Wow, after the first weekend of Pac-12 games, it’s tempting to revise our view of where Cal fits into the picture.
Washington State loses in Seattle to a mediocre Rutgers team that traveled 3,000 miles. Colorado loses to in-state rival Colorado State. Washington opens the Chris Petersen era with a 17-16 win at Hawaii, which was 1-11 a year ago. Oregon State is hardly overwhelming against Portland State.
Suddenly, you look at Cal’s schedule and there are more potential wins than we initially envisioned.
But I think it’s worth slowing down and letting this thing proceed at a reasonable pace.
Sure, the Bears’ 31-24 win at Northwestern was a significant breakthrough. It also was a flawed victory, exposing much that must improve.
Here’s what I liked:
— Jared Goff played very well for most of the game. He threw three touchdowns, including a beautiful 76-yarder to Trevor Davis on a play where he got the safety to bite to nicely faking a dump-off to the left flat. His one interception was on a ball off the hands of Daniel Lasco. (And Goff never again has to face NU linebacker Collin Ellis, who has intercepted him three times in two seasons).
— The change of pace with freshman quarterback Luke Rubenzer caught the Wildcats off guard and was very effective. He was the best running threat on either team. Rubenzer was quick and decisive and seemed not the least bit nervous.
— The defense was light years better than a year ago. All you need to remember is Cal surrendered 335 first-half points a year ago, and held Northwestern to seven through two quarters. The Bears made a couple big stops to turn back NU drives and Jalen Jefferson made the play of the day with his late-game INT. Do you really believe last year’s defense would have figured out a way to turn back the opposition in the fourth quarter as the Bears did Saturday.
— A few drops, but Cal’s receiving corps otherwise delivered as expected. They have lots of options and should be productive all season.
— James Langford got just one field goal opportunity — a 20-yarder that he converted — but he nailed three kickoffs for touchbacks. Just what the coaching staff wanted from his big leg.
— They won a game where the other team was penalized just once for zero yards. You may draw your own conclusions as to why Northwestern avoided flags, but Cal isn’t likely to race such a disparity again this season.
— Finally, the Bears’ fight and confidence was markedly different. Even the most optimistic Cal fan could not have envisioned a 31-7 lead on the road against a Big Ten team. Then, when the wheels looked like they might come off, they avoided panic and won the game.
Here’s what I didn’t like so much:
— I thought Northwestern looked terrible. Keep in mind, this is a team that now has lost eight of its past nine games. QB Trevor Siemian missed high and wide on passes repeatedly, and when he was on target his receivers had the drops. They may improve, they may not. But on Saturday, the Wildcats weren’t very good.
— The Cal running game we were promised wasn’t there. Mostly, didn’t see the north-south attack the coaching staff had talked up. Four running backs shared 26 carries and produced just 77 yards. That’s 3 yards a pop. Not good enough. The Bears’ two best gains of the day were produced by Rubenzer and Goff.
— Will be interesting to watch how the coaching staff utilizes Rubenzer going forward. His redshirt year is history, so they will play him every week. But the element of surprise is gone; opponents now will have game tape to study. The Bears are going to have to let him throw a bit so that every time No. 8 trots onto the field the defense doesn’t know what’s coming.
— Good teams don’t allow the other team to score 14 points in 25 seconds. Stuff happens, but the only chance Northwestern had Saturday was if the Bears lent them a hand. And they did.
Cal plays its home opener Saturday against Sacramento State, which went on the road to beat fellow Football Championship Subdivision opponent Incarnate Word 49-13 this weekend on the strength of five touchdown passes from Garrett Safron.
The Hornets’ most recent game vs. a Pac-12 team was a 55-0 loss at Arizona State a year ago and they lost 41-3 at Cal in 2005. But they are not without a big moment against the conference, with a 29-28 upset win at Oregon State 29-28 just three years ago.