A new era of Cal football is underway and the Bears are bringing fresh life and energy to Strawberry Canyon.
In some ways, the first game of the Sonny Dykes era looked like a carbon copy of Cal football under Jeff Tedford: mistakes were the difference in a 44-30 loss to No. 22 Northwestern on Saturday. But with a new system, a true freshman quarterback, three new starters on the offensive line and three new starters in the secondary, growing pains are to be expected.
Despite the loss, the Bears' opening-game performance provided a dose of optimism heading forward.
"I was really, really proud of the way our players played," Dykes said after Saturday's loss. "I thought we played hard and I thought we showed that we have what it takes to be a good football team."
The Bears will need to grow up fast, though, playing the third-toughest schedule in the nation, according to college football analyst Phil Steele. Cal will face six more opponents ranked in the preseason Top 25 this year, including No. 2 Ohio State (Sept. 14), at No. 3 Oregon (Sept. 28) and at No. 4 Stanford (Nov. 23).
Dykes will be tackling the gruesome schedule with a team that is returning the fewest number of starters in the Pac-12 Conference and is rated 125th out of 126 teams in the nation when it comes to experience, according to Steele.
The biggest overhaul is taking place on the offensive line, where Dykes is starting new faces at right guard with redshirt freshman Matt Cochran, who left Saturday's game with a shoulder injury, right tackle with redshirt freshman Stevan Moore and left tackle with sophomore Freddie Tagoloa.
The Bears' youth upfront could magnify the challenges that true freshman quarterback Jared Goff, a Marin Catholic product, faces this season.
Goff landed the gig with his accuracy and quick decision-making ability, key skills in Dykes' Bear Raid offense.
"It's a very fast-paced, simple, easy-to-run offense that's proved to be effective," Goff said. "I'm excited to be commander of it."
The 18-year-old from Novato looked mature in his first outing, passing for 445 yards, the second-highest total in school history.
"It was a heck of a performance by a young kid, to come in and throw for 445 yards in his first game is pretty impressive," Dykes said. "He'll continue to get better and better."
Goff is already benefitting from the load of talent at the skilled positions. Sophomore wide receivers Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs combined to catch 24 balls for 296 yards on Saturday, junior running back Brendan Bigelow averaged 9.8 yards per carry last season and freshman running back Khalfani Muhammad is one of only three people to ever win back-to-back California state titles in the 100-meter and 200-meter races in high school track.
But the Bears will need to get stops on defense to convert their talent into wins. Cal is loaded upfront with preseason All-Pac-12 selection Deandre Coleman and Chris McCain, who led the team with 8½ tackles for loss last year. But the secondary, which features three new starters, will need to hold the rope if the Bears are going to stay out of the Pac-12 cellar this season.
"They don't have a lot of experience, but they're talented back there," defensive coordinator Andy Buh said. "I think we'll be alright."
3 KEYS TO CAL'S SEASON
Slowing down the opposition
There's no secret that a Sonny Dykes-coached team is going to score points. Louisiana Tech led the country at 51.5 points per game under Dykes last year and Cal put up 30 in its season-opening loss to Northwestern on Saturday. But whether or not Cal can slow opposing offenses is going to determine how well the Bears fare in 2013. Cal needs to find a way to not have every game turn into a track meet.Limiting mistakes
One of the risks of a hurry-up offense that aims to run as many offensive plays as possible is you open yourself up to the possibility of more mistakes. The Bears learned that first hand as QB Jared Goff had three passes intercepted in the opener, two of which were returned for TDs. With a roster loaded with inexperience, the Bears can ill afford to give opponents extra chances.Quick start
It will be tougher to find a more challenging schedule over the first four weeks of the season than that of Cal's. Already 0-1 after a tough loss to No. 22 Northwestern, the Bears get a breather this week against Portland State, but then must face No. 2 Ohio State and No. 3 Oregon in consecutive weeks. With the possibility of a 1-3 start staring Cal in the face, the Bears must at least be competitive in these early-season games to build confidence for a late-season push at a bowl game.
PLAYERS TO WATCH
The true freshman quarterback out of Marin Catholic was a surprising winner of the offseason competition to land the starting job. Goff has the size at 6-foot-4 to be successful in the Pac-12 and showed good poise in his first college start Saturday despite throwing three interceptions, two of which were deflected passes. If Goff can continue to put up monster numbers like the 445 yards he threw for Saturday and cut down on the mistakes, the Bears will be in good hands.
The safety had a scare in early August when he had to be taken by ambulance to a hospital after a hard collision during practice. Sebastian eventually emerged OK and was dynamic in the season opener, leading the team in tackles with 11 and also intercepting a pass. The junior's ability to roam in the secondary and continue to make plays will be key throughout the season.
The running back flashed his big-play ability last year against Ohio State when he had 160 yards on just four carries. Now thrust into the starting role, Bigelow needs to deliver on a consistent basis. If the junior speedster can keep defenses honest in what figures to be a pass-heavy attack each week, it will make the Bears' offense that more dynamic.
Aug. 31 vs. Northwestern
Saturday vs. Portland St., 2 p.m.
Sept. 14 vs. Ohio St., 4 p.m.
Sept. 28 at Oregon, TBA
Oct. 5 vs. Washington St., TBA
Oct. 12 at UCLA, TBA
Oct. 19 vs. Oregon St., TBA
Oct. 26 at Washington, TBA
Nov. 2 vs. Arizona, TBA
Nov. 9 vs. USC, TBA
Nov. 16 at Colorado, TBA
Nov. 23 at Stanford, TBA