Nevada Football: First Look at the Cal Golden Bears
The Wolf Pack will head to Berkeley to clash with Cal. Here’s our early preview of what to know about the Golden Bears.
Not to be overlooked.
Nevada Football: First Looks at Non-Conference Opponents
The Nevada Wolf Pack head into the 2021 season with heightened expectations and it all begins with a road date against the California Golden Bears on Saturday, September 4.
The Bears aren’t what you’d call an elite Pac-12 team but they’ve shown that they’re plenty capable of pulling a shocker by notching at least one win over a top-25 opponent in each of the last five seasons. Needless to say, Nevada will need to be at its best to avoid spoiling a potentially special year at the starting line.
Location: Berkeley, California
Mascot: Oski the Bear
2020 Record: 1-3 (1-3 Pac-12)
Head Coach: Justin Wilcox (fifth year; 21-21 overall). Cal isn’t the easiest place to win consistently, so Wilcox deserves credit for making the program a thorn in everyone else’s side over the past four seasons. COVID-19 wreaked havoc on their 2020 season but in spite of the pandemic, Cal lost by a combined five points to Oregon State and Stanford so it wasn’t that far away from being another winning campaign.
This fall represents a new challenge, however, since most of the team’s returning production is on the offensive side of the ball and, well, most of the team’s recent successes are owed to their defense. Figuring out how to move the ball more consistently while replacing a couple of key contributors to shore up Wilcox’s historic strength will get tested immediately by a seasoned Wolf Pack roster.
QB Chase Garbers
No one is about to confuse Garbers with someone like Kedon Slovis or Jayden Daniels, but Cal has usually been better with him under center than when he’s been absent. 2020 may have been his best overall season yet despite the win-loss record since he set a new career high with a 62.4% completion rate and six touchdowns against three interceptions, but it remains to be seen whether he can create more plays down the field since his 5.7 yards per attempt ranked last among Pac-12 quarterback with at least 100 throws.
LB Cameron Goode
Cal’s defensive anchor will provide a stiff test for a seasoned Nevada offensive line because of how much havoc he can create. The Golden Bears only got to play four games last fall, but Goode racked up eight tackles for loss and three sacks, both of which led the team. He also led the defense in sacks and TFLs back in 2019, as well, so if anyone is most likely to greet Carson Strong behind the line of scrimmage, it’s #19.
Cal LB Cameron Goode stands up in a Bear front for the, umm, Bears. Has speed/length to ruin plays from backside + flashes pass rush ability like on this play. Handles short-area coverage, as well, making him a potential NFL starter as a 3-4 edge. #SnapScout22 pic.twitter.com/IeBmVUEgtC
— Chad Reuter (@chad_reuter) May 21, 2021
WR Kekoa Crawford
If anyone on the roster is going to challenge Nevada down the field, it’s probably this 6-foot-1, 195-pound senior from Pasadena. He led Cal with 19 catches for 232 yards and two touchdowns in 2020 but, more importantly, Crawford also averaged 17 yards per catch two years ago. Given a normal off-season to prepare with Garbers, he could produce much more and the Golden Bears are almost certainly counting on it.
RB Christopher Brown Jr.
After a solid 2019 in which he paced the Cal running game with 914 yards (4.4 yards per attempt) and eight touchdowns, injuries held Brown to just 21 carries in the abbreviated 2020 campaign. While the Golden Bears were able to discover a little bit of depth at the position in his absence, a return to form would put an exclamation point on the “ground-and-pound” team that Cal wants to be.
LB Kuony Deng
Goode should land a few haymakers in the Cal front seven, but Deng can do the same. He decided to return as a super senior for 2021 after more than proving his mettle in two previous years as a starter, picking up a team-high 31 tackles and two forced fumbles to go along with 2.5 tackles for loss.
In Wilcox’s tenure, this has never been a unit that scares anyone, but returning nine starters is a good start to finally turning a corner under second-year offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Last year, Cal ranked 103rd in points per drive and 107th in available yards percentage gained, so any progress towards average would be a massive development.
At a minimum, Garbers, Crawford and a healthy Brown make for a fine trio, but unearthing more contributors is a high priority. Young prospects like sophomore wide receiver and Jeremiah Hunter and sophomore running Damien Moore could be in line for bigger roles, though experienced hands like Nikko Remigio (ten catches, 90 yards, two TDs) and tight end Jake Tonges could bounce back from a relatively modest 2020.
Cal will also benefit from returning four starters along the offensive line, chief among them four-year starter Michael Saffell at center, but the Golden Bears will have to do a better job of keeping Garbers on his feet: They ranked 116th nationally with a whopping 10.3% sack rate allowed last season.
This side of the ball is what Wilcox knows best, so it wouldn’t be too surprising if he found answers to slow the Nevada Air Raid. Goode and Deng can bring the heat up front, but how much help they’ll get from the defensive line is an open question since Brett Johnson suffered injuries from a spring car accident and will miss the entire season.
The Golden Bears will also have to replace cornerback Camryn Bynum in the secondary, as he was a NFL Draft selection earlier this year, though the silver lining is that the other three 2020 starters are all back. Elijah Hicks and Daniel Scott give the defense an experienced safety tandem with multiple years of starting experience, but there’s still work to be done since the pass defense wasn’t as stout overall (61.9% completion rate and 7.5 yards per attempt allowed) as it had been in years past.
It’s tempting to think that Nevada will walk into California Memorial Stadium and have all of the answers to solve Cal’s tough defense, but the Wolf Pack’s Air Raid has been stymied before (just ask Victor Santa Cruz). The odds are that this matchup will look an awful lot like last year’s San Diego State game and that the deciding factor will be how often an overlooked Nevada defense can contain what is, on paper, a bland Golden Bears offense.
For my part, I think the less-heralded unit will do its part to help Nevada escape with a hard-fought victory.
Nevada 27, Cal 20