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Five questions with a Cal beat writer

Approaching Ole Miss’s matchup with Cal on Saturday, we came to the realization that we simply don’t know all that much about West Coast football outside of what we watch and read on paper. So, we got in touch with the people who know it best. Below are five things we talked about with Cal beat writer Jake Curtis of Sports Illustrated’s CalMaven site, about this weekend’s SEC-Pac12 matchup.

1. What is the Cal team saying about having to travel east and plan an 11am local kick?

The major concern is the change in climate. The hot, humid conditions in Oxford combined with cross-country travel could tend to wear down players not used to those conditions. Cal is hoping the earlier starting time might alleviate that problem to some degree, but head coach Justin Wilcox doesn’t think that’s much of an issue.

“We’ll get our body clock started on Wednesday, we’re going down on Thursday, so the early start won’t be an issue,” Wilcox said earlier this week. “And we’ll hydrate like crazy. Even if we weren’t (adjusted to the time), we practiced the entire fall in the morning, so the kickoff time, it’s not an issue.”

During preseason practice, Cal’s defensive backs wore sweatshirts despite the hot weather to get ready for the heat they would face in Mississippi. It turns out the humidity for Oxford is only predicted to be 51 percent on Saturday, which helps. The humidity in Berkeley will be above 60 percent most days this week. However, the temperature in Oxford, expected to be close to 90 degrees on Saturday, could be a factor. But Cal players continue to downplay this.

2. Defensively, Cal has been remarkable against the pass, but have allowed some chunk plays on the ground. What’s the message been regarding the ability to stop the run, particularly playing against an Ole Miss team that wants to do that more than anything?

That’s a little overblown, I think. Generally, Cal’s defense has been good against the run. Really, first-down defense has been the biggest issue, giving teams a lot of second and shorts. But yes, the Bears’ defense is not as good against the run as it is against the pass. I expect Cal to use more three down lineman fronts to combat this. They used a lot of nickel packages with two down linemen against UC Davis and North Texas, primarily because those two opponents are pass-first teams.

3. Broadly, where is the Cal offense coming from and where do they need to improve in order to get more from that side of the ball?

Offense is the Bears’ biggest shortcoming. Really, they’ve just played one good half of offensive football all year. In that one good half against Washington, they ran the ball well with Marcel Dancy (an outside threat) and Chris Brown, Jr. (an inside threat). Quarterback Chase Garbers threw the ball really well in that second half, especially on the Bears’ final drive. With 2:05 left and Cal trailing by two, Garbers went 3-for-3 for 50 yards to set up the game-winning field goal.

Outside of this half, the Bears’ offense has been poor. Against North Texas, the Bears’ best offense came from Garbers scrambling. He rushed for 70 yards, mostly on plays not designed as a QB run. Cal was without three offensive line starters in that game, and will be without two or possibly three again against Ole Miss. Garbers has a tendency to hold the ball too long and has not shown he can be a consistent passer. Wide receiver Nikko Remigio is their best big-play threat, but that is still a shortcoming.

4. Just how good is this Cal secondary?

The pass rush is okay, not great. The defensive backs are what make the pass defense so strong. The Bears use a lot of nickel packages, even in running situations, to get their best 11 players on the field. Safeties Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins play the ball well in the air, and cornerbacks Cam Bynum, Elijah Hicks and nickel back Traveon Beck are all good cover men. Bynum, in my opinion, is the best of the bunch.

5. Were you at all surprised when you saw the rankings come out on Sunday and to have Cal sitting at No. 23? Is this a team that’s ready for that listing?

I was not surprised because I knew three teams in the lower part of last week’s top 25 had lost. Cal did nothing against North Texas to suggest it was top-25-worthy, but the Bears were 27th last week and won their game. So they simply replaced a higher ranked team that lost. That said, I don’t think Cal is the 23rd-best team in the country. The Bears played have literally played one good half offensively all season, that coming in the second half against Washington. Otherwise, the Bears’ offense is nearly as poor as it was last year.