Pandemic patchwork: Cal football heads to Rose Bowl for Sunday morning clash

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If you ask me, there’s no better fall feeling than getting out of bed on a Sunday morning, turning on the TV and watching some old-fashioned NFL football while forgetting about all my responsibilities. This weekend, my Sunday will look a bit different. After a whirlwind of COVID-19 cancellations and rescheduling, the California Golden Bears are somehow, someway, slated to play a game of college football Sunday morning against UCLA. For now at least. Both teams will undergo more testing before kickoff, which in turn makes the opening kickoff anything but a guarantee.

Before previewing this game, let me try my best to break down how we got to this point. With COVID-19 cases spiking to record levels nationwide, several college football games have been canceled, facilitated by the fact that many college campuses aren’t exactly following the whole quarantine thing. While the city of Berkeley has done relatively well containing the virus, a Cal football player still tested positive last week, which forced the entire defensive line into isolation on orders from city public health officials. Thus, the Bears were unable to field a team to play Washington, forcing the game to be canceled.

Fast forward to this week, when Cal was supposed to head down to play Arizona State as originally scheduled. The first few days of the week were defined by a clear tension between Cal and city health officials, which stemmed from the football program not receiving a definitive answer as to whether it could play or not. The Bears were finally cleared Friday morning, but when optimism ultimately started to show, all hope was shot down with news that several Arizona State players and coaches had tested positive. The Pac-12 had to cancel yet another game.

Meanwhile, UCLA’s originally scheduled game against Utah was also canceled, with the Utes fielding numerous players who were forced to quarantine. In a last-ditch effort to save the lost games, the Pac-12 officials quickly pinned Cal and UCLA to play a rivalry matchup … at 9 a.m. on a Sunday. The defensive line is still not officially cleared to play until early Sunday morning, but city health officials are letting the quarantined players make the trip to Pasadena a day early, so long as they take a different bus to the airport and stay separated from the rest of the team on the plane.

So here we are. With less than 48 hours to prepare for their new opponents, the Bears and Bruins will continue their long-standing tradition of battling on the gridiron, which wasn’t supposed to happen this season for the first time since 1933 — the very first year of the historic rivalry. But for now, it seems like the streak is set to continue.

The Bruins are coming off a 48-42 season-opening loss to Colorado. Despite throwing for 303 yards and four touchdowns, UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson only completed 50% of his passes against a mediocre Colorado defense. Sophomore tight end Greg Dulcich led the way for UCLA, tallying 126 yards and a touchdown, already beating his 2019 season total of 105 receiving yards. Should the Bears have their defensive line, though, the Bruins will have a much tougher time passing the ball against Cal’s stout secondary. Obviously, the defensive backs cannot cover forever, so the pass rush will play an important role in forcing Thompson-Robinson to make uncomfortable throws.

The Bears can’t necessarily just flush him out of the pocket and hope for the best, though, as the quarterback also exploded for 109 yards and a touchdown on the ground last weekend. Thankfully for Cal, the coaching staff had been preparing its defense to contain ASU’s star dual-threat quarterback Jayden Daniels, so the team should be adequately prepared for that aspect of UCLA head coach Chip Kelly’s offense. In the backfield, running back Demetric Felton was efficient for the Bruins when carrying the ball against the Buffs but only took 10 handoffs in the game, so it will be interesting to see how UCLA will try to attack Cal.

On the other side of the ball, lineman Osa Odighizuwa was the Bruins’ lone defender to make an All-Pac-12 preseason team, and their defense proved to be porous in the first week, allowing 525 yards of offense to Colorado. To make matters worse, UCLA will have no film to watch of Cal’s new Bill Musgrave-led offense, but that may be a moot point, as the immensely short turnaround means there’s hardly any time to watch film to begin with.

The Bruins allowed a whopping five rushing touchdowns in their first game, which could mean a massive night is in store for Cal running back Christopher Brown Jr., who opened his 2019 season with a 197-yard rushing performance against UC Davis. The physical junior may be in line for a workhorse role, especially as quarterback Chase Garbers adjusts to Musgrave’s scheme early on.

Based on preseason expectations and team personnel, Cal should be favored to win. Really, though, no one knows what to expect from this game, or if it will even be played. Much could still go wrong, and in the end, health and safety should always come before football. Uncertainty will be a consistent theme throughout the season, but for now, fans can rejoice in the fact that Cal football is (hopefully) back … even if it comes a day late.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].