Friends! It’s great to be back and bringing you yet another weekly Q&A with the opponent, as our Notre Dame Fighting Irish squad will play host to the California Golden Bears in two days’ time. It was nice to have a bye week last weekend that we definitely don’t need to talk about or try to remember any details about — although I’m curious why ND’s record says 0-2 now when there definitely wasn’t a game played last Saturday — but it’s time to get back at it with Marcus, Tommy, Al, and the boys.
Of course, considering California has only played UC Davis and UNLV, how good they are — especially their pretty hyped-up defense — is fairly unknown, especially to those of us who haven’t gotten a chance to watch them play yet this season. So, we reached out to the good folks over at Write For California, an independent site covering Cal sports started by a number of former staff at California Golden Blogs.
We were lucky enough to get responses back from Nick Kranz (Editor-in-Chief at the site), and he sent us some great content to consume on a Thursday of game week. His insights cover his feelings about Justin Wilcox, how he’s liking Purdue transfer QB Jack Plummer so far, how good Cal’s defense truly is, where Golden Bears’ mascot ranks among all the Pac-12 mascots, and much more.
So, let’s not tarry any further — it’s time to learn everything we need to know about Cal before Saturday afternoon!
1. We’re in year 6 now of the Justin Wilcox era, and he’s exactly .500 overall and 15-25 in the Pac-12. Can you give ND fans a little context as to what kind of program he took over, what the expectations were when he was hired, and whether Cal fans feel good about him now or if there’s any growing desire for a change anytime soon?
Write For California: Justin Wilcox took over for the all-offense, no-defense Sonny Dykes, who was also an almost exactly .500 coach (at least, if you give him a mulligan for a disastrous year zero in 2013). Dykes was not a great cultural fit in Berkeley and spent much of his last 1-2 years looking for other jobs, so Wilcox was about trying to find a guy who understood Cal and would recruit California generally and the Bay Area specifically. That Wilcox also happened to be defensively minded was probably another plus in the minds of those running Cal athletics at the time.
And sure enough, he immediately fixed Cal’s defense and immediately broke Cal’s offense, and that baseline reality hasn’t particularly changed across his entire tenure. Cal fans generally really like Wilcox as a person and program leader; he’s patient, squeaky clean, says all the right things, impresses all the right people. He’s led a couple of fun upset wins and broke a couple of miserable rivalry losing streaks to USC and Stanford. But there’s frustration at how clearly the program has plateaued and the inability of the current regime to figure out how to build an average offense. Not enough frustration that I’d expect any kind of coaching change, but frustration nonetheless.
Pat Rick Note: I refuse to move on from this question without posting THE Justin Wilcox GIF, so let’s just get it out of the way now so we can keep going.
2. How are you feeling about Jack Plummer at QB so far? Irish fans got to see him a bit last year when ND beat Purdue (25/36, 187 yds, 1 TD), but how has he looked so far this season and what does he do well vs. not well?
Write For California: He’s solid. Two games in he appears to be the best passer Cal has had in the Wilcox era, which isn’t a hugely high bar to clear but is still a step forward. On the other hand, he’s not a guy that makes plays with his legs, which is what Cal’s prior starting QB over the last four years provided.
He’s also playing behind a rebuilt, struggling offensive line, so his relative lack of mobility has been a concern. My sense of Plummer is that he is neither a QB that can will an undermanned team to victory, nor a QB that will lose you the game with poor play or mistakes. A good, solid, P5 average quarterback.
3. How do you expect Bill Musgrave’s offense to attack the Irish defense, and who are the key skill position players ND fans should expect to see a lot of on Saturday? Also, how do you think the Cal offensive line will hold up against a veteran ND d-line?
Write For California: To answer the last question first, badly. Cal has exactly one starting lineman (their center) returning in the same position he played in 2021, and the line struggled at various points both run blocking and pass blocking against UC Davis and UNLV. Cal fans are rightly terrified about what higher talent defensive fronts will do. As a result, I would anticipate a bunch of quick passing plays, moving pockets, and misdirection attempts to try to scheme around offensive line limitations. Cal’s offense functioned well when they could get the ball out quickly and into space, where their skill position players could maybe make something happen.
Cal’s main trio of WRs, Jeremiah Hunter, J. Michael Sturdivant, and Mavin Anderson are relatively inexperienced but relatively talented recruits by Cal’s standards, and have had a solid start to the season. But the biggest threat is true freshman Jaydn Ott, who is averaging just short of 7 yards/touch as a running back who gets targeted in the passing game a lot. He’s the two time Pac-12 freshman of the week and looks like the best skill position recruit Cal has brought in since Keenan Allen around a decade ago. If Cal scratches out enough points to beat Notre Dame, it’s probably going to come from play making from Ott.
4. From what I’ve seen and heard, Cal’s strength is their defense. What are the biggest strengths and weaknesses on that side of the ball for the Golden Bears, and who are the names to know there?
Write For California: The secondary is the strongest unit on the entire team, which has largely been the case throughout the Wilcox era. Cal will almost always play nickel. There isn’t necessarily one player of the primary five DBs that stand out, though safety Daniel Scott is the veteran of the unit.
CB Lu-Magia Hearns tends to get targeted the most because opponents think they can take advantage of his size, but he’s quick with great instincts that make up for his height and weight. Cal’s secondary has consistently been able to disguise coverages and confuse QBs, and when the matchup is right they generate lots of interception opportunities.
5. This question gets more ridiculous to ask each week, but which players/position groups on the Notre Dame side scare you in this match-up?
Write For California: I’m definitely worried about slowing down TE Michael Mayer, as I don’t think there’s really anybody on Cal’s roster that matches up particularly well.
And I’m just generally worried about any competent team’s ability to disrupt with their defensive line/rush linebackers, and that’s certainly the case with a team that has a baseline talent level like Notre Dame.
6. FAN QUESTION: Assume you are a brand new head coach — how do we beat you? No, seriously.
Write For California: On offense, I would focus on running the ball and short passing in the flats and over the shallow middle of the field. Cal is great at preventing big plays and forcing picks if you go down the field, but they often struggle at the point of attack and our linebackers are perhaps questionable in coverage, meaning that teams can often move down the field with consistent 4-8 yard chunks in the running game and passing game.
Defensively, I would play press coverage on our WRs, bring your safeties forward, take away any quick hitters and easy looks in the passing game, and dare Cal to beat you over the top. You can probably get away with rushing 3-4 and getting pressure from base sets, knowing that Cal’s line can’t hold up against ND’s talent level. Sure, maybe you give away a big play or two but that’s a small price to pay for lots of 3-and-outs if you execute correctly.
7. FAN QUESTION: UC Davis and UNLV scored 13 and 14 points against Cal, respectively. Explain how ND will manage to score fewer.
Write For California: Well, both UCD and UNLV had two touchdown drives each — one that was a long, sustained drive, and another that came on a blown tackle that turned into a big run. So if Notre Dame can’t sustain long drives AND Cal doesn’t blow a major tackle, then maaaaybe Cal holds Notre Dame to fewer than two touchdowns.
Or maybe ND does sustain a bunch of drives, but ends up settling for field goals unlike Cal’s first two opponents? I dunno, I’d project that ND outscores a Big Sky team and a lower end MWC team, but one never knows.
8. FAN QUESTION: Please tell them to take it easy on us*
*Editor’s Note: If you couldn’t tell, that Marshall game did a NUMBER on this fanbase.
Write For California: I see your attempt at a reverse jinx, and raise you a prediction that Notre Dame sacks Cal 9 times on Saturday.
9. With a couple of Cal’s conference brethren confirmed to be headed to the Big Ten and others like Oregon and Washington clearly in discussions to make similar moves, what are you hearing about Cal’s plans as the SEC and Big Ten continue to grow and consolidate power? What do you hope is Cal’s conference status 5 years from now?
Write For California: I personally want the Pac-12 to remain as is . . . and if we lost Utah and Colorado and went back to playing a round robin Pac-10 schedule, that would be just peachy too. But since UCLA and USC are leaving and everybody else is going to look for a better spot, Cal seems to have no choice but to shoot for a B1G invite. Also, Cal’s financial struggles are not so dissimilar from UCLA, so there’s a certain financial impetus to find a way to get in on the B1G money train to support our massive olympic sport program.
Sigh, this is depressing. I LIKE playing Wazzu and Oregon State, and I don’t really want to play Big-10 teams other than the occasional unique OOC game. This reality sucks.
10. Please rank the Pac-12 mascots from most to least awesome, and feel free to provide a little explanation for the list, especially if you so desire to bash a certain arboreal mascot from a certain rival. Where does Oski land amongst his peers???
Write For California: I am already on record as objecting to the vast majority of Pac-12 mascots on the grounds that they’re just an anthropomorphic Bro-in-a-Jersey. Which means that pretty much every single Pac-12 mascot sucks, with the exception of USC (sigh), Stanford (sigh), Cal, and Arizona State (the one team that SHOULD have a mascot that’s a bro in a jersey).
The Stanford mascot absolutely sucks, but it’s supposed to suck. More than anything else, the Stanford mascot makes me feel something (unbridled hate), which is more than I can say for most of the generic mascots most teams have.
Oski, meanwhile, is the truth and the light, and while we respect all faiths and traditions, may we humbly suggest that you consider following His teachings?
11. Alright, time to get down to it: what’s your prediction for this game? Who wins, what’s the final score, and give your reasoning why.
Write For California: Notre Dame 20, Cal 16. It’s a defensive struggle the whole way, and it’s the kind of game that can easily swing on one key turnover or one disastrous defensive bust or special teams swing play. But ultimately, Notre Dame has been play in the trenches, and that allows ND to more consistently sustain drives, and more consistently create disruptive plays on defense.
Alrighty then, I want to give a huge shout-out to Nick for sending such insightful, fun, and thorough answers to all the questions we peppered him with, whether they were normal, silly, or depressing (a healthy mix of that last one for sure after last weekend).
I highly recommend you all to go visit the Write For California site, as these guys do magnificent work covering Cal football and are an excellent source for learning even more about this Golden Bears team and this match-up heading into Saturday.
Additionally, please please please toss some follows to the Write For California Twitter account as well to Nick, as they’ll be great go-to sources for breaking Cal news and quick analysis and insight from the other side in the lead-up to, duration of, and postgame timeframe for Saturday afternoon’s clash at Notre Dame Stadium.
Okay then, that’s it for this week — per usual, Go Irish, Beat Golden Bears!!!