this notoriously spooky month is for casting spells, October is all the better for breaking curses.

Take the 2016 Cubs, for example. A century-old curse named after a billy goat was finally snapped in a heart-pounding, ulcer-inducing seven-game series that resulted in the first World Series title for the club since 1908. Aroldis Chapman didn’t blow it for the Cubs like he did for the Yankees just a few days ago, and Chicago was able to reverse their historically unlucky fortunes just as they did their river. The 2019 Nationals are currently participating in their first World Series as a franchise (one that was founded in 1969) after having seven years in a row of winless NLDS appearances.

October is a month where history is made annually in a multitude of sports ⁠— not just baseball. It marks the return of the NBA season, the MLS playoffs and the throes of football seasons on collegiate and national levels that often define who ends up in the postseason.

It’s no secret Cal football is cursed, as it has lost its last three matchups after going unbeaten in its first four. If this year’s team is the one fated to break the curse, it’s do or die.

“Do” as in pull off a colossal, outside-chance win against No. 12 Utah this weekend and gain critical momentum for a successful final half of the season; “die” as in lose to the Utes and watch as the already dim, flickering flame of hope for the season and a bowl game extinguish.

“We’re not defeated in any way,” said Cal defensive end Zeandae Johnson following a disheartening loss to Oregon State last weekend. “It’s disappointing, but we’re gonna stomach it, eat it, sign our name to it — this is us, and we’re gonna go get better.”

The odds are by no means in favor of Cal this weekend — facing a team ranked this highly on the road is much more of a trick than a treat. Slated to make the Pac-12 championship game, Utah is well-versed on both sides of the ball and boasts a defense that has held opposing teams to 594 yards and an offense that has more than tripled that with a conference-leading 1,645 rushing yards.

The Utes have scored a whopping 230 points this season. Fed by dual-threat quarterback Tyler Huntley, Utah’s offense is spearheaded by running back Zack Moss, who leads the conference in both average yards (102) and touchdowns (8) of the rushing variety. Characterized by its potency and versatility, Utah’s offense is made even scarier by its defense, which is just as good.

The Utes have limited their competition to only 25 rushing first downs and are just as deadly in the air with 9 interceptions on the season. All four defensive linemen are returning starters and flex an enormously virulent pass rush. Lauded defensive end Bradlee Anae notched 3 sacks last weekend in the Ute’s stomping of then-No. 17 ASU, in which the Sun Devils were held to a meager 3 points.

“We’ve just got to do a great job on him — he’s a challenge,” said head offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin about Anae. “He’s got a really good pass rush and a lot of versatility with how he gets there.”

The stat sheets paint a dismal picture for the Bears, but Cal has two advantages that might just help them scrape past Utah come this Saturday. The first is the Bears’ defense, which, as is well known by now, can keep them close in any game.

Since Utah’s bread and butter is running the rock, Cal has the opportunity to put not-so-secret weapons Evan Weaver and Kuony Deng to work, who respectively rank first and fourth in the conference in tackles, in hopes of shutting down the runnin’ Utes.

The second is a doggedly determined team morale and a desperation to turn the season around. Cal’s loss to Oregon State last weekend marked arguably the worst coaching performance put up by the staff this season, but the players themselves left it all on the field.

The offense poured out everything it could muster, little in points as it was. But especially given the plethora of injuries and questionable play calls they endured, the Bears showed they still have fight in them.

“The guys that are out here fighting are taking a lot of reps, and it was good to see,” Baldwin said. “Attitudes are really good and in a good place. We know we have to be going on the road against a very good Utah team.”

The odds aren’t in favor of the Bears, and it might take a small miracle to free Cal from its habitual “win many, lose many” season.

But hey — curses are meant to be broken.

Emily Ohman covers football. Contact her at [email protected]. Follow her on Twitter @emilyohman34.