The Pac-12 media tabbed Arizona and Cal as last-place finishers in the South and North divisions, respectively, in the preseason poll. Midway into the 2017 season, the Wildcats and Golden Bears are both on pace to prove the pundits wrong. Arizona and Cal come into their first matchup since 2014 with a combined 8-5 record. Each won a big game its last time out, with the Wildcats running all over UCLA for their first win against the Bruins since 2011. Cal welcomed previously undefeated and top 10-ranked Washington State to Berkeley last Friday night and blew out the Cougars, limiting one of the nation's most prolific passing attacks to just three points.
Up next for the Bears' defense is an Arizona offense that ranks fourth in the nation in rushing. The Wildcats have produced 400-plus rushing yards in three games this season, four of their last seven dating back to 2016, and in each of the last two games since Khalil Tate took over at quarterback. It will be a challenge, but first-year Cal head coach Justin Wilcox's defense has overachieved much of the season.
If Saturday's contest is as good as the last between these programs, be prepared for a classic.
Arizona at Cal
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 21 at 8 p.m. ET
TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks
Spread: Arizona -3
Three Things to Watch
1. Defending the run without Devante Downs
A primary catalyst in Cal's quick turnaround under head coach Justin Wilcox is the remarkable performance of coordinator Tim DeRuyter's defense, although the unit will have to get by without its engine, inside linebacker Devante Downs, a two-time Pac-12 Player of the Week who was lost for the season to injury. With season-to-date totals of 65 tackles, 5.5 tackles for a loss, three sacks, two forced fumbles and two interceptions, Downs was building a credible case for conference Player of the Year.
"It'll be by committee. We're not just going to replace Devante," Wilcox said. "I'm sick for him, because he's worked extremely hard to get to this point."
Losing Downs just before facing the best rushing offense Cal will see this season is tough, but the Golden Bears are not lacking for talented players up front. Defensive lineman James Looney has been excellent this season, and linebacker Jordan Kunaszyk is the reigning Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week.
2. What to expect from the Arizona offense
Since quarterback Khalil Tate took over two weeks ago against Colorado, he's rushed for 557 yards, and the Wildcats have almost 900 yards on the ground as a team.
"Khalil's open-field speed has been — not a surprise, but certainly better than we thought," Arizona head coach Rich Rodriguez said.
Tate's been the driving force, obviously, but Arizona's multifaceted corps of running backs gives the Wildcats enough different looks to keep defenses guessing. The primary duo is veteran Nick Wilson and shifty change-of-pace back J.J. Taylor. Neither Colorado nor UCLA was able to force Tate into many passing situations, but the quarterback delivered in limited opportunities.
"Inevitably, they can outnumber you in the run game," Rodriguez said. "They can force you to pitch-and-catch a little bit. ... He can make all the throws, we just have to get open."
While Cal's defense aims to slow the Arizona run game, the Golden Bears can't entirely sell out with eight defenders in the box at all times.
"He's been very efficient and effective as a passer," Wilcox said. "It looks like he's making good decisions in where to throw the ball."
3. Can QB Ross Bowers keep rolling?
A big key to Cal's rout of Washington State was Bowers (right), who struggled amid a three-game losing streak before finding his rhythm against the Cougars. Starting with a touchdown pass to Kyle Wells in the red zone just before halftime, the Cal offense began to click. Bowers scored again with a rushing touchdown in the second half, and the deluge was on.
If the Golden Bears find themselves in a shootout situation, Bowers needs to perform as he did against the Cougars. He had 259 passing yards, throwing to a variety of receivers with no interceptions. Kanawai Noa continued his progression into a dangerous option alongside speedy Vic Wharton.
Both Cal and Arizona have already exceeded most preseason projections, but each is out for a bowl game. The winner Saturday sits just one win away from postseason eligibility, after missing a bowl in the 2016 season.
Cal's defense has been nothing short of astounding in light of last season's struggles on that side of the ball. However, losing Devante Downs, arguably the best run-pursuing linebacker in the Pac-12, is a huge blow ahead of the Arizona game.
A high-scoring game does not benefit Cal, and Arizona should be able to establish a consistent run game against the Bears, much like Oregon did on Sept. 30.