What to watch: UCLA vs No. 20 Cal

Back in July, UCLA looked at its preseason ranking and sneered. Despite returning a talented defense and almost every offensive starter, the Bruins were picked to finish third in the Pac-12 media poll.

Six games and several injuries later, the team stands at fourth in the division, licking its wounds after back-to-back losses to Arizona State and Stanford. Another loss could erase whatever chance they have left at claiming a spot in the Pac-12 title game.

Here’s what to watch when UCLA hosts No. 20 Cal today at 6 p.m.

When UCLA has the ball

Since his stunning introduction to the college football world, Josh Rosen’s numbers have come back to earth. In his last five games, he has completed less than 55 percent of his passes and averaged below 7.0 yards per attempt. While he’s looked better than those numbers suggest, his penchant for unforced errors could prove especially costly against Cal.

Rosen has thrown seven interceptions in his last five games, with five coming against BYU and Stanford. Those two teams have combined for 13 interceptions this season.

The Bears are tied for fifth in the FBS with 12 picks. That number has helped mask some of the deficiencies in the Cal secondary, which ranks in the bottom half of the conference in opposing completion percentage (57.7) and yards allowed per attempt (7.2).

In other words, Rosen and the rest of the Bruins need to avoid beating themselves. Continue reading

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Five questions: S.F. Chronicle’s Connor Letourneau on Cal

UCLA has never lost three straight regular-season games under Jim Mora. To avoid falling into that hole, the Bruins will need to hold off a Cal offense led by star quarterback Jared Goff. The No. 20 Bears are averaging 40.2 points per game after a surprising 5-1 start, and will be eager to win at the Rose Bowl for just the second time in the last 15 years. Connor Letourneau, who covers Cal for the San Francisco Chronicle, answered five questions about the team.

(Here are the questions I answered about the Bruins for the Chronicle.)

1. After suffering its first loss, what does Cal most need to prove against a second-half schedule that looks much more intimidating than the first?

The Bears are trying to prove they can win the Pac-12 North. Though No. 10 Stanford is the clear favorite at this point, No. 20 Cal is very much in contention. The division title would likely come down to the Big Game on Nov. 21 if the Bears can win their next four games over unranked opponents.

To make that happen, they must start stringing together complete performances. Cal’s past four games have been within six points, largely because it has struggled in at least one phase. In its Oct. 10 loss at Utah, for example, uncharacteristic offensive mistakes put the pressure on an inconsistent — albeit much-improved — defense.

2. Jared Goff threw a career-high five interceptions in Salt Lake City. Did Utah do something that other defenses will be able to replicate, or did the quarterback simply have a bad day?

That was an odd performance. The first couple interceptions, which came on a dropped pass and a tipped ball, weren’t necessarily Goff’s fault. Then the takeaways seemed to throw him off-kilter a bit. Continue reading

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First look: UCLA vs. No. 20 Cal

A true freshman the last time he entered the Rose Bowl, Cal quarterback Jared Goff didn't throw a touchdown pass in that 37-10 loss to UCLA on Oct. 12, 2013. (Keith Birmingham/Staff)

A true freshman the last time he entered the Rose Bowl, Cal quarterback Jared Goff didn’t throw a touchdown pass in that 37-10 loss to UCLA on Oct. 12, 2013. (Keith Birmingham/Staff)

UCLA Bruins (4-2, 1-2) vs. No. 15 Cal Golden Bears (5-1, 2-1)
Kickoff:
Thursday, Oct. 22, 6 p.m., Rose Bowl
TV: ESPN (Joe Tessitore, Jesse Palmer, David Pollack, Kaylee Hartung)
Radio: AM 570 (Bill Roth, Matt Stevens, Wayne Cook)

Scouting report: Cal’s defense has gone from atrocious to acceptable through Sonny Dykes three seasons, allowing 7.1 yards per play in 2013, 6.3 last fall, and 5.6 through their first six games this year. … The Bears’ defensive front has performed surprisingly well. Their 19 sacks rank No. 20 in the FBS, and already exceeded their own 2014 season total by three. Seven sacks did come against Washington State, which is 116th in the country with 20 sacks allowed. … Cal is susceptible to giving up big plays, particularly through the air. It’s given up 11 catches of at least 30 yards, more than anyone in the Pac-12 except Arizona State, Arizona and Colorado. … Before his five interceptions at Utah, quarterback Jared Goff had thrown multiple picks just twice since his career debut as a true freshman. That game sank his pass efficiency from 170.46 to 157.15 — still a top-15 mark nationally.

Series history: UCLA leads the all-time series, 51-32-1, and has taken three of the last four games. Cal notched a 43-17 upset in 2012, but has only beaten the Bruins on the road once in its last seven tries.

Key players:

QB Jared Goff, Jr., 6-4, 215 — 150/225, 1,970 yards, 17 TD, 9 INT
— He threw a career-worst five interceptions at Utah less than two weeks ago, but it’s hard to imagine the likely first-round pick looking as bad again the rest of the season. Continue reading

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Marcus Rios’ interception a product of resilience, strategy

The most remarkable part of what Marcus Rios did on Saturday happened long before the ball fell into his hands with 51 seconds left in UCLA’s 36-34 win at Cal.

It’s been well-reported, but worth mentioning again: Back in spring of 2013, the cornerback spent months at UCLA Medical Center battling a life-threatening fungal infection. Even after he returned to the practice field last season, he looked underweight and far from playing in an actual game.

And yet, there he was at Memorial Stadium, pulling in an interception that sealed the Bruins’ first win in Berkeley since 1998.

“A year ago, this kid was battling for his life,” said UCLA defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich. “That’s no exaggeration. I remember when he had just gotten out of the hospital and he was 135, 140 pounds. To think how far he’s come and for him to have an opportunity to seal this win for us, that was just really cool.”

Rios received the game ball afterward, the first one handed out since head coach Jim Mora was hired. “It just made sense,” Mora said.

Less discussed has been exactly what happened on that play. Down two points, Cal was threatening to enter field goal range with another first down. With a kicker who was 7-of-10 on field goal attempts this season — and a long of 47 — all the Bears needed was another run or a short pass.

But they opted to take another shot at the end zone. Continue reading

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Five questions: BearTerritory.net’s Ryan Gorcey talks Cal

Following back-to-back home losses, UCLA heads to Cal for a game that could stabilize the Bruins’ season — or knock it completely off the rails. The Bruins are a slight favorite, but haven’t won at Memorial Stadium since 1998. Ryan Gorcey, who publishes Scout’s Cal site BearTerritory.net, answered five questions about the Bears.

1. Sonny Dykes’ first season went about as poorly as anyone could have imagined. Does a 4-1 start in 2014 keep his job safe for the next few years, or could a second-half collapse put him in jeopardy again?

Well, 4-1 did wonders not just for the team itself, but also for a lot of folks in the general Cal community. I think there’s certainly evidence that the program is getting turned around, already winning as many games as it has over the past two seasons combined. The Bears are also playing an exciting brand of football, offensively, and the reasoning behind Dykes’s hiring was that he was going to put butts in seats with offense. That hasn’t happened quite yet. That’s a very expensive stadium that the university has to pay off, and the folks buying the most expensive seats aren’t sold on this new order quite yet. That said, Dykes has gotten Cal’s house in order, academically, which was the most significant directive given him when he was brought in. That’s played very well amongst those up top. Now, as far as a collapse, there are two ways it could happen: Cal could get blown out (like they did in the second half of 2007), or the Bears could keep things competitive against very, very good teams in a back-loaded schedule. We all knew that the second half would be tough, but if he can have his team in games at the end, I think folks will start believing.

2. What are the biggest improvements that you’ve seen from quarterback Jared Goff? Do you expect Cal to play Luke Rubenzer more given UCLA’s recent struggles against running quarterbacks?

Goff’s deep ball is much more precise and is incredibly consistent. He throws the back-shoulder fade better than any college quarterback I’ve seen, and wide receiver Kenny Lawler has rightly called it “indefensible.” Continue reading

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