Ducks? In Berkeley??

Tonight’s game between the Oregon Ducks and the California Golden Bears looks to be a close, hard-fought contest. The oddsmakers have the spread at 3.5 points, with Cal as the home underdog.

With a bye week to prepare, Cal has a big advantage, especially with a superior coaching staff. Coach Wilcox and his crew will have the players ready.

This game might come down to 1) injuries, and 2) team speed. The Bears might be one of the slowest teams in the Pac-12, and Oregon may be the fastest. But Oregon’s run defense is excellent — so if the Bears try to pound away on the ground, like Stanford did in their 1st half against Oregon, they’ll lose.

The way to beat Oregon is in the air. Their best pass rusher may be injured, and without him, Chase Garbers should have time to find open receivers — if there are any. Oregon also has short DBs, so look for Moe Ways (#18, 6-4, 220lb) and Ian Bunting (#83, 6-7, 255lb) to get some chances. They won’t be able to out-run the Oregon DBs, but they could definitely out-jump them.

The running game for both teams will start with a few question marks. Oregon’s starting Sr RB Tony Brooks-James left the Stanford game with an injury, and is listed as doubtful. For 3 of his 4 understudies at RB, this will be their first road game. They were responsible for some turnovers at Stanford, and might be vulnerable. Look for the Bears to do some stripping on defense.

If the Bears can get to QB Justin Herbert and get him to rush his throws, there may be some picks for the Cal defense. The risk is in giving up big plays. FS Ashtyn Davis (#27) has excellent speed, but overall the Bears are slower than the Ducks, and sooner or later, the Ducks are likely to pick up a blitz and break a big one.

The Cal Bears have the potential to beat the Ducks tonight, and I’m definitely hoping they will, in front of a raucous crowd (including the stellar Cal Alumni Band). However, Justin Herbert’s passing & running, along with the Ducks’ team speed, will likely be the difference in the game. I’ll cheer for the Bears, but the Ducks are the likely victors, by a TD.

Big Game – Bigly!

Coming off a big with against UW, and with ND next week, I was thinking (for a moment) that Stanford might overlook Cal.  A little…

However, Stanford MUST beat Cal to win the Pac-12 North.  Even then, they’re depending on UW beating WSU in Seattle next week — and that’s with WSU having a bye this week!  UW plays Utah this week, at home.

So, with the Big Game rivalry, and with the Pac-12 North title on the line, Stanford can’t afford to let up or overlook Cal. Big Game is way more important than ND!

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Stop Stanford’s running game, and you stop Stanford.

I think UW figured they’d stop Stanford’s run with something close to their standard defensive set.  Not enough respect, IMO — and it killed ’em.  (That, and the tendency toward over-confidence that comes with a Top Ten ranking!)  Stanford’s OL is also peaking at the right time.  They played their best game of the season against the Huskies.

It might come down to Bryce Love’s ankle.  He looked pretty gimpy at the end of the UW game.

I think Cal stuffs the box, outnumbers the zone reads, does plenty of disguised blitzes, gets Stanford’s OL confused about their assignments (hopefully), forces them into 3rd & longs, gets a couple early stops, and forces Costello to beat them.  So once again, 3rd-&-longs will be critical.  Look for Cal’s defense to keep Costello guessing by showing all-out blitz, then putting 8 in coverage, hoping to bait them into a blitz-beating play, like a screen pass, that they can stop short of the 1st down marker.

Cal will be looking to gamble & get lucky on defense, and to limit the inevitable big plays when they guess wrong.  Chances are, they’ll be missing Devante Downs.  Cal is still undersized in the front 7, and depends on scheme to get stops.  That only goes so far against an experienced OL like Stanford’s.

On offense, Cal will most likely have a difficult time moving the ball.  They’ll need some turnovers & short fields to make a dent on the scoreboard.  But they have a ton of heart, and they’re persistent & resilient.  They’ll get a few scores out of sheer grit & determination.

Most likely:  A poor turnout among the Cal faithful diminishes the Bears’ spirit just enough to turn the spiritual pre-game tide. Sadly, Stanford beats the spread.

But early stops & turnovers could easily get Cal’s underdog spirit rolling, and make big problems for Stanford (whose fans were mostly no-shows against UW, having already written off their team’s chances against the Huskies).

Plenty of tickets left on StubHub in every section of the stadium for very reasonable prices!

Another factor:  Every time I write Cal off, they play over their heads & win big!

GO BEARS!!

Duck & Cover

The Cal Bears take their injury-depleted squad up to Eugene to slow down & frustrate the nation’s #1 offense.

I believe that the Cal defense will frustrate the Ducks, and stop them for short gains or losses on about half of the plays from scrimmage. Then they’ll rip off a 15 to 25 yard gain. The first half should be very close, with Cal taking the lead at halftime.

In the 2nd half, Oregon’s speed, and the pace of their offense, will take their toll, and the longer gains will come more often.

The Ducks win a close one — but not by much. They won’t cover the spread. If you’re betting, take Cal & the points.

Prediction: Oregon 31, Cal 27

Go Bears!

USC Enters Bear Territory… or is it Zebra Territory?

All the buzz of the Pac-12 is in Berkeley, where the USC Trojans arrive in hopes of extending their domination over Cal teams.

Could it be different this time around?

Not if Pac-12 officials have anything to do with it.

USC, now ranked at #5 nationally, is currently the best Pac-12 candidate to make the 4-team playoff; and the Pac-12 would love to have one, or maybe two teams in the national playoff.  What does that mean for Cal fans, and for anyone hoping for an upset?  It means more outrageous calls and no-calls.  In fact, I’ll make a prediction:  Cal QB Ross Bowers will receive a blatant shot to his head from one of the stalwarts of USC’s defense.  And there will be no flag.

Last week, against Ole Miss, SEC referees sat and watched while Cal receivers were victims of egregious pass interference (PI) on two consecutive plays.  No flags.  But here’s the difference between new Cal HC Justin Wilcox and former HC Sonny Dykes:  Wilcox got mad — and got a 15-yard penalty for unsportsmanlike conduct.

Then he got even.

Did you notice how Cal’s defense shut down Ole Miss in the 2nd half, and how Cal’s DBs had the Rebels’ WRs covered like a glove?  It was no coincidence.  The Cal DBs did an amazing job of holding the Miss WRs just enough to stay with them, but not enough to get flagged.  This is something they’ve worked on.  And it paid off.

Against Ole Miss, the holding came after the SEC refs’ horrific no-calls.

On Saturday, against USC, Cal’s DBs might be tested early — and if they do what they did against Ole Miss, they’ll get flagged.  A lot.

I’m willing to guess that the Pac-12 officiating crew has already been briefed on

  • what to watch for (i.e., what penalties should be called against Cal), and;
  • how much a USC victory (with big numbers from Sam Darnold) will help the Pac-12 conference as a whole.

So, look for the officiating crew to “set the tone” early in the game, especially when USC has the ball.

Other than the officiating, this could prove to be a challenging game.  With RB Tre Watson out for the season, and WR Demetris Robertson injured (most likely), the Bears have no speed.  With a 4.7 sec time in the 40-yard dash, Patrick Laird needs a team like Weber State to make him look fast.  Against Ole Miss, many Cal rushes went for 2 yards or less.  And Miss has the worst defense in the SEC.  USC’s defense is big, strong, and fast.  Expect them to stuff the running game, and dare Ross Bowers to find an open receiver.  This will be Cal’s biggest test so far on offense, and we’ll see that without their outside speed weapons stretching the defense, they’ll be doing 3-and-outs most of the time.

Prediction:  This one stays within reach for a while, but the line ends up about right.  USC 27, Cal 10

But USC will come away from Strawberry Canyon knowing that their dominance over Cal, with Justin Wilcox, will be over in a year or two.

 

This is it, Bears!

OK, I realize that BBQ State isn’t likely to present a huge challenge for the Cal football team. Quick prediction: Cal 41, Weber State 10.

When I say, “This is it,” I’m referring to our coaching staff, and the foundation that they’re building for high-level competition in Berkeley. In their first game at UNC, I saw a very well-coached team that played a complete game, with confidence. So many of the players who staffed our woeful defense last year are now playing very well.

I was especially impressed with the DBs, who were right there for just about every pass, and broke up quite a few. The emphasis on teaching technique makes a difference!

The competition will get way better — but so will these Bears. I’m excited to see what’s in store.

And I’ll say it again — we have the best coaching staff in the nation.

Unprecedented

unnamedCal enters the NCAA tournament with an unprecedented #4 seed despite not being able to play defense for 4 seconds in a truly painful loss to the Utes in the P-12 tournament.  Finally, some respect from the NCAA selection committee?  Perhaps.  But of course Cal can’t make it easy and Tyrone Wallace has to break his hand (non-shooting) in what was described as a non-contact drill the day before the Bears take on the Bo’s (I don’t buy into this latent Bo Warrior stuff).  So you can throw that 4.5 point advantage into the wastebasket.  Good news is that smart folks like the Bears without Wallace, who consistently overdribbles into a less than stellar assist-to-turnover ratio and let’s not even get into the (improving) free throw numbers which lead to Hack-a-Tyrone antics.  Without Wallace, the Bears still have 4 solid double-digit scorers and 3 big men who can control the boards at both ends.  The defense has been the key to the 9 (should have been 11) wins out of the last 11 games, and the performance of Jabari Bird has also been stellar throughout that streak.  Teams tend to show jitters in these neutral court games so I expect the game to develop slowly but the Bears prevail 70 to 60.

Can Bowl-Bound Bears Spoil Stanfurd’s Season?

Going into the 2015 Big Game, Stanfurd is alone at the top of the Pac-12 North, ranked #11, and has a chance to be in the Playoff if they win out.

Cal, on the other hand, has just bagged its 6th win to become bowl-eligible for the first time in years, and HC Sonny Dykes has finally pulled the program from the depths of despair to a #20 ranking — for a week, at least.

Stanfurd’s biggest offensive weapon is its offensive line.  Look for them to dominate the line, get about 6 yards per rushing attempt in the first half, dominate time of possession, and throw some passes over the top as soon as Cal brings their safeties in to stop the run.

Cal will attempt to establish a running game, but will need success in passing to set it up.  Look for them to take advantage of their speed in one-on-one matchups.  Hopefully they’ve added a few plays where Khalfani Muhammed or Trey Watson run wide.  If they have, they should see success.

I’m hoping that the Bears have some surprises in store that help them get open against Stanfurd’s defense.  We’ll see.

Cal will need help to beat Stanfurd.  The Cardinal is stronger on both sides of the ball, and is likely to dominate the line of scrimmage.  However, of all the places where help might come, there is one place where there will be no help:  the officiating.

Stanfurd is the Pac-12 Conference’s lone hope for making the post-season playoff.  If Cal wins Big Game, the Pac-12 will be shut out from the playoff.  So the Pac-12, as a conference, has a huge interest in a Stanfurd victory.

Last year’s Big Game was an officiating nightmare.  Cal’s starting safety ejected on the first play of the game for targeting.  Later, on one series, three consecutive TDs, called by the officials on the field, were overturned by the replay official.

Throughout the game, expect Cal’s receivers to be pushed, shoved, grabbed, and even tackled before the arrival of Jared Goff’s passes, with no penalties called.  Sorry, Bears!

Prediction:  Cal makes this one fairly close, and moves the ball well on offense.  Stanfurd 44, Cal 38.

Finally! – Offense Back On Track

Quick Pre-game post.  I’ll cut right to the chase.

After three weeks of frustration, Cal finally breaks out of its offensive funk and gets back in the 40+ (or 50+) zone.  Utah, UCLA, and U$C watched enough of the Bears’ game film to see that  1) Cal uses precise timing patterns to make its passing game work; disrupt the timing, and you disrupt the Bears;  2) those 3 teams have some of the best cover CBs in all of college football;  3) the Pac-12’s “let ’em play” officiating works to Cal’s disadvantage;  opposing DBs have learned just how much contact they can get away with — and it’s generally a lot!

Kenny Lawler has been blanketed and harassed for the last three games, and he’s been interfered with all season.  Once he starts playing a more physical game, and using his 6-3 frame to his advantage, he’ll get open more, and the Bears will look more like we hoped they would.

Almost game time!

Prediction:  A barn-burner –  Cal beats the Ducks, 55-41.

Who Shows Up?

Today’s Joe Roth Memorial Game between Cal and U$C comes down to a simple question: Who Shows Up?

U$C gave a strong indication of their answer last week in manhandling #3 Utah.  After finally ditching their problematic HC, Steve Sarkesian, the Trojans have found their true identity as a team.  And that’s not good news for Cal.  They’ve emerged as a talented, physical, smashmouth team — just the type that Cal has struggled against.

And which Cal team will show up?  There’s enough film on Cal now that the recipe for stopping Jared Goff and Cal’s receivers is simple (but not easy):

  • Physical man coverage on Cal’s WRs, with the best shutdown corner on Kenny Lawler, and the speedy Su’a Cravens on Stephen Anderson
    • Don’t worry — Pass Interference won’t be called
  • Take away the quick slants.  Force Goff to hold the ball longer.
  • Penetrate the backfield; disrupt the running game.
  • Overwhelm Cal’s pass protection; bull rush, force their OL back, collapse the pocket, don’t give Goff a lane to escape
    • Take advantage of the Bears’ pass blocking scheme: 2-point stance, take the first step back, let opponents’ DL gain momentum
  • Get hits on Jared Goff, early and often.

U$C’s defensive plan, in short:  Don’t stop at making Cal’s offense one-dimensional.  Make them zero-dimensional.  And U$C has the raw talent on defense to do exactly that.

If the Bears come out and play anything like they did last Thursday against UCLA, it’s going to be a very long afternoon, especially for Cal’s defense.  If, and only if, the Bears come out inspired, fighting, and infused with the fearless spirit of Joe Roth, will this be a competitive game.

Note: After decades of being a Cal fan, I’ve noticed a consistent pattern: every time I feel like giving up on the team, and writing them off, they come up with one of their best games of the year, and play well enough to win.  Last week’s listless performance against UCLA had me at the brink of giving up hope… So is this the game when the Bears pull it all together, and play as well as they can??

Prediction:  Cal comes out inspired, but loses to U$C, 41-27.

Bye

Cal thankfully has a bye week to digest their, ahem, performance against Utah.  A very tough loss when you consider that just one play at almost any point in the game could have resulted in at least a 7-point turnaround and given the Bears the win.  Almost everyone on the team had a finger in this so it is really unfair to place it all on Goff.  Dropped passes, missed assignments, and bad judgment invaded almost all aspects of the game for Cal.  So the extra time is needed to get back to the fundamentals and play like a team who has to win every game to qualify for a bowl, not just one game.

The good news is that the gauntlet of games against LA State, $C, and the Quacks has gone from a “no-win” scenario to essentially trap games.  Even ESPN’s FPI projections have shifted to the point where each game is close to a toss-up and the Bears are favored against ‘gon for the first time in forever.  And of course that is the problem.  Each of those teams are badly wounded animals and so each of these games are going to be fights to the end.  Cal had better be prepared to face the best of each of these teams and not expect them to play as badly as they have done in recent weeks, such as the ‘ruins crushing defeat by ‘furd.

This week’s trap game features A State going to SLC (probably via LAS and SAC if they are flying Southwest) and after Cal exposed Ooooots QB Travis Wilson as just another Shaggy, expect the ‘devs to fill the box and hold Booker under 100 yards which should be enough to get the win.  Cal’s inability to stop Booker was crucial as ‘tah was able to control the ball for most of the game.  Bercovici and his disrespected gang are not going to play that game – ‘devs by 7.

$C plays Our Lady of the Golden Football in a game that no one is particularly interested in save TMZ for the Sark rehab angle.

UWash and the Quacks face off in a game to determine who actually wants to play football this year since neither team has shown much brilliance.  The winner may contend for the Norris Division.

In other action, ‘bama faces Tam’a in one of those bruising grinding team faces fast exciting team matchups.  Best part is post-game interviews with Saban explaining that his team is really not that bad.

And State faces off against the Michigan 49ers in what can only be described as something akin to World War III.  They may need a fleet of ambulances to cart off the wounded at the end of this.