Friday, October 17, 2008
Why do I feel like I’ve been here before? After breaking back into the polls, Cal faces a talented team coming off an upset loss to a team regarded to be inferior.
Oh yeah, Maryland…humidity…right.
I have the sense that some Cal fans are feeling a bit overconfident about Saturday’s evening game against Arizona. Granted, some of it is understandably justified considering how well Cal’s defense has played thus far this season, particularly in the last few weeks.
I, however, am scared out my wits about this game.
I touched upon this earlier in the week, but a lot of my fear resides in the fact that I’m still not completely sure what kind of team Arizona is just yet. Statistically, they’re impressive, sure. But Arizona also has the unique ability to play to the level of their opponents, for better or for worse. They will typically notch one or two impressive upsets over ranked teams at home each season, while also getting upset or losing to inferior teams, like they did with New Mexico earlier this season.
Plus, I’m still recovering from the ’06 loss in Tucson. That crap will stick with you for a while.
On paper, Arizona has a lot of the tools to walk out with a win on Saturday. There will be a couple of issues Cal will need to prioritize if they want to prevent that from happening.
Run, Lightning, Run
If Cal can successfully run the ball tomorrow against Arizona, it is very difficult for me to see them losing against Arizona, barring any costly turnovers. In their two losses this season, Arizona has given up 507 yards on the ground rushing the ball. They face a Cal offense that is currently 3rd in the conference in rushing yards per game, averaging 180.0 yards on the ground. Cal shouldn’t get too excited just yet however, as the commonality in the two rushing attacks that Zona stuggled against were power running games with both Stanford backs Toby Gerhart and Rodney Ferguson of New Mexico, topping out over 230 pounds.
Neither of Cal’s featured backs in Jahvid Best or Shane Vereen even break up the 200 lb. mark, so breaking tackles and moving piles won’t really be a big part of Cal’s rushing strategy. However, if Cal’s offensive line can control the line of scrimmage and open up enough holes for Best or Vereen to break into the second level, it might be a long day for the Arizona defense. Cal’s run blocking struggled mightily in the second half of the Arizona State, as the Sun Devils’ defense keyed in on the run as the Bears nursed a lead. They need to reestablish themselves as a unit against the Wildcats Saturday, and with Arizona’s lack of depth at the defensive tackle position, it might just the place to do it.
In addition to the necessary production on offense, running the ball will help Cal control the time of possession, and keep Arizona’s dangerous offense off the field.
Pass to Set up the Run?
It’s unlikely however, that Arizona will look to stop to run by only rushing four, so look for the Wildcats to use a lot of zone blitzes and send their athletic linebackers to stuff Cal’s running game. Anyone who watched Cal’s game against Maryland or the second half of the Arizona State game can tell you that it is very much possible to contain Cal’s explosive running game by adding a few more bodies in the box.
This puts much more of the onus on Cal’s passing game, which has been inconsistent, to say in the least thus far in 2008. More troubling is knowing that this inconsistent passing game faces off against the nation’s top pass defense. The Wildcats only allow 55.3 percent of passes to be completed, and average only 124.3 passing yards a game.
(Some important notes in regards to Cal’s passing game before we proceed: QB Nate Longshore was announced as the starter for Saturday’s game, and WR Michael Calvin is expected to miss the rest of the season with a torn ACL.)
It’s up to Nate Longshore to react quickly to where the blitzes are coming from, and take advantage of the soft spots in Arizona’s zone coverage. (Note: Rilerians just threw up in their mouths at the line “up to Longshore.”) Perhaps more importantly, if there ever were a game thus far in the season in which the receivers need to step up their game, it’s this one. If Cal receivers can get off the line quickly and find their spots in the zone, it keeps the defense honest prevents the Wildcats from consistently stacking the box. Ergo, Best and Vereen have the critical space necessary to do what they do best.
In sum, as soon as the Wildcats begin to key in on the run, that’s when Cal needs to really open it up in the air.
Contain Arizona’s Passing
Typically when I write about what Cal has to do to disrupt passing games, I usually start with winning the battle in the trenches on defense and getting pressure on the quarterback. While creating havoc at the line of scrimmage will certainly be important, in Sonny Dyke’s spread offense, Cal will have to do so without consistently sending multiple linebackers to pass rush. Arizona typically uses 4 to 5 receiver sets to spread out the defense, and flows on a quick rhythmic passing game intended to get the ball out quickly to their talented wide receivers in space or to hit them in stride. If Tuitama catches on quickly as to where the blitzes are coming from, look for huge gains on hot routes and screens.
Every aspect of Cal’s defense will be challenged on Saturday. The D-line will have to be able to create pressure on Tuitama without relying on too much help from their linebackers. Cal’s secondary will face the biggest test of their season, as they match up against arguably the best receiving corps. in the conference with Mike Thomas, Terrell Turner, and Delashaun Dean. Throw in Ron Gronkowski, an absolute freak of an athlete at TE, and Cal’s secondary and linebacking corps will have their hands full. While Syd’Quan Thompson and Darian Hagan have both had successful ’08 campaigns so far, they along with DB Chris Conte and strong safety Marcus Ezeff, will have to stay focused at all times to prevent any big plays. Expect to see our linebackers running all over the field as well, in hopes of containing Arizona’s passing game.
With Cal’s much improved run defense facing off against Arizona’s much improved running game, it may all come down to containing Arizona from making huge plays in the air.
So…do I put on my diapers now or what?
Yeah, yeah, I’ll admit. I’m scared. Arizona matches up well on paper, they have the element of surprise, and will be motivated playing at home (where they spot a six game winning streak). Cal comes off a bye with a few critical injuries, and questions regarding their passing game.
However, If pushed, I would say that I think this is a winnable game for Cal. Cal 28 Arizona 24.
Bring on the Huggies and the Rolaids.
Posted by Bear with Fangs at 4:04 PM