Preview: Bears vs. Cougars

Cal travels to the Palouse to take on the Cougars of Washington State in the next step of their season-long quest for a Pac-10 title. Martin Stadium is notable as a hostile environment, even if small, and the Cougars have measured up well this season, sporting a 4-2 record, losing only to then fourth-ranked Auburn on September 2nd, and to third-ranked USC two weeks ago in a nail-biter.

As always, Washington State is a better team when playing in Pullman than on the road. Ca's single most important objective this week will be to stay focused, to be aggressive, and to take care of business. The scare USC got while barely scraping out a 28-22 win should serve notice to all Cougar opponents that the margin for error is slim.

The Cougs and the Bears have had one opponent in common, Oregon State. Both teams beat the Beavers on the road - by scores of 13-6 and 45-24 respectively. So maybe the Bears are a better road team than WSU? The much harder question is, can Cal be better on the road than Washington State is at home?

Cal coach Jeff Tedford and his staff have to seriously guard against a let down coming off last week's big and emotional win over Oregon. If the Bears hope to be considered among the conference' and the nation's elite, they will have to win tough road games against inferior teams. Against Oregon State, Cal had no problem with a hostile crowd in Corvallis, but now the ante has been raised: tougher place to play, better team.

The season so far

CAL Washington St.
2-Sep @ #23Tennessee L 35-18 2-Sep @ #4 Auburn L 40-14
9-Sep Minnesota W 42-17 9-Sep Idaho W 56-10
16-Sep Portland St. W 42-16 16-Sep Baylor W 17-15
23-Sep Arizona St W 49-21 23-Sep @ Stanford W 36-10
30-Sep @ Oregon St. W45-24 30-Sep USC L 28-22
7-Oct Oregon W 45-24 7-Oct @Oregon St. W 13-6


Last Week

Cal reeled in its biggest victory of the year last week, beating title-contender Oregon 45-24, to establish itself as the number one contender to USC for the conference title. That "number one contender" status would be shattered by a loss to the Cougars.

Washington State won a tough road game, beating Oregon State 13-6.

Ca's 45 points against Oregon State - points rapidly collected in an explosive first half - compare well to the WSU total of 13. Only 13 against the Beavers? On the other hand, the WSU defensive effort in holding the Beavers to 6 points is a solid achievement, though some of the 24 points Cal gave up to the Beavers can be accounted for by second and third team players getting time when the game had long since been settled.

When the Bears have the ball

The Cougars are not going to confuse anyone with defensive trickery or unusual blitzing schemes. They are very basic in what they do and how they do it. They live and die with the effectiveness of their pass rush - and lead thePac-10 and the nation in sacks. They are strong up front with defensive end Mkristo Bruce leading the Pac-10 in sacks with 10 - his nearest competitor is UCLA's Justin Hickman with 6. In third and fourth place are two more sack-masters - and both play for Washington State. (But note these stats are somewhat inflated by the 8 sacks recorded against Stanford).

Bruce's dominance has allowed linebacker Scott Davis and Lance Broadus, the other defensive end, to be effective pass rushers. The Coug's run defense has not allowed a 100-yard game by an opponent since Auburn's Kenny Irons in the first game.

Ca's offensive line has been improving every week, and Tedford sees Saturday as a blue-collar mid-term exam.

"Our offensive line has been playing very well, in pass play protection schemes, but also blocking very physical for the run. We're in for a big challenge this week. This is the biggest defensive line that we've seen (ed. note: over 1,000 lbs of beef) and it's probably the fastest (pair of) defensive ends that we've played against. Not only Bruce on one side, who's big and fast, but the other guy (Broadus) on the other side, who's not quite as big at 220 pounds but is very quick and very fast off the edge. We're going to have our hands full this week with a very aggressive defensive front."

Get into third-and-long situations and you hand an advantage to the Cougar pass rush, even if they do not have the team speed to cover the entire field. Key for Cal will be to be effective on first and second down, to stay out of obvious passing situations.

It will be especially important this week for quarterback Nate Longshore and the Cal running backs and receivers to be on the same page - as they have generally been this season.

USC exposed the Cougars' lack of speed in the defensive backfield with Steve Smith having a field day (11 catches, 189 yards, 2 TDs) even when WR Dwayne Jarrett was unable to play. Washington State does not have a lock down corner.

That lack of defensive backfield speed will definitely create passing opportunities for the Bears. If Longshore (continues to) read coverages, and the Bear receivers stay focused, the speed of receivers like DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins, and Robert Jordan will create big-play opportunities.

That formula is exactly what caused the devastating scoring blitzes that Ca's recent opponents have been subjected to. Which leaves the Cougars with just one realistic hope: that their pass rush can slow down, or pressure, or sack Longshore. If they can't do that, this game will be another blitz, over in the first half.

So - from the Cal perspective - to slow down or neutralize the Cougar pass rush the running backs and tight ends will probably be game-planned to be aware of when Longshore is under pressure - to always provide him with a safety valve when needed.

Which leads us to Marshawn Lynch. He claims he is ready to play, even while Tedford is cautious about using his outstanding running back in hopes Lynch's tender ankle can heal. If he plays at all, we can be certain that if Cal gains a substantial lead, Lynch will sit. In any case, Justin Forsett proved himself to be a worthy substitute with his efforts against Oregon.

With the Cougs critical need to pressure Longshore, Cal will have opportunities with swing and outlet passes to get backs into open space - not an inviting prospect for the Coug defensive backfield.

When the Cougars have the ball

Like their defense, the Cougar offense is pretty basic. They bring a three-headed rushing attack with Dwight Tardy, DeMaundray Woolridge, and Darrell Hustona seeing action. Still, the Cougs rank only 6th in Pac-10 rushing offense - behind such notables as Oregon, Arizona State, Cal and others.

Tardy is a tough runner who can punish defenders at the second level. Junior quarterback Alex Brink is a heady signal-caller who reads defenses well and makes good calls at the line of scrimmage.

Even though Michael Bumpus leads the Cougars in receptions, (40 catches, 384 yards, 1 TD), Jason Hill is Brink's favorite target. Hill has 28 receptions for 400 yards and 5 TDs. He is quick and catches the ball well, and seems to have a penchant for drawing contact from the defender and getting pass interference calls, many on seemingly uncatchable balls. The Cougars rank 3rd in passing offense in the Pac-10, behind Cal and Oregon, so they have legitimate weapons.

The Cougars have not tested the middle of the field much in their passing attack, so if Ca's corners are fast enough to beat Hill to the ball - always maintaining safety help inside of course - they will get opportunities for interceptions.

Ca's defensive line made a big step forward last week. Brandon Mebane is playing like everyone thought he would, and Nu'u Tafisi is beginning to be a dominant force. Sophomore linebacker Zach Follett is playing beyond his years, and the experience Bernard Hicks has gained playing for injured safety Thomas DeCoud is invaluable.

"We talked about playing physical on both sides of the football up front," said Tedford of his defense's performance against Oregon. The people who got our game balls this week were the front seven on offense and defense. The thing that stood out the most was how physical we played, how the defensive line got off the ball and how they got underneath with their pad levels. There weren't any seams (for Oregon to) run in. Coach Gregory and his staff put together a great game plan that the players had a lot of confidence in. I thought it was about playing fast and physical and that's what they did."

Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory has this year shown an increased willingness to attack. He installed a new defensive scheme for the Oregon game; look for him to add a few wrinkles this week as his defense matures.

Special Teams

Cal continued its improved special teams play this year against Oregon - a notable turnaround since last year. The kick coverage has been solid. DeSean Jackson dramatically returned a punt for a touchdown. Marcus O'Keith is settling into the role of primary kick returner. Kicker Tom Schneider is consistently kicking off for touchbacks, and is perfect in both field goals (4-4) and PAT attempts (31-31). Andrew Larson continues to punt the ball well, averaging 43.5 yards a kick.

On the other side of the ball, WSU kicker Loren Langley may have found his rhythm after some inconsistencies early in the year. Punter Daryl Blunt averages 41 yards a kick.

Bumpus is averaging only five yards per punt return, and Hustona has not found much room returning kickoffs. (Now think about how much DeSean Jackson has contributed to the Cal team in this area.)

Cal will win IF

IF they take care of business. Washington State cannot win this game unless Cal helps them with turnovers and gaffes. If the Bears play their game and avoid the letdowns and overconfidence that a win like the one against Oregon can produce, they will win.

On defense: IF Cal can use their superior team speed and athleticism to disrupt WSU's running and passing, and to create turnovers.

On offense: IF the Bears can keep the Cougar pass rush at bay while Cal exploits their speed advantage by running the ball, taking advantage of deep pass opportunities, and by avoiding obvious passing downs.

Prediction

Tedford and his staff have consistently done a fine job of keeping the team focused on the current game - even when on the road - with just a few exceptions. The Bears know what they have to do, and they have the talent to go in to The Palouse - and do it.

Cal 43, Washington State 10


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