The last two times the Cal Bears have started 2-0, they’ve made a bowl game. (They lost both of those games- the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl and 2011 Holiday Bowl, but that’s not important right now.) That they’ve won their first two games this season is certainly a good sign for a team that hasn’t been on a three-game win streak since their sophomore starting QB was a junior at Marin Catholic in 2011. In order to have that three-game win streak, however, they’ll have to beat the team I consider the dark horse contender for the Pac-12 South title, the Arizona Wildcats, in the conference opener for both teams. (Saturday, 7pm PT, Pac-12 Network, KGO 810 AM, or KALX 90.7 FM, if you like student broadcasters.)
It’s the biggest test for Cal’s odd two-quarterback system, which I have been questioning since game one (more specifically, three plays into game one). I understand that Cal’s running game needs a spark, and that’s why Luke Rubenzer comes in, to provide at least the threat of a QB run. Starting QB Jared Goff (the aforementioned Marin Catholic graduate) seems to be saying the right things about it, (i.e., not saying “this sucks”) but you have to wonder why they’re doing this at all. If I ask you who the best player is on the Cal offense, you’ll say “Jared Goff” immediately. I’ll then ask you, “Why should Jared Goff ever not be on the field while Cal is on offense?” and you’ll say, “If he’s hurt.” And I agree with you. Removing Goff for anybody, much less another QB, is a bad idea.
But then what to do with Rubenzer? If Rubenzer really is Cal’s best running threat, why should he not become some sort of hybrid QB/RB/WR, and then both of them are on the field together, all the time? An RB/WR option pass becomes much more of a real option — and a real threat — if Rubenzer lines up anywhere besides under center. If the counter-argument is that would be too distracting to Goff at quarterback, I then want to know what is more distracting than being pulled from the game for no apparent reason, which is what’s happening now to Cal’s starting quarterback?
Last week, Arizona gave up 321 yards passing to Nevada — including more than 80 yards receiving to three different guys — and if not for holding the Wolfpack to two field goals on long drives, Arizona may well have lost the game. Even then, Nevada was driving for the tying score with less than three minutes to play when they didn’t convert on fourth down. Goff threw four scores in the loss to Arizona last year, that’s still his career high (tied it two weeks ago versus Sac State). A better Goff and more options at receiver (six guys have already caught TD passes this season) means an already troubled Wildcat passing defense could be in much more trouble — that is, if Cal doesn’t signal it’s a running play by putting in Rubenzer. I understand he threw his first career touchdown pass against Sacramento State. In fairness, you could have thrown a touchdown pass against Sacramento State. At some point, removing Goff and putting in Rubenzer will backfire on Sonny Dykes and the Cal coaches, and it will backfire loudly.
This game is also obviously the biggest test for the revamped and healthy Cal defense (or does it just seem revamped because it’s healthy?) as the Wildcats have a lot of offensive numbers that seem really good. Top freshman passer (Anu Solomon) and rusher (Nick Wilson), one of four teams in the country with at least 800 passing yards and 800 rushing yards, and they’ve rushed for 200 yards in six straight games and had a 100-yard rusher in 20 straight games. If you recall, after looking like gangbusters in the first half against Northwestern, the Bear defense wore down and needed two great individual plays from junior linebacker Jalen Jefferson to win it. The excuse given then was “Midwestern humidity.” Now, they’ll be in the Sonoran Desert. While it’s not supposed to be crazy-desert hot, this could still become an issue, especially since the Bears are chasing around the top overall offense in the conference (yes, ahead even of Oregon in total yards and average yards per game) and sixth overall.
This thing I am pretty certain of: it will be an odd game. I don’t know what it is, but games in Tucson bring out the weird in Pac-12 teams. Plenty of people are saying shootout, and that’s certainly a possibility, but I see two young teams finding out a whole lot about themselves. Like whether a two-quarterback system really works.