Winless Cal football vies for 1st victory over Sacramento State

photo of Cal Football player on the field
Karen Chow/Senior Staff

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On Wednesday, new Pac-12 Commissioner George Kliavkoff visited Berkeley and met with student-athletes and coaches. In a video posted on Kliavkoff’s Twitter account, the former MGM Resorts executive is seen sitting and laughing with a group of student-athletes outside of Memorial Stadium on what was a beautiful sunny day. In a picture posted to the Cal football Twitter page, the “Commish” is seen smiling ear to ear with former Cal football players Michael Saffell and Gentle Williams.

To be fair, he has every reason to wear that big, goofy grin of his. UCLA’s huge win over No. 16 LSU earlier this month was followed last Saturday by a No. 12 Oregon victory over No. 3 Ohio State in Columbus. Both games represented huge wins for Pac-12 football, which has taken a back seat to the Big Ten and SEC for the last decade and a half.

Well, actually, he doesn’t have every reason to smile like that. Most of the Pac-12 is in shambles (see Washington’s loss to Football Championship Subdivision school Montana in Week 1 and Arizona’s 38-14 loss to SDSU last week). Thanks to its 0-2 start to the season, Cal fits squarely into this Pac-12 “losers” column.

On Saturday, whether they’re ready or not, the Bears will play Sacramento State at Memorial Stadium. Now that oddsmakers have put the over/under on Cal’s win total at six games, head coach Justin Wilcox’s side can’t afford to take another loss if it wants to have a realistic shot at a bowl berth.

Now, in the days before the season started, it’s safe to assume that most who follow Cal football had the Hornets in Week 3 penned as a surefire win. But now, following a disheartening 22-17 home loss to Nevada and a rough 34-32 defeat away to TCU, it seems that no game is a gimme for the Bears.

That said, Sacramento State doesn’t have a likely first-round draft pick quarterback like Nevada does in Carson Strong, and it’s not a member of a Power Five conference like TCU is. But the FCS school presents some interesting challenges for Cal.

Hornets quarterback Asher O’Hara, a dual-threat quarterback, is much like TCU quarterback Max Duggan, who torched the Bears’ defense in the fourth quarter Saturday with his feet. In Sac State’s 34-16 loss to Northern Iowa last week, O’Hara passed for 338 yards and was his team’s leading rusher with 55 yards on the ground. That said, the junior from Illinois is prone to mistakes, as evidenced by his throwing three interceptions against the Panthers.

In a press conference Wednesday, Wilcox gave his evaluation of O’Hara.

“They use him, as a lot of these spread offenses do, to create numbers in the run game,” Wilcox said. “He can also just scramble when it’s a called pass, but he can make something happen with his feet.”

A spread offense with shifty skill players might be Cal’s worst nightmare at the moment. The Bears struggled to make open-field tackles all of the TCU game, but they struggled most toward the end of the game against Duggan and running back Zach Evans.

Unfortunately for the Bears, Hornets head coach Troy Taylor, who was the starting quarterback at Cal in 1986-89, also has a few skill players on offense at his disposal who could create issues for a Cal defense that will likely be without one of its cornerstones, senior outside linebacker Kuony Deng, who left the TCU game in the first half with a leg injury.

Defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon identified junior wide receiver Pierre Williams, who had 122 receiving yards against UNI, and senior running back Elijah Dotson, who has nearly 2,500 all-purpose yards at Sacramento State, as real threats in the passing game. Taylor often splits out the Hornets’ running backs, so Dotson will not exclusively line up in the backfield.

According to Sirmon, tackling is drilled in practice every week. The key, he said, will be getting stops on third down so that drives aren’t quite as long.

“We saw more missed tackles late in the game. I think we played nearly 21 minutes in the second half where the defense was on the field,” Sirmon said. “We have to get off the field. We have to do a better job on third downs. We have to essentially protect ourselves from those types of drives.”

Saturday presents a prime opportunity for Cal to start inching into the Pac-12 “winners” column with Oregon and UCLA. If the Bears can force O’Hara into turnovers, get the defense off the field on third down and light up the scoreboard like they did last week, Wilcox’s side will finally give the Commish something to smile about.

William Cooke covers football. Contact him at [email protected].