Jared Goff is an abstract to much of the nation. A favorite name among the NFL draft set, Goff’s ability is framed largely in the context of potential on Sundays, while his exploits on Saturdays are whittled down to easily shareable snippets.
Having endured seasons of 1-11 and 5-7 his first two seasons as the California Golden Bears’ starting quarterback, there’s no reason the talented Jared Goff would have been in the national spotlight outside of the draft-projection community previously. That changes Saturday at Utah.
In a remarkable reversal of fortune — one due, in no small part, to Goff’s continued maturation as a quarterback — the Golden Bears are 5-0. Host Utah is 4-0, coming off a 62-20 rout of defending Pac-12 Conference champion Oregon.
Cal-Utah is the one of only two Week 6 matchup pitting two Top 25 teams against each other, thus was the logical choice as a national game of the week and site for ESPN’s College Gameday.
“You’d like to think [the spotlight] doesn’t [affect players],” Cal head coach Sonny Dykes said. “These guys only get to play 12 games a year, and they work about 340 days just to get ready for 12 opportunities. So I think they’re all big and they’re all important.”
Be that as it may, Cal football commands a spotlight this weekend the magnitude of which has eluded it since 2009 at the absolute most recent. Front-and-center is Goff.
For those who saw Goff as far back as the first few starts in his true freshman season, 2013, he’s always exhibited that flair necessary to be one of the college game’s premier stars. In September 2013, in a game against Ohio State, Goff went 31-of-53 for 371 yards and three touchdowns.
That afternoon teased the possibility of Cal having a Heisman Trophy-contending quarterback. He’s progressed nicely in the two years since, growing into that possible award-winner as a junior.
Goff’s Heisman campaign could begin in earnest with a standout performance against Utah — but that’s going to take one of the better efforts in his career, with more eyes on him than ever before.
Defense is the hallmark of any Kyle Whittingham-coached Utah team, and this season’s version is no exception. The Utes’ 11 forced turnovers rank No. 13 nationally. Among those teams ranked ahead of Utah is Cal, which has generated an FBS-best 18 turnovers.
With two such greedy defenses on the field Saturday, winning the turnover battle becomes of particular importance.
Interceptions are bound to come from a quarterback who passes as often Goff does in Dykes’ Bear-Raid offense. And indeed, he’s thrown four on the season. Against 15 passing touchdowns and 178 attempts, however, that total is paltry.
But Utah’s ability to create takeaways in key situations is a big part of the Utes’ success. With an offense that ranks fifth nationally in time-of-possession, the Utah offense is built to make teams reliant on quick possessions pay for any errors.
Cal needs its cleanest game from Goff yet, both to maximize every drive and to give its much-improved defense time to rest, avoiding the physical punishment Utah’s style inflicts.
Expect Goff to attack the Utah defense by spreading the ball around the field. Though Cal has one of the most prolific passing offenses in the nation, Goff has just one target ranked in the top 100 nationally for receptions: Kenny Lawler.
Six Golden Bears have at least 11 receptions, making it difficult for any defense to key in on a specific handful of targets. The even distribution speaks to Goff’s uncanny field vision and ability to read through progressions quickly.
Such qualities explain NFL draft analysts’ love of the quarterback’s game. And with a splash Saturday, Heisman voters will learn to love Goff’s game, too.