Bears, Bruins promise offensive shootout at Rose Bowl

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Vanessa Lim/Senior Staff

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Cal football is in “win or go home” mode.

Well, actually, the Bears have been in that mindset since they lost in Tucson a few weeks ago. At the time, Cal had only three wins to its name – a far cry from the six needed in order to qualify for a bowl game. To make matters worse, the three remaining teams on the Bears’ schedule were arguably their three greatest rivals: USC, Stanford and UCLA.

Things didn’t get any easier for the blue and gold after a COVID-19 breakout within the program forced Cal to postpone its showdown with USC to Dec. 4. But coming off of a 30-point rout in the Big Game last Saturday, the Bears appear to be back and hungrier than ever.

With Stanford Stadium now in the rear view, Cal will look to continue its redemption tour at the Rose Bowl this Saturday. UCLA is experiencing its best season yet under head coach Chip Kelly, as the Bruins sit at 7-4 and boast a loaded offense led by senior quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson.

The Bears are very familiar with Thompson-Robinson, who gashed Cal’s defense with four total touchdowns in a 34-10 blowout in Pasadena last year. Thompson-Robinson possesses the dual-threat ability that has given Cal defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon’s unit fits this season, but the Bears will have their hands full even beyond UCLA’s signal-caller.

“Our guys are excited for a challenge. … Each and every week, those guys show up ready to compete and, uh, they’re a hungry group. … They want to go play well and, uh, that won’t be any different this weekend,” said head coach Justin Wilcox in a press conference Tuesday.

Redshirt junior receiver Kyle Phillips is Thompson-Robinson’s favorite target, and for good reason. The speedster has a knack for finding open creases down the field — creases that have resulted in eight receiving touchdowns this season. But like Thompson-Robinson, the other Bruins can run the ball just as well as they can sling it. Junior running back Zach Charbonnet, who transferred from Michigan earlier this spring, has been balling out since donning the true blue threads. Charbonnet is currently the second leading rusher in the Pac-12, averaging nearly 94 yards per game — a mark that is only topped by Oregon State’s B.J. Baylor.

However, given that Cal shut down Baylor earlier this season, there is still hope for the Bears. It certainly won’t be easy against an offensive group that just dropped 62 points on the road against USC. The Bruins’ offense (its 441 yards of offense per game ranks second in the conference) is clearly clicking at the right time. But like any team, UCLA has its Achilles’ heel.

The Bruins’ passing defense has struggled, to put it lightly. A lot will be put on the shoulders of Cal quarterback Chase Garbers, as UCLA’s defense has allowed a conference-worst 273 passing yards per outing. Saturday night could be a field day for Garbers, who currently leads the Pac-12 in total offense, and it will likely have to be if the Bears hope to keep pace with the Bruins.

“Chase, I think, is playing the best football of his career as of late,” Wilcox said in the press conference. “(With) seniors who have played for four years, you don’t always see the improvement that you might see in a freshman or a sophomore, and Chase continues to improve, which has been really impressive to watch.”

Fortunately for Cal, things appear to already be heading in the right direction. After starting the season 1-5, the Bears have won three of their last four games and just posted a season-high 636 yards of offense in Palo Alto. In the past decade, Cal has won just one of its six trips to the Rose Bowl, but often those defeats have come because the Bears simply did not produce enough offense. Now, under offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, it appears Cal finally has a clear offensive identity.

Whether that offense actually shows up Saturday is one thing. But if the Bears have any hope of upsetting the Bruins and keeping their postseason dreams alive, it will have to. Cal is in “win or go home” mode, after all.

Kabir Rao covers football. Contact him at [email protected], and follow him on Twitter @kabirr26.