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Opponent Q&A: Cal Golden Bears

Write For California’s Christopher Helling joins me to talk Cal Golden Bears Football

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 09 Auburn at Cal Photo by Samuel Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

It’s the opening week of PAC 12 play for the last season of the Conference Of Champions! Ahead of the Huskies’ matchup with the Cal Golden Bears, I talked to Christopher Helling of Write For California about Cal football and what to expect from Justin Wilcox’s squad in Saturday’s tilt:

It is now year 7 for Justin Wilcox at the helm of the Cal football program. What is the ceiling for this team and have you liked their performances this season?

Prior to the season, my most optimistic drunk-the-koolaid prediction was that Cal could, at best, finish 8-4 (penciling in losses to UW, Utah, USC, and Oregon). I think Cal should be favored over ASU and Stanford, with winnable underdog games against UCLA and Wazzu (at home). I see Cal getting crushed by Oregon (just a terrible matchup for Cal), losing a defensive slugfest to UW, losing an offensive slugfest to USC, and just generally getting outcoached by Utah and Oregon State in ways I have yet to fathom. Cal also somehow inexplicably wins one game a season they’re not supposed to (typically UW, thanks guys), and drops another one to a team they should crush. So I see the current ceiling for Cal this season is 6 wins, although I am surely wrong about which 6 they are. I would have been a lot happier with the performance this season had they not been jobbed by SEC refs against Auburn, but even with a new offensive coordinator, barring an unexpected offensive explosion against North Texas, this is looking like the same sort of defensive stalwart Wilcox team we see every year.

Wilcox’s teams aren’t exactly known for their offensive prowess, but Offensive Coordinator Jake Spavital is working on changing that notion. What do you like and dislike about the scheme and what the Golden Bears are trying to do on offense so far this year?

Pleasant surprise: how well the offense is running the ball. It might not seem surprising given that Jaydn Ott is NFL-bound, but it is surprising how much better the team is run-blocking given last year’s offensive line struggles (and not to mention Cal’s best offensive lineman, center Matt Cindric, is already out with a season-ending injury). I think we can attribute this to new offensive line coach Mike Bloesch, though. The last time Jake Spavital was the OC at Cal, he had a future NFL 3rd rounder at quarterback and an NFL 4th rounder at wide receiver (Davis Webb and Chad Hansen, respectively). The entire receiver room was much better that year (we even had a 5-star WR that year, IIRC), and Spavital led a high-powered Air Raid offense. So I really have no idea what to think of the run-heavy scheme we’ve seen so far in the first 3 games. Other than the North Texas game, though, the offense has been a bit of a disappointment, but it’s too early to pass judgment.

Cal’s quarterback is the TCU transfer Sam Jackson V, who is a mobile threat in addition to having a big arm. What do you like about him as a quarterback?

Well, obviously he can make plays with his legs, there’s no question. If you see him on the field, you can literally see that he moves at a different speed than everyone else. And he’s young, with last week’s game against Idaho being the first time he’s played an entire game in his career. He clearly has the highest ceiling of any QB on the roster. I like that he’s trying to grow as a passer, not panicking and taking off too early, but trying to improve at reading a defense so that he can make plays with his arm instead. He has a lot of room to grow, but if he can start consistently making the throws he’s shown that he’s capable of making, he’s going to be a very good quarterback one day.

The running game is led by the returning Jadyn Ott who’s averaging 6.8 yards per carry. What makes him so effective as a runner and who else do fans have to watch out for on offense?

I’m only slightly biased here, but it’s really difficult to find flaws in Jaydn Ott’s game. He’s fast: if he gets to the open field, he’s gone, it’s a touchdown. He can juke a defender or run right over him, whatever the situation calls for. And because he’s difficult to tackle in open space, he’s also dangerous as a receiver. We haven’t seen it yet this season, but I expect Spavital to start involving Ott in the passing game a lot more this year. Last year, the offensive line play was so bad that Ott was forced to make multiple players miss in the backfield and fight through tackles, all just to pick up 2 yards per carry (after avoiding a 6-yard loss or something). His stats were not commensurate with his talent, outside of one game against Arizona where the offensive line blocked unusually well. With even halfway decent blocking this season, Ott will post big numbers. He’s the key player on offense. The other players to watch for are SJV (obviously) and WR Jeremiah Hunter. Hunter is the go-to #1 receiver, and there really hasn’t been a clear #2 yet. For an under-the-radar player, I really like the tight-end Jack Endries. He’s just a freshman, but he’s been a standout in practice and I think he has the ability to make a difference on offense.

Between Jackson Sirmon and Taj Davis, the Cal roster has a couple former Huskies who could make an impact for the Bears against their former squad. What do you like about both players and how do they work with the gameplan on offense and defense?

Jackson Sirmon is the captain of the defense and an integral part of stopping the run game. He’s a great tackler, and I think he’s been significantly better in coverage at Cal than he was at UW. I am hoping we see more of Taj Davis; he hasn’t had too much of an impact in the first three games this season, and Cal is in desperate need of another reliable target outside Jeremiah Hunter.

Peter Sirmon, the defensive coordinator for the Golden Bears has done a great job these past few years making sure Cal is prepared on defense. What should Husky fans expect from the scheme of Sirmon?

Well, how about I instead talk about what’s different about the defense this year? Historically, Cal has needed NFL talent in the secondary to compensate for a lack of QB pressure (e.g. Ashtyn Davis, Jaylinn Hawkins, Cam Bynum, Elijah Hicks, Daniel Scott, etc). This year, Cal finally appears to have a competent pass rush, with DT Brett Johnson returning after two years off due to injury, and he’s already making an impact inside (he was eating triple teams last week against Idaho). His presence has helped elevate the pass rushers around him, like Myles Jernigan, Xavier Carlton, Ethan Saunders, David Reese, etc. That said, Cal still has a very good secondary, with corners Jeremiah Earby and Nohl Williams doing a great job of blanketing receivers, and safety Patrick McMorris showing some good man coverage skills as well (and they’ll all have their hands full with UW’s super talented receivers). I am much more concerned about the intermediate routes and the UW offense’s ability to exploit the holes in Cal’s zone coverage.

It’s time for the score prediction! How do you see this game turning out?

I was going to say 28-21 UW, but that sounds an awful lot like the score last year. So instead I am going to pray that lightning strikes Seattle and Cal wins 12-10 on a pick-6 or something like that. Or does that also sound too familiar?

Thanks Christopher! For my answers to his questions, be sure to check out Write For California!