Cal's next four games, starting with the Oct. 22 home game against Utah, are all winnable contests for the Golden Bears and will answer three important questions about the 2011 squad:
--Are they resilient? After three straight losses that took them out of the Pac-12 title picture, can the Bears remain tough mentally and physically and rebound from the setbacks?To win at least three of those games, including the one against Utah, the Bears need improvement at the quarterback position. It seemed Zach Maynard had solved the Bears' quarterback problems of the previous two seasons with his play in clutch situations early in the year. But he has not thrown the ball well in his past two games against good competition -- Oregon and USC. His three interceptions and fumble against USC on Oct. 13 ruined any chance for the Golden Bears to stay in that game.
--Are they improving? Cal has not always been better at the end of the season than at the beginning under Jeff Tedford, whose teams often start fast. But this team has plenty of potential for improvement with first-year starters at quarterback and tailback and youth at key defensive positions.
--Is Cal a bowl team? Last season was the first under Tedford in which the Golden Bears did not play in a bowl game when eligible (Tedford's first Cal team in 2002 finished 7-5 but was ineligible for the postseason). If Cal does not play a postseason game for a second straight season, the pressure on Tedford will mount considerably, and it will indicate a disappointing downward trend for Cal. Cal needs to become bowl eligible during these next four games, which means winning at least three of them. That seems very possible with Utah, UCLA, Washington State and Oregon State being the next four opponents, especially since all but the UCLA game will be at the Bears' 2001 home, AT&T Park in San Francisco.
He certainly has the weapons, with WR Keenan Allen now leading the nation in receiving yards per game, and Marvin Jones being a quality receiver as well. And Tedford may have Maynard roll out more, because he is clearly more comfortable throwing while on the move.
Because the game is at home at AT&T Park, the Cal defense is expected to play well. It has become a habit for the Bears' defense to be outstanding at home and poor on the road, and it has every reason to believe it can handle the Utes' offense, even though Utah beat Pittsburgh 26-14 on the road on Oct. 15. Utes QB John Hays, forced into the starting role because of a season-ending injury to Jordan Winn, is inexperienced and does not seem equipped to carry a team at this point. He was sacked seven times by Pitt, so Cal should be able to apply pressure.
Cal has faced three good passers in a row -- Washington's Keith Price, Oregon's Darron Thomas and USC's Matt Barkley -- and Hays is not in their class.
However, the status of Cal ILB Mychal Kendricks, the team's leading tackler and top big-play defender, is a key issue. He was held out of practice early in the week with an undisclosed injury, but had his right arm in a sling. If he can't play, it hurts the Cal defense significantly.
This game between two 3-3 teams is pivotal for both and could indicate which direction each team is headed the rest of the season.
--Cal is 0-3 in the conference for the first time since Jeff Tedford became head coach prior to the 2002 season. The last time Cal started off worse in the conference was 2001, when the Golden Bears went winless in the Pac-10 in Tom Holmoe's final season as head coach.
--Keenan Allen moved from sixth to first nationally in receiving yardage as a result of his 160 receiving yards against USC on Oct. 13. He is averaging 138 yards per game, just ahead of Ryan Broyles of Oklahoma, who's averaging 135.8 yards. USC's Robert Woods is fourth at 130.5.
--Cal has two extra days to prepare for Utah, which played on Oct. 15, while the Golden Bears played at AT&T Park on Oct. 13 against USC. Two extra days should help. They had a full-contact practice in pads on Sunday, a day usually reserved for rest the day after a game.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads 4-3. (Last meeting, 2009, Utah 37-27).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cal scored only nine points against a USC defense that had yielded more than 40 points to each of its previous two opponents. TB Isi Sofele, who has been productive this season in general, had his poorest game with just 44 rushing yards, but the bigger issue was quarterback play. Zach Maynard threw three interceptions against USC after throwing none the previous two games, and he has lost his touch the past two games. He seems to be more comfortable throwing on the run, so expect to see Maynard roll out to his left more often against Utah. You may also see Maynard run more often too, as Jeff Tedford continues to add elements.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Although it yielded 30 points against USC, the Golden Bears' defense played well enough, preventing a number of Trojans' scoring opportunities. The Cal offense simply put the defense in a bad position too often. It continued a trend of the Cal defense playing well at home and poorly on the road. The Bears played particularly well in the secondary against USC, and that had been a problem in previous games. Freshman CB Stefan McClure played well in his first college start against USC, and he may be starting again against Utah. Cal has forced nine turnovers, which is not particularly good, and the Bears need to increase that figure.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It's his first year in the program, and I don't think you can say that about any other quarterback in our conference. I don't know who they played at Buffalo; it's not Oregon and USC. The speed is different." -- Cal coach Jeff Tedford, on why QB Zach Maynard, a transfer from Buffalo, has been inconsistent.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Utah at Cal (at AT&T Park in San Francisco), Oct. 22 -- Both teams are 3-3, but Utah is coming off an uplifting 26-14 road win over Pittsburgh, while Cal is coming off three straight losses, including a 30-9 loss to USC at AT&T Park on Oct. 13. Both teams are 0-3 in the conference, and a loss would make a last-place finish in the division a very real possibility for Cal.
KEYS TO THE GAME: With an inexperienced quarterback, Utah will rely heavily on TB John White, who carried the ball 36 times for 171 yards against Pittsburgh. The Bears defense will be geared to stop him, and if it can do so, Cal should be able to apply pressure to inexperienced Utah QB John Hays, who was sacked seven times against Pittsburgh. Offensively, Cal QB Zach Maynard merely needs to avoid mistakes. If he can get through the game without committing a turnover and perhaps provide some offense with his legs, the Bears should be in good shape.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Keenan Allen -- He had a career-high 13 catches against USC and has been putting up All-American-caliber numbers the past three games, getting at least 160 receiving yards in each of Cal's three conference games. He leads the nation in receiving yardage.
CB Stefan McClure -- The freshman did a good job covering USC WR Robert Woods in his first career start, although he got considerable help in the coverage. If Marc Anthony cannot play, McClure will start against Utah.
ILB Mychal Kendricks -- He leads the team in tackles, with 53, and tackles for loss with five. If he is on the field against Utah, it is a positive sign for the Bears, because he has been bothered by a right arm injury that could affect his status for this one. If he can't play, it's a significant setback. He will be key in stopping Utah TB John White and applying pressure to Utah QB John Hays, who was sacked seven times against Pittsburgh.
QB Zach Maynard -- If he plays well, Cal should win.
--CB Marc Anthony sustained a dislocated left shoulder in the Oct. 6 loss to Oregon and missed the USC game. He has a little less than a 50-50 chance of playing in the game against Utah.
--ILB Mychal Kendricks missed practice on Sunday with his left arm in a sling. It's unclear whether he will play against Utah on Oct. 22.
--Backup S C.J. Moncrease had surgery on his thumb but will be able to play with a cast.