Editor’s note: The following is an interview between Maria Khan, football beat writer at The Daily Californian, and Shailin Singh, a former Daily Cal football beat writer and UC Berkeley alumnus. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
Maria Khan: The pandemic has caused a lot of turmoil in general, but it’s certainly put a damper on the excitement and energy that sports, especially football, have brought in the past. How do you think being away from fans for so long and then having a sudden return to normalcy will affect both teams at their season opener?
Shailin Singh: I think it plays directly into Cal’s advantage — having home-field advantage at the season opener. Just being able to feel the liveliness of campus, people coming out to the football games. Berkeley has never been known as a football school, but any player will tell you that having people cheering for them in any capacity always helps out. In football, it’s a big advantage if you can get the crowd loud: It makes it a lot harder for the other team to communicate. They can’t hear a lot of their signals, and they have to resort to other ways of communicating. I think it will be super fun for everyone to have a packed stadium again. Even the Nevada players are probably going to be happy to be playing in front of someone. I think it will benefit everyone.
MK: Nevada’s offense is what makes the team one of the favorites of the Mountain West and could make it a winner this year. With the Wolf Pack coming off a 7-2 season with an explosive offense, can Cal rise to the offensive challenge, or would a defensive hold be more successful?
SS: Nevada’s strength is pretty clear: It’s its passing game. Cal’s No. 1 strength on the defensive side has been stopping opponents’ passing attacks, so I think this is a matchup that is going to be very difficult. Carson Strong is getting a lot of hype as potentially being one of the top players picked in next year’s NFL draft. Sports Illustrated had him as the No. 1 pick. Cal’s dealt really well with some of the Air Raid offenses it has faced in the past, which is a scheme that Nevada also uses. Washington State is an example that Cal matched up really well against. There is a lot of experience with Elijah Hicks and Josh Drayden, who, I think, can really slow down Strong. And it’s not going to be just them too — the biggest keys for this game is Cal’s pass rush being able to push Strong out of the pocket or make him get rid of the ball quickly, so I think that is going to be guys like Cameron Goode and Kuony Deng coming off the edge to hopefully force Strong to make some quick decisions. I think that will play into Cal’s favor.
MK: Nevada has high expectations going into this game, with Nevada Appeal columnist Joe Santoro writing, “You’d be hard pressed to find a Pack football season in recent years as highly anticipated as the one that will start Sept. 4 at the University of California,” and going on to say that “the Pack optimism is real.” These high hopes are mostly focused on the Wolf Pack receiving unit — specifically wide receiver Romeo Doubs. If you could pick a star player from Cal’s lineup with the potential to do as much damage as Nevada’s receiving unit, who would it be?
SS: Cal has always been in a really unique position where there is no clear No. 1 receiver for Chase Garbers — it’s always rotating. One day it will be Nikko Remigio, then the next game it will be Kekoa Crawford. It’ll be really interesting to see who takes the next spot. But I think the way last season looked, Remigio is becoming Cal’s go-to guy. He’s very explosive and shifty and agile. Garbers has played with him for many years now, and they’ve developed a chemistry that is finally translating onto the field on a consistent basis. I think that he is a guy that they are going to try to get the ball to as much as possible. Remigio is the kick returner and punt returner as well, so I think if they can get him involved in the passing game and even some of the running game, he’s the one to look out for.
MK: Which team is the underdog going into this game? Is there one team that seems like it could find its way to the top regardless of the competition’s prowess?
SS: My initial instinct is Cal is going to be a slight favorite to win. It’s really going to be a toss-up though. It’s the type of game most Cal fans think they have in the bag and most Nevada fans think they have in the bag. The reason why I lean toward Cal is because past defense has always been a strong suit in the Justin Wilcox era, and that’s really what Nevada lives and dies by. Cal tends to struggle a lot more with teams that are very dynamic on the ground, and that’s just not the case here. Wilcox has been really good against nonconference opponents, and Cal has always struggled more with the Pac-12. I also think Cal should be favored because of its home-field advantage. I think it’ll be close, and I’m not saying it’s going to be a lock for Cal by any means. Wherever the line is set right now, Cal winning by 3 or 4 sounds about right to me.
MK: Is there a player in particular who you believe could act as a dark horse, one who hasn’t made any waves for the Bears yet but might have the ability to stand out and make the game their own?
SS: One person that I’m really looking out for is Mo Iosefa, who is predicted to be a starting inside linebacker. He’s very young but definitely had some flashes last year of having a lot of potential. And with Deng moving to outside linebacker, that’s a loss of experience in the middle of the field. But middle linebackers have always had an enormous amount of production in Wilcox’s scheme. I think Iosefa’s skill set fits really well into that — he’s a player that has a lot of range, and he can also go downhill and make tackles, so I’m interested to see how he plays this season.
MK: What are your general thoughts and predictions for the game, seeing as it’s the season opener for both sides and fans are set to return for the first time after the start of the pandemic?
SS: In terms of the general vibe of the game, it’s going to be a defensive battle. The first game of the season on either side means it’s going to be rusty offensively. Cal is finally implementing an extended playbook that they did not have last year. On the Nevada side, Strong has apparently been dealing with a knee injury through camp, so we’re going to see how that affects his play and their offense as a whole. I expect it to be a lower-scoring affair. I do expect it to be an electric atmosphere, though. If or when, hopefully, Cal scores a touchdown, I think it will be a really big deal, or if it goes down to a fourth-quarter nail-biter in classic Cal fashion. I wouldn’t be surprised if it’s a game where no one knows what’s going to happen until the final few minutes, but that’s one of the best parts about football, so you really can’t complain there.
Maria Khan covers football. Contact her at firstname.lastname@example.org.