SALT LAKE CITY — Jared Goff may be the top quarterback in college football and a candidate for the No. 1 pick in the NFL draft, but it’s the less-heralded Travis Wilson who’s leading the No. 5 team in the country.
The two will face off Saturday as Utah hosts No. 23 California.
The Utes (4-0, 1-0 Pac-12) and Golden Bears (5-0, 2-0) ask extremely different things of their quarterbacks, but their importance is no different. Utah was ranked No. 17 before Wilson had the best game of his career during a 62-20 rout of Oregon two weeks ago.
There were no questions about the Utah run game and defense entering the season, but the quarterback position kept the Utes from being considered a Pac-12 contender. They are if Wilson can consistently play at that level. He’s thrown for 513 yards, four touchdowns and completed 68 percent of his passes with one interception in three games.
“Travis Wilson is much improved,” Cal coach Sonny Dykes said. “He was a good quarterback last year and he’s playing even better now.”
On the other sideline, the Cal offense goes as Goff goes. The Golden Bears want to run the ball better, but Goff is elite. He ranks in the top 10 nationally in completion percentage, passing efficiency, passing touchdowns and passing yards.
Utah defensive coordinator John Pease said Goff reminds him of Cincinnati Bengals quarterback Andy Dalton when he was at SMU. He’s got a live arm and reads coverages well.
Pease was asked what comes to mind when he sees Goff make a laser throw from the hash mark to the far sideline. “I think about retiring,” Pease said.
Both teams have the heart of their Pac-12 schedules remaining, but Saturday could be a turning point for both.
Utah is the highest-ranked team Cal has faced and Goff must avoid, arguably, the best front-seven in the conference.
The Utes are not only trying to win the conference, but stay in contention for the College Football Playoff. Consistency has been Wilson’s Achilles’ heel and the senior will be tested by a Cal defense that leads the nation with 18 turnovers.
Things to watch when Utah hosts California:
HOPEFULLY HEALTHY: Cal running back Daniel Lasco returned last week from a hip injury but didn’t look like a preseason Doak Walker award candidate. He rushed 10 times for 22 yards in his first game back after missing the previous two. The 6-foot-1, 205-pound senior ran for 1,115 yards as a junior. The Golden Bears would like to get the run game going as they expect the Utah safeties to play deep.
BUCKING THE TREND: Cal has an opportunity to take a step that it hasn’t taken in more than a decade. The Golden Bears haven’t defeated a team ranked in the Top 10 since beating No. 3 USC 34-31 in triple overtime in 2003. They also haven’t started a season 6-0 since 1950. Cal started 4-1 last year before dropping six of seven. “We started getting complacent a little bit and we lost that hunger … this year we have to keep our head down and keep grinding,” receiver Bryce Treggs said.
BACK IN THE TRENCHES: Utah defensive end Hunter Dimick is expected to be back on the field after missing the last two games while injured. The junior posted 10 sacks and 14.5 tackles for loss in 2014. Coach Kyle Whittingham hopes Dimick is at or near 100 percent healthy. “He brings a toughness and a physicality to the defense … he’s exceptional in that regard,” Whittingham said.
QUIETLY EFFECTIVE: Wilson has been in the spotlight since lighting up Oregon two weeks ago, but Devontae Booker continues to be the rock of the offense. He ranks No. 4 in the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards per game (148.0) and No. 5 in rushing yards per game (110.8). Cal gave up 286 rushing yards to Texas, but just 121 combined the last two games. “There’s a chip on our shoulder every week to rise to the challenge and try to make more plays than we did the week before,” Cal safety Stefan McClure said.