I have asked our friends over at California Golden Blogs to help me out by getting us primed a bit for what we can expect out of the Cal Golden Bears on Saturday.
TDG - there are high expectations for the Golden Bears this year. This is an experienced, deep and talented team. Through two games have you seen what you expected to see? What has been a surprise and what has been disappointing thus far?
We've seen what we've expected to see out of our team's running game, secondary, and defensive line. These were all touted as big strengths coming into the season, and everything we've seen so far has been in line with those expectations. Jahvid Best has run like the wind, Shane Vereen has proven himself to be college's most overqualified backup RB, Syd'Quan Thompson is continuing the great Cal lineage of cornerbacks that was furthered by Nnadmi Asomugha and Dante Hughes, and even our third and fourth string RBs have looked impressive.
The most pleasant surprise has been the fact that we now have a passing game. After a year in which some of Kevin Riley and Nate Longshore's throws made some of us recall the Joe Ayoob days, our receivers are suddenly getting open and Riley is actually managing to throw the ball close enough for them to catch it. It's a novel concept, and one that we wish he (and Longshore) had tried last year. The other pleasant surprise has been the play of our linebackers - while there wasn't concern so much as uncertainty regarding the team's linebackers given that many of them had yet to start a game, they had all gotten a good amount of playing time and the coaching staff was confident in them. Seeing them play the way they have has been reassuring.
Disappointments? Well, there is one. Judging by the average distance our kicker Giorgia Tavecchio gets on his kickoffs, I'm fairly convinced my girlfriend can beat him in the gym at the squat rack. And she's 90 pounds! Ok, maybe 95. But when your kicker never gets the ball in the end zone and the entire crowd gasps in unison at a kickoff getting inside the 5 yard line, it might be time to stock up on some Muscle Milk and hit the gym.
Of course, Maryland and Eastern Washington aren't the stiffest of tests, but good teams are supposed to beat these types of teams and our Golden Bears have done that in convincing fashion. And when your team's biggest concern is the depth of its kickoffs, life is pretty good.
TDG - Jahvid Best, tells us just how good this kid is and why he should be this year's Heisman Trophy winner.
Speed. It's unrivaled. I've seen players who have the angle on him, lose the angle, because Best just is too fast. He is unreal. Once he gets into open space it's like a video game. He makes cuts that bamboozle even the most impressive defender. He has great vision and can find the seam to zip through.
He also has great hands and is used often as a receiver. Just last week against Eastern Washington University, they had him sprint down the sideline, Kevin Riley hit him in stride for an easy TD.
Of course, I wouldn't be a Cal fan if I didn't focus on the negatives. Health. He's been injured a lot in the past and was seen limping off the field against EWU. Also, unlike, say a Marshawn Lynch, he's not a power back. If he doesn't have a hole to hit (even a smaller one) he can get stuffed at the line. Against USC last year with that fearsome D, he didn't have a lot of running room. Marshawn would have bowled over 3 guys, but that's just not in Best's wheelhouse.
TDG - How about the defense? What is the teeth of this defense and have they shown any weaknesses this year through two games?
The real teeth of the defense so far seems to be the play of the D-Line. Players like Cameron Jordan and Tyson Alualu have terrified opposing O-Linemen. There is even depth there with backups like Ernest Owusu and sack specialist Jarred Price. For the past couple years, Cal has had uneven D-Line play. They have struggled, at times, to get pressure on the QB.
Against Maryland, Cal had 6 sacks and consistently got pressure. Against Eastern Washington University, there was consistent pressure also.
A weakness so far is that opponents have been able to consistently make short pass completions over the middle of the field. Perhaps Cal has made a conscious decision to allow that, but either way it is moderately unsettling. Nonetheless, the Cal D has shut down the run game, showed consistent pressure against the QB, and kept the opponents from completing the longer passes.
TDG - Does anything concern you about this game?
There are a lot of things that concern us about this game. One is the fact that Cal is 0-4 in its last four road games. 0-4! What the hell? Granted, two of them were to ranked teams (USC and Oregon State) and one was the infamous Maryland game, but that's enough of a trend that Cal fans won't be taking this one for granted. Even if the Gophers did struggle with Greg Paulus and his noodle arm.
One biggest reason to me would be the emotion that the Gophers are likely to play with. I don't think anyone would argue that Minnesota has the caliber of players across the board that Cal does, but with everyone excited about the new stadium and with a top ten team coming to town, I'd expect the Gophers to play to the best of their abilities. Until Jahvid Best springs loose for a 85 yard touchdown.
Another reason would be the Mall of America. How can anyone stay focused knowing that America's largest mall is just down the highway, with its vast concourses, three GameStops, multiple restaurants, and underground aquarium? I know I couldn't.
Clearly though, the biggest reason is the travel factor and the start time of the game. It's been beaten into the ground on our end after the debacling (copyright Emmit Smith) the team suffered through last year at Maryland, and there are still lingering concerns about how the team will play at the equivalent of 9 AM PST. Coach Tedford has thankfully adjusted his travel plans this time around so the team will get into Minneapolis on Thursday instead of Friday, so hopefully the impact of the time zone difference will be minimized. But you never know.
I'm not convinced that these supposed road-troubles aren't a bit overblown, but if the Bears believe it and it comes to fruition, I'll take it.