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Berkeley, Calif. • Time waits for no team. And when Cal's offense is on the field, time seems especially short.
Utah used not one, not two, but three sets of scout team receivers to rotate this week in practice. It's the only practical way to prepare the defense for what it will see on Saturday at Memorial Stadium.
"We have three sets of receivers," coach Kyle Whittingham said, "because we have to replicate the speed of what they do."
It's not an easy task.
Cal's quick-strike tempo makes for an unpredictable affair when the No. 18 Utes (4-0, 1-0) put their undefeated record on the line for the second straight year against the Golden Bears (2-2, 0-1). Despite graduating the No. 1 overall NFL draft pick and a cadre of talented receivers, the Cal offense is thriving as the No. 11 scoring unit (45.5 points per game) and No. 3 total offense (594.5 yards per game) in college football.
The rematch between teams that fought to a 30-24 Utah win last season in a College GameDay match-up will be a culture war: Cal's speed-it-up look against Utah's huddle-up, clock-eating mentality.
Former defensive coordinator John Pease, who helped formulate the strategy for Utah's win last year, said with a new offensive coordinator Jake Spavital (who has coached Johnny Manziel, Case Keenum and Geno Smith) and a new cast of playmakers, keeping up with Cal could be even more of a challenge for Utah's defense.
"They're scary," he said. "Morgan [Scalley] is going to be juggling live hand-grenades."
Moments after winning a 51-41 shootout over the Golden Bears last Saturday, Arizona State coach Todd Graham noted from the stat sheet that the Sun Devils' defense had seen 60 offensive snaps in the first half alone, "which was not what we planned."
The speed at which Cal plays can be awe-striking at its peak. Against ASU, the offense led by quarterback Davis Webb put together a 9-play, 98-yard drive that took only 2:37, a 10-play, 84-yard drive (2:50) and a 12-play, 75-yard drive (1:58). All three were for scores.
So far, Cal is averaging 89 plays per game, and only Texas has had more offensive snaps head-to-head in part because Cal was scoring on big plays in the 50-43 win. While some of the extra snaps come from how much Cal throws (since incompletions stop the clock), the no-huddle tempo can wear out a defense and expose its scheme.
It doesn't help Utah's cause that they've already lost defensive end Kylie Fitts, whom Pease called the team's "best pure pass rusher," and may have to play without defensive tackle Lowell Lotulelei. A thinner defensive line rotation will be a tough match-up if Cal manages to run 90 snaps.
"They're trying to identify coverages that you're in, I think, when you're going that fast, and you're looking for signs of what the defense will run," Pease said. "Rushing the passer for a D-lineman is probably repetitively the hardest thing you can do. Trying to waltz with offensive tackles and guards is not fun when you do it 70 times a game."
If speed is so pivotal, why doesn't everyone do it? In Utah's case, the program tried it, and went a different direction.
The Utes hired offensive coordinator Dave Christensen in 2013 with the idea that they'd install a no-huddle, quick-tempo offense themselves. It started out well in non-conference play, but eventually the Utes slid back into a slower, more deliberate pace.
Co-offensive coordinator Jim Harding, who came into the program with Christensen and stayed after he left, said yes, Utah's offense was quick but not getting the job done, while also giving shorter breaks for the defense.
"When you look at that first season, what that tempo gave us, we really didn't feel it was giving us a big advantage," he said. "To run fast but not efficiently, that doesn't do anything for the overall betterment of the team. Right now, the huddling has helped. We do have no-huddle stuff that we used last week, but it definitely is different than the first year we were here."
Utah's smash-mouth run game became its signature in the Devontae Booker era (nudged along by a lagging passing game). Now with Troy Williams, there's more balance between run and pass, but Utah still averages a slow-and-steady 73 plays per game (it employed 81 against USC, thanks to turnovers and late no-huddle looks).
Williams said huddling up gives Utah's players more certainty of where they're supposed to be and what they're supposed to do. By contrast, Cal's offense requires more improvisation, by both receivers and quarterback, to make adjustments based on coverage.
One thing the Utes do that Cal doesn't: run up big time of possession advantages. In every game this year, Utah has held onto the ball longer than its opponent, most recently possessing the ball for more than 37 minutes against the Trojans. It grinds defenses down, while keeping its own unit fresh.
"The best way to stop [Cal's] offense is to keep them on the sideline," Whittingham said. "If you're on the sideline, you're not making an inch. If we can control the football, move the chains, eat the clock like we've been doing, that will help our cause."
The two styles are distinct. The goals are the same. Score points, and win.
No. 18 Utah at Cal
P At Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, Calif.
Kickoff • 4 p.m. MDT
TV • Pac-12 Networks
Radio • ESPN 700 AM
Records • Utah (4-0, 1-0); Cal (2-2, 0-1)
Series history • Tied at 5
Last meeting • Oct. 10, 2015 at Utah; Utah 30, Cal 24
About the Golden Bears • Cal's passing offense leads the nation with 459 yards per game through the air, and quarterback Davis Webb leads all FBS passers. … Receiver Chad Hansen has a nation-best 50 receptions, with 656 yards and 6 receiving touchdowns in four games. … Cal's rushing defense is ranked last in the Pac-12, allowing 263 yards on the ground per game.
About the Utes • Coach Kyle Whittingham is one win away from reaching 100 career wins as coach at Utah, and he would become the 24th active FBS coach with 100 wins. … Utah is one of 13 teams in the country that has a perfect fourth down completion percentage, and the Utes were 4 for 4 on fourth down conversion attempts last week against USC. … Utah's defense is ranked top-five nationally in both sacks per game (4.25) and turnovers gained (11).