Football shootaround: Can Cal secure its 1st win?

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With another home game just around the corner, the Bears are still hunting for their first win of the season. Our football beat reporters share their thoughts on what’s to come against Sacramento State on Saturday.

 

Two games into the season, what questions have been answered surrounding Cal’s roster this year?

Jesse Stewart: The talent in the receiver room at Cal is clearly enough to help the Bears win some ball games going forward. Kekoa Crawford, Trevon Clark and Jeremiah Hunter all hauled in deep passes last week, and Nikko Remigio’s vertical speed and lateral quickness only add another dimension to the room. Often understated, especially in a pro-style offense, the receiver room at Cal has the ability to transform the dynamic of football games for the Bears moving forward.

William Cooke: When head coach Justin Wilcox announced that defensive lineman Brett Johnson would miss the 2021 season after undergoing surgery to repair a broken hip, Cal’s depth at the position was immediately called into question. It’s clear now that the Bears sorely miss their veteran defensive tackle, as they largely failed to contain either opposing quarterback in their opening matchups. Cameron Goode carried the Cal defensive line with two sacks last week, but one can only imagine how much better the Bears’ pass rush could be with Johnson in the lineup.

Maria Khan: The strength of the roster was a point of contention right from the season’s kickoff. Many fans saw the list of players as an unsurprising repeat, of which they could expect the same results as previous seasons. However, as the games have begun, there is no question regarding the level of talent on the team. Clark, Crawford, Daniel Scott and Chase Garbers have shown that old players can, perhaps, pick up new tricks. Many a player pushed ahead with career-making strides against TCU, demonstrating that effort is far from lacking between the lines of the roster.

Kabir Rao: The Bears boast a budding star at the running back position; sophomore Damien Moore certainly looked the part last season. But with no fullbacks in Cal’s base offense and younger players being asked to step up along the offensive line, there were some questions as to how Moore would fare in year two. Two games into the season, it’s safe to say that those questions have been answered. With Moore joining redshirt sophomore DeCarlos Brooks, senior Christopher Brooks and redshirt senior Marcel Dancy in the backfield, it appeared the Bears would initially deploy a running back-by-committee approach. But Moore has taken the lion’s share of carries so far, handling 29 of Cal’s 54 rushing attempts this season for 153 yards.

 

What should Cal’s game plan be to secure a victory against Sacramento State?

JS: Cal should lean on its talent and its strengths this week. Simply put, if the Bears want to be a serious Pac-12 contending team and avoid underperforming, they need to punch the lights out early in this game. Cal, as talented as it is, should put Sacramento State to bed immediately. The Bears are bigger, stronger and faster at the point of attack than the Hornets are. There is no reason to make this a competition. Even with injuries to Kuony Deng and other players, Cal is far more talented. Keeping things simple on both sides of the ball and executing at a high level will be the key to kicking the Hornets’ nest back to Sacramento.

WC: If Cal does what it did offensively against TCU last week, makes tackles at the line of scrimmage and doesn’t totally collapse on special teams, the Bears will win with no issue. Against the Horned Frogs, the Bears largely failed to stop the run at the point of attack. With linebacker Deng out for most of the game with an injury, TCU’s Max Duggan and Zach Evans ran rampant in the fourth quarter when Cal most needed a stop. Making PATs and scoring on 2-point tries would also help a great deal.

MK: The offensive line has been on shaky ground ever since the eruption of Cal’s game against Nevada. Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave has been hesitant in handing the ball to Garbers. Yet, what has been lacking in faith has been made up by opportunity. The plays against TCU showed that a reliance on offense wouldn’t be the worst game plan in the world — in fact, it could lead to a big win. Then again, good offense always stems from good defense. If the Bears don’t get their act together in tackles and less-than-perfect PAT situations, the blue and gold could be headed for another frustrating loss.

KR: It goes without saying that a balanced offense is almost always a recipe for success in football. However, Cal has yet to accomplish that this season — and also has yet to win a game. In their opener against Nevada, the Bears flashed a relentless running attack early on but inexplicably shifted to a pass-heavy game plan after the first quarter. Facing TCU, Cal opened up the playbook and found success when taking shots down the field. If the Bears can put together a balance of runs with chunk plays for four quarters, they could be lethal.

 

Is this a do-or-die game for Cal in the context of success for the rest of its season?

JS: The fact that Sacramento State is being considered for “do-or-die” status in the season is reflective of where the Bears currently stand. That being said, this is not a do-or-die game; there are no confident expectations at a title run left after an 0-2 start. Nevertheless, this game could be a turning point for Cal, as a dominant showing against an undermatched team may provide some confidence heading into Pac-12 play.

WC: Seeing as oddsmakers have now put the over/under on Cal’s win total at six, there are no do-or-die games left on the Bears’ schedule. All expectations went out the window after an 0-2 start. To call a home game against Sacramento State a do-or-die matchup is misguided, as it would imply that there is still a realistic chance that Cal lives up to its preseason expectations and contends for a Pac-12 championship or big bowl game appearance. For a program that was so promising in the two years prior to 2020, another Redbox Bowl appearance should not be the goal.

MK: Sacramento State was always teed up as an “easy win” — a good game that would get the fans going and make the players happy in their footing. However, after the outcomes against Nevada and TCU, the potential of losing against Sacramento State — no matter how minute the chances — shows that this game has the potential to do some real damage to Cal’s team morale. Previous losses notwithstanding, a win for Cal could be the exact confidence booster necessary for the Bears to head into the rest of the season strong.

KR: Yes, definitely. A team that had Pac-12 championship aspirations before the season simply cannot be dropping winnable games at home to teams such as Nevada and Sacramento State. It looks even worse when the blue and gold’s rivals continue to live up to the hype. Compare Cal’s two losses with UCLA dominating then-No. 16 LSU and Oregon having its way with then-No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus. Should the Bears start the season 0-3 before conference play even begins, they’ll have way too much ground to make up — in the standings and with fans.

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