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Opponent Q&A: Talking California Golden Bears Football

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Nick Kranz answers our questions on Justin Wilcox and the Cal Bears

Oregon State v California Photo by Ethan Miller/Getty Images

Earlier this week we had the chance to talk to Nick Kranz from the SBN community California Golden Blogs regarding this week’s matchup with the Huskies.

Here’s what we learned in our Q&A:

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UWDP: The quarterback situation has been crazy this season. Explain what has gone on there, and who we should expect to see under center this Saturday. What are his strengths/weaknesses? Who else could play some QB if the starter needs to be pulled for any reason?

Nick Kranz: Timeline of events: 1) Ross Bowers plays starts but plays just two series against UNC and is not seen again. For weeks nobody really knows why. 2) For three games Cal primarily plays Chase Garbers with occasional packages for Brandon McIlwain. 3) Garbers looks iffy for nine throws against Oregon and is pulled. 4) McIlwain is the only QB for 2.5 games, during which time he plays a role in a kerjillion turnovers. 5) It is revealed that Bowers has an injured thumb, but nobody knows when the injury happened or whether or not it is a factor in his being removed as QB 6) Garbers gets 95% of the snaps against OSU and looks pretty dang good.

Yikes, I lived all that and it was still exhausting to type it all out. What nobody outside of the program knows is whether or not Ross Bowers, when healthy, is the #1 QB. But he’s not, so it’s between redshirt freshman Garbers and sophomore McIlwain. Garbers is pretty clearly the better passer, and McIlwain is a pretty gifted runner. The reality of the situation is that the coaching staff botched their handling of the quarterbacks and cost the Bears at least one win (Arizona) by going with McIlwain over Garbers. I think it’s pretty safe to assume that Garbers will be the starter against UW, but I guess we can’t assume anything, can we?

California v Oregon State
Freshman QB Chase Garbers is likely to get the start this week for Cal. He is coming off a three touchdown, zero interception game against Oregon State.
Photo by Steve Dykes/Getty Images

Garbers isn’t as good with his feet as McIlwain, but he’s 2nd in the conference in yards/carry for QBs (behind McIlwain) while offering significantly more upside as a downfield passer. As you would expect for any freshman QB his decision making can be a little slow and he’s limited by Cal’s skill position talent, but I think there’s lots of reasons to be optimistic that he can be an above average Pac-12 starter in future seasons.

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UWDP: Kanawai Noa and Vic Wharton have been the top receiving targets for the Bears. Explain how each is used in the passing game. Any other emerging receivers we should know about? How has the pass protection been for Cal so far?

Nick: First, the easy part: pass protection has generally been quite solid. Cal is 35th in the country in offensive sack rate and I think a fair portion of Cal’s sacks have to do with iffy pocket manipulation/decision making from a pair of young and inexperienced QBs.

Now, regarding receivers: Cal’s problem is that they have a surfeit of possession receivers and a deficit of deep threats and speed. There is a reason that Cal is near the bottom of the rankings in any measure of big plays or explosiveness, and a big part of it is that Cal’s pass catchers have struggled to get separation down the field. Noa and Wharton are both solid route runners and Noa in particular has excellent hands. I would be pretty surprised if they get behind the UW secondary unless there’s some kind of coverage bust.

Beyond those two main targets Cal has a couple of Michigan grad transfers with tight end Ian Bunting and WR Moe Ways. Jordan Duncan and Jeremiah Hawkins are the nominal deep threats. Patrick Laird also gets 5 or so targets a game as an outlet valve.

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UWDP: Patrick Laird has accounted for 762 scrimmage yards this season. What makes him such a versatile weapon? How has the offensive line performed in the running game?

Nick: Laird’s strength is his versatility and decision making - he’s one of those runners that will rarely wow you physically but always seems to make the right cut and maximize the space he’s given. He’s got excellent hands and needs to be accounted for out of the backfield on swing passes. The offensive line has been hit and miss on run blocking, though in their defense it’s felt like Cal has struggled to pick an identity on offense, swinging from a Laird-focused power run game at some times while at other times focusing on McIlwain’s strengths as a sort of wildcat QB. Laird isn’t typically the type to win games himself, but he’s absurdly reliable.

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UWDP: Cal leads the Pac-12 in passing defense so far this season, but also has had by far the fewest pass attempts against them. Can you explain what might be going on there? How has the defense performed overall in your opinion? Who are some key defenders to watch?

Nick: To a certain extent it’s a matter of circumstance - two of Cal’s non-conference opponents were heavily run focused, and UCLA and Oregon both came out with run heavy game plans, then took big leads and ran the ball to kill the game off.

The success of Cal’s passing defense is relatively simple - just lots of talented personnel. Cam Bynum and Elijah Hicks were both good enough to start as freshmen, and now they’re both experienced sophomores that rarely make mistakes. Cal’s safeties have plenty of speed and even the middle linebackers are solid in short coverage. It’s a tough defense to get easy throws against.

For that reason, Cal’s passing defense is ahead of their rushing defense. Cal is very positionally sound against the run with two excellent middle linebackers, and so teams rarely break off big runs against the defense. But Cal has again struggled at the point of attack (particularly against UCLA and Oregon) which has allowed opponents to pretty consistently get 4-6 yards on every hand off. UW has an offense that also tends to be pretty good about churning out consistent average gains on run plays, and so my biggest fear when UW has the ball is that the Huskies will be able to pretty consistently sustain long drives on the back of their run game.

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UWDP: Justin Wilcox has obviously had an impact on the defense since taking over. How is the fanbase feeling about Wilcox in year two?

Nick: The work Wilcox has done to transform arguably the worst power 5 defense in the country into a unit that is top 15-20 or so in most objective measures in two years has and will continue to buy him plenty of good will. Having said that, the offensive woes that the Bears have suffered, highlighted by a three game losing streak in which Cal committed nine interceptions, five fumbles, and four turnovers on downs (EIGHTEEN TURNOVERS!!!) led fans to question the coaching staff more pointedly. As noted above, the coaching staff really botched their handling of the quarterback situation specifically and the offense generally and that cost Cal at least one game and maybe two. There was talk that Cal could be 6-1 with UW coming to town, and instead the Bears are 4-3 with the tougher part of the schedule still left.

California v Colorado
Head Coach Justin Wilcox has resurrected the Cal defense since taking over last season. The Bears lead the Pac-12 in passing defense.
Photo by Dustin Bradford/Getty Images

Cal’s defense is good enough that they only need a mediocre offense to be pretty darn good. There’s still some optimism that as Chase Garbers gets more experience, the offense could push towards mediocre. But so far it hasn’t, and was so bad that Cal actually lost a game (Arizona) in which they had the halftime lead and didn’t allow the opposing offense to score in any of their 2nd half drives. That’s really hard!

For a variety of good and bad reasons, Wilcox will be given plenty of time to fix the offense. It’s not particularly clear that the current staff can recruit well enough to do that with any speed. But Cal isn’t exactly in a place where we should be expecting to recruit in the top half of the Pac-12 now, are we?

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UWDP: What is your prediction for Saturday?

Nick: Two teams with ugly styles of play combine to play a particularly butt ugly game. Washington fans are frustrated that the Huskies can’t seem to ever pull away and put the game on ice, while Cal fans are frustrated because the offense can’t really produce anything to make the game interesting. Cal wins the field position battle, but UW’s run game allows the Huskies to sustain enough long drives. Washington wins, 26-13

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Thanks Nick. For more on Cal, be sure to check out California Golden Blogs.