Friday has arrived! As we look ahead to the non-conference match-up of the North Texas Mean Green at the California Golden Bears of the Pac-12, we got in touch with sister SBNation site California Golden Blogs, and asked their writers some burning questions about the Green/Golden match-up.
UDD: How do you feel about the line on this game, a week after beating a ranked opponent?
CGB writer Christopher H.: I’m always nervous when Wilcox-era Cal is anything more than a one-touchdown favorite because our offense isn’t built to score a lot of points. A two-touchdown spread usually means Cal is expected to have a completely dominant defensive performance because the offense doesn’t score more than three TDs. Excluding being a 37.5-point favorite over FCS Idaho St, Cal’s biggest line last year was -11.5 against a free-falling Colorado and Cal only covered by a half a point thanks to two pick-6s to start the game. That said, Cal showed some signs of life on offense last week against a very good Washington defense, so it’s also possible that this is the start of something positive.
[Note: Cal defeated nationally ranked (14) Washington last week, 20-19. —ed]
CGB writer Nick Kranz: I’ve learned over the years to stop questioning Vegas. But more specifically, Cal just isn’t the type of team to blow out anybody (see: week one vs. UC Davis) so a two-score point spread actually seems kinda big regardless of the opponent.
UDD: What are your expectations for not just this game, but this season, in year three of head coach Justin Wilcox?
CH: Cal has a tougher schedule this year, but I’d like to see Cal take another step forward. I’m happy any time Cal makes it to a bowl game. If Cal could finish with a winning record in conference, I’d be really happy. I think those are reasonable expectations.
NK: This year, Cal fans are caught between the possibilities afforded by a potentially top-10 defense and the ceiling imposed by a potentially struggling offense. If Cal could develop even a Pac-12 average offense, they could absolutely win the North. If Cal’s offense is roughly the same as last year, they might struggle to improve on last year’s 7–6 record because their road schedule is so daunting in 2019. Regardless, the bulk of the defense is graduating after this season, so there is certainly urgency to make the most out of this opportunity.
UDD: This game was announced a while back, how closely have you followed North Texas at the time, as opposed to this week?
CH: I caught up on North Texas prior to this season. I know they announce these games well in advance (we’re playing Wyoming in 2028 and 2029!), but I can’t really think that far ahead.
Nick Kranz: I kept a lazy eye on the Mean Green last year, though I’ll admit that I relaxed a little bit when I realized that a healthy portion of their defensive talent was graduating. Still, the offense did and still does make me nervous even considering Cal’s defensive reputation. It doesn’t take a ton of offensive production to swing a game when Cal is involved.
UDD: Who’s one under-the-radar or X-factor player who could swing this game for YOU?
CH: This is a tough question this year. Not sure if he’s considered under the radar, but I’d have to say WR Kekoa Crawford—mainly because the passing game is under the radar.
NK: Agree with Christopher— Crawford is probably Cal’s most athletic receiver, and he has quickly become perhaps QB Chase Garbers’ favorite target. To the extent that Cal’s passing game might have some explosiveness to it, Crawford is likely the guy.
UDD: Unranked Cal took out Washington last week, what went right?
CH: Everything. No turnovers, a shutdown defense, and unexpected competence on offense in the second half.
NK: I think the single biggest and most unexpected factor was the success of Cal’s running game. The Bears were both efficient and (relative to Cal) explosive on the ground en route to nearly 200 yards rushing. That performance both allowed Cal to sustain drives and score, but also allowed Cal to shorten the game and keep their defense relative fresh. After relying on Christopher Brown Jr. against Davis, back-up Marcel Dancy looked just as good with the ball in his hands. If this running game is sustainable, Cal will become much more dangerous.
UDD: How does the Pac-12, or more specifically Golden Bears fans, feel about Group of Five match-ups?
CH: I’m fairly annoyed at Cal’s penchant for scheduling tough G5 opponents because they’re tough games that you get little respect for winning. Cal’s last G5 matchup was against SDSU in 2016, a team that ultimately finished 11–3. You guys had the right idea—schedule the worst team in the SEC and embarrass them. Low risk, high reward.
NK: There’s certainly some truth to the low reward/high risk concept of G5 match-ups, but I’m starting to come around to the idea that most of the college football people who matter are capable of conceptualizing the difference between Boise State/Appalachian State vs. UNLV/Rice. So I’m actually okay with Cal continuing with the FCS/G5/P5 pattern for filling out their three out-of-conference slots each year. Having said that, I’m pretty sure that this game was only scheduled for [Cal head coach 2013-16] Sonny Dykes’s Texas recruiting purposes, so this particular game doesn’t really serve much purpose for the current Cal program.
UDD: The Washington offense was fairly conservative last week, how do you think the Cal defense will handle Mason Fine?
CH: I like Mason Fine a lot, but it’s hard not to be confident about the Cal secondary. If you guys have success on offense, it’s going to be due to the run game. I know Fine has a lot to prove, but I watched SMU shut down Rico Bussey Jr. last week—and Cal’s secondary is even better.
NK: What I see when I look at Mason Fine’s stats is a quarterback who is extremely turnover-averse. Meanwhile, interceptions is the Cal secondary’s calling card. I’ve now watched David Shaw and Chris Petersen go uber-conservative in the passing game to limit Cal’s chances of downfield interceptions, but North Texas was also great last year at throwing in the 10–30 yards downfield range. Needless to say, I’m fascinated to see if North Texas’s approach changes in this game— and if it doesn’t, then how it works out.
UDD: North Texas, and C-USA in general, don’t match up with the Pac-12 too frequently. What should fans new to Cal look out for?
CH: Fans new to Cal should learn what all old Cal fans know—there’s no relaxing until the clock strikes 0:00. Cal has been on the wrong end of so many ridiculous comebacks (e.g. the “Hill Mary” of 2014 Arizona, when Arizona scored 36 points in the fourth quarter and won the game on a ridiculous Hail Mary) that most Cal fans expect doom throughout the game and throughout the season—because it’s always coming. When Washington scored a 50-yard FG to take the lead back last week and go up 19–17 in the fourth quarter, I was thinking “well, we were close.” Cal drove down the field and I was expecting a turnover at any moment. Cal appeared to score a touchdown on 3rd and goal at the goal line and when they didn’t, I figured we’d miss the field goal. Cal made the field goal, but there was still 8 seconds left on the clock and so surely Washington is going to throw a Hail Mary and kick another field goal—surely that missed TD was going to cost us. Well, 4 seconds off the clock, only time for one more play—a hook and ladder for the TD? Nope, Cal stopped the final play and won, 20–19. At no point in that game was I expecting Cal to win.
[Note: This was every North Texas fan from about 2006-2015. We feel you. —ed]
NK: The draw at the moment is the defense generally and Evan Weaver specifically. He’s performing at an All-American level at middle linebacker and is coming off an 18-tackle game against UW last week. He’s everywhere around the ball and the coaching staff is getting increasingly creative in how they use him. He will absolutely test Mason Fine’s pocket presence as a pass rusher.
UDD: For the North Texas fans attending this weekend, what’s the most friendly bar or restaurant near the stadium, for out-of-town guests?
NK: Pappy’s on Telegraph seems to be the place that most rivals fans head to— if only because it’s centrally located and has a ton of TV screens. It does tend to get crowded, but since this game is an early start against an unfamiliar opponent, I wouldn’t expect a big crush. Other options nearby include Henry’s on Durant and Raleigh’s on Telegraph. Regardless of the exact choice, be prepared for an uphill walk to the stadium. Thankfully, it’s all worth it for the views.
UDD: You’re already looking ahead to Ole Miss next week, aren’t you? Be honest.
CH: No one looks forward to a game with a 9 a.m. PDT start time. I’m certainly not looking past North Texas, at least. See previous answer: no game is safe. We don’t tempt the football gods with our arrogance.
NK: Honestly, I’m scared of traveling east of the Mississippi and playing a team that appears to be all-defense, no-offense. Those two ingredients frequently combine for a football game that’s like passing a kidney stone. But really, after upsetting UW, I think most Cal fans are oddly anxious to get to Pac-12 play and find out whether or not this team has it in them to be dark horse Pac-12 North contenders.
UDD: How do you see the game going?
CH: I really have no idea. I expect it to be a low-scoring game, like most Cal games. I think Cal will run the ball for most of the game and slowly chew up up clock, while defensively limiting big plays from North Texas. I could definitely see the score being something like 23–14 Cal.
NK: Cal has an uncanny knack for forcing teams to play at their style and pace, which means that the game will probably be relatively slow and low-scoring. Mason Fine will probably be more dink-and-dunk than usual, sustaining a few scoring drives, but seeing more than a few stall out when the Mean Green can’t convert 3rd and longs. Something like a 27–16 final score sounds about right to me.
[Note: We exchanged questions for this weeks Q+A, and these guys asked me the following question first. I decided to return the favor —ed]
UDD: Whom do you want to punch in the face?
CH: Larry Scott. It’s difficult to watch the Pac-12 Network (good luck if you have DirecTV), the games are always played at stupid times, he’s burning a boatload of cash on a diminishing product, etc. Someone please punch Larry Scott in the face. Please.
Nick Kranz: Any NCAA/California administrator cravenly trying to protect their pocketbooks by releasing misleading statements about Senate Bill 206, which would allow California college athletes to profit off of their name and likeness.
One final note from Underdog Dynasty, is that neither we, nor California Golden Blogs, endorse punching any public figure in the face for any reason.
Having said that, I love that you can really feel the pain here these guys of playing kid brother to the rest of the conference, and the almost complete lack of hope in topping the kings of the mountain. This is something a lot of Conference USA fans can empathize with, particularly UNT fans who came of age during the post-Dickey, pre-Littrell years.
Whatever happens, Cal will play North Texas again in 2022, in Denton.
Enjoy the game.