Here it is. Our sit-down with the fine folks over at California Golden Blogs, your destination for Cal sports news and notes. We had a bevy of questions for their writers, and they provided a bevy of answers. Let’s do it.
RCR: In the UNC game, Cal struggled to stop the run. In the Weber State game, the Golden Bears struggled to stop the pass. What do you think accounted for the difference between those two games?
Nick Kranz: The biggest difference was, believe it or not, quarterback quality. UNC came into the first game of the season lacking confidence in either quarterback and with a conservative offensive game plan to match. Brandon Harris was (probably not to the surprise of SEC fans) very inaccurate and his replacement, Chazz Surratt, wasn't much better. By comparison, Weber State was willing to challenge Cal deep, while still finding success over the middle with their tight ends.
Cal was also without a starting safety against Weber State, but it's also probably accurate to say that the entire defense simply played a worse game. Communication errors, missed assignments—Cal made unforced errors against Weber St. that they didn't make against UNC. They'll certainly have to clean that up, because Mississippi's pass attack doesn't need mistakes from the opponent to be successful.
Ruey Yen: Cal certainly has a much more competent defense than during the Dykes Era, but doesn't have the personnel to be dominant in 2017—particularly with the lack of pass rush. Like Nick said, the main difference between the first two games had more to do with the opponents. UNC had a slew of new players in their offense and didn't do much. Weber State had an experienced QB who was able to do enough running to open up his passing game.
Given Shea Patterson's experience, I do think he will have plenty of success against the Cal defense ... unfortunately.
boomtho: I agree with what Nick and Ruey said so will just add a few incremental thoughts. First, Cal certainly struggled to stop the run against UNC... in the first half. The second half was much better, as the defense was able to stop UNC from turning those stretch plays and tosses into huge gains. Second (and it's a bit worrisome that this could be a reason), Cal was without one of its leading pass rushers against Weber State, Cameron Saffle. Weber State used the lack of pressure beautifully, especially on the deep balls where they went max protect with only 1–2 receivers running deep routes. In terms of the difference between the games, I actually think UNC hurt their cause by trying to play both Harris and Surratt. Surratt clearly looked better and they probably could have grabbed a few more points if he'd played more.
RCR: Ross Bowers was dynamic in game one but took on more of a game manager role in game two as Patrick Laird seemingly broke out. What can we expect to see from Bowers? What are his strengths and weaknesses?
Nick Kranz: After two games, I think it's safe to say that Ross Bowers isn't a guy who will be going deep a ton—very few passes have traveled more than 10–15 yards past the line of scrimmage and there have been a ton of short passes. He's reasonably accurate and he's mobile enough to keep plays alive, although he tends to be a little more jumpy in the pocket than you'd prefer.
The difference between game 1 and game 2 is that Cal's receivers had lots of success running after the catch against UNC and minimal success doing the same against Weber. It's generally something that Cal is good at—flooding the field with athletic pass-catching options and challenging defenders to make plays in space. If I were Wesley McGriff, one of my key focuses would be on a coverage scheme that prevents YAC plays for Cal's pass catchers.
Ruey Yen: As the season progresses, I expect the Cal offensive plan to allow Ross Bowers to take more chances down the field. The game plans thus far have been to let the Cal receivers do bulk of the work after the catch. Bowers has not shown the accuracy in very limited chances and also has not yet been depended on to win a game with his arm. If the Cal–Ole Miss game turns into a shootout, Bowers may be pressed into throwing down the field more this Saturday.
boomtho: Bowers is, first and foremost, an inexperienced QB playing in a very new system (compared to what Sonny Dykes ran last year). I would continue to expect inconsistency through large parts of this year, especially given some of the injury issues at the skill positions (RB Tre Watson is now out of the year and jitterbug WR Melquise Stovall has yet to play, though no reports have filtered it). Bowers strengths are his ability to evade pressure while keeping his eyes downfield and his accuracy on short throws, especially screens or RB flats. I think he struggles to get the ball deep (which somewhat neutralizes Demetris Robertson's biggest strength) and he can sometimes try to string plays out too long and make too much happen (instead of just taking an incompletion or short loss).
RCR: How does the loss of senior running back Tre Watson affect this team in this game but also moving forward?
Nick Kranz: It hurts, there's no way around it. Veteran Vic Enwere is nominally the back-up, but he has struggled to start the season and might be used only in short-yardage situations. Former walk-on Patrick Laird caught lightning in a bottle in the second half against Weber State and the question is whether or not he will be able to continue his hot streak against higher-level competition, particularly now that the secret is out. But Watson was certainly Cal's most well-rounded, proven option to carry the ball and even if Laird is 100% real, Cal's depth will be very thin.
Ruey Yen: Depth across almost every position was a concern coming in to the season. Losing Tre Watson for the season hurts. While the emergence of Patrick Laird in the first two weeks has assuaged the loss of Watson a bit, the key to the running game would be for Vic Enwere to stop dancing toward the outside (where he has had almost zero success in the first two weeks) and run directly through the middle.
boomtho: On the field, we lose our most versatile, experienced back, which I actually think hurts the pass game more than the run game. Watson had the skills to be a real weapon coming out of the backfield on passing plays. Patrick Laird's out-of-nowhere emergence these last two games may be the saving grace for the run game, given our power back—Vic Enwere—has struggled to get going so far.
There's probably a bigger loss which is impossible for any of us to quantify though—Watson was a true locker room leader and his injury may create somewhat of a void, especially on offense where a lot of the players are younger.
RCR: Which two defensive players do you think are the biggest key to a Golden Bears victory?
Nick Kranz: The hard part is deciding which two players to take from the secondary. I'll go with cornerback Marloshawn Franklin and the unknown safety (safeties?) playing alongside Quentin Tartabull. Franklin is Cal's most experienced starting cornerback, but he's taken his lumps over the years and had a couple of rough moments against Weber State. Cal will need a bounce-back game from him. Meanwhile, we don't really know who is going to be playing alongside Tartabull. Will it be previously injured starter Jaylinn Hawkins? Previously injured back-up Ashtyn Davis? Converted quarterback Luke Rubenzer? Converted linebacker Derron Brown? All of the above in rotation? Either way, Ole Miss will probably see that spot as a position to attack.
Ruey Yen: Senior linebacker Devante Downs has been easily the top defensive player for the Bears in the first two weeks. His ability to force turnovers (1 INT and 2 forced fumbles) has earned him Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week in Week 1 and Pro Football Focus Pac-12 Defensive Team honors for Week 2. My second pick would be the former QB turned DB Luke Rubenzer as a wildcard. Rubenzer has shown great instinct to get the loose ball on a fumble or to grab the ball out of the air on a deflection.
In case it is not obvious from my two picks, I think the Cal defense will need to get turnovers to stop Ole Miss.
boomtho: I agree with Devante Downs, who has been a monster so far this year. For my second player, I'll go with DE James Looney. Looney is undersized (especially vs some of the players in the SEC), but is highly disruptive and uses his agility to knife between gaps, managing to impact both passing plays and running plays.
RCR: What's your prediction? Give a score and how it gets there.
Nick Kranz: Man do I hate trying to predict these early season games. Ole Miss functionally hasn't played anybody, while Cal somehow looked better against an ACC team on the road than they did against a Big Sky team at home. Throw in two entirely new coaching staffs trying to replace a ton of graduating production, along with two teams with offenses that are better than defenses, playing after dark on the west coast? It's tough to find a better recipe for unpredictable insanity.
I'm pretty sure that Mississippi is meaningfully better, but not so much better that home field advantage/travel won't come into play. What concerns me as a Cal fan is that Mississippi's strength (passing offense) appears to match with Cal's weaknesses, which is why I think the most likely outcome is a shootout defeat along the lines of 41–36 in favor of the visitors. But honestly, very little that might transpire on the field would surprise me.
Ruey Yen: I do think the success that the Ole Miss offense has had from playing nobodies will translate to this game. Throw in some #Pac12AfterDark magic, I see a shootout where the Cal Bears will mount a fourth-quarter comeback from being down two scores; the game will come down to one final drive. I'll take the home team Bears via a 41–38 score (unless that final game winning TD gets called back because Cal has the worst luck).
boomtho: What I saw last week vs Weber State really worried me. As WR Rashid Shaheed ran by our secondary (over and over and over again), I began having nightmares of the same thing happening... only with SEC-caliber WRs running those routes, receiving the ball from an SEC-caliber QB.
I think Cal loses by 10 points or so—call it 38–28.
Thanks again to these guys for such thorough responses. Let’s give ‘em hell on Saturday night.