CAL VS. UCLA, Pasadena, Saturday, Oct. 12, 7:30 p.m.
Cal has little reason to be optimistic about its chances in its Oct. 12 road game against No. 11 UCLA, even though Cal played its best game of 2012 when it beat the Bruins 43-17.
Three factors lead to pessimism this time as first-year head coach Sonny Dykes tries to prevent the season from spiraling out of control.
First, the young Bears seem to be getting worse. They played their best game in their opener against Northwestern and have not shown that form since. They were out of their Sept. 28 road game against Oregon in the first quarter, and Washington State dominated the Bears 44-22 on Oct. 5 on Cal's home field.
Cal turned the ball over 10 times in those two games.
"When you are a very fragile team that doesn't have a lot of confidence, it probably has an impact on you," Dykes said of the turnovers. "We have no confidence right now."
Second, Cal's defense, already giving up lots of yardage and points, has severe injury problems that will make things more challenging. Its secondary has been so decimated by injuries that wide receivers Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper have been practicing on defense in case of emergency. On Thursday, Cal announced that cornerback Stefan McClure will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury.
The Bears rank 121st of 123 FBS teams in total defense, and there is no reason to expect that to improve with the injuries, especially against UCLA.
The Bruins are the third reason for concern. They rank fourth in the country in total offense, and versatile quarterback Brett Hundley ranks 15th individually in total offense.
Cal intercepted Hundley four times and sacked him six times last year. But it's hard to imagine Cal, with its defensive limitations, being able to contain Hundley this time, especially on the Bruins' home field at the Rose Bowl.
UCLA running back Jordon James, who is averaging 115.8 yards per game, is unlikely to play against Cal because of an ankle injury. That will hurt the Bruins, but they have enough depth at the position to run the ball effectively against Cal.
Cal's hopes of keeping the game close rest with freshman quarterback Jared Goff. After getting pulled in the first half of the game against Oregon, Goff responded by passing for 504 yards against Washington State, setting a school record for passing yardage in a game.
Harper had 14 catches for 231 receiving yards against Washington State, and he must have another big game for the Bears to stay in contention.
Avoiding a blowout is the mission for Cal this week. Cal has lost nine straight games to FBS opponents, its lone win this season being a less-than-impressive 37-30 victory over Portland State, an FCS team.
Another lopsided loss could further demoralize the Bears, who could be looking at a 1-11 season.
CAL PLAYERS TO WATCH
--QB Jared Goff, a true freshman, set a school record with 504 passing yards against Washington State and ranks third nationally in yards passing per game at 462.2. He will play in his second road game against UCLA after getting pulled in the first quarter of his only previous road game against Oregon. How he performs on the road remains an issue.
--WRs Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs - The two sophomores combined for 74 receptions and 988 receiving yards in five Harper had 14 catches for 231 receiving yards against Washington State. They need to have big games against UCLA, which has a pretty good pass defense.
--DT Deandre Coleman - Coleman has 4.5 tackles for loss, which leads the team. With Cal's secondary decimated by injuries, someone on the Bears' defensive front has to make some big plays for Cal to stay in the game against UCLA's powerful attack. Coleman is the most likely candidate.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal has a 32-50-1 record against UCLA in the series. Cal played its best game of the 2012 season when it beat UCLA 43-17, but UCLA beat Cal 31-14 in 2011, which was the last time they met on the Bruins' home field. Even though they are in different divisions of the Pac-12, UCLA and Cal meet every year because of an arrangement reached with the conference when it was expanded to 12 teams.
QUOTE: "Of our starting 11 (on defense) coming out of spring, 10 are out (now). I think we're getting better. I don't know the numbers show it. Our mindset is good, but at the same time, a lot of these guys have never played." --Cal coach Sonny Dykes, on Cal's defensive struggles and the injuries to his defensive personnel.
ASSESSING CAL'S RUNNING GAME: Cal figured to rely on its passing game in Sonny Dykes' spread offense, but it expected to get considerably more out of its running game than it has so far. The Bears are averaging just 2.9 yards per rushing attempt in an offense that typically enhances a runner's yards-per-attempt average. They averaged 2.3 yards per attempts against Washington State. Starter Brendan Bigelow is averaging just 3.7 yards per carry, and Daniel Lasco is slightly better at 4.3. Freshman RB Khalfani Muhammad has shown potential as a break-away back, but it's uncertain whether he will play against UCLA. The Bruins are good, but not great, against the run.
ASSESSING CAL'S PASSING GAME: Cal's passing game in Sonny Dykes' spread offense was productive in four of the first five games, falling flat in the Sept. 28 game against Oregon. The Bears rank fourth in the nation in passing offense, and QB Jared Goff is third in the country in passing yards per game at 402.6, despite being benched for three quarters of the Oregon game. He set a school record with 504 passing yards against Washington State. WRs Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs have been productive and helped keep the Bears in games. The biggest shortcoming has been pass protection. The Bears have yielded 18 sacks in five games, and only six teams have allowed more sacks than that.
ASSESSING CAL'S RUN DEFENSE: Washington State was the first opponent not to rush for at least 220 yards and average at least 5.2 yards per carry against Cal. But that does not mean the Bears' run defense is improving, because the Cougars seldom run the ball against anyone. Cal does not have standout run stopper among its front seven. Cal will have trouble with UCLA, which ranks 15th in the country in rushing offense, and averages 5.3 yards per carry. Defending the option will be a challenge.
ASSESSING CAL'S PASS DEFENSE: The Bears rank 115th of 123 FBS teams in passing yards allowed per game, and with all the Cal defensive backs sidelined with injuries, it's hard to imagine that will improve against UCLA and Bruins' QB Brett Hundley. The Bears intercepted Hundley four times and sacked him six times last year, but Cal has provided no hints it can duplicate that this year. Cal has only five sacks this season, and has a completely different defensive scheme under new defensive coordinator Andy Buh.
ASSESSING CAL'S SPECIAL TEAMS: Scouting the special teams: PK Vincenzo D'Amato has hit 11 of 12 field goal attempts this season and has made his last five. His longest was a 46-yarder and his only miss was from 46 yards out. Redshirt freshman P Cole Leininger is averaging 42.4 yards per kick. Khalfani Muhammad has been a decent kick-returner, and Bryce Treggs has been adequate as a punt returner.
--DT Mustafa Jalil will have knee surgery that will force him to miss the rest of the season. He did not play at all this year.
--CB Stefan McClure will miss the rest of the season with a knee injury he sustained on Saturday against Washington State.
--CB Kam Jackson started the game against Washington State despite an ankle injury, but was replaced early in the game because of that injury. He probably will play against UCLA.
--CB Joel Willis was hospitalized because of a head/neck injury sustained against Washington State, but he has a good chance to play against UCLA.
--LB Jalen Jefferson probably will play against UCLA despite suffered a head injury against Washington State.
--DE Brennan Scarlett has not played this season because of a hand injury, and he probably will not play against UCLA.
--MLB Nick Forbes has missed the first five games with a back injury. He is getting closer to returning, but it's unclear when he will return this season, if at all.
--RB Khalfani Muhammad did not play against Washington State after suffering a head injury against Oregon. He is expected to play against UCLA.