Golden Bears Face Toughest Test Yet Against #5 Utah


Things are going pretty well in Berkeley, where the California Golden Bears are ranked 23rd in the nation thanks to their first 5-0 start in eight years. But the Bears face their biggest challenge yet this weekend when they head to Rice-Eccles Stadium in Salt Lake City to take on the fifth-ranked Utah Utes. Cal and Utah are the lone remaining unbeaten teams in the Pac-12, but after Saturday night, only one will be left standing.

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Utah is 4-0, and fresh off a 62-20 thumping of the Oregon Ducks two weeks ago. Cal has made it a habit of playing close, down-to-the-wire games, as each of their last three games have been decided by a touchdown or less.

The Bears’ improved defense will be put to a big test against the Utes. Utah features a read option, and is one of the best rushing offenses in the Pac-12. Senior running back Devontae Booker will be the leader, as he has totaled 443 yards and four touchdowns this year, after being named First Team All Pac-12 in 2014.

Utah’s quarterback, senior Travis Wilson, has 23 carries for 202 yards and three touchdowns this season, but 100 of those yards came against Oregon in their last game. At 6’7″, Wilson has long strides and can cover some serious ground, but he’s also a smart runner who can find holes and burn a defense. He may not look all that athletic when he’s running, but he is very dangerous. Wilson has missed a game this year with a shoulder injury, but returned against Oregon and showed no ill effects.

Cal leads the Pac-12 with 18 takeaways and 18 sacks, and to beat the Utes, they will need to play the same style of opportunistic, ball-hawking defense. Senior defensive end Kyle Kragen has been a force over the past two games, racking up four sacks, but he will need to be able to contain the outside run game this week as well. Damariay Drew and Darius White each have two interceptions so far this year, and it will help the Bears’ defense immensely if they can be around the ball again.

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Utah is the most complete team the Bears have seen up to this point, but if there is a relative weakness, it’s in their pass defense. Utah’s pass defense (238.5 yards per game) is ranked 83rd in the nation, while the Bears passing offense (358.4 YPG) is ranked ninth-best in the nation. If quarterback Jared Goff wants to make his Heisman campaign a little more enticing, beating the nation’s fifth-ranked team is a great place to start.

Goff has the numbers that would suggest he’d be able to take advantage of the Utah pass defense. Through five games, Goff is completing over 70 percent of his passes, averaging 326 yards through the air, and has thrown 15 touchdowns to four interceptions. His targets will have to be at the top of their game as well. Junior Kenny Lawler has been Goff’s favorite target again, as he leads the Bears with 27 receptions, 399 yards, and eight touchdowns (second in the nation).

Besides Lawler, Goff has a ton of receivers to work with. Darius Powe (18 catches, 166 yards, one touchdown), Bryce Treggs (17-272-2), Maurice Harris (11-124-3), Trevor Davis (12-250-1), and tight end Stephen Anderson (17-198-0) will all figure to have an impact if the Bears’ passing game is working.

Utah’s defense is still impressive, as they are allowing just 18.8 points per game, and the secondary has snatched seven interceptions. The big playmaker back there is sophomore safety Marcus Williams, who has three picks to his own record.

History is not on the Bears’ side for this matchup. They have lost nine straight games against ranked teams, dating back to October 6th, 2012, when they beat 25th-ranked UCLA 43-17. Furthermore, the Bears have lost seven straight against top-five teams, dating back to September 29th, 2003, when the Bears upset the third-ranked USC Trojans 34-31 in three overtimes. However, this is the most talented the Bears have been in a long time, and with Goff at the helm, they have their best chance to come away with another upset.

The schedule doesn’t get any easier down the road, as the Bears will face #20 UCLA, #17 USC (who were just upset by Washington), Oregon, Oregon State, Stanford and Arizona State to close out the season. But the Bears have sights set only on the game in front of them. In the week leading up to the game, senior safety Stefan McClure said “‘We’re really just focused onto the next game now.” Considering this is their toughest matchup so far, and maybe all year, that’s a good idea.

Next: Golden Bears and Goff Continue Their Climbs