Last year, Arizona visited Berkeley early into the breakout star turn of quarterback Khalil Tate. He didn't slow down, leading the Wildcats to victory — but it was the Arizona defense that ultimately came through in a high-scoring, 45-44 affair. Linebacker Colin Schooler deflected a pass on a two-point conversion attempt in overtime that would have won it for the Golden Bears.
The incomplete pass attempt was the polar opposite ending of the previous encounter. The last time these teams met at Saturday's venue, Arizona Stadium, Anu Solomon hit Austin Hill on a 47-yard Hail Mary that gave the Wildcats a 49-45 win, serving as an unofficial starting point for the #Pac12AfterDark phenomenon.
The 2018 game may not meet the same standard, but the stakes are high for both the Golden Bears and Wildcats coming into this cross-division, Pac-12 Conference showdown. Cal is aiming to rebound from a blowout loss last week at home to Oregon, which rendered the Golden Bears' stay in the Top 25 short. Arizona's comeback effort against USC fell short, putting pressure on the Wildcats to defend home field this week and get back above .500 in the conference.
Cal at Arizona
Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 6 at 10 p.m. ET
Spread: Cal -2.5
Three Things to Watch
1. Offensive lulls
Although the last two meetings between Arizona and Cal each produced almost 90 points, the 2018 versions of both squads come in averaging much lower numbers against FBS competition. Arizona has dealt with growing pains installing a new offense under first-year head coach and offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone, while Cal's rotation of quarterbacks has somewhat hindered the Golden Bears.
Both have endured long stretches of offensive struggles in each of their games against FBS opponents, the lone exception coming in Arizona's Week 4 rout of Oregon State. Arizona did not score until the third quarter against USC, a fact that proved critically detrimental in its one-score loss. Cal built a 10-7 lead over Oregon at the same time the UA-USC was ongoing. The Ducks scored the next 28 points over a quarter-and-change.
Establishing is the run is paramount for both sides to mount any kind of consistent offense, although it isn't the only necessary ingredient.
2. Potent passing plays
Arizona mounted its second-half comeback against USC by peppering the Trojans with big-yardage passing plays. It took Khalil Tate almost three full quarters to get rolling, but he made effective use of the Wildcats' talented wide receiving corps late to give UA a chance.
Tate's 14.5 yards per completion against USC almost mirrored the 14.1 Oregon quarterback Justin Herbert averaged against the Cal defense a week ago. Though the multifaceted Oregon rushing attack had Cal back on its heels defensively, the combination of long-yardage passes and — perhaps most importantly — no turnovers translated to haymakers against the Golden Bears.
Cal's defense thrives when it can create turnovers, and the defensive back duo of Jaylinn Hawkins and Ashtyn Davis have been two of the most dangerous players against the pass this season. Tate faces a tenuous proposition of needing to deliver long passing plays without giving away possessions.
On the flip side, Cal is coming off a game in which quarterbacks Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain were both intercepted twice. Arizona was slow to create takeaways through its first four games, but it forced some key turnovers late against USC. The decision to move 335-pound nose tackle PJ Johnson to defensive end paid dividends, as Johnson's ability to generate pressure off the edge forced the issue for Arizona more than in previous outings. He'll be a key to disrupting Cal's offense.
3. In the black in the red zone
Red zone play could be pivotal on Saturday night. Arizona coach Kevin Sumlin may have nightmares about the red zone after last week, when the Wildcats ate up two minutes of critical time trying to score on USC in the waning moments. UA also had a field goal blocked before halftime, which could have resulted in overtime without another missed kick on an extra point.
Conversely, Cal has struggled in the red zone this season — on both ends. The otherwise-solid Golden Bears defense has surrendered touchdowns on 70 percent of opponent red zone trips, ranking No. 92 in the country. On offense, Cal has made just 14 trips total, 99th in the FBS.
For all its struggles in the first half of Sumlin's first season at the helm of Arizona, the Wildcats are nine points shy of a 4-1 mark and possible Top 25 ranking. Khalil Tate's injured ankle has limited his explosiveness in the run game, but both J.J. Taylor and Gary Brightwell have shown enough potential, with wide receivers Shaun Poindexter and Shun Brown delivering big in the pass, to suggest that the Wildcats may not be too far from clicking.
Cal has something in dual-threat quarterback Brandon McIlwain, an explosive rusher who takes some pressure off of Patrick Laird. The next step for Cal is showing some semblance of a passing attack, which has been lacking through the first four games. The defense is good enough that Cal can still finish in the upper half of the deep Pac-12 North, but the Golden Bears need more support from the other side of the ball. The dam bursting last week against Oregon is an example of what can happen when the offense stalls.
Johnson's performance on defense for Arizona last week was a revelation. Defensive coordinator Marcel Yates' scheme is predicated on size, which Arizona lacked for his first two years overseeing things. The Wildcats can build off the finish a week ago on both sides of the ball, and inch back above .500 by finally winning a close game.