The Cal Golden Bears are mired in the midst of a six-game losing streak and they look to bounce back against the Arizona Wildcats. The Wildcats are going to provide a difficult test for the struggling Golden Bears. The Wildcats feature a powerful running game that should give fits to a beleaguered Cal run defense. Cal’s offense also faces off with a tough Wildcat defense that is 20th in the nation in scoring defense. It is going to be a tough task for the Bears to knock off Arizona, but here are the five keys for Cal on Saturday.
1. Get the running game going:
The Cal Bears have failed to establish a consistent and effective running game over the course of a season. As a team, the Golden Bears have rushed for a combined 876 yards in eight games. The 109.5 rushing yards per game is 110th in the nation.
The Bears hopes that Brendan Bigelow was ready to break out have not been realized, as he has failed to get anything going with just 280 yards and no touchdowns. Reserve running backs Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco have proven to be more effective with almost as many yards on a little more than half the carries.
Their inability to run come from a number of issues, such as poor execution and multiple injuries along the offensive line. The Cal offensive line has been devastated by key injuries and their run blocking and pass protection have suffered. The ineffective running has cost Bigelow his job, as he has been moved to slot receiver. That means the bulk of the responsibility of is going to fall on the shoulders of the freshman, Muhammad.
The running game is key to the Bears’ offense is the running game. The running game is vital in sustaining drives, as it create manageable situations on second and third down. It also creates options for the team in short-yardage and red zone situations. The running game will also take pressure off of the freshman quarterback Jared Goff and take the responsibility of moving the offense off of his shoulders.
2. Convert on third downs:
The Golden Bears have been absolutely dreadful on third down. Cal ranks in the bottom third in the nation in third down conversion percentage at 37.3 percent. It has been a major reason for the Bears inability to get the offense rolling. They are just not able to sustain drives.
The lack of a running and poor pass protection have been the main component for their inability to convert on third downs. With the running game unable to gain chunks of yards on first and second down, that leads to to third and long. That makes the Bear’s offense predictable and allows team to come after quarterback Tyler Goff and bring heavy pressure.
The Cal offense is not predicated on controlling the clock, but they need sustained drives to move down the field to put themselves in position to score points. Winning on third downs is the key to getting the offense restarted. In Cal’s lone win, the Bears converted at a 50 percent rate, while being below 50 percent in every other game this year.
3. Convert in the red zone:
When the Bears have sustained drives and find themselves in the opponent’s red zone, they more often than not struggle to put the ball into the end zone. Their poor red zone efficiency plays in a key role in their ranking 96th in the nation in scoring offense with just 22.9 points per game. During conference play, it has been worse, with a league low 16.4 points per game.
The Bears rank in the bottom 13 teams in the nation and worst in the Pac-12 in red zone efficiency, as they come away with points just 71 percent of the time. They have been in the red zone 31 times in eight games, while putting up points on 22 of those drives. On those 22, the Bears scored touchdowns on 13 of them and kicked field goals on nine of them. The Bear’s 41.9 percent touchdown percentage in the red zone is among the worst in the nation.
This is a key area the Bears must improve, there is no debating that. Good teams hover around 85 percent, while average teams score 80 percent of the time. Coach Sonny Dykes’ high-powered offense has put up plenty of yards, but has not put up the pile of points that were promised.
4. Slow down Ka’Deem Carey and the Arizona running game:
A battered Bears defense is about to face off with another one of the Pac-12′s top running backs. After giving up 241 yards on the ground to Washington’s Bishop Sankey, the Bears get a chance to slow down Arizona’s Ka’Deem Carey. Carey ranks second in the Pac-12 with 920 yards, behind Sankey’s 1,162 yards, but on 43 fewercarries.
Carey commands a ton of respect from opposing defenses, as he is likely to be the first running back taken in next year’s NFL draft. Carey is a speedy back with great agility and vision that leaves defenders grasping at air. For as great as he is, the Bears cannot commit stopping just him with the amount of weapons the Wildcats have.
Last week, the Colorado Buffaloes sold out to stop Carey and force quarterback B.J. Denker to beat them. He responded in kind with 457 yards of total offense, 265 passing yards and 192 rushing yards. The Buffs may have held Carey to his lowest output of the season, but it came at a price. Reserve running back Daniel Jenkins added in 87 yards on nine carries, as well.
Arizona loves to run the ball and they do it well, with the 11th-best running offense in the nation. On the other hand, the Bears feature the 90th-ranked rush defense in the nation. For the Bears to have a chance, the front seven is going to have to take their play to a whole other level. They can’t just focus on stopping Carey, as Denker and Jenkins can exploit an overaggressive defense. They need to maintain gap integrity and tackle much better in space.
5. Win the turnover battle:
Cal has struggled with ball security all season and it has burned the Bears on numerous occasions. The Bears have the third worst turnover margin in the nation with a minus-12. They have turned the ball over 23 times, while only collecting 11 takeaways. They lead the nation in fumbles lost with 13 and a lot of those have been strip sacks on Goff.
Goff has taken measures to prevent fumbling the football, as he tried to use gloves in Seattle. He did not turn the ball over against the Huskies. It was a step in the right direction, but it is an issue that needs to be observed over the course of the season.
Goff has also had issues with interceptions, as well. He has thrown seven on the season and three in the last four games. Goff’s interceptions are not extremely troubling, as the mostly seem like a young player pressing to make a big play. He will learn from experience to take what is given to him and not force throws into coverage to make a play.
The defense, on the other hand, needs to step up and help out the offense by giving them extra possession by taking the ball away from opposing offenses. Cal has collected seven fumbles and picked off four passes. The secondary needs to be better at making plays on the ball while it is in the air. They have been picked on all season and they do not scare opposing quarterbacks. An extra interception or two could be what changes the course of a game. Turnovers are going to be critical to the Bears on Saturday.