Dan Greenspan: Considering the statistical success the California defense has had in recent years, their performance to begin 2012 has been that much more galling. Yes, there have been significant personnel changes in the front seven, but that's still no excuse for allowing 31 points per game.
Nevada was able to grind out methodical scoring drives, while Ohio State killed the Bears with big plays. USC went up and down the field, with only a handful of timely turnovers keeping that score relatively close. Even Southern Utah had 371 yards of total offense to hang around before a fourth quarter scoring bonanza finally put the Thunderbirds away.
Without any protection from their defense, an offense with a lot of talent at the skill positions but inexperience along the line has performed admirably. Remember, they tied the game late against the Wolf Pack and Buckeyes, only for the defense to give up scoring drives. Still, they must be better in scoring touchdowns in the red zone and converting third downs.
Why did Cal go away from the running game when it appeared to be working against the Trojans last week?
Dan Greenspan: Only head coach Jeff Tedford knows for sure, and he must be second-guessing himself more than any outside source. In the third quarter, Cal had first downs at the USC 12, 17, and 14-yard line on three successive drives, coming away with all of six points. They called five pass plays once inside the red zone, resulting in four incomplete throws and an atrocious interception.
The Bears struggled to run the ball in Los Angeles, but found some success with electric sophomore Brendan Bigelow. He needs more than the four carries he has had each of the last two weeks, but limitations in the passing game as a receiver and blocker minimize what the coaches can do with him at times.
This is an offense that thrives on balance, especially with its limitations at quarterback. They need to rediscover that identity and get nasty and physical this week.
How would you evaluate the play of quarterback Zach Maynard this season?
Dan Greenspan: While it has been trendy to kill every quarterback since Aaron Rodgers for not being Aaron Rodgers, Maynard has played okay, especially considering the play of the offensive line is subjecting him to brutal hits on nearly every play the last two weeks.
Maynard is a game manager in the worst sense of the word. He's never going to carry Cal when things aren't going well. He misses too many throws, is too lax with ball security, and makes some incredibly baffling decisions.
But with the support of a solid running game, Maynard can distribute the ball to half-brother Keenan Allen and some emerging young receivers. He can also move the ball as a runner and would be at his best in a spread option scheme.
The fewer throws, the better for Maynard, who excelled late last season when his completion percentage improved. If they end up with having to call more passes than runs, Cal has nearly no chance to win.
What positions do you consider to be the strong points and weak points for Cal?
Dan Greenspan: When the Bears have the time to get their passing game going, they have a collection of receivers as good as any in the conference.
Allen's skills are obvious, but true freshmen Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs are coming along nicely. Harper is electric in space and will be featured on a variety of screens and other quick passes designed to get him the ball in the open field, while Treggs' game is as complete as you would expect given his father's pedigree as both a player and coach.
The weak points for Cal sit on both lines of scrimmage, where the Bears have been absolutely manhandled this season. They rank tied for third-worst in the nation in sacks allowed, while 51 percent of the year's total rushing output has come on four long scoring runs.
The defense is allowing 4.62 yards per carry, while they have eight sacks in four games, five of which came against Southern Utah.
Without consistency in running the ball and protecting the passer, without consistency stopping the run and pressuring the quarterback, Cal is going nowhere.
What players on offense and defense should the Sun Devils be on the lookout for?
Dan Greenspan: Through these first four games, Allen has been reduced to college football's most talented possession receiver, with only two catches of 20 yards or longer. However, the coaching staff has found other ways to get him involved on trick plays and returning punts.
A future first-round draft pick, expect a renewed emphasis on letting Allen get deep starting this Saturday.
The other explosive offensive weapon that must be unleashed, Bigelow had his coming out party at Ohio State with scoring runs of 81 and 59 yards, the former the longest run ever allowed at the Horseshoe. His speed is incomparable, so expect to see more in the way of sweeps and other runs that put him on the perimeter and allow him to outrun defenders.
Outside linebacker Brennan Scarlett has as much potential as any young defender in the league. Defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast compares him to a young Willie McGinest in terms of athletic ability. His presence off the edge will be key if the Cal defense is going to turn things around.
What are some of the key injuries for the Bears coming into this game?
Dan Greenspan: Right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin has missed the last three games with a left knee injury, but seems to be inching closer to returning. The senior with 26 career starts was able to go through warm-ups at the Coliseum last week, but did not play. Getting him back should help stabilize an offensive line that has allowed 14 sacks against Ohio State and USC.
Cal is getting desperately thin at tight end. Richard Rodgers has been a non-factor the last two weeks with a foot injury, while Jacob Wark hurt his foot late at USC. Spencer Hagan tore his ACL and MCL at Ohio State, and is done for the second. If Rodgers and Wark can't go, freshman Maximo Espitia would likely see the most work.
On the defensive line, talented sophomore end Mustafa Jalil is almost back from a knee injury and should see his most extensive action yet this week.
What has been the effect of playing in a renovated stadium on the team, its fans and on recruiting?
Dan Greenspan: There was definitely a newfound energy for the first two games at Memorial Stadium, renovated at the cost of $321 million dollars to seismically retrofit the venue, construct a press box and luxury suites, improve sightlines, and expand the concourse. Now whether the fans show up after the last two weeks, everyone will have to wait and see.
The team itself is benefiting most from a consistent routine after being wandering nomads for the previous year, No longer do they have to trudge uphill to practice in a smaller rugby field, now they can just step out of their locker room and straight into the stadium.
On the recruiting front, it has been helpful. But with major projects underway or completed at several other Pac-12 schools, it always comes down to relationships. The loss of assistant Tosh Lupoi to Washington torpedoed a potential top 10 recruiting class last year, and the Bears are off to a slow but decent start this time around.
It seems that Tedford is on the hot seat every year. After the 1-3 start, how is the fan base and administration reacting? Do you feel this may be a make or break season for Tedford?
Dan Greenspan: The season-opening loss to Nevada, ruining Cal's return to Memorial Stadium in the process, really changed the complexion of how people feel about. If the Bears take that game, they are 2-2 as expected after a two-game road stretch as difficult as any in the country.
Instead, they are fighting an uphill battle to make a bowl game, still having to face mighty Oregon, rival Stanford, and much-improved teams like Arizona State, UCLA, and Oregon State. How Cal responds over the next three weeks could turn grumbling into outright contempt and disgust.
From a financial standpoint, it is probably unfeasible to get rid of the current staff and bring in a quality new head coach and top assistants, so barring a complete collapse, Tedford almost certainly returns next season.
Fill in the blanks: If ASU does_________ they will win the game. If Cal does _________ they will win the game.
Dan Greenspan: If Arizona State maintains the same composure they have shown at Sun Devil Stadium under Todd Graham, most specifically avoiding the turnovers that plagued them at Missouri, it will win the game. The Bears have proven to be too inconsistent on both sides of the ball to win without some help – extra possessions and penalties that extend Cal drives and force Arizona State off the field.
If Cal runs for 200 yards, it will win the game. Tedford must be committed to the ground game, which will keep the offense out of third and long and create play-action opportunities with favorable coverage for Allen.