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Opponent Offense Preview: Cal Golden Bears

The Pac-12’s number two rushing team meets the Huskies Saturday night.

NCAA Football: Auburn at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

In head coach Justin Wilcox’s never ending journey to make Cal an above average college offense, he hired Jake Spavital as OC this offseason. Trying to recapture the offensive glory days of Sonny Dykes era Cal, Wilcox brought in the same OC that lead them to 37 points a game in 2016. In his lone season at Cal, and through three games in 2023, he seems like an OC not married to a particular system and will adapt based on the available skill sets of his players. In 2016, as a disciple of the Mike Leach air raid, he focused on getting QB Davis Webb throwing downfield. This year, the focus is much more on the running backs and RPO game. At 242 rushing yards per game, they are second in the Pac-12.

The Players

Cal has had a bit of a back-and-forth at QB this season, but to make a long story short: QB Sam Jackson V, the TCU transfer is the starter, but due to injury has yet to play a full game and has been replaced by QB Ben Finley, a transfer from NC State. Jackson got hurt in their first game of the season against North Texas, but it hardly mattered as Cal battered the overmatched Mean Green 58-21. Jackson missed most of practice during the week, so Finley got the start week 2 against Auburn. But, he was pulled after two stalled drives and only 3 points. Jackson entered the game and provided a spark, but Cal still only managed one more touchdown, consistently getting stalled out in the red zone. He also threw an end zone interception on what would have been a game winning touchdown (Cal lost 14-10). Last week against Idaho, Jackson started but was injured again and replaced by Ben Finley. He eventually re-entered to finish the game and finally got going on offense scoring 31 unanswered to win 31-17. However, Cal was held scoreless in the first quarter and only managed a field goal in the fourth.

NCAA Football: Auburn at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

As a player, Sam Jackson is a very athletic duel threat QB who can beat defenses with his legs. At 5-11, he has the quickness to freeze a defender and beat them to the edge. When passing, if a quick read or his first option isn’t open, things often turn into a scramble drill. He’s completing 53% of his passes this season, for under 5 yards per attempt, with 3 touchdowns and 2 interceptions. QB Ben Finley is more a traditional passing quarterback, and his stats back it up: he’s completed 68% of his passes for 329 yards and 1 touchdown. Not great, but better than Jackson.

Cal fans were hoping they would get quarterback sorted out this year, but their best player and offensive focal point is still RB Jaydn Ott. Last season he ran for nearly 900 yards and 8 touchdowns, and Cal fans will tell you that with last year’s scheme and offensive line, it was a miracle he put up those numbers. So far this season on 40 carries he has 266 yards and 3 touchdowns running behind a much improved line. Like he showed last year, he’s a strong all around runner who blends speed, power, and vision. He’s currently in the top 25 nationally in both yards after contact per rush and rushing yards that go for more than 15 yards - he’s not just a tackle breaker, but also can break away in the open field.

Behind Ott is RB Isaiah Ifanse (from Bellevue), a transfer from Montana State who led the Bobcats to the FCS semi-finals in 2022 and is the school’s all-time leading rusher. The former FCS All-American is low to the ground and is a physical between the tackles runner. He performed well while Ott was injured against Idaho - 22 rushes for 137 yards and a touchdown.

At wide receiver, they go as the quarterbacks go. There is some talent there - particularly Jeremiah Hunter, a true #1 target. The 6-2 junior has 16 receptions for 147 yards and 2 touchdowns so far this year. Lining up alongside him is the incredibly named WR Trond Grizzell, a 6-4 sophomore. WRs Grizzell, Monroe Young, and our old friend Taj Davis all have 8 catches a piece, between 80-90 total yards, and 0-1 touchdowns.

The Scheme

This has been a decidedly run first offense (139 rushes to 103 passes), lead by the talented RB Jayden Ott and the duel threat QB Jackson. They run a lot of RPO and zone read type of plays, and like to move fast, running more than 87 plays per game, #2 in the country. That’s 20 more per game than last year and a big change with the Spavital system.

They keep a lot close to the line of scrimmage, and aren’t asking Jackson to test defenses downfield very often - he’s 69th in the country in average depth of target. They like to incorporate the running backs into the pass game which brings down that number, but they hit a lot of quick RPO slants to WRs too. Receivers are often brought into motion behind the quarterback for quick swing routes to the sidelines. Jackson has only attempted 9 passes of 20 yards or more downfield all season.

So how worried should Washington be? Cal’s offense looked relatively good against the 87th ranked PFF defense (North Texas), struggled for 10 points at home against Auburn, and were nearly shutout for half the game against FCS Idaho and only managed 31 points. Cal should be able to decently control the clock and be physical with their run game, but shouldn’t be able to keep up scoring with Washington, even if their defense slows UW down. They will have to open things up to get points and so far, Sam Jackson V and Ben Finley haven’t shown they can be the focal points of a downfield passing offense.


How many points will Cal score on Saturday?

This poll is closed

  • 4%
    (14 votes)
  • 43%
    (148 votes)
  • 44%
    (153 votes)
  • 4%
    (16 votes)
  • 2%
    (7 votes)
  • 1%
    36 or more
    (6 votes)
344 votes total Vote Now