The longest continually active Cal Bear blog

Archive for the ‘Game Previews’ category


Big Game preview

A month ago, I was pretty optimistic about the Big Game.  Stanford was struggling, had recently changed QB’s and the rushing game wasn’t working.  Also, the defense was looking softer than they had looked in a LOOONG time.  Oh what a difference a month makes!  Stanford has started to find their rhythm offensively (to their standards) and their defense has tightened up significantly.  Don’t get me wrong, this is still not the power-house Stanford of a few years ago, but they’re a lot more solid than they were a month ago.

If Cal was entering the game as the same team as last year, I’d have a lot of hope.  Even with Stanford improved, they’re still more vulnerable than usual.  But the problem is that Cal is on the ropes right now in just about every phase of the game.  The offense is sputtering, having failed to get to 30 points in any of their last 3 games.  The rushing game, that was a meaningful threat and kept defenses honest has mysteriously disappeared.  The deep passing game that both helped the Bears put up lots of points and ensured there was plenty of room for short and medium range passing is practically non-existent.  And Webb hasn’t looked like himself, particularly in the mid-range stuff, since the Oregon State game.

And that’s the better of the two units!

The defense is an absolute mess.  Any team that can competently pass the ball is going to destroy the Bear’s defense.  There’s just no other way to say it.  At their best point of the season they were acceptably mediocre.  But between offenses adjusting to their weaknesses and a rash of injuries that has left them decimated, they’re officially horrible.  The rush defense isn’t quite as bad, but is still in a pretty bad place.  I think they look even worse than they really are because the linebackers and safeties are so preoccupied with their suckitude as a pass defense, they’re not able to properly focus on the run game.

And that’s where the potential silver lining lies…

Here’s what I would do if I were game-planning today:  I’d put my corners on islands and tell me linebackers and safeties to play run-first.  Tell the defense it’s OK if they get torched through the air, but it is unacceptable to lose through a thousand cuts to Christian McCaffrey.  Force Stanford to prove they can beat the Bears through the air.  Put a lot of pressure on Keller Chryst.  Force Stanford to beat the Bears a way that is not very comfortable to them.

It might be that the Bears won’t be able to pull that off, but it’s the ONLY thing they have a remote chance of pulling off.

As for the offense, spread the field and focus on getting all four field spreading play types working:  Deep passing, short passing, inside running, outside running.  With the exception of the WR screens (which just aren’t working!), they should try to be VERY diverse.

But as one can obviously tell, I’m not sitting on a lot of hope that the Bears pull that off.  So while I think there is a path to victory, the opportunity is slim.  And thus my official prediction will be bleak:

Losing streak continues and no bowl game: Cal 17, Furd 42

(The theoretical win would look like Cal 45, Furd 38)

WSU preview

What everyone wants to talk about when previewing a Cal-WSU game is high scores.  But what those people seem to forget is that 2 of the 3 Leach-Dykes matchups had cumulative scores in the 60’s, that I suspect the under won, not the over.  Yes,  yes, 2 years ago the score was 60-59, we all know that.  But last year it was a more comfortable than the score indicates 34-28 Bears victory.

And if you look at the history not just of Cal-WSU but of most teams with high-scoring offenses that are of a similar nature, when they meet, on average the scores tend to be lower.  Why?  Because the defenses are very comfortable defending it.  They saw that offense (or something very similar) for all of Spring and Fall practice.

The problem with 2014 was that both teams had horrible defenses, and that overwhelmed the usual pattern.

Which brings us to this year.  Do both teams have a horrible defense?  No, only one does.  WSU’s defense is getting better every week and although it would be a mistake to overstate how good their defense is, it’s much, much, MUCH better than Cal’s.

Cal’s only hope, is that their defense has an unusually good showing.  And as I said already, going up against this familiar offense does make that more likely.  But unfortunately, the injury situation is so untenable, that I just don’t see it happening.  I was tempted to believe it was possible considering the larger problem this year has been rush defense, and WSU gives the Bears a bit of a break in this department.  But as loss to the Huskies showed, the injuries are plaguing the secondary even more so than the run defense.  So, the more I look at who is hurt and who’s replacing them, I just can’t believe this defense will have success.

And sadly, I do see it happening for WSU.  So as much as my heart believes Cal has a better shot at this than most people think, my head and my official prediction has to be that Cal loses a really, really tough one to take: Cal 31, WSU 59.

Don’t count out the Bears vs. WSU

The Bears need to win 2 of their final 3 to go bowling.  Most people reasonably assume that the likely candidates are Stanford and UCLA.  But here’s my early prediction:  Cal always plays WSU tough and Dykes has the keys to the WSU air-raid.

Expect Saturday’s game to be a close one with a reasonable chance the Bears pull the upset.

(And if you’re wondering where the Washington post-game post is… I’ve said all I’m going to say.)

Washington preview

I must admit, I’m having a bit of cognitive dissonance with Washington.  Is this the same Washington team that Cal was up 27 to 7 over early in the 3rd quarter last year?  It’s not like they’ve had an influx of new guys.  It’s mostly the same guys from last year.  And this year the game is in Berkeley, not Seattle.  How is it possible the Bears are such underdogs?

But at some point you can’t ignore the evidence: The beat-downs of Oregon and Stanford.  The solid victory over Utah.  Or perhaps it is just as simple as 8-0.  There’s no doubt that UW is a vastly improved team.  And the way they’re improved is precision and consistency.  Turnovers are down.  Penalties are down.  Execution consistency is WAAAY up.

And let us not forget, UW turned the ball over 5 times against Cal last year.  We can’t expect that again tonight.

And then there’s the Bear’s struggles.  Last year the UW defense held Cal to 30 points, their lowest score in a win all season.  It frankly wasn’t the Bears best offensive performance of the season.  However, the defense played one of their better games.  The game ball deserved to be given to the defense, not the offense.  I don’t think I have to mention how much of a rarity that is.

So, this is what is going to happen this year:  UW will play a clean game and not give the Bears extra possession and free points.  The UW defense will frustrate the Cal offense enough that we won’t be seeing 40+ points on the Cal scoreboard.  Of the above statements I am nearly 100% confident.  The question mark, if there is one, is the defense.  Can they keep the Huskies in check and get the ball back to the Cal offense.  If they can repeat last year’s performance, the Bears have a chance to pull the upset.  More likely, they’re the rusty swinging gate that results in another painful loss.

Cal loses big: Cal 24 – UW 45

USC Preview

Cal hasn’t beaten USC since 2003 and frankly, haven’t come close in a long time.  Until Dykes took over, the previous time the Bears kept it to a one score game was 2007.  Between 2002 and 2007, Tedford had reasonable success trying to beat USC at their own game, pro-style power football.  He only won one of those, but the Bears were competitive in all but one of them.  After 2007, as the Tedford Bears started their decline, Tedford refused to try and beat them any other way and it got worse and worse and worse.

However, after the debacle in 2013, Dykes now has had two games in a row where he’s kept it reasonably close, sticking to his kind of game.  However, the scores are a bit deceptive.  Last year the Bears were down 7-24 and ended up putting up just enough points to get back in it.  I never felt like the Bears were threatening to win.  It was a similar story in 2014 with the Bears down 9-31 and 16-38 late and the best the Bears could do was to get it close late.  Again, I never felt like the Bears were threatening.

Which brings us to this year.  What is clear from the history of Cal vs. USC games is that two things need to happen for the Bears to win:

  1. Cal needs to win in the trenches
  2. Cal needs to start strong, leading early in the game

So, can they do that?

I actually think the Bears have a better chance in the trenches than in quite a while.  The offensive line is gelling and can both open running lanes and protect the QB reasonably well.  And while the defensive line has been a bit inconsistent, they’ve shown flashes of being pretty disruptive even against teams with pretty good offensive lines.

Starting strong will be the difficult part.  A Thursday night game, during mid-terms, on 6 days rest, playing a team on twice the rest they’ve had, coming off two back-to-back (kinda, there was a bye in there) overtime games, all point to a difficult/slow/tired start.  Add in that the LA Coliseum has been a very intimidating place for the Bears to begin with, and I’m just not feeling it.

I think there are two scenarios that are the likely ones:

  1. Cal is just too tired and gets blown off the ball, losing the game in the trenches, and loses horrifically.
  2. Cal has a slow start and can just never catch up.

Neither one results in a win.  Bears lose in heart-breaking fashion: 23-38

(And here’s hoping my reverse prediction mojo keep working!)

Oregon preview

There are a number of things that set off red flags for me when looking at an upcoming game that the Bears are favored in:

  1. The opponent had a bye
  2. The opponent has been under-performing
  3. The opponent has typically had our number (should have been a red-flag against Oregon State)
  4. Cal has recently lost a game where their biggest strength was exposed
  5. Cal has an under-appreciated injury (no Enwere is not one)
  6. The game is not on Saturday (Cal is on a 7 game losing streak, the last win coming in 2005 at New Mexico St.)
  7. The opposing team has a really good defense
  8. The game is a road game

When 5 of my 8 red flags (1, 2, 3, 4 and 6) are going off, I’m going to be your source of doom and gloom.

The best case scenario is that Cal gets the offense back on track, manages to corral the Oregon rushing attack, but does it in a way that prevents the Oregon freshman QB (Justin Herbert) from finding his rhythm.  But I think if any one of those things goes wrong, the Bears are doomed.  Let’s take them one by one:

  1. Cal gets the offense back on track: My hope here is that we really can blame the passing game troubles against Oregon State on Webb’s injury.  So far this season, press coverage on the Bears has not worked.  It was really surprising that it worked so well for OSU.  And while in the back of my head I know that this wouldn’t be the 1st time the Beavers showed the rest of the conference how to shut down the Cal offense, I’m going to believe that this is the least likely of the group to bite the Bears.
  2. Cal manages to corral the Oregon rushing attack:  So who are the real Bears… the Bears that kept Utah in check or the ones that looked like a high school team against Oregon State?  Beyond that, how will the Bears do against their first real read-option team of the season?  The likely answers to both questions are concerning.  This is the one that is most likely to hurt the Bears.
  3. Oregon’s freshman QB finds his rhythm:  Don’t under estimate this one.  The mid-season bye tends to be one of those moments that a freshman QB starts putting things together and the game starts “slowing down” for him.  There are two techniques that tend to prevent young QBs from improving: Get lots of pressure on them or throw lots of confusing pass protection schemes at them.  I haven’t seen much from the Bears this season that would suggest they could accomplish either method.  The counter to this is that this QB hasn’t exactly shown a lot of promise, so perhaps it doesn’t bite the Bears.  But don’t be shocked if it does.

If there is good news, this shouldn’t be a keep-away game for the Bears like the Utah game.  The Bears should have a fair number of chances to get the offense working.  But the risk is that it is a shootout and Cal just can’t keep pace.

And that’s what I’ve got to predict: Cal 38, Oregon 51

Why are you reading my predictions?

MAN… do I stink at predicting these games or WHAT!?!  I’m 1-4 this season.

Don’t get me wrong, I couldn’t be more thrilled to be wrong this weekend, but it’s clear I don’t have my finger on the pulse of this team so far.

Utah preview

I don’t have a lot of time to write a preview, but I did want to give a quick prediction.

Last year the Bears weathered a strong attack from the Utah lines and did much better than expected at it.  It’s not that they won in the trenches, they just made it so it wasn’t a huge advantage for Utah.  Unfortunately, Goff tried to put the game too much on his shoulders and threw a number of ill-advised interceptions.  It was without a doubt his worst game of the year.  Had he played better, Cal would have won, without a doubt.

So, can Cal be good enough in the trenches AGAIN to allow Cal’s superior offensive talent a chance?  My gut says it is possible, this year’s lines have been stout at time and have been getting better.  But I also fear that it won’t be enough.  I expect Webb to have  better game than Goff did (he won’t try to do too much), but when it comes down to the end,  Utah will have wore the Bears down too much and will control the game late.

Bears fall to a losing record: 23-31

ASU preview

I re-watched last year’s ASU game to help give me some better perspective on tomorrow’s game.  For those who don’t remember, Cal started off last years game very cold.  I mean that both metaphorically and physically.  It was freezing at last year’s game!

But in addition to us all freezing in the stands and on the field, the Bears spotted ASU a 24-3 lead in the mid-2nd quarter.  Nothing went right for the Bears early, including a botched punt reception that resulted in an easy TD for ASU.  Goff was uncharacteristically inaccurate, particularly on his long passes and the ASU blitz heavy defense kept the offense otherwise off balance.  It was ugly!

Luckily, almost the entire rest of the game went like this: Cal TD, ASU field-goal…  Cal TD, ASU field-goal… over and over and over.  Cal just didn’t have the man-power to stop the ASU running game without committing too many men to the box.  And when the committed too many men to the box, ASU beat them with the deep pass.  So Cal just kept everything in front of them until they got into the redzone and then forced ASU to settle for field goals.  On the other side of the ball, Goff got his accuracy back, and Cal torched ASU again and again and again for 6 TD drives in 7 possessions to finish the game (minus the field goal to win it as time expired).

So does that tell us about this year’s game?

ASU has their run game working just as well as last year, perhaps even better.  The difference is that Bercovici is no longer under center and Manny Wilkins is pretty inexperienced.  His stats thus far suggest he’s accurate with his short passes (66% completion percentage) but doesn’t rack up the yards (795 yards per game against pretty weak opponents).  This will allow the Cal defense to press a lot more and keep their men up in the box to defend against the run.

So here’s the question… how does ASU’s run game compare to Texas and SDSU?  There’s no doubt that Cal gave up a lot of rushing yards against those teams, but at the end of the day, I don’t feel like it was the run game that was the deal breaker for Cal.  SDSU got enough mistakes out of Cal that they could play out their rushing game hand and win the game, but if Cal doesn’t make the plethora of mistakes it made, Cal wins that one too.  And of course Texas put up a lot of yards too, but they couldn’t keep up with the Bears.

Is ASU’s rushing game that much more dominant?

I don’t think so, and that’s why I think the Bears are going to win this one.  ASU’s defense is pretty weak and Webb and company should be able to do their usual ‘Drop 50′ that they do when they face a susceptible defense.  But I don’t think we’re going to see the ASU offense dominate THAT much with the run game.

Cal wins by more than people would think: Bear 52, ASU 38

Want some free money?

If so, go online to a betting website and put some money on the over for this weekend’s Cal@ASU game.  It’s only 82.5.  This game might approach that in the 1st half.  (now watch, it will be a defensive struggle.)

SDSU preview

I must admit, I was pretty surprised this week when I saw just how many of the pundits believe that Cal is rightfully the underdog and is likely to lose the game this evening.  The betting line favors SDSU by 7 and there are pundits that are picking SDSU to win by more than the spread.

Are you kidding me!?!  Are people really saying that Cal has gotten so much worse and/or SDSU has gotten so much better than there will be MORE than a 35 point swing (the Bears won by 28 last year).   So I decided to re-watch last year’s game to see if there were some major things I missed from a relatively easy win for the Bears.  Here’s what I discovered:

  • The Bears won last year’s game based on the big play.  The Bears were somewhat inconsistent at establishing drives, but they had a number of big plays that broke the game open.
  • SDSU shot themselves in the foot in two ways:  Personal fouls that stalled drives.  And turnovers.
  • Outside of the above, SDSU had pretty good success running the football against Cal, much better than I remember.
  • That said, there was nothing overly explosive about the run game.
  • SDSU’s QB was nothing to be afraid of.

So the scenario that would allow for an SDSU victory would be one where SDSU cleans up their act, they continue to run the ball well and keep the ball away from Cal, particularly if their QB has matured enough to keep the Bears defense honest.  Is that possible?  I must admit, it’s more possible than I would have thought before I watched last year’s game.

But I still think the sentiment is too skewed one way.  I’m not buying the 11 game win streak (uh, guess who’s a couple games on the other side of the streak… oh yeah, the BEARS!?!) as a sign of how things have changed.  You have to look at the quality of the competition and SDSU has not beat a power-5 team during those 11 games.  And we shouldn’t forget the big play ability of the Bears that will still be a threat while the Cal running game behind the more experienced offensive line should be able to do more damage than last year.

Cal struggles early but eventually has enough big plays to win: 42-31

Hawaii game prediction

We’re less than 36 hours away from the start of another exciting season of Cal Football!

First up is the Hawaii Rainbow Warriors (boy does that strike fear in their opponents…  Rainbows!?! Run for your life!) in a unique neutral site location: Sydney, Australia.

There are very few people who are giving Hawaii a chance to win the game, the Bears have to give 20 points on the betting line, and you won’t find me taking the ultra-pessimistic route.  Quite the opposite, I’m probably more optimistic than most about the outcome.  I expect Cal to win this one easily.

In these sorts of games, the way the smaller school from a lesser conference wins against a power-5 conference school is by having some combination of a weakness to exploit and/or a means to blunt the strength of their opponent.  Cal’s biggest weakness is its passing defense, with a decimated secondary and linebacker corps.  Hawaii will be starting a QB with limited experience and is generally a stronger running team than passing team.  So they don’t really have the means to exploit Cal’s weakness.

As for Cal’s strength, it will be its passing game.  Hawaii is switching to a high-risk attacking defense.  While that *may* result in blowing up the Cal offense on occasion, I suspect it will also mean that Cal will have a fair number of big plays as well.  I can’t imagine that Hawaii will be able to blunt Cal’s offensive onslaught.  And I’d think that even if Cal was starting one of their inexperienced QBs.  But with Webb behind center, a man who’s picked up more than a few blitz packages in his collegiate career, I doubly can’t imagine this working out well for Hawaii.

So expect to see Cal win big.

That said, within these sorts of games, there can still be a lot of interesting things to watch, that will give insight into how the season will unfold.  Here’s a list of things to watch:

  1. Is Webb as advertised?  I generally tend to believe Webb was a key off-season acquisition and will make a sizeable difference in the outcome of this season.  But sometimes these things take a life of their own and they’re not nearly as true as the consensus believes (just look at the ridiculous expectations for UW this year…).  It will be very comforting if we see Webb come out of the gate strong.
  2. Can Cal force Hawaii to be one-dimensional, relying on their throwing game?  If Cal can shut down Hawaii’s rushing attack, that will bode well for the future.
  3. How well does Cal pick up Hawaii’s blitz packages?  Call me crazy, but I’m not buying the hype around the Cal offensive line.  They were moving from weak towards mediocre last year, but a great deal of that was having a QB who was exceptional at operating behind inconsistent line play.  That hid a LOT of their weaknesses.  It will be interesting to see how clean Webb’s jersey is at the end of the game.
  4. How well can Cal grind out the clock as the game wears on using its running game?  Last year, the inconsistency of the running game was a significant liability.  (BTW, to bolster point #2, I think the running game inconsistency was far more indicative of the quality of the offensive line than Goff’s ability to make them look OK.)  This year Cal is going to need to take some pressure off the defense by holding on to the ball and grinding out the clock when appropriate.  I think this factor alone could result in a 2 to 3 game swing in the final record of the team.  While Hawaii isn’t the most daunting test, it might show us something.  If Cal struggles with consistent running against Hawaii, be very, very worried about the rest of the season.
  5. Just how bad is the secondary?  This can be a tougher one to judge.  Dykes has been claiming the defense has much better depth than in the past and he expects far more consistent play this season even with the troubling number of starters lost.  Friday night will be the teams first chance to prove to us that the depth argument holds water.

No matter what happens with the above items, expect Cal to win big, with a few big Hawaii plays being their only glimmer of hope.  Final score: Cal 48, Hawaii 23.

ASU Preview

ASU is a perplexing team, maybe even as perplexing as Cal.  It becomes most notable when looking at how ASU faired against common competition:

When Cal was hanging tough with USC, ASU was getting the crud kicked out of it.  While on the other side of LA, ASU absolutely destroyed UCLA while Cal was licking its wounds before halftime.  They held closer against Oregon than Cal did, but lost handily to WSU while Cal won that one.  We both beat Washington by a small margin.  And to finish off the list Cal held closer to Utah than ASU did.

So if we ignore the LA teams, the results favor the Bears.  If we include USC, it looks even a little better for the Bears.  But UCLA throws that all into turmoil.  (Maybe it’s UCLA who is the wildcard here?)

And unlike Oregon, Stanford or WSU, for whom we have a narrative to explain the discrepancies, it’s much harder to give one to ASU besides perhaps inconsistency.

Thus when I visualize this match-up, I see both the potential for a big Cal win and a disaster of a game that sends the program reeling.  ASU has potential.  One shouldn’t too quickly discount their performance at UCLA as an anomaly.  ASU can play that good.

What ASU needs to have that sort of a dominating performance is to get pressure with their defensive line.  Until last week’s victory over Arizona, the most points ASU had allowed in a winning effort was 23.  They won by being disruptive all game long and allowing their offense the time to find it’s rhythm and be productive.

I believe Cal would do better today in a shootout than a defensive struggle.

I also think Cal has the defensive chops to slow ASU.  There’s nothing particularly scary about their passing game (although it’s not bad either).  The key to ASU is traditional balance. I see more of USC and Washington in them than I see UCLA or Oregon.

So the question becomes, can the Cal offense be efficient and productive against ASU?  I think so.  I think Cal has enough different ways to deal with defensive line pressure to defuse that threat.  I also think Goff has turned a bit of a corner the last couple weeks and is focusing on taking what the defense is giving him, something that was lacking from Utah through Oregon.

The end result is that I see a game where Cal marches down the field, nibbling away.  Lots of dump-off pass plays, screens, QB scrambles, quick hitches and the such.  They’ll end up getting the defense tired.  So while I expect a close score through the 1st half, I see Cal extending the lead in the 2nd half.  I see the Cal defense overall doing a reasonably good job, but there’s also going to be a few too many plays (or even a drive or two) that will drive us nuts.  One or two of those scores will make it appear that the potential win could be in trouble.

But in the end, Cal will control enough of the game to win by a couple scores.

Cal finishes 7-5: Bears 37, Sun worshippers 23

Big Game preview

This might just be the most important game of Sonny Dykes coaching career.  The Bears need to prove they can beat  the better teams in the conference, even if it is just occasionally.  A win over a struggling ASU isn’t going to cut it for that, so Stanford is the last chance of the season.  It’s put up or shut-up time.

The good news for the Bears is there are reasons for optimism.

As the previous post showed, the common opponent analysis suggests the difference in quality between the teams isn’t has high as their current records would suggest.  The unbalanced Pac-12 south schedule doesn’t allow a fair comparison.  While Stanford was off beating up on Colorado and Arizona, two of the three worst teams in the conference, Cal instead had to play Utah.  In contrast, in the Pac-12 north where the teams played an identical set of teams, they have the same record (3-1).

The second reason is that if one looks at where Cal has struggled, UCLA and Oregon, it is against teams the emphasize speed over power.  Against the better teams that emphasize power, Cal has held their own.  I remain convinced that if Goff hadn’t felt the pressure of trying to carry the whole team on his back against Utah, he wouldn’t have thrown 5 picks and Cal would have won the game.  As for USC, Cal had a shot to win in the 4th quarter, and I think we’ll see later today how good a resurgent USC team is when they play Oregon.  After all, they haven’t lost a conference game since the coaching change happened.

So here’s the blueprint for how to win this game:

  1. The offense needs to have a mantra today: “Take what the defense is giving you.”  The team does not need to score 50 points.  30 will likely do.  They don’t need to be successful on every drive.  While it would be wise to *occasionally* take the shots down field to get some extra “free” points and to keep the defense honest, the key to victory for the offense is to be opportunistic and not let a few stalled drives get inside their psyche.
  2. The defense needs to be VERY physical at the line of scrimmage while biasing towards stopping the run.  I think they have it in them.  They showed it against Utah and to a lesser degree against USC.  Make Hogan beat Cal with his arm.

If they do that, I think they have a 50/50 shot of winning, if not slightly better than that.

The big question is, will they?  And here’s thinking that they don’t. (Sorry to say)  I very much fear we’re going to see Jekyll and Hyde at quarterback, flippant at some times, and desperate at others.  There will be flashes of Goff’s brilliance, but I don’t think it will be consistent.

On defense, we’re going to see them be just barely not good enough.   There’s going to be a lot of long frustrating drives where the Bears appear to have it stopped every 3rd of 4th set of downs, but somehow Stanford keeps chugging along and getting 1st downs when they should have been stopped.

This will have the effect of shortening the game and reducing the number of chances for the Cal offense to find its rhythm.

Thus what I expect to see is a game where Cal appears to have a shot, where they remain in tantalizingly close striking distance, but are never able to put together enough drives, particularly at the crucial times, to win.

Bears lose a frustrating one: Cal 20, Trees 27

The most telling game this weekend isn’t in Berkeley

Although there is a possibility that the Bears continue their free-fall and lose to Oregon State, it’s not a high probability.  And no matter what the score is, assuming the Bears win, it will be hard to learn much about the Bears from the game.

More telling will be what happens across the bay.

The way I see things, Cal has only had two really bad games.  UCLA and Oregon.  Other than that it has lost close games with too many mistakes to pretty good teams.  At this point I’m willing to chock the UCLA loss up to a bad effort and poor preparation.

But the Oregon game really hurts if Oregon is as mediocre as we all fear.

The best possible thing to happen for the Bears outlook is to find out that Oregon is “back”, that they turned a massive corner in the last few weeks with the return of a healthy Vernon Adams and the rest of the team starting to click.  Then the Bears just happened to hit Oregon at the wrong time and their preparation was hindered by not having enough film on the resurgent version of the Ducks.

But the only way the above logic would make sense is if the Ducks go into Stanford Stadium on Saturday and stick it to Stanford.  That’s the best proof that the Ducks are “back” and for real.  Then all of a sudden, finishing the seasons with a few more wins won’t seem so unlikely.  Then Stanford will be more beatable, and ASU, who’s record (minus UCLA) in the conference is less impressive than the Bears, looks manageable with a strong performance in Berkeley.

But if Oregon gets dominated by Stanford, it’s hard to imagine the Bears getting a 7th win without a huge improvement.

(One more piece of good news: The Bears are done traveling.  They’ll stay in the Bay Area for the rest of the season.  Don’t under-estimate how much impact traveling has, particularly as the season wears on.  I’ve done a couple seasons of going to every game, and it really wears on you.  ASU is not going to be happy coming to Berkeley on Thanksgiving weekend.)

USC Preview

There are certain games where one can break down film and stats to predict what is likely to happen.  There are other games where it comes down to more of a feel than cold analysis.  This is one of those games.

Anyone who knows recruiting knows that there is no team in the conference who gets higher rated recruits than USC.  They get more 5-star recruits than the rest of the conference combined in many years.  And while there is the issue of whether the ratings align to whether those kids are in fact the most talented players, one would have to take a very dim view of all of the rating services to believe that USC didn’t have a talent advantage.  I think this is particularly true of the 5-stars.  There are a number of 4-star players who get their rating from their in-game statistics and statistics can be misleading due to what team a player is on and the such.  But 5-stars have to have the whole package: size, speed, physically dominating tape plus the in-game statistics.  There are very few 5-stars who are not as talented as they appear.

All of that is a long way of saying that USC is more talented than any team in the conference.

But talent will only get a team so far.  They have to be motivated.  They have to be coached well in all aspects (technique, scheme, physical development).  As a result, USC has been under-performing now for the better part of a decade because the coaching just hasn’t been there.  In the most recent incident, it appears it has been because their head coach has been an alcoholic.

Now that Sarkesian has been fired, everything has changed.

And the worst part is that the way it has changed for USC is in a way that is deadly to Cal: the linemen.  When I’ve seen USC play up until the Utah game, I saw a team that looked marginal on the line.  They didn’t look bad, but they weren’t pushing anyone around.  What I saw at the Utah game was a physically dominating line performance.

That’s the worst case scenario for Cal, as Utah and UCLA both proved.  Both of those games were lost in the trenches.  And if Cal lost a game in the trenches (albeit marginally) to a team that lost badly in the trenches to USC, we should turn on the red-alert alarm.

So I’ll be blunt: Unless Cal has a HUGE improvement in line play today (or for some reason USC massively under performs on the line), Cal loses this one big.  And frankly I just don’t see that happening.  I think you might be surprised to see me discounting this game when previewing future games, because I don’t think the teams after USC (Stanford aside) are going to physically dominate Cal the way USC is likely going to.  I’ve got hope for the future against Oregon, OSU and ASU.  But today is going to be a blood bath.

Cal 17, USC 42

Common opponent review of remaining games

It’s wise on occasion to look at the common opponents of our up coming games.  Here’s a quick look:

USC:

  • UW: Cal barely beat, USC lost to handily
  • Utah: Cal barely lost, USC beat handily

Conclusion: Confused, if one doesn’t take a pre and post Sarkesian view… in which case Cal loses big time.

Oregon:

  • Utah: Cal barely lost, Oregon lost big
  • WSU: Cal barely won, Oregon barely lost
  • UW: Cal barely won, Oregon barely won

Conclusion: In Cal’s favor, although harder to tell if one takes a with or without Vernon Adams view

Oregon State:

  • WSU: Cal barely won, OSU lost big

Conclusion: A bit short on data, but in Cal’s favor

Stanford:

  • UCLA: Cal lost big, Stanford won big
  • UW: Cal barely won, Stanford won medium

Conclusion: Definitely doesn’t look good for Cal

Arizona State:

  • UCLA: Cal lost big, ASU won big
  • Utah: Cal barely lost, ASU lost medium

Conclusion: Some confusion, but leans more in ASU’s way than Cal’s.

 

What does one take away from that?  There’s a few ways to look at it.  The positive way is there is only one game that is clearly not in Cal’s favor.  The negative way is there’s not a single game where the evidence is thus far strongly in Cal’s favor (if one assumes the single OSU common opponent isn’t sufficient).  My conclusion, reading between the lines, based on the results, Cal should lose to USC (because of the Sark factor) and Stanford, should beat OSU, Oregon is a toss up (due to Adams factor), and I wouldn’t like needing to beat ASU for bowl eligibility to be on the table even if I don’t put it in the same category as USC and Stanford (because I generally view Cal’s performance as not indicative of the team’s potential).

UCLA game prediction

No time for a full preview this evening, but I wanted to get my prediction out there.  The Bears win tonight and the difference maker is going to be the Bears run game which is going to bust some big ones tonight as UCLA struggles with Cal’s offensive balance.

Cal 45, Baby Bears 20.

Utah preview

I think 3 questions will determine the outcome of the game tomorrow:

  1. Can the Cal offensive line hold up good enough for Goff to be effective?
  2. Can the Cal defensive line force Travis Wilson to try and win the game through the air?
  3. Will the home-field prove to be much of an advantage?

#3 is the hardest one for me to answer with my head and not my heart.  I was in SLC for the last Cal game there.  It was U.G.L.Y..  The team never looked like itself.  It had the scared look of an elderly couple lost in the backwaters of nowhere when a group of menacing looking people surround the car.  It was one of those horrific Tedford road games where you wonder how he prepared them to go on the road (2008 Arizona, 2009 UW, 2011 UCLA and 2012 Colorado come to mind as of the same vein).

So my heart has a hard time believing being the visitors won’t hurt the Bears.  But it’s important to note that this is not Tedford and Dykes has shown the leadership to have the Bears performing well on the road.  We saw it last year and we’ve definitely seen it this year.  So my head says it will be a non-factor.  For now I’m going to go with my head, but I reserve the right to pretend I didn’t say that on Sunday.

As for what is going to happen in the trenches, my gut tells me that both the Cal line will do what it needs (3rd and 1 rushing scenarios aside) for the offense to be productive and the Utah offensive line will impose it’s will enough to keep the game off of Wilson’s shoulders.

What that means to me is that the Bears are going to have to be VERY efficient on offense.  They can not afford to have many unproductive series.  Utah will happily play keep-away and shorten the game, scoring the needed 30 or so points deliberately with just enough passing to keep Cal’s defense balanced.

So the question is, does the Cal offense take the step to get back to the level of efficiency we saw early last year against Arizona, Colorado and WSU, where just about every series results in points?

I’d love to believe that, but I just don’t see it happening.  There have been a few too many inconsistencies thus far and the thinner air in SLC doesn’t exactly lend itself to clarity of thought and crispness of execution.  My gut tells me we’re going to spend most of the game waiting for the offense to kick it into high gear, with moments/drives that show promise but it being too stilted for comfort.  Then, even if it finally happens that the offense starts clicking, the defense will come up a couple of stops short of giving the offense a chance to win the game.

Bears lose a tough one: 23-34

Initial thoughts on Utah game

What a difference a week makes.  Cal goes from an “also ran” to part of the biggest game in the Pac-12… the match-up of the lone undefeated teams!  Cal is now “predicted” to end up in the Rose Bowl according to ESPN (with Utah in the playoffs).

And somehow that all happened while Cal underwhelmed in their victory over lowly WSU and Utah was on a bye.

Yet from my way of thinking, nothing much really changed in the last week.

My gut instinct says that Utah looks to be a real Pac-12 south title contender and Cal still looks to be a middling Pac-12 north team.  Based on that, one should expect than an upset here (Utah is a 6-point favorite) would be a true upset.

However, as I dig deeper, I’m not so sure that Utah is as good as its #5 ranking would suggest.  Don’t get me wrong, I think they deserve it.  They’ve won all their games and it includes two marquee wins over Michigan and Oregon.

But what if Oregon is a lower than middling team?  They didn’t exactly overwhelm lowly Colorado this past Saturday.  And what if Michigan is a combination of both not as good as their ranking and also much improved from their season opening loss to Utah?  (I mean, it was Harbaugh’s first game as their coach.)  It’s very possible that Utah, while I’m sure a pretty good team, is really not as good as their #5 ranking would suggest.

And then what about Cal?  How good are the Bears?  My thinking is that the Cal offense hasn’t hit their stride.  If they are unable to do that versus Utah, then the Bears are doomed.  But if Cal can rise up to their potential on offense, they could probably put up a lot of points on Saturday.  And make no mistake, that’s what it is going to take.  The defense might be good enough to keep the Bears in this game, but it going to be the offense that will either win or lose it.

So call me unconvinced all the way around.  I’m unconvinced this is the lauded match-up that it is being billed as.  I’m unconvinced Utah is as good as they appear.  I’m unconvinced about whether the Cal offense is really what we think/hope it is.

So it’s going to take me a while longer to come up with my prediction.