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Cal looks for redemption in Pac-12 opener against Arizona

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NICK QUINLAN | SENIOR STAFF

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SEPTEMBER 24, 2022

There’s not much better than Pac-12 football. Filled with historic rivalries, legendary plays and unmatched chaos, the conference of champions has been entertaining fans on the gridiron for more than 100 years. 

In 2024, that will all be coming to an end, as USC and UCLA depart to the Big Ten. But before that, Cal has time for a final ride through the thrilling gauntlet of Pac-12 football. That journey begins Saturday as the Bears welcome Arizona to Memorial Stadium for their Pac-12 opener and homecoming game. 

Throughout recent history, the Wildcats have been a bottom dweller in the conference. They went winless in 2020, and were not much better in 2021 with a 1-11 record. Almost every school in the Pac-12 has had its way with the Wildcats these past few seasons.

The only school Arizona has beat in the past two years? Cal. 

In a game the Bears would rather forget, COVID-19 complications led to the blue and gold icing a second string roster that lost an ugly 10-3 game in the desert last year to give Arizona its only win of the season. The loss ended up being the difference that kept Cal from reaching bowl eligibility.

The Wildcats have had the Bears’ number for years. Cal hasn’t earned a victory over Arizona since the 2000s — the Wildcats have taken the last six meetings.

To make matters worse for the Bears, this Arizona team is far from the pushover of years past. The Wildcats brought in a new head coach in Jedd Fisch, and under Fisch raided the transfer portal, reeling in a top-25 recruiting class to significantly remodel their roster from last season.

Now the new-look Wildcats hold an identical 2-1 record to Cal and look ready to compete.

Like Arizona, Cal is also a vastly different team from last year. More than half of its starters have moved on, replaced with dynamic freshmen and transfer portal acquisitions like quarterback Jack Plummer.

But no team in the Pac-12 seems to have undergone as rapid a turnaround as the Wildcats. The biggest reason for Arizona’s improvement comes from a transfer portal quarterback acquisition of its own. 

Last year, Will Plummer was at the helm — a name that might seem familiar to Cal fans for being the younger brother of Jack Plummer. But Will Plummer has been moved down the depth chart in favor of star sophomore Jayden de Laura. 

De Laura transferred to Arizona after a strong freshman campaign at Washington State that saw him earn Pac-12 Offensive Freshman of the Year honors. He is a confident passer who can also make plays with his legs, and a true difference maker on the field.

If the Wildcats are to win, it will likely be on the back of a game-breaking performance from the fast-throwing sophomore.

“(De Laura) is playing better and better,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “He’s a dynamic athlete and makes things happen. Running, passing and scrambling. He’s a very unique challenge for the defense.”

Cal’s defense has looked strong to start the year, but de Laura will be by far the toughest challenge at QB the Bears have faced thus far. It will take a group effort to shut him down — Cal’s front seven must limit de Laura’s mobility while the defensive backs take on the challenge of combating his passes.

On the other side of the ball, Cal’s offense may need a high-scoring display to keep pace with de Laura, something it’s struggled with to start the season.

“We need to improve,” Wilcox said. “We need to take a significant step forward as a team and that’s what we’re working on this week. We need better football out of everybody.”

There is a path to success against Arizona. For all the Wildcats’ offseason improvements, they still struggle to defend the run. If Cal’s star freshman running back Jaydn Ott has a big day, the Bears may just be able to exorcize their demons. 

The history, combined with two closely matched teams looking to prove themselves after offseason transformations, creates a perfect recipe for a high stakes start to conference play.

For one of the final times, the Pac-12 is back. As the Bears prepare to begin a final joyous thrill ride through it, there couldn’t be a better way to kick it off.

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SEPTEMBER 24, 2022