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D. Ross Cameron, AP
California quarterback Ross Bowers throws a pass against North Carolina, Saturday, Sept. 1, 2018, in Berkeley, Calif.

PROVO — When BYU opened the season last week at Arizona, the defense had months to prepare for highly touted quarterback Khalil Tate.

As the Cougars host California Saturday (8:15 p.m., MDT, ESPN2), they have a different challenge — not knowing exactly who the opposing QB will be.

In a season-opening 24-17 victory at home against North Carolina last week, the Golden Bears rotated three different quarterbacks — junior Ross Bowers, redshirt freshman Chase Garbers and transfer Brandon McIlwain.

“Everything is on the table,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said this week. “Quite honestly, probably this week, we won’t announce a starter until game time. We’ll have a plan going forward, but we won’t announce anything … I’m not against playing more than one guy, and if one guy separates himself, great, that’s who it will be.”

When you don’t know who the starter is, you have to prepare for every little thing.
BYU linebacker Butch Pau’u

Bowers started against UNC and completed 8 of 17 passes for 56 yards in the first half. Garbers was 7 of 13 for 54 yards and had 10 carries for 39 yards. McIlwain ran for 26 yards on three carries.

“When you don’t know who the starter is,” said BYU linebacker Butch Pau’u, “you have to prepare for every little thing.”

Last season, Bowers started every game and threw for more than 3,000 yards. Garbers and McIlwain are mobile QBs.

The Cougars devised and executed a successful plan that shut down Tate in a 28-23 victory.

But this week “the whole game plan changes for the defense,” said Cougar defensive lineman Corbin Kaufusi.

Cal's biggest offensive weapon is running back Patrick Laird, who ran 29 times for 95 yards and a touchdown and caught four passes for 14 yards and another TD. He was on the preseason watch list for the Doak Walker Award and the Maxwell Award after rushing for 1,127 yards in 2017.

“They’re a really good run team. With their offensive coordinator and his background, I thought they’d sling the crap out of the ball,” said Cougar defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. “But they’re doing a really good job running the ball. I think their best player on offense is their running back. He’s a good player. They’re well-coached up front, big and physical.”

“Their running back’s a great player. They’ve got a decent O-line. They’re trying to find the quarterback right now,” Kaufusi said. “Each one of their quarterbacks has different pros and cons. I think they’ll run it a lot so we have to prepare for that.”

Meanwhile, the Golden Bears’ defense had four interceptions last week, including a 38-yard pick-six by safety Cameron Goode, who is not expected to play against BYU due to an injury.

“They’re very aggressive,” said Cougar offensive coordinator Jeff Grimes of Cal’s defense. “Really good front seven in terms of their strength and aggression to the football — a very experienced secondary that runs really well. I don’t see any weak links. It’s going to be a great challenge for us.”

“They’re a very talented team. They’re very well-coached, they play hard,” said BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum. “They had a great win last week and their defense propelled them to victory, creating turnovers. They play fast, they play tough, they give a lot of different looks. We embrace that challenge and we relish it, just like we do every week.”

Wilcox, a former defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, UCS and Wisconsin, was impressed with the Cougar offense.

“Schematically, it’s a lot of pre-snap movement, shifts and motions … you’ve got to be really disciplined. They’re very physical,” he said. “Their O-line, run game and tight ends are accomplished. They’re making plays on the perimeter. Their quarterback is a veteran guy that’s played a lot. He does a really nice job. It will be a great challenge.”

Pau’u is expecting a competitive contest Saturday.

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“Cal’s a great team. They have a great defense and we have a great offense. We know that’s going to be a battle,” he said. “They’ll win some and our offense will win some. We need to handle our side of the ball. They’re very explosive and have a quarterback that can get the ball anywhere. We need to stay assignment-sound and play relaxed at our first home game this year.”

BYU coach Kalani Sitake said Cal is similar overall to last week’s Pac-12 opponent, Arizona.

"They’re athletic and they have some speed. A lot of similarities,” he said. “They’re deep at the running back position and they run the ball well. It will be a good challenge for us on the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball. I expect our guys to be ready.”

• • •

California (1-0)

at BYU (1-0)

Saturday, 8:15 p.m. MDT

LaVell Edwards Stadium

TV: ESPN2

Radio: 1160 AM, 102.7 FM