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Utah Utes vs. California Golden Bears Preview and Prediction

Kyle Whittingham

Kyle Whittingham

Things have turned upside down in the Pac-12 South after only a month. Preseason favorites USC and UCLA are struggling early. They have flung open the door for No. 18 Utah to challenge for the Pac-12 South title only a month into the season.

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The Utes (4-0) are undefeated coming into October for a second straight season. They can take another important step forward with a victory over California this weekend. The Bears (2-2) are coming off of a 51-41 loss to Arizona State where they gave up 31 fourth quarter points to the Sun Devils. California has allowed 42.5 points per game and has lost both games where it failed to reach 50 points.

Utah has a two-game winning streak against the Bears after winning 30-24 last season in Salt Lake City. The series is tied 5-5. California last beat the Utes in 2011, winning 34-10 in Utah's debut Pac-12 season.

If Utah wins on Saturday it will give Kyle Whittingham his 100th career victory as a head coach.

Utah at California

Kickoff: Saturday, Oct. 1 at 6 p.m. ET

TV Channel: Pac-12 Networks

Line: California -2

Three Things to Watch

1. Can Utah disrupt California's passing attack again?

Last season, the Utes intercepted Jared Goff five times to deal the Bears their first loss of 2015. It might take a similar effort from the Utah defense to slow down California once again.

Senior quarterback Davis Webb has made a habit of shredding opposing defenses early and often. In just four games, Webb has already thrown for 1,837 yards and 18 touchdowns on 138-of-220 passing attempts. He leads the nation in passing yards, passing touchdowns, completions and pass attempts. Webb also is the Pac-12 leader – and second in the FBS – in passing yards per game (459.3 ypg) and completions per game (34.50).

His favorite target is Chad Hansen. The Bears' wide receiver leads the nation in receptions per game (12.5) and ranks second in receiving yards per game (164.0). Hansen has caught 10 or more passes for 100 or more yards in all four games this season so far.

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Their production has helped turn California into an offensive juggernaut yet again. The Bears rank first in the Pac-12 and third in the FBS in total offense (594.5 ypg). They are also first in the Pac-12 and second in the FBS in passing offense (459.3 ypg) and first downs (114).

2. Will Utah exploit California's weak run defense?

No Pac-12 team has struggled to stop the run as badly as California this season. The Bears have allowed a league-worst 263.3 rushing yards per game. Opponents have scored 13 rushing touchdowns and averaged 5.66 yards per carry against California.

This plays right into Utah's traditional strengths on offense. The Utes average 173.5 rushing yards per game. An experienced offensive line and deep backfield means Utah will be able to pound the ball and sustain long time-consuming drives against California.

Don't be surprised if the Utes produce a 100-yard rusher for the first time this season. Freshman Zack Moss is a likely candidate. Moss is averaging 81.0 yards per game on 5.2 yards per carry. Since being named a starter against San Jose State, he has averaged 92.5 yards on 17.5 carries per contest.

Sophomore Armand Shyne could also easily threaten the 100-yard mark against the Bears. Shyne has averaged 77 yards and 5.9 yards per carry over his last two games.

3. Which team win the turnover battle?

Turnovers have turned out to be a major problem for both Utah and California through the first month of the season. The Utes have averaged 2.5 turnovers per game during their 4-0 start. The Bears haven't fared much better, turning it over 1.75 times per contest.

The redeeming factor for both teams? California and Utah both excel at forcing turnovers. The Utes have gained 11 turnovers in four games. Utah leads the Pac-12 with six interceptions and ranks second in the league with five fumble recoveries. The Bears have gained eight turnovers and have intercepted five passes to rank among the top 25 FBS teams in that category.

Utah has done a better job of capitalizing on turnovers up to this point. The Utes have outscored opponents 41-13 in points off of turnovers. California, on the other hand, has been outscored 31-27 in that same category.

Final Analysis

California can score in bunches through the air and that will make game planning against the Bears a nightmare for most defenses. Still, Utah will likely be one of the top defensive teams California faces this season. The Utes are good at forcing turnovers and making teams work harder for yards and points. Offensively, Utah is adept at controlling the ball and chewing up the clock with long drives. What it all means is that the Utes should be able to extend their winning streak over California this weekend.

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Prediction: Utah 42, California 31

— Written by John Coon, who is part of the Athlon Contributor Network. Coon has more than a decade of experience covering sports for different publications and outlets, including The Associated Press, Salt Lake Tribune, ESPN, Deseret News, MaxPreps, Yahoo! Sports and many others. Follow him on Twitter @johncoonsports.