BON: Sonny Dykes has taken a program that was in a free fall under Jeff Tedford and built it back up to respectability, especially on offense. How are Golden Bears fans feeling about the job that he's done and what are the expectations for this season?
boomtho: I think a lot of Cal fans are very thankful to Sonny for pulling us out of the tailspin that Jeff Teford started, especially on off-the-field stuff like academics, team culture, etc. The team seems definitely to be comprised of smart, hard-working, team-first guys that are fantastic representatives of the university — which you couldn’t always say towards the end of Tedford.
However, the on-the-field performance is where it gets trickier to assess. I think Cal fans are (somewhat rightly) still searching for the glimmer of hope that Dykes can also be the one to propel to something like 8-10 wins on a consistent basis. So far, he hasn’t shown an ability to do that — the offensive recruiting has been great, but it’s certainly lacking on the defensive side of the ball. In addition, some of the defensive hires Dykes has made have… not worked out, to put it nicely.
I don’t believe Cal has ever beaten a team under Dykes where we were the underdog, and that really doesn’t seem like a good foundation for us ever challenging among the Pac-12 elite.
LeonPowe: Opinions are pretty mixed, but at least online, they're starting to trend a bit negative. I think everyone, even his distractors, give him full credit and marks for the team culture turnaround, including and most importantly academics.
Even Tedford's most successful teams felt walled off from the University at large. Like here's his program. and there's the school. Dykes has done an admirable job of making sure his team knows they attend UC-Berkeley, that they sing the fight song after games, that his players are good representatives of the University.
There's a large portion of the fanbase that thinks that because of lack of attention to defense that our ceiling is 8-4 (see: last season with a #1 pick at quarterback, plus six wideouts that are currently being paid by NFL teams). And even this season, with a pretty darn good offense, due to attrition, bad recruiting and maybe some talent mis evaluations, this version of the defense is in the 2013 (worst in NCAA) or 2014 (bottom quartile) possibility.
The soul-searching question that we face as a fanbase is do the special circumstances at Berkeley restrict us from ever competing for conference championships and ending the Rose Bowl drought?
BON: Offensively, Cal lost superstar quarterback Jared Goff, but was able to land graduate transfer quarterback Davis Webb and blue-chip wide receiver prospect Demetris Robinson. Has the offense under new coordinator Jake Spavital taken a step back so far this year or is it basically on track to be as effective as last season's group?
boomtho: I’d say the offense has taken something like a quarter step back. The receivers are a bit less consistent and Spav is calling a lot (seriously…a lot) of screens, which is resulting in the run/pass balance being even more skewed than the Bear Raid has historically been known for.
However, Webb has been awesome, especially relative to the younger guys who we would have been starting instead. Oddly enough, Demetris has been pretty quiet (through only two games) — instead, it’s veteran redshirt junior Chad Hansen who has been a revelation.
I personally would like to see a bit more reliance on the ground game (we have three pretty good running backs), but otherwise the offense is humming just as well as you could expect for the second under a new quarterback.
LeonPowe: Webb is an above average quarterback, the running backs are the same (except we lost Daniel Lasco, but he was injured much of the year last year) — the wideouts are probably a half-step back in actual production -- Hansen is a true stud; Stovall and Robertson will get there soon, but they're still young and learning.
I'd say the offense has taken a half-step back, but honestly, we had the No. 1 overall pick at quarterback and six wideouts (and one running back) that made NFL teams/practice squads. That's an awful lot of talent to lose and yet, still keep on going. The offensive line actually looks a half step better even.
BON: This week, the Texas defensive players have been talking up the Cal offensive line this week, which lost its most experienced starter after protecting the quarterback well and limiting negative plays in the running game last season. How do you see the match up between the Golden Bears offensive line and the Longhorns defensive line playing out?
boomtho: In very broad strokes, I expect Cal’s offensive line to do a pretty darn good job pass blocking, and a much worse job run blocking. For a lot of our play calls, pass blocking is “easy” (as easy as blocking 300-pound, insanely athletic people is) — the ball gets out really quick, often on a screen, and the skill players are off to the races. Spav also does a good job mixing in tunnel screens or running back screens which lets the offensive line get to the second level and block people.
On the run-blocking side, Spav brought with him a pretty notable switch away from Tony Franklin’s preferred vertical set pass protection. That was supposed to usher in an era with better run blocking, but I’d say the verdict is still unknown on that dimension, given the run/pass balance this year.
LeonPowe: The Texas defensive line scares me. I think our offensive line is experienced and is better than average, but we're not elite. They weren't punching holes for the running backs to run through until the second half against a MWC team. And we beat Hawaii silly, but it felt like the margin of victory should have been greater.
BON: The run defense was poor last season and has gotten off to a pretty disastrous start so far in 2016. Is there any hope that Cal can slow down a strong Texas running game? Is there anything that the 'Horns need to be concerned about?
boomtho: Running backs getting tired of breaking off big runs? Honestly, I don’t think there’s much to fear from the Cal run defense. In the offseason, the front seven experienced such a high level of attrition, either from graduation or from transfer, that it’s a relatively new set of faces up front trying to hold down the fort.
Donnell Pumphrey ran for 281 yards against Cal, with a quarterback that no one in the stadium thought was any real kind of threat. That doesn’t bode well for our ability to stop the UT running backs.
BON: Most of the focus leading up to this game has been on the battle in the trenches, but the Longhorns have been explosive in the passing game under freshman quarterback Shane Buechele. Can Texas look forward to continuing that trend?
boomtho: Our secondary is probably more talented than the front seven, so in that regard, Buechele might face a bit of a stiffer test than the running backs.
However, I expect Cal to have to load up to stop the run game, so Buechele should consistently see seven or eight people in the box. That should certainly give the UT passing game a lot of opportunities to try to beat Cal over the top. After all, it’s a very tough task to ask the secondary to stay attached, and play solo coverage, for most of the game.
LeonPowe: Why pass at all? You can run right through our defense. Honestly, if our defense has two strengths (and this is a very relative term) we're okay in pass coverage, and our defensive line has been okay in quarterback pressure (or at least against SDSU they were).
Allensworth is a pretty good corner. The safeties (Franklin, Hawkins, Vanderbilt) have all been decent to good in coverage. But they're too small in run support and have taken a bunch of bad angles. We haven't wrapped up well in tackles. If Texas doesn't hit 65 percent of their plays as runs, your offensive coordinator is doing something wrong.
BON: Who are some X-factors for Dykes who could swing the game in favor of the home team?
boomtho: On offense, I’m going to go with our running trio of Vic Enwere (bruiser), Khalfani Muhammad (the speedster), and Tre Watson (in-between). The game flow made it a bit difficult to stick to the run in the second half vs SDSU, but I’m hopeful Cal can keep it close enough, at least for most of the game, to make Texas respect both the ground game and the passing game. It will also be important to try to lengthen the Cal offensive possessions to give the defense some rest.
Maybe the Texas players aren't used to fog. Maybe a cloud of recreational nature floats its way down from Tightwad Hill and distracts your team. Maybe they all go to Top Dog pre-game and fall in love with the bockwurst and hot link so they decide to transfer to Berkeley.
BON: Any recommendations for Texas fans visiting the Bay Area in terms of good eats/drinks in Berkeley or places that they should absolutely visit while in town?
boomtho: [I’m going to copy my response from last year’s SDSU game] I think Berkeley is a fantastic college town, and I love Cal's campus. While I imagine many people are staying in San Francisco, I'd encourage people to get to Berkeley early to experience the campus.
There isn't a big tailgating scene, but there are a lot of great pregame haunts you can hit (food: Sliver, Top Dog, Pappy's; bars: Henry's, Triple Rock, Jupiter, Kip's for the dive bar fans, Free House) on your way up to the stadium. If you're not trying to hit up a restaurant or bar, you can walk to the stadium through campus (walking by our clocktower, the Campanile) instead. If you branch out away from the stadium/downtown Berkeley, there is an overabundance of good food, especially in the “Gourmet Ghetto” and the Rockridge area.
I'd also encourage people not to drive, it at all possible — BART takes you to a ~25 minute walk away from the stadium, and you pass by a lot of good restaurants and bars between BART and the stadium.
Last note — I really hope all the visiting fans have an awesome time here. I was fortunate enough to get to attend the game in Austin last year and just had the best time, between the home fans’ hospitality, food (I still wake up craving Torchy’s sometimes…), and nightlife (the game sure didn’t hurt either!)
LeonPowe: We're not a traditional tailgate school because we're an urban campus and our parking lots (unless you're a big money donor) are scattered throughout and around campus. Fans take BART to the game usually, and then head to many of the southside restaurants and bars to pre-game. I'm a huge fan of Top Dog.
There's also an excellent taco restaurant on Telegraph (Tacos Sinaola). If you're in town for the weekend, obviously San Francisco has loads of amazing restaurants, or if you're staying in the East Bay, Oakland and Berkeley have thriving food scenes of their own.
If you go to Alcatraz, be sure to book tickets well beforehand. Austin has plenty of great Mexican and Tex-Mex food, but the Bay Area is the inventor of the Mission Style burrito. I know there's a Freebird's in Austin, but since you're here, go to El Farolito in the Mission in SF.
BON: How do you see this game playing out? Any prediction for the score?
boomtho: Texas by 10+, though I thought SDSU would win by more than eight and I was wrong there, too.
LeonPowe: I know we'll give up a lot of points. Our only hope is that we can outscore y'all.