Cal enters Pac-12 play cautiously optimistic

BERKELEY, Calif. -- When it came time to pick a senior quote in high school, Cal quarterback Jared Goff settled on a famous one from legendary UCLA basketball coach John Wooden.

"You can't let praise or criticism get to you. It's a weakness to get caught up in either one.”

How's that for foreshadowing?

Barely into the second season of his college career, Goff has already lived both sides.

"Last year was terrible, there was people saying everything about us,” Goff said. "You try not to read it, but it comes across your [Facebook] news feed every once in awhile, and then this year it's almost the opposite."

With wins against Northwestern and Sacramento State, the Bears' 2-0 start has brought about a renewed sense of enthusiasm to a fan base that grew apathetic during a disastrous 2013 season. Goff said he's already noticed more students wearing Cal gear and he can't stray too far from his apartment near Memorial Stadium before noticing the changes winning has bred.

"Every single day there's a traffic sign near my place and it says 'Go Bears,'" Goff said. "That wouldn't have happened last year."

Goff admits he "loves seeing all that," but as Wooden taught him and coach Sonny Dykes has reinforced, there's an important caveat that comes with the positive vibes.

“[They] literally mean nothing," Goff said.

To better avoid the outside noise, Goff took a page out of former Cal quarterback Aaron Rodgers' book when he pledged to stay away from Twitter during the season.

It's an approach Dykes can appreciate because as immeasurably frustrating as the Bears' 1-11 record was in his debut season, he never lost faith in the process. And the ability to block out any unnecessary distractions plays a big role in that.

"[Last year] everybody on campus, media stuff, everything was remarkably negative -- and justifiably so -- but [the players] didn't need to listen to that," Dykes said. "When we get the thing rolling, they don't need to listen to everybody telling them how great they are, either, because nothing has changed.

"People's ability to ignore stuff that doesn't matter and focus on what does matter, I think, makes a huge difference with how successful somebody is. It's nice for people to tell you you're not stupid and you're not a bad player, all that stuff, but at the end of the day it doesn't really matter."

It's also important to keep things in perspective. Wins against Northwestern, which lost to Northern Illinois the following week, and FCS Sacramento State, which prepared for Cal with a win against Incarnate Word, don't exactly combine to form an enviable resume. The important byproducts of those wins are a small sense of validation and improved confidence, but beyond that Cal still has a long way to go.

And until the Bears prove they can consistently compete with Pac-12 teams -- beginning Saturday at Arizona -- a healthy level of skepticism is appropriate.

"We're not by any means hanging on to the Northwestern win or the Sac State win, but it's good to see us working hard in the offseason, doing everything right, going to class, and then seeing it pay off with the wins," said Goff, who ranks ninth in the country with a QBR rating of 90.1. "I think it makes the whole team's morale go higher, just seeing everything work the way it's supposed to work."

Offense was never going to be a major issue. When Dykes left Louisiana Tech for Berkeley, he and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin had just engineered the highest scoring offense in the country. Given time, there was no reason to believe it wouldn't pick up steam at Cal.

Defense was a different story. It was a question mark when Dykes was hired, but reality (45.9 points allowed per game) redefined any worst-cast scenarios floating about. Defensive coordinator Andy Buh had to go, and Dykes was led to Art Kaufman, whose history of quickly turning around porous defenses presented at least some reason for optimism.

For linebacker Jalen Jefferson, it was apparent early on in spring practice that things could be better when he noticed something strange.

"We were actually stopping the offense," he said. "And that's hard to do with the style they have and what they do."

Jefferson credits Kaufman's basic approach for allowing the defense to play faster.

"We still run a 4-3, but there aren't many adjustments," said Jefferson, who leads the Bears with 17 tackles. "We line up, play our gap and fly to the ball. That's what we needed. [Kaufman's] a great guy ... mellow. He gets on us when needs to and he trusts us, so we trust him."

Again, the competition level and small sample size need to be taken into account, but the early defensive returns are positive. Cal ranks third in the Pac-12 in total defense (328 yards per game), third in scoring defense (19.0 ppg) and is tied for the best turnover margin (plus-5).

Arizona (3-0) will provide an otherworldly kind of challenge. The Wildcats have averaged a conference-best 582.7 yards per game over their first three games, including a school-record 787 yards of offense in Week 1 against UNLV. True freshman running back Nick Wilson is fourth in the country with 449 yards rushing and quarterback Anu Solomon has thrown for 934 yards over his first three career starts.

"We're pretty anxious to see what we're capable of," Jefferson said.

He's not the only one.