We are less than 100 days from August 30 and the start of the college football season in Evanston against California. Get wound up and excited for that.
If last year’s game was any indication, it should be another exciting matchup between these academically minded major-conference schools as they complete the home and home. Collin Ellis’ two pick-sixes plus a strong effort from Trevor Siemian proved to be enough to hold off California and its budding offense under first-year coach Sonny Dykes. Those storylines will be very much in play as the two teams complete their home and home to start off this season (like they did last season, just at a more reasonable time for us Central Time Zone residents).
California last year had a very rough season. Any year in which you go 1-11 and score just 25.1 points per game with an offense that is supposed to be prolific is going to be rough. But the sense from the Golden Bears camp — at least from the Wildcats perspective and viewing our game against them — is generally upbeat.
Sonny Dykes is entering his second year and bringing that break-neck offensive speed back with an experienced quarterback under his belt. Jared Goff looked like a freshman for much of last year with 18 touchdowns against 10 interceptions — two touchdowns, three interceptions, 450 passing yards and 39-for-64 passing against Northwestern — but showed a ton of promise in Dykes’ hurry-up offense.
This is still a major rebuilding project for the Golden Bears, particularly on the defensive end. Things only seemed to get worse for Cal as the season went on as Goff threw for more than 300 yards in four of his first five games and then could not climb over that mark the rest of the season except for one occasion. He finished the year with two relative clunkers, throwing for fewer than 200 yards in each game.
Cal’s only win last year came against FCS Portland State and there was only one game decided by one possession — a 33-28 loss to Arizona. It feels like Cal can only go up from last year’s disaster record-wise.
Northwestern gets to be test one for the Sonny Dykes team yet again.
Today, we get to learn a little bit more about Cal in Year Two of Sonny Dykes’ experiment in Berkeley from Scott Chong of California Golden Blogs. But first lets get a quick capsule on Cal:
California Quick Hits
2014 Game Day: Northwestern vs California (Ryan Field) – Aug. 30, 2014 – Time/TV TBD
Last Meeting: 2013 – NU 44, California 30
California 2013: 1-11, 0-9
Fitz record vs California: 1-0
NU record vs California since 1995: NU 1-0
All-time series record: NU 2-0
LTP All-time Favorite California player: Aaron Rodgers (worked his butt off to get to Cal, turned them into elite program)
Favorite California game: 1949 Rose Bowl. Could I have picked another one?
Philip Rossman-Reich, Lake The Posts: California’s record was not very good last year, but there were plenty of reasons for it with a new offense that picked up the pace and a freshman quarterback. The Wildcats had a lot of trouble handling Jared Goff in the opener and it was just his first game! How good was the fit with Goff last year and what made him succeed statistically (at least)? Where does he need to improve entering his second year?
Scott Chong, California Golden Blogs: For a true frosh QB, Goff showed a lot of poise to go along with a talented arm. He’s capable of good touch, timing, accuracy, velocity, and can legitimately hit on all routes from shallow to deep. It helped him that he had the benefit of a very talented receiving corps.
Conversely, it really hurt him that we had to replace three out of five starters on the O-line and were never able to establish a consistent running game. We had to pass more than we wanted and he had to force things more often than not. For Goff to really break out this year, we’re going to need better O-line play and establish balance between running/passing.
In terms of individual improvement, he needs to shake off some rust after missing time with off-season shoulder surgery. We need him to improve his decision-making; a lot of the Dykes/Franklin offense relies on run-pass combo plays where certain key defenders are read either pre- or post-snap. When executed at a high level, it’s tough to stop, especially when combined with a fast tempo. We need him to make the easy throw consistently to move the chains and not necessarily push for the big play.
PRR: A lot of the attention with new coach Sonny Dykes turned to the offense and the fast pace he brought in. When you go 1-11 though, questions have to be brought up about the defense, particularly with some of the offenses you see in the Pac-12. What were the bright spots on the defense? What is the defensive outlook for 2014?
Scott: Bright spots on last year’s defense were few and far between. Cameron Walker acquitted himself well for a true frosh playing out of position at safety. Besides that, perhaps the best way to look at least year’s defense is that there were so many key injuries it made for easy rationalization of how historically bad we looked.
The defensive outlook for 2014 is cautiously optimistic. The new DC and position coaches appear to be significant upgrades over their predecessors. The big ifs are whether we get our key guys back from injury and whether they’re able to perform at a high level. Even with reinforcements, we look to be light on the D-line, especially at tackle, and our corners will be relatively young/inexperienced. Best case is something serviceable; we certainly don’t expect to go from disastrous to dominating in a year.
PRR: Sonny Dykes obviously plays a really exciting brand of football. Who wouldn’t want to play for an offense where you sling the ball around like Cal does. What effect has Cal had on recruiting two years in? Are things looking up in Berkeley?
Scott: Going 5-7 ([Jeff] Tedford) then 1-11 (Dykes) certainly doesn’t help with recruiting. We lost a number of highly regarded recruits because of our record and then because we had to fire our DC and several position coaches. In spite of this, it still feels like our coaching staff recruits well and has managed to remain competitive. The biggest undercurrent for the new recruiting approach is finding guys with the appropriate fit for Cal. In Tedford’s last years, he reached on too many guys who were academically questionable or who were flat out overrated with regards to stars relative to actual toughness/playing ability. Coach Dykes is trying to change the whole culture of our program and that means finding the right types of players. Since the ink on 1-11 is still drying, it’s too soon to tell how that’s working out.
Scott: Competent play from the defense and better O-line play on offense will let us run the Dykes/Franklin offense the way it’s supposed to be run. That gives us a puncher’s chance in what will likely be a number of high-scoring back/forth shoot-outs. I’d predict 5 wins +/- 1, though a whole heck of a lot will need to go right for 6. Four is much more likely, but it’s too early in the year to get that depressing. Moving beyond wins/losses, we want to see competitive football as well as signs that this young team is improving.
PRR: What should we expect when Cal visits Evanston this year? Is this the makings of a nifty little rivalry?
Scott: I’d predict a shoot-out. I doubt that our defense will do much to stop your offense either, especially if your O-line/QB play is better and your star RB is back from injury. If it looks like our offense is running on all cylinders, your guys will probably fake injuries again and your coach will deny it. (This is not why we lost the game last, fwiw.)
The post-game tension between Dykes/Fitzgerald makes for an interesting storyline that probably helps build the feeling of a rivalry that might be more grudging than nifty. It’s too bad; off the field, I get the sense that both fan bases have a lot in common. I’ve enjoyed interacting with a lot of Northwestern fans over the past year.
PRR: Many thanks to Scott for joining us here and shedding some light on Cal entering this year’s season opener. We are looking forward to kicking off the season right. Hopefully I didn’t sprain my wrist typing that fast. . . too soon? Be sure to check him and the rest of the crew out at California Golden Blogs for great coverage of the Golden Bears.