BERKELEY, Calif. — A year after a surprising defensive turnaround under rookie head coach Justin Wilcox, California is looking to do the same with its offense. North Carolina is just trying to make it through the start of the season after losing 13 players to suspension.
The two schools kick off the season against one another for the second consecutive year Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
The Golden Bears made significant strides defensively in 2017 from the previous season. It showed most prominently on the scoreboard, as Cal allowed 14.2 fewer points a game.
Still, the Bears finished 5-7 and missed out on a bowl game for the sixth time in the last eight seasons.
Cal hopes to build on its defensive success from a year ago. The Bears are also looking for more from quarterback Ross Bowers. As a sophomore, Bowers passed for 3,039 yards with 18 touchdowns and 12 interceptions.
“He’s come a long way and he’s learned a lot,” Wilcox said. “The command of the offense is much greater than it was a year ago. The more he is comfortable with the offense, the more things you can do.”
Bowers has yet to gain the national attention that his predecessors Jared Goff and Davis Webb did but more than proved his worth to his teammates during Cal’s 35-30 win over North Carolina last year.
Late in the second quarter, Bowers threw an incomplete pass but absorbed a jarring helmet-to-helmet hit from Tar Heels defensive end Jalen Dalton. Unshaken, Bowers got back up and threw a 67-yard touchdown pass to Vic Wharton III on the next play.
“A lot of quarterbacks, when they’re about to get pressured, they step off their back leg,” Bears linebacker Alex Funches said. “Ross stepped into the throw. That’s the kind of quarterback I like. He’s not going to be afraid of somebody hitting him. He understands this is football. Sometimes he’ll just hit me in the hallway.”
North Carolina will be shorthanded through much of the opening month of the season with 13 players facing suspensions for secondary NCAA violations for selling team-issued shoes. Eleven players’ suspensions begin this week, some for as many as four games, though that group largely features rotation players and walk-ons.
The Tar Heels are coming off a three-win season marred by injuries and inexperience, marking the worst year since coach Larry Fedora’s arrival before the 2012 season. But Fedora shrugged off a question this week about feeling anxious to move past those struggles.
“The pressure that I feel right now is the same pressure I felt in ’86,” Fedora said. “That’s just the way I am. You have a philosophy, you believe in your philosophy, and if you really believe in it, then you do it.”
Here are some other things to know about Saturday’s season opener for both teams:
ELLIOTT’S JOB: Tar Heels quarterback Nathan Elliott started the final three games of last season and was expected to be in a camp battle for the starting job with sophomore Chazz Surratt. But with Surratt among the players suspended four games for selling shoes, Elliott has a chance to seize firm control of the starting job. The junior threw for nine touchdowns with two interceptions in his final three starts. Freshman Cade Fortin will serve as Elliott’s backup against Cal.
BACKFIELD BY COMMITTEE: North Carolina is likely to be without tailback Michael Carter, who is sidelined for unknown reasons. Fedora indicated that Jordon Brown (last year’s top rusher), Ohio State transfer Antonio Williams and freshman Javonte Williams will likely share carries at Cal while leaving out Carter — who had a team-high eight rushing scores last season.
I KNOW YOU: The Bears rotate heavily at almost every position on defense and are returning every starter from last season except one — inside linebacker Gerran Brown, who was forced into medical retirement less than two weeks before the season began. Brown was fourth for Cal in tackles in 2017 after taking over for injured Devonte Downs. Junior Evan Weaver is expected to start in Brown’s place.
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