Will Utah win its first ever Pac-12 game? Will Cal?
Both the Utes and Golden Bears enter Saturday's game with identical records across the board - 3-3 overall and 0-3 in conference play. The winner will inch closer to bowl eligibility, while the loser will, for a week at least, be stuck winless in the Pac-12.
If there is a difference, though, it's how they enter this game. Utah is fresh off a potentially season-saving victory at Pittsburgh, while Cal enters nursing a three-game slump and a humiliating defeat to instate rival USC last Thursday.
This is very much a must-win if the Golden Bears are going to turn their season around. It's hard to imagine they'll bounce back from an 0-4 conference hole, especially with road games still remaining against UCLA (nowhere near unbeatable, but improved), Stanford (not going to happen in a million years) and Arizona State (still a tough and talented team, even if they occasionally like to shoot themselves in the foot).
They need this one. That scares me a bit because I hate facing a team when their backs are against the wall. It's like they channel their inner Dynasty and claw and pull anything that hangs just to win.
They're going to be angry and fired up for this one because their season hinges on it. The players know it, Jeff Tedford knows it and I'm sure our good friends over at California Golden Blogs know it.
Cal can't lose.
Of course, this game is also important to the Utes. After all, they're still holding a giant goose egg in their new conference and I'm sure the coaches and players are all dying for that first official victory. It would also suggest the Utes are capable of a very strong finish and not merely content with just bowl eligibility.
Saturday for Utah might not be the difference between five or six wins, but it very well could be the difference between six or seven or even eight and not hoping for that final sixth win well into November.
So, how do the Utes win Saturday?
Well for starters, it would be nice if they held on to the ball like they did this past weekend. Zero turnovers is a big reason Utah won Saturday and they'll need a similar performance this weekend against Cal if they're going to leave the Bay Area above .500.
It really is that simple. In all three of Utah's wins, two of which came on the road, they secured the ball. In the Utes' three losses, specifically their last two, they failed to do just that.
No turnovers and I see no reason why Utah won't be in the position, down the stretch, to possibly pull out the win.
The Golden Bears should know this all too well. Saturday, in their 30-9 loss to SC, Cal lost four fumbles and Zach Maynard threw three interceptions. You're not going compete very well, let alone win, with numbers like that.
It held back an offense that statistically went toe-to-toe with the Trojans. In fact, they finished with more total yards, had just as many first downs and still were never really in the game - falling behind 23-0 early in the third quarter.
That's Utah's challenge. Cal does boast a fairly decent offense, even with all their errors. It's much more impressive and explosive than the Utes', though that's not saying much, and it's clear, especially the past two games, they'll sink or swim with it.
They do, after all, still average 30 points and 436 yards per game, which puts them in the upper-half of the conference. Utah, obviously, is woefully stuck at the bottom in both categories.
Where the Utes succeed, though, is on the defensive end. Even with a dismal offensive performance against Pitt, Utah still managed to control much of the game solely due to their strong defense. It's remarkable how well the defense holds its own when the offense isn't coughing up the ball on every drive.
The difference, though, is that Utah keyed in on Ray Graham, the explosive Panther running back and forced Pittsburgh into a pass-oriented offense, which they obviously weren't prepared for Saturday.
Cal is a much more balanced team. Whereas Pitt is in the bottom of the Big East in passing yards and the top of the conference in rushing yards per game, the Golden Bears are ranked similarly toward the middle in the Pac-12 in both those statistics.
In fact, Isi Sofele, Cal's junior tailback from Salt Lake City's Cottonwood High School, ranks sixth in the conference in rushing yards per game. While Maynard is at seventh in the conference in passing yards per game.
Like I said, a very balanced attack that will be far more diverse than what Utah saw last week.
Because of this, the defense is probably going to bend a bit more this weekend than they did last. Even though Pitt managed 14 points, both scores came on special teams mistakes by the Utes, so Utah's defense actually held the Panthers' offense scoreless. I don't think that will be the case this weekend. Cal is going to score. Maybe not a lot of points, but enough where if Utah is going to compete in this one, they'll need more than just field goals.
That means a far better performance in the red zone than what we saw against Pitt. The Utes could have really put that game away Saturday far earlier than they did had they managed even two red zone touchdowns. But because they didn't, even with a putrid offensive performance, the Panthers still managed to hang around for far longer than they should have.
In fact, Utah ranks third to last in red zone offense nationally. Only Western Kentucky and North Texas are worse than the Utes.
If that doesn't change, the Utes probably aren't going to win this week, or next week or many games at all this season. You can't win on field goals alone, at least not always, and sooner or later, they're going to have to put together a drive that stretches the length of the field and ends with a red zone touchdown.
Will they do it this week?
Utah wins if...The offense, led by Jon Hays, doesn't turn the ball over and begins putting together sustained drives. Granted, they did manage to kill it in the TOP last week (37:59 to 22:01), but field goals just aren't going to cut it. This offense needs to start coming away with more than three points on their scoring drives.
Cal wins if...They force the Utes into turnovers. Utah doesn't have the offense to overcome a bad turnover situation. Even one or two could be the difference in this one.
What should happen...I don't know. I certainly feel better about this game than I did a week ago, but there are still some serious problems with this Utah team. The offensive line is sketchy, the offense still can't find any groove and though John White is definitely a great surprise, you get the sense this team is leaning too much on the defense. Against equally bad offensive teams, or one-dimensional offensive teams, you can get away with it. Against teams like Cal, who are decent enough on the offensive end, it might eventually cost you. So, again, I really don't know what to expect. I'm taking the chicken's way out. No prediction this week.