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A San Francisco perspective on UCLA vs. California matchup

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UCLA takes on Cal this week in a game that might be closer than what we all initially expected. To help analyze the matchup, we brought in Mike Vernon, who covers Cal athletics for the San Francisco Chronicle. His work appears here, and you can follow him on Twitter: @M_Vernon

Everett Cook: Let’s get into it. Mike, Cal has been able to put some points on the board, which is putting it lightly. The Bears scored 45 in a loss to Arizona, 59 in a win over Colorado and 60 in a win over Washington State. The key to this seems to be quarterback Jared Goff, who has already thrown for almost 2,200 yards and 22 touchdowns this season. Mike, is Goff the guy that makes this offense run, or does he just fit into the system?

Mike Vernon: Well, it’s a little bit of both. Head coach Sonny Dykes’ system has allowed for quarterbacks to put up these absurd numbers at multiple levels of the game. But Goff should get plenty of credit. So much of this system relies on timing, and Goff put in the work with his receivers in the off-season to make sure there would be no issues. Before Washington, the offense was scoring 50 points per game. The timing aspects of the passing game were nearly impossible to stop. Then Washington came in and got pressure on Goff. Cal’s timing was thrown off and the offense could no longer move. Outside of that, Goff is tall with a big arm and can make all the throws you want.

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EC: UCLA players and coaches have been hinting this week that Cal backup quarterback Luke Rubenzer might see playing time, if for no other reason than to get a faster quarterback into the game. We’ve seen what faster quarterbacks do to the Bruins. Mike, any word on the potential switch?

MV: The Rubenzer experiment has died down on Cal’s side of things. He has played less and less and didn’t play at all against Washington. That being said, don’t be shocked to see Rubenzer pop in there for a couple of series. Dykes likes to use Rubenzer when the Bears need a few yards to convert on third or fourth down. Cal uses Rubenzer in those situations because the running back can become a lead blocker. It helps Cal in the numbers game.

EC: For what it’s worth, defensive coordinator Jeff Ulbrich said on Wednesday that it would be a “relief” if Rubenzer doesn’t play. UCLA just doesn’t defend fast quarterbacks well, regardless of whether or not said quarterback can actually throw the ball.

Cal has spread the ball around in the pass game — Mike, any particular receivers that could go off on Saturday?

MV: One of Cal’s biggest strengths is its depth at receiver. The Bears have five wideouts with 15 or more catches this season. Their two leading receivers, Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler, complement each other well. Treggs is a smaller, speedy receiver and is a popular downfield target for Goff. Lawler is a bigger receiver that’s more of a force in the red zone. He has giant hands that help him make some ridiculous catches in tight spaces. Watch for Lawler on the end-zone fade.

A wild card at receiver can be junior Trevor Davis, who transferred from Hawaii last year. He’s got size and speed. He’s also the guy that scored on back-to-back kickoffs at Washington State.

EC: For me, Lawler is the guy that should scare UCLA fans, especially in the red zone. The Bruins have been beat on fades all season. Anthony Jefferson, the defensive back who is best suited for defending those type of routes, can only cover one area of the field at a time.

Defensively, Cal has been burned plenty. The Bears have given up less than 20 points only one time, and that was against Sacramento State. Plus, Cal is dealing with some injuries on the defensive line, right Mike?

MV: That’s absolutely right. Cal’s best pass rusher Brennan Scarlett is questionable (at best) this week with a sprained knee. Scarlett didn’t practice on Tuesday and is being replaced at defensive end by a freshman in Noah Westerfield. Scarlett has been the only Cal player to consistently pressure the opposing quarterback, so that’s a big loss for the Bears.

EC: So what are the keys for the Bears to slow down Brett Hundley and UCLA? This is a team with a very inconsistent offensive line and a quarterback who is prone to giving up the ball when he’s pressured in the pocket.

MV: That’s the question. Scarlett is only one of two players with multiple sacks on the defensive line. The strength of Cal’s defense is its linebackers as Michael Barton, Jalen Jefferson and Jake Kearney have all consistently been near the top in tackles. The Bears will have to get creative with their blitzing schemes to put pressure on Hundley and to save their often-torched secondary.

EC: Is the secondary as bad as the numbers would indicate?

MV: Yes and no. I say no because the numbers are relatively inflated due to the ridiculous amount of plays teams have been running against Cal. Both Arizona and Colorado ran more than 100 plays against the Bears and Washington State had four straight possessions with the ball (onside kick plus the back-to-back returns from Davis). So the thin secondary has been exhausted at the end of games.

I say yes simply because the numbers exist. They’re impossible to defend, really. Teams can throw all over Cal, though they did finally show some strides in the second half against Washington.

EC: Amazingly, UCLA hasn’t won at Cal since 1998. Do the Bruins break the streak this year, or does Cal pull off the upset? Any predictions for the final score?

MV: That really is amazing. I think the Bruins will score enough to break the streak: UCLA 41, Cal 37.

For more Bruin observations, follow Everett Cook on Twitter @everettcook


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