Well, the Bears won a game, so they’ve got that going for them. This week they try for win No. 2, and if that happens it’ll be their first “winning streak” since defeating UCLA and Washington State in consecutive weeks in 2012 (the Wazzu win was also their last win versus a BCS opponent until last weekend). Not to look too far ahead, but Cal hasn’t won three in a row since the first three games of 2011. For the record, sophomore quarterback Jared Goff was then a 16-year-old junior in high school.
You’ve got to win two before you have a chance to win three, but if Cal can’t beat Sacramento State this weekend in Strawberry Canyon (Noon PT, Pac-12 Network), then … come on. The Hornets did score 49 points in their opening game win, but they played something called “Incarnate Word,” which sounds like the real-life equivalent of the joke school that all college basketball teams seem to have on their schedule, “St. Mary’s Sisters of the Blind.” Nevertheless, after one game the Hornets lead Cal in all relevant statistical categories, from total offense to red zone defense (Sac State is tied for first in the nation there) and kick returns. But it’s one thing to put up those kinds of numbers against The Sisters of the Blind, and another to do it against a BCS school, even if it is the rebuilding Bears.
In this space last week special mention was made of Cal’s Griffin Piatt, a wide receiver turned safety from Moraga getting his first collegiate action after missing last year due to injury. Piatt showed positive signs as Stefan McClure’s backup against Northwestern, getting his first career interception in the second quarter. But that ensuing drive ended on a Cal interception thrown not by Jared Goff, but Luke Rubenzer.
The whole two quarterback thing was a bit curious. Rubenzer replaced Goff several times during the game, and I can’t help but think that’s more of an indictment of the Cal running game than it is of Goff’s quarterbacking. Rubenzer led the Bears with 48 rushing yards, more than double the next man. The next man happened to be Cal’s starting tailback, Khalfani Muhammad, who’s single-game yardage high is 90 and had a team-leading 445 yards last season. Neither of those numbers are very good. This week I expect Muhammad and the rest of the backs to get plenty of work against the Hornets, and for Rubenzer’s role to be greatly reduced early (as in not at all), and when Cal has an insurmountable lead, Rubenzer will play — in other words, probably most of the second half.
The rest of the Cal defense looked good early against the Wildcats, but it took an extraordinary effort by Jalen Jefferson in the final minutes (a sack and the diving game-clinching interception) to keep it from looking as bad as last year late in the game. Cal radio play-by-play man Joe Starkey noted at halftime that the Midwestern humidity could affect Cal’s defensive performance later in the game, and I have to wonder whether that was something he said because it was true, or because he wanted Bear fans to expect the letdown that had to be coming. That is up for interpretation.
However, with nobody out for the season (which feels like a bonus after last year), everyone should feel pretty good heading into Saturday. Yet the Hornets have stung Pac-12 teams in two of the last three years — in 2011, a big upset at Oregon State (a stunner I attended), and in 2012 a victory at Colorado (which signified more about Colorado than it did about Sac State). But the head coach during that time is no longer there. Marshall Sperbeck abruptly resigned in April, and the rumored cause was NCAA violations. Jody Sears, who had just been hired as defensive coordinator, was promoted, although whether this is a stop-gap measure or a long-term solution is uncertain. The Hornets have an interim athletic director, just like the Bears.
Should Cal win Saturday? Yes, of course they should. But if they don’t prepare like any opponent can beat them (and any opponent can), then they very well could be stung. If it does happen — for the record, I don’t expect it to — then all the good feelings captured by the Week 1 victory will be gone. Then they won’t have anything going for them, which would be bad.