When the craziest mainstream newspaper in the country, the New York Post (“Headless Body in Topless Bar”) identifies something else as crazy, we are compelled to take note. The subject: The California Bears football team, which hosts the Washington Huskies at 3 p.m. Saturday (Pac-12 Networks).
The Post made the claim that Cal’s previous three weeks of results were the wackiest in the industry’s history. For once, the Post may have underplayed the degree of Daffy Duckism at a school whose hometown has lived up to its 1960s nickname: Berserk-ley.
Sept. 20 at Arizona, Cal, ahead 45-30 with 5:21 remaining, lost 49-45 on a Hail Mary pass from QB Anu Solomon with 52 seconds left. A week later at home against Colorado, the Bears won 59-56 in double overtime after a goal-line stand stopped the Buffaloes in four tries from the 2-yard line.
Saturday in Pullman, Cal won 60-59 when Washington State, which had 812 yards of total offense, failed on a 19-yard field goal with 15 seconds left, resulting in the firing this week of Eric Russell, the coach in charge of special teams and Mike Leach’s top assistant.
It would seem that Cal, under second-year coach Sonny Dykes, has become less of a football team and more of a carnival ride.
At 4-1, Cal is second in the FBS nation with 50-point average, nearly seven points ahead of Oregon, the traditional Tilt-a-Wheel program in the Pac-12. The Bears are also last in the league in scoring defense at 40.4, giving up 544 yards a game, or 121st in the 125 big-boy teams.
After a 3-9 final year under former coach Jeff Tedford and a 1-11 first season under Dykes, Cal this season emerged into the video-game-style of play that attracts top athletes to the offensive side and more fans to the league’s own network. Eleven good athletes can carry a team to prominence, and if the rest of the team can’t play defense or special teams, oh well . . . the key is to get on ESPN’s top 10 plays.
“That’s not the same game I played,” said Washington coach Chris Petersen, who was a record-setting quarterback at Cal-Davis in the mid-1980s. “The game has really changed. It just really has — in so many ways with the awkward formations that we can get into.
“It’s much different than the pro game.”
The point was seconded by David Shaw, the Stanford coach who increasingly is a man on an island. His Cardinal still play that so-2002 way of emphasizing defense — as in 8.6 points a game.
“I always stammer when I answer these questions,” he told reporters this week. “To me, it’s common sense when you watch the 49ers play, the Seattle Seahawks play . . . if we play great defense, there aren’t 40, 50 points on the board. Our thing is to say, hey, let’s play great defense.”
But college ball has morphed into spectacle in even greater proportion than the NFL, owing largely to the fact that there aren’t enough great players to fill 125 defenses compared to 32 NFL teams. Those who are great, such as Washington LB Shaq Thompson and UCLA LB Myles Jack, are finding ways to play offense too.
The key in spectacle is the quarterback. Increasingly they arise from premier high schools and sophisticated camps and academies better prepared to execute immediately. Cal QB Jared Goff is a prime example.
A 6-4, 215-pound sophomore from Novato, CA., Goff has the nation’s highest QB rating at 89.6 As a freshman starter, he threw 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. So far this season, it’s 22 and three.
“He’s really good in the pocket — strong arm, ball comes out really, really rapidly,” Petersen said. “He can throw the ball with the rush around him. He’s not looking for check-downs in those situations. He can still throw ball down the seams.
“He’s mobile, and although he’s not a runner, he does a really good job of creating things when things do break down. Very impressed with him. He’s probably the best guy we’ve seen so far.”
His coach figures Goff in one-plus college seasons already gets it.
“I think more than anything, he’s understanding what it takes to play quarterback at this level,” Dykes said. “Maturing that way and coming full circle and realizing it takes a lot of work and takes some ups and downs. When things are going good you have to keep a level head, and when things aren’t you have to keep a level. He’s done that.”
Last year Goff completed 34 of 59 passes for 352 yards and no picks at Husky Stadium, but the Bears lost 41-17. This year there’s a running game featuring Daniel Lasco, who’s averaging 81 yards a game, offering the distinction between the Bears and the Cougars, the Pac-12’s other carnival ride that relies way too much on the air game.
“They’ve got a good system, really good quarterback, really good receivers, really good running back,” Petersen said. “Their O-line is big, mauler-type guys that keep guys covered up. They are hard to get off blocks.
“They’ve got a really good thing going. When you see that, game after game, all of a sudden you’re saying, this is pretty good. They make tough catches, Goff makes tough throws. Goff’s matured as well as anybody I’ve seen around.”
Speaking of maturity, Goff and the Bears get to execute against a secondary that has three freshman starters.
“No question we’ll be tested like we haven’t been tested back there this season. What we need to do is get better at what we’re doing and I think we’re making some progress there.”
Some progress? That description was good enough for Georgia State. Saturday is craziness measured in megatons. Washington needs to take one giant leap for Husky-kind.