Notre Dame is a cathedral of college football. The Fighting Irish are one of the sport’s most historic and successful programs — they’ve won 11 national championships and their alumni fill the NFL.
On Saturday Cal travels to South Bend to face off against the Irish for the first time since 1967. It’s by far the Bears’ biggest game of the season, and their biggest in several years. Cal has a chance to surprise on a national stage.
Notre Dame is loaded with blue-chip talent and entered the year ranked No. 5, gearing up for another national championship push. But a lot can change in two weeks.
The Irish dropped their heavyweight opener against No. 2 Ohio State, then surrendered an inexplicable home loss against Marshall to leave them winless at 0-2.
To make matters worse for Notre Dame, it also lost starting quarterback Tyler Buchner to a season-ending shoulder injury last week.
The scenario has shifted dramatically, offering a glimmer of hope to a Cal team hoping to snag its biggest win in years against a college football giant.
The odds are still long. The Bears enter the game as double-digit underdogs. There is a reason Notre Dame entered the year as one of the five best teams in college football. Two close losses and injury troubles don’t erase that.
“Their record is not indicative of the team that they are,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “We have a lot of respect for them and obviously they’ve got a ton of talent.”
Notre Dame has strong depth at all positions which it’ll use to overcome the injury of its former starting QB. In Buchner’s place now sits Drew Pyne, a talent in his own right. Pyne is a dual-threat quarterback with the ability to run. He lacks huge arm strength, but makes up for it with great accuracy on short and mid-range throws.
The focus of Pyne’s targets, and Notre Dame’s offense in general, will be tight end Michael Mayer. Mayer is a projected top-10 pick in this Spring’s NFL draft and is arguably the best TE in college football, with size and physicality that has earned him the nickname Baby Gronk.
He will be a force to be reckoned with for Cal’s defense. Outside of Mayer, though, the Notre Dame offense has struggled to start the year.
Cal has opened the season with a strong defensive performance, a hallmark of Wilcox’s teams. The unit is third in the Pac-12 in scoring defense and has snagged three interceptions in the first two games. Facing the backup QB, the Bears might just be able to keep pace defensively.
The game instead will be won or lost for the blue and gold based on the performance of their offense.
Cal’s offense has shown flashes of potential, with the skill position players looking strong. Freshman running back Jaydn Ott is a clear standout. He has rushed for 156 yards and recorded 42 receiving yards across his first two games, earning him back-to-back Pac-12 freshman of the week honors.
But on the whole, Cal’s offense has often had issues producing. A particular weak spot has been the offensive line, which has had difficulties protecting Cal’s starting quarterback Jack Plummer.
The Bears are 2-0 on the season after wins against lesser opponents in UC Davis and UNLV, but in both victories, there have been offensive troubles.
“We’ve played not near where we’re capable of playing,” Wilcox said. “We need to improve significantly.”
Notre Dame boasts a strong defense headed by a dominant defensive line. Defensive end Isaiah Foskey leads the unit with his power and athleticism and is another projected NFL first-round pick.
This could be a matchup nightmare for Cal’s offense. If the Bears hope to move to 3-0 on the year and send the Irish to 0-3, they’ll need to find a way to consistently put points on the board and for the offensive line to hold up.
It’s a tall order against a talented Notre Dame team that is desperate for a win.
It is, however, also an exciting chance for the Bears to snatch a momentous victory on the biggest stage against a struggling national powerhouse. What remains to be seen is whether Cal can take it.