In 2019, the last time that the California Golden Bears started 2-0, they opened with a win over FCS UC Davis — just as they did two weeks ago — en route to wins in their first four games of the season. In order to give themselves a chance next week for a fourth straight win to start this season after they narrowly pulled out a 20-14 victory last week against UNLV, they'll have to pick up their first win of the season away from Berkeley. That trip will take Cal east to square off with the floundering Notre Dame Fighting Irish, who lost a respectable season opener at Ohio State before a miserable five-point loss last week against Marshall that dropped them from No. 8 in the rankings to out of the Top 25 entirely.
That pair of losses marks Notre Dame's first 0-2 start to a season since 2011, with the loss to Marshall snapping Notre Dame's 42-game win streak as a ranked team against unranked opponents. Even more disheartening, the Fighting Irish became just the third AP top-5 team since 2000 to lose their first two games of a season, with head coach Marcus Freeman — taking the reins starting with the Fiesta Bowl in January before these being his first two regular-season games — becoming the first head coach in Notre Dame history to lose his first three games.
And in order for 2022 to be anything like 2019, when the Golden Bears collected wins in their first four games, they’ll have to pick up their first-ever victory against the Fighting Irish. These two teams haven't met in 55 years, and Cal hasn't scored more than eight points in any of its four losses to Notre Dame, the most recent a 41-8 decision at Notre Dame Stadium in 1967.
California at Notre Dame
When California Has the Ball
The Golden Bears stumbled out of the gate against UC Davis, allowing the Aggies from the FCS ranks to jump out to a 7-0 lead after a quarter of play, but proceeded to storm back with 24 straight points and 34 of the final 40 scored in the game. That comeback was fueled largely on the shoulders of a trio of touchdown passes from Jack Plummer to three different targets — Jeremiah Hunter, Jaydn Ott, and Mavin Anderson.
California kept that pace going in the win over UNLV last Saturday, jumping out to a 14-0 first-quarter lead with Ott rushing for one score and Plummer finding him for another. Overall, despite the pair of wins, the Golden Bears enter Week 3 in the bottom half of FBS in most major offensive categories, but one key area to watch for has been Plummer's ability to connect with receivers. The fifth-year senior and Purdue transfer leads the Pac-12 and ranks ninth nationally with 25.5 completions per game. He's also third in the conference and in the top 30 overall with 273 passing yards per game. It's still early. but that's an encouraging sign considering Cal finished in the middle of the Pac-12 (sixth) and 74th in FBS in the category last season.
Plummer's ability to keep drives moving on the strength of his completions will be key as Notre Dame has done a decent job against the pass thus far, limiting Ohio State's Heisman hopeful C.J. Stroud to 245 yards in Week 1 and keeping Marshall's Henry Colombi to just 145 last week. But despite the experience that exists on defense, the Fighting Irish are one of just seven FBS teams that have yet to force a turnover entering Week 3. This is something that must change sooner rather than later.
When Notre Dame Has the Ball
A clear indication of the significant struggles facing the offense: the team's first touchdown pass of the season came with 14 seconds remaining in the fourth quarter of the second game.
And that pass came from new starting quarterback Drew Pyne, who is set to replace Tyler Buchner following his season-ending shoulder injury. Prior to getting injured, Buchner had struggled as the No. 1 signal-caller, going 28-of-50 for 378 yards and two interceptions (both against Marshall) across the two losses. He suffered a high-grade shoulder sprain near the end of last week's loss and underwent surgery this week. Pyne will step in to make his first start for the Irish. He has made six appearances over the last two seasons and the hope is he can help jump-start an offense that has amassed 604 total yards and 31 points in two games. That places Notre Dame in the bottom 15 nationally (131 FBS teams) in both categories.
To make matters worse, Notre Dame's leading rusher so far? Buchner with a total of 62 yards and two touchdowns. Second-year running back Audric Estime has been the top option after Buchner, but he's managed 54 yards on 19 carries. One of the lone bright spots has been junior tight end Michael Mayer, who leads the way with 135 receiving yards and a touchdown on 13 catches. He and Lorenzo Styles, who is second on the team with 123 yards on eight catches — 54 of which came on the Irish's first pass of the season en route to an opening-drive field goal — have had flashes of positive momentum but have struggled to maintain it. This is something that Pyne will try and address by potentially taking more shots downfield to utilize the pair's downfield playmaking skills.
California might just be the matchup the Irish's ailing offense needs. The Golden Bears have given up 224 passing yards per game this season. One thing Cal has done well on defense is getting off the field. Opponents are just 8-for-30 on third down against the Bears. Their 26.7 percent conversion rate is currently the second-best mark in the Pac-12 and 13th among Power 5 teams.
Notre Dame had mustered just three scoring drives in its first six quarters of the season before tallying two touchdowns in the fourth quarter of Saturday's stunning loss. If the Fighting Irish are going to avoid falling even further into the weeds by starting 0-3, they'll need to capitalize on the scoring-drive momentum against California and clean up the ball security issues that resulted in five turnovers in the loss to Marshall.
Prediction: Notre Dame 23, California 16
Podcast: Week 3 Predictions and Preview + Betting Tips and Picks Against the Spread
— Written by Juan Jose Rodriguez, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network and a 2019 graduate of the University of Notre Dame. Rodriguez was an intern for Athlon during summer 2017 and worked for a variety of media outlets on campus, including as the editor-in-chief of Scholastic Magazine. Follow him on Twitter @JuanJoseRG02.
*Price as of publication.