Heading into Saturday's big College GameDay, Top-25, and undefeated-off game between the California Golden Bears and the Utah Utes. Get ready for some lazy writing where we just email questions instead of sitting down and conducting interviews—just the way you like it!
1. Utah's defense has been excellent to start the season, but I think it's fair to say they also haven't been tested against a strong passing game yet (lol Oregon's QB situation!). Do you think Cal will be able to have success passing down field?
Shane Roberts (SR): I think Cal will have success passing down field for a couple reasons. First, Goff is a stud, so he's going to beat Utah from time-to-time; and to go along with that, the Utes play a press man defense, so the corners will be on islands which can allow for the big play to happen. However, Utah wants to limit those downfield passes and if Utah's secondary can buy some time for the pass rush, then Utah will do just that.
Alex Stark (AS): Cal's passing game worries me. Jared Goff is excellent as are his wide receivers. Utah has struggled against WSU's Air Raid the previous two seasons, but I do think this is the best secondary Utah has had since joining the Pac-12. Marcus Williams is a ball hawk and Tevin Carter is an enforcer at the safety position.
(LW note: You remember Tevin Carter! He used to play at Cal, which means he's probably going to have the game-winning pick-six on Saturday...)
At cornerback, it has been great for Utah to have Domo Hatfield back. He recorded his first interception of the season against Oregon. Reggie Porter is very talented at the other cornerback position, and Justin Thomas is great at the nickel. (Williams was a true freshman starting his first game against WSU last year; Porter and Carter were both out with injuries for most or all of last season.) While I think this is Utah's best secondary in a while, I don't think we know yet just how good the Utah secondary is for the reasons you said. This game against Cal will tell us a lot about where the Utah secondary is. Overall, I don't think Utah will be able to stop the Cal passing attack (I don't think many college teams can). Cal will be able to score points. I think the keys are can the secondary force turnovers and can the pass rush get to Goff, which segues perfectly to your next question...
2. Utah "only" has 8 sacks in 4 games. How satisfied are you with Utah's pass rush, and how successful do you think the pass rush will be against Cal?
SR: I'm satisfied with it overall. Utah has been very vanilla on defense until the Oregon game when they got 5 sacks, but they have gotten some solid pressure on the QB all season, even rushing just 4 guys. The problem with Cal is Goff gets the ball off so quick it makes it hard to get those sacks. He has been sacked 12 times this year, and I expect Utah to bring the house at him quite a bit so he can't sit in the pocket and read the defense.
AS: Utah was very vanilla on defense through the first three games, as head coach Kyle Whittingham said. There weren't much in the way of stunts, exotic blitzes (or blitzes in general), etc. from the defense. Michigan was also running max protect for much of the game. Utah seemed like they finally opened up the playbook (on offense, defense, and special teams) against Oregon, and they recorded five sacks. While the defense is not getting as many sacks, they are still getting pressure and batting balls. What I really like though is the defense seems more stout against the run and is forcing more turnovers. Utah has been missing their best pass rusher, defensive end Hunter Dimick, for the last two games after he went down with an injury against Utah State. He is expected to be back against Cal, which should give Utah a huge boost up front. His replacement Kylie Fitts has been excellent filling in for him, and I expect we will still see a lot of him going forward. I think a big key for Utah in this game is to get pressure on Goff, especially with only four pass rushers. I'm guessing the pass rush we see against Cal looks closer to what we saw against Oregon than say against Fresno State or Utah State. Goff gets the ball out quick enough that I don't know if they get a lot of sacks, but I think they will be able to hurry throws and get hits on Goff.
3. Conventional wisdom is that if you can stop (or at least limit) Devontae Booker, Utah's offense will struggle. Is that still a fair assumption?
SR: It is fair overall; however, Travis Wilson has evolved into quite the play-making quarterback, not only with his arm, but with his legs. Travis—all 6-foot 7-inches of him—has got the read option down so good right now, he had more yards than Booker on the ground (100 vs. 98). Wilson's also gotten really good at reading defenses and adjusting the play, so while Booker may not necessarily get off in the run game, watch out for him in the pass game.
AS: That was a fair assumption last season, but not as much this season. Quarterback Travis Wilson has been excellent throwing and running the ball. He has great targets this season with guys like Kenneth Scott, Britain Covey, Tyrone Smith, and Caleb Repp (who caught two TDs against Oregon). Also, do not sleep on Booker's arm. Booker was held under 100 yards rushing against Oregon, and Utah managed 62 points (Wilson was the leading rusher in that game). Michigan has an excellent defense and held Booker in check, especially rushing, but Wilson did enough in the passing game to help compensate. Wilson has been smart and confident this season. He is changing plays at the line to account for what he is seeing from the defense, and he usually checks into a play that works well. He has been reading the option much better, which has led to some big runs for him, especially when the defense sells out to stop Booker. Booker is still the focal point of the offense, but there are enough weapons around him finally that Utah can hurt a defense if they key solely on stopping No. 23.
4. Perception is that Utah's special teams have been a big strength. In what particular areas have the Utes looked good so far? Any obvious weaknesses?
SR: First, the staff has been so good for so long with special teams, in all phases. Just with gameplanning, there's been some incredible calls thrown out there (see both fakes against Oregon). Obviously, first and foremost, Utah's punter, Tom Hackett, is special. He's the reigning Ray Guy award winner, and can place the ball anywhere he wants on the field. And if the coaches see a flaw in the punt return scheme from the other team, they'll let him run it for a first down. The weakness right now would be kickoff coverage, specifically getting the ball into the end zone. Andy Phillips is a great place kicker, but he's had a hard time getting the ball into the end zone for touchbacks, and that's been a bit of a disappointment so far this season.
AS: They are excellent returning the football with two punt return touchdowns and one kick return touchdown. Covey and Cory Butler-Byrd are both dynamic. The last time Utah and Cal squared off it was Reggie Dunn returning two 100-yard kickoffs for touchdowns that was the key to Utah's big win at home.
5. Are you scared of us? We're terrified of you.
SR: Oh yeah, I'm scared, because it's the Pac-12, and on any given Saturday someone can win. Goff and those wideouts are very scary, and I still have flashbacks of Wazzu storming back to beat us a year ago. I know the Utes are better than Cal from top-to-bottom right now, but Utah right now is the No. 5 team in the country, and the crazy talk of College Football Playoff has been circulating around by the media (not the team—Coach Whitt wouldn't allow that). So I'm concerned with how Utah plays with the target on their backs, because it's usually the other way around.
AS: Cal was my upset pick before the season. There is a lot to be scared of with the Bears. Utah has struggled against spread passing teams the last few years, and Cal is possibly the best in the country. Goff and his receivers are excellent. They will really test the Utah secondary. Cal is also much better on defense than people thought (leading the Pac-12 in sacks and turnover margin and the nation in turnovers). Teams that have explosive offenses (especially through the air) present match-up problems for Utah. Utah traditionally is a team built to stop the run and win an ugly game (it's why Utah is the only team in the Pac-12 that has not lost to Stanfurd). The defense is great against pro-style offenses. This is a game where the offense is going to need to step up and put up a lot of points to win, and that is something Utah does not normally do, so there is definitely reasons to be worried about this Cal Bears team.
6. Utah had a tumultuous offseason during which the offensive coordinator and defensive coordinator departed (and it sounded like Whittingham had one foot out the door too). Has anything changed schematically on either side of the ball under the new coordinators? Why has the team been so successful despite the upheaval?
SR: Well, it was tumultuous for sure, but the offensive coordinator (Dave Christensen) was basically shown the door. Fans, players, and many coaches hated that guy. Losing Kalani Sitake hurt, mostly because it was to a fellow conference member. But overall, not a lot has changed. Christensen didn't want Travis Wilson as his QB, so Wilson had zero confidence last season. This year Wilson has the full support of the staff, and his confidence is showing in his play. The offense is more dynamic, so they will go down field from time-to-time, and they'll throw a trick at you if they think it will work. You'll see a lot more 5-wide sets now, where last year that was never happening. Defensively, it's Kyle Whittingham's defense, and always will be, but so far this year it's been a bit more conservative with the blitz packages, but I think a lot of that was due to wanting to keep things under wraps. I'd expect as the conference season goes along, you'll start seeing more blitzing and more exotic looks from the D.
AS: Honestly, at least on offense, it was addition by subtraction. Former OC Dave Christensen was not the most popular guy, and I don't think he used guys to their full potential. Wilson has been able to audible much more this season (to great effect), Scott is running routes more suited to his skill set. The scheme and terminology is the same. Utah is still a spread team, but not in the way that Cal/WSU is—they are a power spread-to-run team. I think the play calling as been much less predictable. It seems like the offensive players are playing looser and having more fun. On defense, it seems like John Pease is more focused on forcing turnovers and stopping the run versus getting a lot of sacks, which was the case under Kalani Sitake. The defense is still very much a Kyle Whittingham defense and will be no matter who the DC is. There is enough talent on defense this year that I think most people knew they would be very good regardless of the DC. The players seem to love playing for their new coaches, and I think that is a big part of why they have been so successful on both sides of the ball. So the overall answer to your question is no there are not wholesale changes to the scheme, just small tweaks that are taking advantage of the personnel Utah has.
7. A couple years ago at Media Day, Mike Leach was asked which Pac-12 coach would make the best bear-hunting partner. His answer was Kyle Whittingham. Now let's say Whittingham is planning a bear-hunting trip; which coach do you think would be his best hunting partner?
SR: Well, if Coach Whitt was a drinker he should take Sark, but, he'd take Coach Gary Anderson from OSU. Those two go back for years, especially when Coach A was Utah's DC under Coach Whitt from 2005–2009. Coach Whitt and Coach A run their programs virtually the same way (just watch The Drive and you'll see), and they would kill any bear with their bare hands.
AS: Haha, interesting. Well, given that he was a DC for Whittingham, Oregon State head coach Gary Anderson would be a candidate, but he did steal two Utah coaches and several recruits, so I am not sure the state of their relationship now, so I will say Mike Leach. Whittingham and Leach are reportedly friends, and I think Leach would be by far the most entertaining companion for an activity like bear-hunting.
8. Whom do you want to punch in the face?
SR: Oh boy, nationally, the entire SEC, line ‘em up! In the Pac-12, I'm going to go with the USC band—that stupid song drives me up the wall.
AS: I might be inclined to take a "shot" at Sark, get it...
9. What are you going to put on your GameDay sign?
SR: Sark can't get through this 12-Pac standing either!
AS: Hey ESPN, we play pretty good football out west, you should check us out more often.
Our thanks to Shane and Alex for tarnishing their reputations by being parts of our just-enough-to-get-by Q&A series. You can check them out on Twitter at @TheShaneR0berts and @starkaw23 and visit BlockU for all their Cal-Utah coverage.