...both teams return many starters from weak offensive teams. Both teams scored less than 20 ppg last season.
One key difference is that Baylor's head coach, Kevin Steele, has his head on the chopping block in much the same way Cal's Tom Holmoe did last season. Ex-San Jose State head coach, Dave Baldwin, was brought in as their new offensive coordinator but he is also a prime candidate for Steele's job if things continue downhill in Waco. Doesn't this sound reminiscent of the hire of Al Borges as Cal's offensive guru prior to the 2001 campaign? In contrast, Cal begins 2002 with optimism & renewed enthusiasm - this is now the beginning of The Jeff Tedford Era!
If this game was played on paper, I can visualize how the Golden Bears could win by 10 points or so. However, Cal is a "banged up" football team (especially the offense) as contrasted with the relative health of Baylor. Only one starter, right defensive end, Aaron Lard, will miss the Cal game. Cal has had only one full-contact scrimmage during fall camp due to the dinged-up offense. I'm a bit concerned that Baylor will win the battle of the trenches. LT Mark Wilson scrimmaged for a few plays during the Saturday scrimmage but was held out of the Friday night minimum contact affair. LG Scott Tercero missed the Saturday scrimmage but participated on Friday night. Projected starting RG, soph Jonathan Giesel, failed to participate in a single scrimmage play during Fall camp. This young man needed this practice time more than any other member of the offensive line because he's learning a new position. Giesel is a converted defensive tackle. If these three offensive linemen compete this Saturday, I'm concerned about their collective effectiveness plus their individual endurance. In my opinion, because of this single factor, this game will be a nail-bitter...
In Baylor's first scrimmage, its defense dominated. However, the offense won the rematch with QB Cicero "on fire" behind the stout pass protection of his OL. Baylor fans are excited by Baldwin's expertise as the new OC. During Cal's scrimmages, the defense dominated on BOTH occasions. The offense has not yet rediscovered the rhythm that it displayed during the Blue-Gold scrimmage to end spring practice... A lot of this is attributable to the injury situation on the offensive line and at wide receiver. During fall camp, roughly 5 out of the top 10 in each group spent considerable time on the sideline or in the trainer's room.
Baylor's Offense against Cal's Defense
Last season's offensive team stats can to a large extent be discounted because Baldwin has installed THE SPREAD offense versus Gregory's "Oregon-style" defense. Although Baldwin is known for a wide-open attack, he likes to run the ball if feasible 50-60% of the time. Deonce Whitacker was in the running for the Heisman Trophy until he got hurt as the featured RB in SJS's offense.
Cal's defense will zone blitz, gang tackle and keep at least one safety back in centerfield the majority of the time. Hopefully, the NEW Cal defense will yield fewer long scoring plays in 2002...
In my estimation, Baylor will not be able to run the ball with any consistency against Cal's deep defensive line. In the Oregon scheme, the linebackers run to the ball and make tackles. Nnamdi Asomugha will be a rover back (brings back memories of Eric Zomalt, doesn't it?) in charge of creating turnovers and making his PHYSICAL presence felt. Baylor has a huge O line but its forte is really pass blocking (allowed 2.4 sacks per game in 2001), not run blocking. RG Antoine Murphy (6'4" 324) and LT Quintin Outland (6'4" 328) have NFL potential. Murphy will face Nwangwu (if he plays-he DNP in Friday's scrimmage) or Sverchek & Povio for Cal while Outland (like in Outland Trophy) matches up against the Golden Bear trio of Banta-Cain (if he's healthy), Gustaveson or Parson. Cal's weak-side DTs, Beckham & Alexander, would seem to have a reasonable shot of wreaking some havoc against Baylor newcomer, LG Derrick Pearcy (6'4" 314). I would also forecast that strong-side DEs, Canada & Cherry, should give the other new starter, RT TJ Helmcamp(6'4" 301), all he can handle as well. Baylor does have three tailbacks that are solid if unspectacular in top 30 juco Rashad Armstrong (5'8" 198), Jonathan Golden (6'1" 210) & Anthony Krieg (6'0" 215). Baldwin runs many misdirection plays so I would not be surprised if Armstrong gets lost behind the trees - the huge Baylor OL - and escapes for 1 or 2 substantial gains. I'm more worried, however, about sweeps, reverses and "safety valve" dump off passes to Baylor backs and/or tight ends, attempting to take advantage of Cal's lack of outside speed in its linebacker corps. There are reports that Cal's leading tackler in 2001, MLB John Klotsche, has aggravated his hamstring so his participation is yet to be determined for the season opener...
Cal also needs to be concerned about Dave Baldwin employing 3-4 WR sets in his spread offense, thereby isolating slot receivers on Cal's inexperienced backup cornerbacks, Harrison Smith & Mike McGrath. Baylor returns 4 wide receivers that caught at least 20 passes last year. Fortunately, none possess blinding speed. Baylor did recruit two juco WRs to inject this missing dimension (including Vince Copeland (4.3)) to their attack but they have yet to advance up the depth chart this early. The best offensive player on the field this Saturday may be #81 Reggie Newhouse, ex-Dallas Cowboy's star RB Robert Newhouse's son. He caught over 40 passes as a soph and 61 as a junior for 8 TDs! I would concede that he'll probably catch six passes for a touchdown but if Cal can keep him under 100 yards, the Golden Bears will be successful. I would expect Cal's top cornerback, Jameel Powell, to draw this assignment with Asomugha keeping a eye on him virtually every play. Don't be surprised if Asomugha intercepts a pass intended for Mr Newhouse! This will be an excellent dress rehearsal for Michigan State's AA receiver, Charlie Rogers, two weeks hence. Baylor's #2 (Marques Roberts), #3 (Ray Harrington) & #4 (Robert Quiroga) wideouts combine size (6'2"-6'3") with deceptive speed. Cal's James Bethea had an excellent fall camp so hopefully he's ready for a stellar season. It will be very interesting to watch JD Williams defensive backfield operate in a game situation for the first time...
Probably, the key to this pass defense will be Cal's pressure package against veteran signal caller, Greg Cicero (6'5" 233), from Anaheim, California. Cicero's weaknesses are his lack of mobility and ability to throw accurately on the run. His strength is his decision-making against the blitz. In Baylor's final scrimmage, he beat the blitz by repeatedly hitting either quick outs to his WRs or quick slants over the middle to his slot men. I would contemplate Cal trying to pressure early with its front four before "selling out" with too many zone blitzes. It
will be interesting to analyze the game film after this game.
Cal's Offense against Baylor's Defense
Again, Jeff Tedford is installing the "Oregon offense" at Cal this season while Baylor hired a new defensive coordinator, Bob Trott, a former assistant to Bill Parcells of NFL fame. Trott is implementing a zone blitz scheme complimented by a "stop the run first" philosophy (sounds like Cal's new "D") in Waco. Baylor's 2001 "D" reminded me a lot of Cal's 2000 unit (w/ Carter & Waasdorp). The Baylor offense provided little scoring support (14.9 ppg vs Div I opponents) so the defense was always on the field. Remember Cal leading Oregon in Eugene 17-13 five minutes into the fourth quarter before everything unraveled? And the same at the Washington game in Seattle? Well, Baylor led Texas A&M in College Station at halftime but lost, 16-10. They also trailed Nebraska only 14-7 at halftime until the dam burst. They shut down Oklahoma in Norman for most of the game (held the Sooners to 60 yards rushing on 39 carries while sacking the QB 8 times) but gave up some long pass plays late to lose, 33-17. The defensive line returns 7 of its top 8, the linebackers bring back their top 7 while the secondary loses the only two starters on the Baylor "D". The new offense at Cal looked promising in the spring but has not scared anyone this fall. It remains to be seen whether Cal has the personnel to make this system work effectively.
Baylor has five players that should contend for Big 12 honors in 2002 on its defense. AC Collier, the Baylor LDE, is their sack-master with six sacks, 11 TFLs and 25 QB "hurries" in 2001. Their weak-side LB, John Garrett(6'1" 246), had 89 tackles as a sophomore last season @ strong-side backer but is being shifted to weak-side under the new scheme to take advantage of his speed. MLB Greg Wade(6'1" 245) is a rock in the center with 66 tackles. Strong safety Derrick Cash(6'0" 216) put up awesome numbers as a soph with 106 tackles, 13 PBUs (passes broken up) plus 5 interceptions. He supposedly knocks people out. Their left cornerback, Bobby Hart (6'1" 190), opened some eyes as a soph, too. He broke up 15 passes with 1 pick plus added 65 tackles! In summary, they only had trouble against the run versus options teams (Nebraska ran for 641 yards or 8.8 ypc) and finished #4 in the Big 12 in sacks. Their secondary was 50 yards better per game than Cal last year but this area was obviously Baylor's Achilles' heel.
What will transpire in Berkeley this Saturday?
First, let's not be surprised if Reggie Robertson enters the game for a series or two and runs several option plays. Heck, Kyle Boller might even try it - Joey Harrington ran it on occasion. Cal NEEDS to establish the run vs Baylor's all-senior defensive line. If they don't, those guys can tee off with their pass rush. Even with some surprise tactics, I have to surmise that Cal will not be able to run consistently. When the Golden Bears were successful running the last two seasons, they ran to the strong-side of the formation behind RT Wilson & RG Tercero. These two linemen, three and four year starters, respectively, have now been moved by Tedford to the weak-side or left tackle & left guard. The one Baylor starter that is injured and will miss the opener is RDE Aaron Lard.
It seems likely that the Bears will try to run to the weak-side behind their two best OLs. It's always a good strategy to run at a team's speed pass rusher to wear him down a bit and give the opposing offensive tackle a chance to exact some revenge. Therefore, we can expect Tedford to probe the strong-side of the formation behind Giesel & Murphy. I've heard that these new OL starters can run-block - if so, Terrell Williams will slash between the tackles while Igber will run more toss sweeps, traps, draws & misdirection type plays. Every team that has played against Joe Igber for the first time has yielded a couple of long runs. On some occasions, it was the uniqueness of Iggy's running style alone that caused the opposition to miss tackles. I would expect Baylor to have similar problems early in the contest trying to secure Mr. Igber. Redshirt freshman fullback Chris Manderino will have an impact on this game if he can block the Baylor linebackers (especially on the weak-side runs against Garrett). We may also see Cal handing the ball off to Manderino on a couple of occasions (he was a prep tailback) to gain the element of surprise...
For Cal to win this game, quarterback Kyle Boller will have to execute the moving pocket well and hit quick, low risk passes. Cal should roll right often so that newbie RT Chris Murphy & TE Tom Swoboda can block down and double-team AC Collier. We may also see limited use of the half-rollout left - if so, let's hope that someone seals off the backside pursuit of the speedy Mr. Collier...
Its encouraging that LaShaun Ward will split time a left WR with Geoff McArthur. This will enable Boller to show off his arm strength and go for the home run at least a couple of times. First of all, Ward has caught one bomb every game that he's started at WR. Second, this will stretch the Baylor defense deep, which will provide room underneath over the middle for Cal's slot receivers (Vincent Strang & David Gray) to operate. THIS IS HUGE.
Tedford will probably try to pick on Baylor's right cb, Matt Johnson(5'8"), who is a new starter. It will be more difficult on the left side against left cb, Bobby Hart. Boller will have to account for SS Cash on every play because he's Baylor's playmaker and has a penchant for blitzing. The Cal QB should also utilize his slot receivers against Baylor's #3 & #4 cornerbacks. This would truly NOT be the "Oregon offense" if several screen passes, misdirection plays, a WR reverse plus a surprise pass or two to the fullback were absent from Cal's game plan. My guess is that Tom Swoboda will act as a blocker first and then release as a safety valve receiver for Boller to hit when Baylor zone blitzes. I imagine the slot receiver will fill the void left by the blitzing LB or SS, too. Watch out for elusive & speedy smurf slot, Strang (5'8" 155), to sizzle Saturday on multiple exciting plays. The key will be his YAC (yards after catch). Tedford may try to take advantage of the rookie free safeties for Baylor by flooding their zone: RS frosh Maurice Lane and true freshman Willie Andrews. They'll split PT and are learning "on-the-job" how to play this critical position but they're both gifted athletes. Andrews is their top recruit.
For Cal to be successful, QB Boller can NOT get clocked on every play like the recent Saturday scrimmage that I attended. Kyle has measurably improved every facet of his game except two: A) He still stares down his primary receiver and does not often go through a progression of reads. By locking on to his target right away, he enables the defense to close on the ball. This could cause Cal some painful moments (interceptions) this season if Tedford fails to correct this bad habit; B) He also needs to "sell" the screen pass better and deliver the ball more quickly to Igber! He still has a tendency to aim the ball and try to not throw it too hard, but by the time the ball arrives, defenders are closing rapidly...
Historically in opening games, special teams often decide the outcome. Evidently, it's very hard to simulate this critical part of the game. We might see BOTH teams blocking at least one punt, and we may see a long kick return on either a kickoff or punt by both teams. Cal's long snapper on punts lacks velocity and suffered a punt block for a TD during the fall Saturday scrimmage. Baylor must replace both their punter and place-kicker this season while Cal returns both key personnel. All of these special teams factors could cumulatively alter the winner of this important game for both football programs!
My final prediction: Defenses will dominate the game. Baylor is physically more prepared to play this game than Cal due to its plethora of injuries. The Baylor players have had much more hitting during the fall training camp period. I hope that Cal's tackling is not sloppy due to a lack of practice resulting from injuries. I look for a typical opening game - I feel that BOTH teams will turn over the ball 2-3 times minimum. Each defense will intercept the ball once and cause a fumble. Each team will also suffer a punt block on special teams. Neither team will move the ball consistently on offense, but several big plays will be successfully executed.
I predict that Cal will win by the home field advantage, 24-21. GO BEARS!