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Opponent Q&A: Talking California Golden Bears Football

Justin Wilcox returns to Husky Stadium. We find out if he brings an improved Cal team with him.

Grambling v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Earlier this week I talked with staff writers from the SBN community California Golden Blogs regarding the Cal football team. Here's what we learned in our Q&A:

UWDP: Quarterback Ross Bowers has put up good raw numbers in the first five games (271 YPG, 9 TDs), but has not been terribly efficient (55%, 8 INT, 6.7 YPA). How would you assess the sophomore’s performance so far?

boomtho: I'd say Bowers has been inconsistent and has not always made great decisions, which is what you'd expect from a guy with basically no experience before this year. Cal fans have been absolutely spoiled by good QB play the past four years (between Jared Goff and Davis Webb), so I would bear that in mind when reading any harsh criticism of Bowers.That being said, I'd say Bowers' main weaknesses are as follows:-Not super accurate-Lacks arm strength for deep balls-Sometimes forces passes (which again, you'd 100% expect for pretty much any college QB, especially one without a ton of experience)His strengths include:-Toughness and willingness to extend plays; he has good agility in the pocket (though not a threat to break off runs)-Has good chemistry with Vic Wharton-Is generally willing to take shots downfield if they're the right play for the offense will also note that Bowers is not playing with a full stable of WR's: two standouts from last year, Demtris Robertson and Melquise Stovall, are both out for the year with injuries.

Mississippi v California
Sophomore Ross Bowers led the Bears to an undefeated non-conference record.
Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Nick Kranz: It's hard to disentangle Ross's performances from other problems facing the Cal offense. Because Cal is lacking in game breaking WR speed and because they struggle a bit in pass protection, opposing defenses have played lots of press/man coverage and challenged Cal to beat them over the top. Thus far, Cal hasn't really been able to do that, for a variety of reasons.

So far I'd say Bowers has been OK, with the typical problems you would expect with a young, first year starter without blue chip pedigree. His pocket awareness can be iffy, and he's probably not yet at the level where he can work through multiple progressions. But like Boomtho said, he's tough, and that's allowed him to make some plays when other QBs might've wilted.

UWDP: The wide receiving corps features a pair of productive players in Vic Wharton and Kanawai Noa. Each has scored on long TD grabs and boast a YPC average of over 15. Tell us about the ways they are utilized and who else could be a factor for Bowers in the passing game. How has the pass protection looked thusfar?

Leland Wong: As boomtho mentioned in question 1, the two players we expected to be our most potent weapons—Robertson and Stovall—have been injured for the bulk of the season, so Wharton has stepped up as our #1 receiver. He's not blazingly fast, but he is quick and shifty, which can make him tough to bring down. He's also come super-close to making some impressive circus catches, so he's tantalizingly close to becoming an even bigger threat—which we desperately need right now.

Noa is more Mr. Reliable for us. He's a tough player who doesn't shy away from contact or crossing across the middle. He's our secret weapon (a term Bowers has used to describe him) for third-down conversions.

I'm not going to pretend to be an expert on O-line play, but we've struggled with pass protection in our last two games in particular. Bowers isn't getting much time to throw, which is not a good situation for a first-year starter. I'm expecting a lot of roll-outs and moving pockets to help mitigate this.

UWDP: The Bears have a nice 1-2 punch in the backfield with Patrick Laird and Vic Enwere. Compare and contrast their styles. How has the offensive line performed? Who should we expect to get the bulk of the carries? Any other running threats?

boomtho: Laird is a much more versatile back, who can make plays in the passing game and has a pretty good blend of speed, agility, and strength. This is the first year he's gotten meaningful playing time but he's made a nice impression so far... especially given the injury to all around stud Tre Watson. Enwere is much more of a power back, but he's kind of slow to get going and doesn't have a great ability to make people miss. Despite his size, he's been relatively ineffective in short yardage situations throughout his career.

Nick Kranz: True freshman Zion Echols has gotten a handful of plays over the last two games, and it wouldn't shock me to see his role in the offense grow as the season progresses. He's the most athletic running back currently healthy enough to play, and Cal is desperate for more of a home run threat. He's very much still learning, so I wouldn't expect to see him for more than, say, 10 snaps.

UWDP: Matt Anderson is a solid and experienced placekicker. How would you rate the rest of the special teams and kicking game? Who are the top kick returners? How has the kick coverage been for the Golden Bears?

boomtho: After years of special teams disasters in coverage, kick coverage and punt coverage are finally decent. We haven't gotten much out of the return game yet, and I doubt that turns around in the near term.

NCAA Football: Washington at California
Matt Anderson has connected on only 7 of 11 field goals this season after hitting on 85% in his first two years.
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Leland Wong: Despite Anderson's experience, he's actually been pretty spotty with field goals this season, which is causing concerns among the fans. But our one big kicking improvement this year is that our kickoffs are reliably going into the endzone for touchbacks, which is significantly better than the years we've spent giving up free yards to opponents on their kick returns. The returner you're most likely to see is CB Ashtyn Davis. He is the Pac-12 champion in 110m hurdles and has sprinter's speed, so one would expect him to be a difference-maker in field position, but he has yet to make a big impact here.

Nick Kranz: Cal's special teams this season have been decidedly dull. On one hand, that's probably a good thing, because Cal's opponents haven't broken any big plays against them. But the Bears haven't managed any big special teams plays themselves, so it's mostly been a wash. If that continues against Washington and Dante Pettis I'll consider that a victory rather than a draw this week.

UWDP: The Cal defense has been better this season surrendering 28 PPG as opposed to over 40 a year ago. What has been the key to this improvement? Who are some talented defenders to watch on Saturday?

boomtho: Man, the difference is almost all coaching, and it's remarkable how far that's taken Cal so far. The previous few years have seen the Cal D hit with significant attrition and injuries, so Cal was forced to start a lot of unheralded recruits, JC transfers, and even former QB's (hello Luke Rubenzer!). To accommodate those players, DC Art Kaufman went with an extremely simple scheme that was unable to generate pressure on the QB. This year, we're seeing some of the benefits of guys having to play early and often in their career. Wilcox and DC Tim DeRuyter also seem to have done a great job drilling tackling and pursuit, and are being much more creative in the ways they generate pressure. LB Devante Downs is having a great year so far, so I'd name him as one guy to watch. Another defender I'll call out is DT James Looney, who is not the biggest but is still highly disruptive thanks to his agility and technique.

California v North Carolina
LB Devante Downs has registered double digit tackles three times already this season
Photo by Grant Halverson/Getty Images

Nick Kranz: Probably the biggest change is the play of Cal's linebackers. That position group was the biggest liability last year but is now probably a strength. How exactly the current coaching staff has turned that group around I can't say, but it's been a tremendous shift. Cal's passing defense has also improved thanks to the introduction of two freshmen cornerbacks, Elijah Hicks and Camryn Bynum. The line still struggles with depth and strength, but the coaches have been able to manufacture decent pressure on passing downs with their 3-4 scheme. Cal's main challenge as a defense is to actually force passing downs in the first place.

UWDP: Husky fans are familiar with head coach Justin Wilcox. He did a great job as defensive coordinator during his time at Washington. What has been the most noticeable change from the Sonny Dykes tenure?

boomtho: I'll call out a couple notable changes, both good and bad: The offense plays much slower now, after years of pretty fast tempo under Sonny. This has bought the defense more rest, and while offensive production is down, I don't think you can attribute that to pace (more to the loss of talented playmakers and offensive coaches)-We also operate a bit more under center now vs being heavy shotgun under Sonny-The defense is so much more solid, it's amazing that so much has changed in one year-It's early but Wilcox seems to have a better sense of game theory and is making decisions that more consistently put Cal in a position to win, given its underdog status (I wouldn't say there's a huge gap, but it's there).

Nick Kranz: Boomtho covered the objective changes. Subjectively, it certainly feels like the coaching staff is coming reasonably close to wringing the maximum level of performance possible out of their roster. Everybody knows that Cal's defense was awful last year, and that their offense was losing their quarterback, best WR, and pretty much the entire offensive line. It's not exactly an envious situation to inherit. But Cal has been within a score of every team they've played at some point during the 4th quarter, and I think that says something about how Wilcox manages games. (Let's not speak of what happened after that point against Oregon and USC).

Thanks guys. Be sure to check out California Golden Blogs for more on this week’s game from the Cal perspective.

To read my answers to CGB’s questions, Click Here.