Cal's rushing attack versus WSU's front seven
The spotlight will be on how well junior Brock Mansion does in his first start of the year. But the key to this one lies essentially in the trenches. If the California Golden Bears can get a strong push up front – something the Cal offensive line has shown inconsistencies in – then holes will open up for junior running back Shane Vereen.
You would hope that Vereen would do damage against the Washington State rush defense, which ranks 119th nationally giving up over 224 yards per game on the ground. Cal's rushing offense is not ranked highly – 49th in the country – but Vereen is tied for 11th in scoring. That knack for finding the end zone will be especially crucial to helping Mansion get comfortable in the pocket.
If Vereen can get yards on the ground, the safeties will be drawn closer to the line of scrimmage, creating passing lanes for Mansion to hit his big-play receivers. Not to mention, a strong rushing performance will also make play action that much more effective, giving Mansion opportunities to make big plays downfield.
It is essential that Mansion build his confidence heading into a final, brutal three-game home stretch. Head coach Jeff Tedford mentioned Thursday that Mansion had an excellent week of preparation, and that he is confident that Mansion will do well.
"With the good week of practice, he gained confidence from that," Tedford said of Mansion. "He has had a real good week of practice and I think he has got a lot of confidence. His teammates have confidence in him, and have a done a nice job this week of helping him up."
But the pressure of practice will pale in comparison when he is in his game uniform and on the road. If Mansion is going to succeed, he is going to need Vereen to be there for him. But, if Vereen is going to run wild, the offensive line is going to have to live up to their potential and dominate the line of scrimmage.
WSU QB Jeff Tuel versus the California secondary
The Cal secondary has made relatively nice strides this season, given the youth that they have at several positions. This week, they have the task of stopping underrated Cougar quarterback Jeff Tuel, who is fourth in the Pac-10 in passing.
WSU's struggles on the ground – the Cougars rank 117th nationally with 73 yards per game – have forced Tuel to be the offensive playmaker. His favorite target is junior Jared Karstetter, who has 49 catches and six touchdowns for the Cougars this year.
Thus, it is a safe bet that Tuel will be looking for Karstetter flying through the California secondary, and that Washington State will look to make plays downfield against what has been a schizophrenic California defense.
Good play in the secondary will allow California defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to find ways to pressure the quarterback. You can guess that the Bears don't want to be in a shootout with Mansion making his first start. If that is not to happen, it is imperative that the Cal secondary have their way with the WSU passing attack.
California junior punter Bryan Anger is averaging 45.6 yards per punt this season. Washington State senior punter Reid Forrest – who was declared "the most decorated punter in Cougar history" according to their media guide – is averaging 45.2 yards per punt.
In a game that has everything from new quarterbacks to inconsistent offensive play, there is a strong chance that this game could come down to a defensive battle.
And, in a defensive battle, field position is oh-so-key to winning a ballgame.
Both Anger and Forrest are having tremendous seasons, and could be the most valuable player when it is all said and done. It very well could be that the winner of this ballgame will also have won the kicking game.
In one area of the punt battle that could make a difference: WSU is 87th nationally in returns at 6.31 yards per return. Cal, on the other hand, is 16th nationally in punt returns, due to excellent play from senior Jeremy Ross.
All in all, if the Bears are to win a defensive battle, field position will be key.
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