PROVO, Utah — Cal and BYU are traveling a similar road in search of a turnaround this season.
The two teams come into their game Saturday in Provo with renewed confidence after impressive season-opening wins. Cal dominated North Carolina on defense in a 24-17 victory. BYU held Arizona’s offense in check long enough to pull away for a 28-23 win.
For both teams, improved defense played a critical role.
North Carolina had just one first down and 38 yards in the first half against Cal. The Bears forced four turnovers — scoring 14 points off those turnovers — and are the early leaders in the Pac-12 in turnover margin.
“It’s not about some magic defense,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said. “There’s no magic scheme. It’s about effort, toughness, fundamentals. There’s a confidence that comes with playing good defense that you need to earn.”
That doesn’t mean Wilcox is completely satisfied with the progress he’s seen so far. Cal nearly let North Carolina back into the game after shutting the Tar Heels down for three quarters. A pair of late fourth-quarter touchdowns shaved the Bears’ lead to seven points.
North Carolina nearly had a shot to force overtime. The Tar Heels recovered an onside kick with 1:13 left, after scoring on a 14-yard pass from Nathan Elliott to Anthony Ratliff-Williams, but the play was nullified by an illegal block.
“They did some good things on Saturday for the first three quarters,” Wilcox said. “Now we gotta learn how to finish.”
BYU mirrored Cal in clamping down on an opponent. The Cougars limited Arizona to 326 yards, with 129 rushing yards. Last season, the Wildcats ranked third nationally with 309.3 rushing yards per game and were 12th among FBS teams in total offense with 489.5 yards per game.
A bigger story for BYU is the offense. During the second half, the Cougars had no trouble moving the ball against Arizona. BYU scored on each of its first three drives after halftime and finished with 392 total yards.
Last season, the Cougars ranked among the worst teams nationally in virtually every key offensive statistical category.