Provo • BYU running back Squally Canada wasn’t all that impressed when he made the hour or so trip north on Interstate 880 from his home in Milpitas, Calif., as a teenager to Berkeley to watch the California Golden Bears play a football game for the first time.

Even though Cal almost upset then-No. 1 Oregon before falling 15-13 in front of a packed house at Memorial Stadium in 2010, Canada says he fell asleep during the game. A few years later, when Cal coach Sonny Dykes left a message asking Canada to call and set up a recruiting visit, Canada didn’t return the call because his mother, Stacy, didn’t want him playing college football close to home.

“She knew if I went to Cal I probably would have gotten into a lot of trouble,” he said, laughing.

Suffice it to say, Canada and his Cougar teammates and coaches are now fully impressed with Cal, and especially the Bears’ defense after it forced four turnovers in a 24-17 win over North Carolina last Saturday. Cal led 24-3 before allowing two fourth-quarter touchdowns and held UNC to 301 yards of offense.

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

Saturday’s 8:15 p.m. kickoff will mark 1-0 Cal’s second visit to LaVell Edwards Stadium. The Cougars won the first meeting in Provo in 1999, 38-28, and leads the series 3-1.

Coach Justin Wilcox has the Bears on the rise in his second season at the helm. They went 5-7 last year (2-7 in league games) and are picked to finish fourth in the Pac-12 North this season. Wilcox was a defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC and Wisconsin before getting the head job at Cal and has brought that defensive mentality to Berkeley.

“The guys on defense understand things better than they did even a year ago,” Wilcox said. “It is not about a magic defense, a magic scheme. It is about effort, toughness, fundamentals. There is a confidence that comes with playing good defense that comes with all those things. We are still a ways away from where we need to be, but I think they did some good things on Saturday through the first three quarters. Now we gotta learn how to finish.”

CAL AT BYU


When • Saturday, 8:15 p.m.
TV • ESPN2

Cal came up with four interceptions in its opener, defensive back Jaylinn Hawkins getting two of those picks. North Carolina didn’t pick up a first down until its eighth possession.

“Very talented team,” BYU quarterback Tanner Mangum said. “The defense really propelled them to the victory, creating turnovers. We watched the game film from last week and all the games from last year. They play fast and they play tough. They give you a lot of different looks. We embrace that challenge. We relish it. We are looking forward to the matchup.”

Offensively, the Bears have yet to decide on a full-time quarterback. Returning starter Ross Bowers got the start against the Tar Heels and was 8 of 17 for 56 yards before giving way in the second half to Chase Garbers and Brandon McIlwain, who made their California debuts. Garbers ran for 50 yards (not counting sacks) and threw for 54 and a touchdown.

“They are all similar. There is one that runs a little bit better than the other ones,” said BYU defensive coordinator Ilaisa Tuiaki. “But I don’t think there is that big of a difference between them that we have to prepare differently for one, whoever is in there.”

The player BYU will have to stop is running back Patrick Laird. He picked up 95 yards and a touchdown on 29 carries against the Tar Heels after rushing for 1,127 yards last season. The Bears have a veteran offensive line, unlike the inexperienced Arizona crew the Cougar defense feasted on last week.

“They are a really good running team,” Tuiaki said. “With the offensive coordinator [Beau Baldwin] and his background, I thought they would be slinging the crap out of the ball. But I think they are doing a really good job running the ball. I think their best player on offense is their running back. He’s a good player, a phenomenal player.”

BYU VS. CAL


Oct. 9, 1999 — BYU 38, California 28 (Provo)
Sept. 8, 2001 — BYU 44, California 16 (Berkeley)
Dec. 22, 2005 — California 35, BYU 28 (Las Vegas Bowl)
Nov. 29, 2014 — BYU 42, California 35 (Berkeley)