Everybody knew that for the Berkeley Bears, the college football state championship this year would run through San Diego.
Cal of course has the Big Game in November at home against Stanford, but if it wants to be Golden State champs, it first must figure out a way to beat San Diego State.
It’s been about a year since anybody’s done that. The Aztecs enter Saturday night’s game in America’s Finest City as winners of 11 in a row. They are the defending Mountain West Conference champions. They crushed Cincinnati in the Aloha Bowl. They have a running back whohas gained more career yards than any other current Football Bowl Subdivision player. They have eight starters back from a defense that ranked fifth in the country last year.
Right now, San Diego State looks like the best college football team in Southern California.
You know it’s not USC. Last weekend, Alabama turned the Trojans into Paulie. You remember Paulie from “The Godfather” who met an early end: “Oh, Paulie? Won’t see him no more,” we were told in the movie. Same with the Trojans, after the Tide rubbed them out 52-6.
UCLA still has a shot at doing something, like maybe winning a game. Maybe the Bruins can turn the trick Saturday against UNLV. They couldn’t last weekend against Texas A&M.
Yes, it was a bad weekend for major college football in Southern California, unless you root for San Diego State. In winning its 11th consecutive over two seasons – 31-0 against New Hampshire, which is Chip Kelly’s old club – the Aztecs are starting to knock on the door of the Associated Press Top 25 poll.
Cal enters Qualcomm Stadium as a seven-point underdog.
The Aztecs are balanced on offense, coach Rocky Long’s teams make their mark on defense, and they’re going to have a whole lot of people rooting for them to beat Cal. Last week, they drew 46,000-plus for New Hampshire. You’d think they’ll have more for the Golden Bears, who probably travel better than New Hampshire and who have a few more alums living in SoCal than the Wildcats from the Granite State.
If the Old Blues show up like they should, we could see the largest crowd ever for a San Diego State game in Qualcomm.
The Aztecs fans sure figure to be there.
“I’m sure they appreciate the fact they’ve won 11 straight ballgames,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “They won the Mountain West Conference going away. Look at the games – they played very few competitive ballgames in their league. Almost everything was a blowout. I don’t know you can say that about any other team in college football.
“I’m sure their fans are appreciative of the product they’ve got, and I would anticipate them having a really good crowd.”
Cal should find the 90-minute flight to San Diego far less challenging than the Bears’ first trip of the season. For their opener, they flew 15 hours and 40 minutes to beat Hawaii 51-31 in Sydney. The team’s collection of air miles from the 7,433-mile trip should qualify at least a couple players for free tickets on the short hop to San Diego.
One voucher should go to Cal’s new quarterback, Davis Webb, who threw for 441 yards against Hawaii, and the other ticket to his favorite target, Chad Hansen, who caught 14 passes for 160 yards and two touchdowns.
The Golden Bears have a new offensive coordinator this season in Jake Spavital, who is trying to speed things up for a team that was not exactly running in molasses last year.
It says in the Cal media guide that upon arriving in Berkeley, “Spavital installed a high-tempo offense.” This may come as a surprise to those who thought last year’s team already had one. They sure seemed to get up to the line fairly quickly, not conferring first in the huddle and all.
Cal ran an average of 76 plays a game last year in Dykes’ “Bear Raid” offense. In the first game of 2016 against Hawaii, the Bears snapped the ball 89 times. Who would have thought they were such slackers last year?
It won’t matter how fast Cal runs its offense if it can’t stop San Diego State. The first point of order for Dykes would be to come up with a plan to deal with Aztecs running back Donnel Pumphrey. The 5-foot-9, 180-pound senior out of Las Vegas enters the game with 4,370 career rushing yards, 64th on the all-time list. If he equals last week’s total of 98 yards against New Hampshire, he will pass Eric Dickerson and Earl Campbell and a few others to move up to No. 56.
Looking even further ahead, Pumphrey can see the outline of Marshall Faulk, San Diego State’s all-time rushing leader, who is 44th on the list with 4,589 yards.
As for Cal, the Bears should be looking at this game with equal importance to future rivalry games against beaten-down USC and equally winless UCLA, and even on a par with next week’s game against rising Texas. None of them will be much tougher than this one on the border.