The last time an opposing freshman quarterback played at Rice-Eccles Stadium, it didn’t go very well for him.

UCLA’s Dante Moore was 15 for 35 for 234 yards and a touchdown in the Bruins’ 14-7 loss to the Utes, but also threw an interception and had two fumbles, losing one of them.

Utes on the air


No. 16 Utah (4-1)
vs. Cal (3-3)
Saturday, 1 p.m. MDT
Rice-Eccles Stadium
TV: Pac-12 Network
Radio: ESPN 700/92.1 FM


Cal freshman Fernando Mendoza is the third quarterback the Bears have used so far this season, making his collegiate starting debut against Oregon State last week. He’ll play in his first road game Saturday.

“I think Fernando did a great job and it’ll be a great environment down there. It always is. And so a different kind of test and I know Fernando will be excited for it,” Cal coach Justin Wilcox said this week.

Mendoza threw for 207 yards and two touchdowns and had one interception, completing 21 of 32 passes in a 52-40 loss to the Beavers. He also added 41 yards on four rushes. The freshman did fairly well against an Oregon State defense that held Utah to seven points.

“I think he gives them a little bit of life. I think he’s a very good player. You can tell he is really smart. He knows where to go with the football,” Utah linebackers coach Colton Swan said. “He’s new to it there, he is young, but I think he gives that offense a lot of life. He put up quite a few points against Oregon State last week, and I think that they’re going to come in ready to go.”

Cal enters the game averaging 32.5 points per game and will face a tough Utah defense that is allowing just 11.8 points per contest (tied with Oregon for fifth best in the country) and is the best in the nation at getting off the field on third down (opponents have just a 21.2% third down completion rate). The Utes are ranked No. 53 in passing yards allowed (215.6), but have done well in making sure those yards don’t translate into points.

Cal has a nearly 50-50 run/pass split, and is extremely productive running the football. The Bears rank No. 11 in the nation in rushing offense with 217.3 yards per game. Sophomore running back Jaydn Ott has 556 rushing yards and five touchdowns on 96 carries, spelled by senior Isaiah Ifanse, who has 348 yards and seven touchdowns on 61 carries.

“So far it has (been a strength), and it’ll be a test this week against these guys,” Wilcox said.

Ott is probable to play Saturday, according to Wilcox. It’ll be another test for Utah’s No. 3-ranked rushing defense, which hasn’t yet allowed more than 131 rushing yards in a game.

Cal is respectable against the run, but has one of the worst passing defenses in college football, allowing 265.7 yards per game. One area where the Bears do excel defensively is forcing turnovers, creating 14 this season, which ranks No. 4 in the country. Cal’s defense is anchored by linebacker Jackson Sirmon (46 tackles, a sack and a forced fumble), who is day to day.

A lack of a passing game has hurt Utah throughout the season, and the Utes will have to be better throwing the ball to win Saturday.

“If you’ve got an offense that nobody respects the throw game, they’re going to put everyone in the box and it’s real hard to run the football in that box. So I think the best thing we can do to open up the run game, provide more creases, thin things out in the box a little bit, is to complete some balls down the field,” Utah coach Kyle Whittingham said.

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The Utah quarterback mystery continues, so whether it’s Cam Rising, Nate Johnson or Bryson Barnes under center Saturday, Utah simply has to get that segment of the offense going, or it will be another long day.

“We’re looking at their personnel, we’re looking at formations, we’re looking at the things that they’ve consistently shown. ... We look at the totality of the offense of what they’ve done. Coach (Andy) Ludwig, who has done a fantastic job there on offense, and so there’s a long history of his background in the conference and we did play him, I believe in 2019 out there,” Cal defensive coordinator Peter Sirmon said.

“So there’s some familiarity with it and we will get a good plan in place and we will have an idea of who we’re going to play, probably pregame and then we’ll adjust from there.”

Wilcox is preparing for anyone that Utah might start at quarterback.

“We don’t know who the starter’s going to be because they haven’t announced it. They’ve played with guys, we know that Cam Rising is probably on the verge of coming back,” Wilcox said.

“Obviously (Rising’s) got a lot of tape and is a heck of a player. We’ll do our best to prepare and understand that there could be moving parts once the game starts, but they’re going to run their offense, they’re very physical, they run the ball, they’ve got weapons at wideout. We’ll adjust as needed when the quarterback is identified.”

Opening up the passing game will in turn help a stagnant Utah run game, which needs all the help it can get with Micah Bernard and Chris Curry out for the year, Ja’Quinden Jackson dealing with an ankle injury and Charlie Vincent hurt.

Utah and Cal are both coming off losses to the same opponent, Oregon State, and both are eager to get back in the win column.

“Utah has a great team. We know they’re going to be physical, too. They’ve got good players,” Wilcox said.

California quarterback Fernando Mendoza runs with the ball during game against Oregon State on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Berkeley, Calif.
California quarterback Fernando Mendoza runs with the ball during game against Oregon State on Saturday, Oct. 7, 2023, in Berkeley, Calif. The freshman QB will be the Bears starter Saturday against the Utes. | Godofredo A. Vásquez, Associated Press