WNUR’s Michael Stern (@michaeljstern23) previews Northwestern’s next opponent, the California Golden Bears.
Last season, the Cal Bears welcomed Northwestern to Berkley to open the Sonny Dykes era. Unfortunately for the Bears, the Dykes era started the way the Jeff Tedford era ended, with lots and lots of losing. Cal lost to the Wildcats on opening night, 44-30, and went on to drop all 11 of its contests against division 1 opponents. The Bears’ lone win was against FCS foe Portland State, and that was only by a touchdown. Cal will definitely be improved this year (there’s nowhere to go but up), but will the Bears be competitive in the Pac-12 (and against Northwestern) this season?
Offense: Jared Goff started all 12 games for Cal in 2013 under center, and put up video game numbers. Goff threw for 3,508 yards and 18 touchdowns; not bad for a true freshman. In his second go-around at quarterback, Goff returns many skill players who he built chemistry with in 2013. Chris Harper (852 yards) and Bryce Treggs (751) were the Bears’ top two receivers last year, and they return to a Cal lineup that likes to spread the field with four wide-outs. Kenny Lawler (347 yards) and Darius Powe (231 yards) saw some action last year and should start at the other two receiver spots. Brendan Bigelow, last year’s starting running back, declared for the NFL draft as a junior but went undrafted. High school track star Khalfani Muhammad led the team last season with 445 rushing yards and will replace Bigelow. Muhammad is also a dangerous kickoff returner, while Treggs returns punts. Look for the Bears to run lots of trick plays (see their fake field goal last year) and lots of plays, period, as Dykes runs a hurry-up offense. The kicking game will be an adventure as reliable Vincenzo D’Amato has graduated, leaving Cal Poly transfer James Langford as the starter, but Langford hasn’t kicked in a game since 2011.
Defense: Coordinator Andy Buh was reassigned after last season’s defensive debacle, and Art Kaufman was hired to take over the defense. Kaufman has worked with longtime head coach Tommy Tubberville at Ole Miss, Texas Tech, and Cincinnati, and now heads west to Berkeley for one of his toughest tasks yet. Cal returns two linebackers and two cornerbacks to its 4-3 scheme, but that’s about it. Those cornerbacks, Michael Lowe and Cameron Walker, did rank first and second on last year’s Bears in tackles, which seems good because they are returning, but could actually be a negative because the opposition went through the front seven frequently. Linebacker Michael Barton led returning defenders with eight tackles for loss last year, and his running mate Jalen Jefferson returns as well. Cal’s two starting safeties appeared in a combined seven games last year due to injuries, but Avery Sebastian and Stefan McClure should be serviceable if they can stay healthy. Defensive line is the main area of concern, as no starters return from a unit that wasn’t terrific last season. Kyle Kragen, who started five games on the line in 2013, has the most experience of the bunch, but Mustafa Jalil and Brennan Scarlett were injured all of last season, and Harrison Wifley is a converted tight end who hasn’t seen much game action.
Schedule: Cal has a challenging schedule again this year with a trip to USC along with visits from UCLA, Washington, and rival Stanford. A Friday night game against Oregon at the San Francisco 49ers’ new stadium in Santa Clara should be an exciting event. With so many offensive skill players returning, the Bears should be improved this season, but they still have a long way to go. Cal doesn’t get many easy games at home, so I think they will finish the season 3-9, a two game improvement from 2013.