California successfully completed Step 1 of its four-game road to a bowl game by beating Utah on Oct. 22, but Step 2 may be more important, because the Oct. 29 game against UCLA is on the road.
The Golden Bears (4-3) appear to be better than UCLA, and based on Cal's impressive 34-10 victory over Utah, the logical conclusion is that Cal will roll against a UCLA team that is reeling.
Not only did UCLA (3-4, 2-2) get hammered by a mediocre Arizona team (48-12) in its most recent game on Oct. 20, but it will have six players suspended for the Cal game for their part in a fight during that game. Two starters, receiver Shaq Evans and defensive tackle Cassius Marsh, are among the players suspended. Three other receivers who get playing time are also suspended, so the Bruins' passing game, already weak, will be further hamstrung.
But there is one key factor: The game is on the road, and Cal's defense, as good as it's been at home (including AT&T Park this season), the Golden Bears have not played well defensively on the road.
Cal should be able to score points on the Bruins, who have one of the worst defenses in the country, especially if QB Zach Maynard is as efficient as he was against Utah, when he rolled out more and was far more accurate.
But the Golden Bears' defense must be able to handle the Bruins' running game, led by Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman.
Cal absolutely stoned Utah TB John White, so the Bears are certainly capable of doing the same to the Bruins, who rely heavily on the ground game. But again, the issue is the venue , and the fact that the game is on the road, where the Cal defense has wilted ever since Clancy Pendergast became the defensive coordinator prior to last season.
If it can stop the run, Cal should be in good position, because quarterback Kevin Prince does not seem capable of winning the game with his passing. UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel hinted this week that his true freshman quarterback, Brett Hundley, would be ready if needed. So if Prince struggles, the Bears may see Hundley, who was expected to redshirt this season but may be called into action.
Cal dominated UCLA 35-7 last season, but, again, that game was at home.
A win against UCLA would put Cal one win shy of a bowl berth, and put the Golden Bears in good shape for a sweep of this four-game stretch, which includes subsequent games against Washington State and Oregon State, both at home.
At 1-3 in the conference, Cal is not in position to assume victory in any Pac-12 game, but the season will get a lot easier if the Bears win this one.
SERIES HISTORY: UCLA leads 49-31-1. Last meeting 2010 (35-7 Cal).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cal's offense had perhaps its best game of the season against Utah on Oct. 22, considering the Utes have a pretty good defense. The difference was QB Zach Maynard. Rolling out far more often, Maynard completed 19-of-29 passes with no interceptions. He was particularly accurate when he threw on the move, so you can expect to see more of that. You can also expect to see Maynard run the ball more often on planned running plays off the speed option. TB Isi Sofele did not have a big game against Utah, but he has shown he is adequate for the Pac-12, and Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones are probably the best wide-receiver tandem in the conference, and one of the best in the country.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Golden Bears had their best defensive game of the season against Utah, limiting the Utes to 178 total yards and holding TB John White to 39 rushing yards. Most of the yardage by Utah and White and all of Utah's points came in the fourth quarter, when the outcome was decided. DLs Andrew Guyton and Aaron Tipoti played well and seem to be getting better, and freshman CB Stefan McClure had another solid game, as did the secondary in general. The secondary has been -- and continues to be -- the weakest link in the defense.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "The guy's very accurate when he runs." -- UCLA coach Rick Neuheisel, on the ability of Cal QB Zach Maynard to throw while rolling out.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cal at UCLA (at the Rose Bowl), Oct. 29 -- Cal is 4-3 overall and 1-3 in the Pac-12 after a convincing 34-10 victory over Utah, and UCLA is 3-4 overall, 2-2 in the conference after getting blown out by Arizona 48-12 on Oct. 20. Cal beat UCLA 35-7 last season.
KEYS TO THE GAME: If Cal can prevent UCLA RBs Derrick Coleman and Johnathan Franklin from getting consistent gains, the Golden Bears should win. Last season, Cal limited Franklin to 54 yards and Coleman to one. But that was at home, where the Bears' defense nearly always excels. The Cal defense needs to break through that road barrier and produce a dominating game. If it can stop the run, UCLA QB Kevin Prince does not seem capable of winning the game with his arm, and if true freshman UCLA QB Brett Hundley comes into the game, Cal must pressure him early and often. Arizona stopped the Bruins' running game cold, and UCLA's offense seemed helpless. Cal's defensive scheme will be much the same as it was against Utah, which also had obvious flaws at the quarterback position. Whether Cal's improving linebacking corps can have a big game on the road will be the key.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Keenan Allen -- Allen leads the nation in receiving yardage, and his one-handed grab of a pass that was well behind him against Utah could help him get some national attention.
QB Zach Maynard -- He had his best game of the season against Utah, but that was just one game. Maynard needs to start stringing efficient games together if the Bears are to be a consistent winner. Against UCLA's mediocre defense, Maynard has every chance to be successful.
OLBs David Wilkerson and Michael McCain -- The two freshmen have been getting better every game, and their playing time has increased as a result. They are the virtual starters, and how they perform against UCLA will have a lot to do with the outcome.
P Bryan Anger -- Anger played a role in preventing Utah from having good field position with his booming punts. Keeping UCLA pinned in its own territory will limit what the Bruins can do.