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A way too early look at the 2009 schedule: Week 3 - Cal

Cal_mediumThrough the first two weeks the schedule isn't exactly easy, but Syracuse and Air Force are games that the Gophers should be favored to win.  Week 3 is when we get into the teeth of the schedule.  The Cal Bears come to Minnesota with hopes of strengthening their strength of schedule and prepping for a run at USC and the Pac-10 title. This team is very good and with all due respect to some of our Big Ten opponents they may end up being the best team we face all season.

There are some who believe Cal is a team capable of knocking off USC this year as they are returning 7 starters on offense including a Heisman candidate and 8 starters from a defense that held USC to their lowest point total of the 2008 season.  Lets take a closer look at both sides of the ball for Cal.

after the break (this is a long post)...


The Bears on Offense

Typically I first take a look at the QB situation for whomever the Gophers are facing.  And while Cal has an interesting QB situation you have to start the offensive look at Jahvid Best.  Best is near the top of most Heisman lists for 2009-10.  National ranks him as the sixth most likely Heisman winner, Sport Projections also projects him at #6The Beardown blog has him at #4, and even last year Scout had Best in the top 5 heading into the 2008 season.  Best was fifth in the country in rushing with only 194 carries, compare that to Shonn Green's 304 carries or Javon Ringer's 390.  Needless to say Best is clearly one of the best in the country.  I asked my friends at California Golden Blogs about Best...

TDG:  Tell me the Best really a Heisman candidate or is it too much hype for a guy who earned 1/3 of his years against Washington and Washington State last year? (1,580 tot rushing yds...311 vs. Wash and 200 vs. Wash St.)

CGB: Dude is legit.  I mean he did all that with no passing game to speak of and a makeshift line (a LOT of OLine injuries last year).  Yes, it's true that he took advantage of opportunities against weaker opponents.  But he also barely played in the second half of both of those games.  If they had left him in all 8 quarters, he would have had about 6,000 yards on the season. 

But there are some causes for concern:

1.  Health.  He missed the ASU game last year and parts of other games.  He has had surgery in both of the last two off-seasons.  He's had health problems and if they rear their ugly head again this year, it could end poorly for the Golden Bears.  Fingers crossed, people!  Fingers crossed!

2.  OLine.  Any good RB is dependant on their OLine.  Especially somebody like Best, who is not known for bruising power.  If there is a hole, he can hit it and fast.  Once he gets into open space, he's a monster.  But it is a rare back, like a Marshawn Lynch, who can make his own holes at the line of scrimmage.  Last year, as previously mentioned, there were health problems with the OLine and this directly affected Best's abilities.  In the Maryland game, he was getting stuffed behind the line a lot.  They tried to throw to the outside and then this happened:

So, let's hope there is OLine health, too.

3.  Passing game.  The QB does matter.  Last year, it got so bad, that in the Big Game against Stanford, Riley completed 1 pass to a WR.  1!  He threw a few more to the TE, including a touchdown, but mostly he was throwing to RBs, such as Best and Shane Vereen.  That only adds wear and tear to Best AND helps the defense relax against the WR threat.  We need a QB to help take pressure off of the RBs, especially in a road game against Minnesota. 

It should be noted that Best's backup, Shane Vereen, is a very, very, very good RB.  He's not quite as fast as Best (who is?), but still is a great player.  So, the drop off is not massive.  Nonetheless, Jahvid Best is a special a back as they come.

So they have a stud running back, like that's a problem for our defense (oh WAIT).  What about their passing game?  Well their post spring practice depth chart has a three-way tie atop the QB depth chart.  A menage a trois under the center, if you will.  Those outside of the Coach Tedford's office believe Kevin Riley will return as the starter and keep SO-Brock Mansion and FR-Beau Sweeney in a baseball cap at least to start the season.  Riley threw for 1,360 yards, 14 TDs and 6 INTS; which are OK numbers but he barely completed 50% of his passes on an offense where defenses were clearly keying on Best.  Our friends at California Golden Blogs had this to say about Riley and the battle for the starter...

TDG:  The Cal post-spring depth chart has a three way tie for the starter.  Most are pretty certain Kevin Riley, but give me your take on the three contenders and what they bring to the offense?

CGB:  Riley has the most experience and therefore there is more to say about him.  So what about him?  He can be hot and cold.  We've seen some games where he's on, and some games where he's not.  When he's on, he can be accurate and effective.  When he's off, he overthrows.  Word is that he's changing his mechanics this off-season to fix some problems.  Some speculate that former Cal OC Frank Cignetti tweaked the QBs' mechanics last year, so perhaps that's why Riley (and Longshore) had some problems.  Riley can scramble when he wants to.  He's got some pocket elusiveness.  Obviously he's no Michael Vick and he won't burn the linebackers but he might grab a few yards when things get ugly.  Riley is a pretty obviously emotional guy.  He's visibly upset with himself when he makes mistakes and really celebrates those touchdowns.  Some people think winners need to be emotional.  I'm not one of those people but if you think guys that are emotional are better players then you'd probably like Riley.

Mansion only has around 20 snaps of real game experience.  There isn't much to say about him right now.  He can move around.  He's got pocket mobility.  Again, he's not a burner but he seems to like to stay in the pocket.  At spring game this year he didn't bother moving around the pocket that much and instead would just dish off the ball in the face of pressure.  He's tall at around 6'5" so he can easily see over the pocket (whereas Riley is around 6'2").  Other than that, we really don't know a lot about him.  We haven't seen him in enough games and throwing enough passes to know what he's like.  Only time will tell.

There wasn't much to say about Mansion and there is even less to say about Sweeney.  We haven't seen him in any real games yet since he red-shirted last year.  Sweeney is a smaller scrappy looking QB.  He showed a penchant to pull down the ball and run when pressured.  Some think he was too quick to run, however I liked his decisiveness in deciding to run instead of just looking... and looking... and looking, then getting hammered and fumbling the ball.  He seems to like to gun the ball around the field and his accuracy might be an issue but he has time to develop and grow.  Sweeney's playing style reminded me a bit of former Cal QB and Packers QB Aaron Rodgers.

I think Riley is the favorite to be the starter because of his experience. 

The Bears return a couple receivers and 3/5 of their offensive line.  Outside of QB and RB, the other nine guys are pretty important, someone needs to block for Best and catch the passes.  WR-Marvin Jones had a strong spring and RT-Mitchell Schwartz had a great freshman season and should be ready to help anchor the line in his sophomore season.  But their ultimate success or failure will likely hinge on Best and whoever is handing him the ball. 

The Bears on Defense

Returning 8 starters from a successful defense is always a very good thing in college football. In 2008 the Bears were second in the Pac-10 in scoring defense, fourth in yards allowed and ranked near the top nationally with 24 interceptions.  They lose three linebackers and return their d-line and secondary intact.  California Golden Blogs was kind enough to give us a position group breakdown...

TDG:  We know that Best is the best player on the offense, but what can you tell me about the defense?  Can I get a brief summary by positional group (DL, LB, DB)?

To tinker with a defense that had been declining for the past few years, Bob Gregory switched Cal to a 3-4 alignment last season, Here's a look at some of the basic strategies of this particular 3-4 incarnation: LINK

Add in an improved d-line and a senior corps of linebackers,  and the results have been impressive.  They moved from 34th to 10th in yards allowed per pass attempt, from 59th to 15th in yards per rush carry, and from 58th to 23rd in scoring defense. If it weren't for playing in the same conference as one of the most dominant college football defenses EVER, Cal's improvement on D would have definitely received more notice. LINK

Now, the 2009 Cal defense will not be as seasoned as the 2008 team. We've lost three of our four starting linebackers to the draft; none of them were dominant, but as a unit they were very good, if not irreplacable. It's tough to lose them all at the same time, but the one who is returning, junior Mike Mohamed, was arguably the most talented of the four. Mychal Kendricks will also be debuting, and there is buzz he could be the most talented linebacker ever to suit up in gold and blue in the Tedford era. LINK

The defensive line will also be returning three players who saw starting action: Tyson Alualu, nose tackle Derrick Hill, and Cameron Jordan, a unit that combined for 138 tackles, 24.5 for a loss of yardage, 10.5 sacks. They were adjusting to the 3-4 all of last season, but with a year under their belt they will be much improved on that side of the ball.

And our secondary is our most fearsome unit. Syd'Quan Thompson and Darian Hagan were a nightmare to throw on deep. They combined for 7 interceptions and an incredible 29 passes broken up. LINK and LINK

Most offenses often had to throw against our linebackers (who were not as good in covering the passing lanes), so the way teams beat us on offense was by either finding running seams with good blocking or weaving their way along with the short pass. Cal's pass rush and run D might fall off a bit, but our pass coverage will probably be one of the best in the country this season.

I am not exaggerating when I say this is one of the best defensive lines AND secondarys in the country.  If they manage to develop a linebacking corp this defense will be as good as anything the Gophers will see all year.

Three players are worth highlighting CB-Syd'Quan Thompson, DE-Tyson Alualu and LB-Mychal Kendricks.  Thompson is ranked by ESPN's Pac-10 blogger as the 8th best player in the Pac-10.  Thompson will also be in pre-season All-American conversation and is projected as a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick next spring.  This will be a fun matchup to see him defend Eric Decker who will also be in All-American conversation and is projected as a 2nd or 3rd round draft pick.

Alualu is also on the Pac-10 top 30 list coming in at #26.  Six sacks, 11 tackles for losses and Alualu is another player projected to be drafted next spring.  In Cal's 3-4 scheme he has been seen on the end but will likely be at DT much of this year and throughout his NFL career.

Finally we get Kendricks the sophomore linebacker who has a world of talent.  The true sophomore hasn't really done a ton yet to warrant any major press but he is the consensus, potential breakout player for the Golden Bears.

Final Questions for CGB

TDG:  Cal has a very good group of returners, and some believe this team is the sleeping giant of the Pac-10 this year.  Can Cal compete with and overtake USC in the Pac-10?  What I'm really saying...Is this a likely preview to the Rose Bowl this year (I drink the marron and gold kool-aid pretty heavily)?

Well, I can't speak as to whether Minn will make the Rose Bowl, just because I'm not as conversational in Big10 football.  I mean I'm so bad at Big10 football, I count 11 teams.  So, what do I know?

That said, many people think this could be Cal's year.  They are hoping to catch USC early in the year at home with USC having a lot of uncertainty at QB (with Sanchez gone to the Jets).  Of course, the USC defense is as sick as ever with Taylor Mays deciding to get paid by USC for another year instead of a NFL team.  The early portion of the schedule with Maryland, @Minn, @Oregon, and USC in 5 weeks will be tough.  Of course, the key games at @Oregon and USC when discussing the Rose Bowl.  But if Cal can win one of those games (preferably USC) then they put themselves in a great position.  The top 4 Pac10 teams last year were USC, Oregon, OSU, and Cal.  Cal gets 2 of those 3 at home this year.  Cal has had rough games against USC and OSU at home these past few years.  If Cal can take care of those two at home, even with a probably road loss to Oregon, they put themselves in a strong position to win the Pac10. 

Of course, the problem is this:  Over the past 2 years, thanks to the epic Cal-lapse of 2007, Cal has lost to every Pac10 team except for WSU (who they BARELY beat in 2007) and Oregon (who Cal has had strange luck against).  So, looking at the schedule, there are concerns for EVERY game.  Either we are playing a team at home who beat us last year (USC, Arizona, OSU) or we are facing on the road who beat us last time we went to their house or Oregon, who will be tough. 

Basically, Cal fans are nervous about EVERY game, but looking at things more reasonably, we definitely have a chance to make the Rose Bowl.

TDG:  Finally is this a massive trap for Cal?  We are a poor and simple Big Ten team that takes your offensive coordinator rejects, what kind of a fight can we put up?  With a trip to Oregon and then USC at home in the subsequent weeks are the Bears going to look past the minuscule Gophers?

I'm not sure I would call this game a "massive trap", but if the Bears beat Maryland to open the season and travel to Minneapolis with a 2-0 record, I think it's only natural that the Bears would be looking past the Gophers a little towards matchups with Oregon and USC.  And this would not be a good thing.  Cal has had a terrible time on the road out-of-conference lately, getting crushed by both Tennessee in '06 and Maryland last year, while barely squeaking by a vastly outgunned Colorado State team in 2007.  You really have to go back four (W 41-13 @ New Mexico State) or five (W 56-14 @ Air Force) years to find a solid non-conference road victory for the Bears, and neither of those teams have the football pedigree of Minnesota.

Moreover, it wouldn't surprise me if Cal's seniors remember the 42-17 romp over Glen Mason's crew three years ago and thusly decide to take Minnesota rather lightly.  Unlike Maryland or USC, I very much doubt that this is a game circled on any of their calendars.  It sure smells like a trap, don't it?  If the Bears have another no-show after a long plane flight, I've no doubt that the Gophers have enough to beat the Bears.  Frankly, the only stat I've been able to find that gives me comfort is that the Bears are a perfect 5-0 over Big 10 schools in Coach Jeff Tedford's first seven seasons at Cal.  Getting to 6-0 won't be easy.

What is going to happen?

I think we are running into a team that will spend some time in the top 10 this year, this is just a tough match up for us.  Can we win this game?  Yes.  If they struggle to get any production out of their QB and if we are able to find some holes in what will be a very good defense we can pull this game out.   I really do believe we are a talented football team.  But for the Gophers to win some things will have to bounce our way. 

Here is what we have going for us.  In the two weeks following their trip to Minnesota, Cal heads to Oregon and then hosts USC.  Those are the other two teams expected to content for the Pac-10 title?  Is this the trap game where Cal looks past the Gophers as they dream of a Pac-10 title and a rematch with Minnesota in the Rose Bowl?  Always a possibility though not likely.

In my head I calculate games in a "how many would we win out of 10" scenario.  It is how I wrap my head around how much better is Team A than Team B.  Playing just one game, on any given day either team could win.  For example, in my mind the Gopher basketball team would have beaten Louisville one or two times had they played 10 times last year. Fortunately we caught them on that one day, but in no way do I believe we were better than L'ville.  Last year in football I think we would have beaten Michigan six or seven times out of ten (at least at home), but we stunk on the one day the Jug was up for grabs.  Northwestern was a 7/10, but again we stunk that day and couldn't move the ball without a healthy Decker.  Anyway, that is how my head works.

So for this home match up between two of the most Golden teams in the country, I think the Gophers win this game one or two times out of ten.  Those are not good odds.  So officially Cal wins.

California - 27
Minnesota - 14

Links to brush up on the Golden Bears

CGB Spring Game roundup
ESPN Cal Spring Wrapup
National early Cal preview (#16 in their early top 25)