The New Mexico State triple option offense (modeled after Nebraska's power version) will prove difficult for Cal's defense to handle. Although Cal's defense under Lyle Sentencich's had success stopping the run against Nebraska, the scheme, in essence, soldout with 8-9 defenders "in the box", outnumbering the Cornhusker blockers. The defensive line was quick at penetrating gaps plus the linebacker corps had speed (Sanyika, Beck, Miller & Dorsey). When Nebraska chose the passing option, there was nobody home at the safety positions-Cal was out-manned. Sentencich simply gambled & lost.
It should be tough for the Aggies to play road games on the East & West coasts on successive Saturdays against totally different style opponents. South Carolina from the SEC, rated #21 nationally, executed an option running attack against NMSU yet the Aggie defense still yielded in excess of 400 yards in total offense. On the other hand, NMSU's offense exceeded the Gamecocks' output with 419 yards total offense (212 rushing & 207 passing), silencing 84,000 partisan fans. Neither defense could stop the type of offense that they practice against every day. This is a dual-edged sword that cuts both ways. Both defenses are very inexperienced (returning only four starters each in 2002) while the respective offenses seem efficient (1 turnover each) but still potent and proficient...
Under the Tony Samuel regime, New Mexico State owns a respectable 1-1 track record versus the Pac 10. In 1999, they stunned ASU in Tempe, 35-7. This is the same ASU team that Cal squeaked by at Memorial 24-23* in Boller's initial Pac 10 encounter. Last season, the Oregon State Beavers traveled to Las Cruces as 16 point favorites, barely escaping with their lives, 27-22.
One reason that I'm optimistic that Cal will run the ball tomorrow is that ex-Oregon State offensive line coach, Jim Michalczik, now coaches the Golden Bear OL group. The Beavers ran for 213 yards or 4.6 ypc in 2001 against a senior-laden Aggie defense. His offensive line also was responsible for only one sack. As far as stopping the NMSU option, Michalczik has contacts on the OSU staff while the Bears new defensive staff has three former defensive coordinators available to pool their knowledge. Cal's new DC, Bob Gregory, was in charge of Boise State's defense last season. Although his team did not play the Aggies - they did the prior four seasons so I'm positive that he can access some input from his friends on the Bronco staff as well...
*The ASU game was subsequently forfeited due to infamous Michael Ainsworth's 11 reception performance in that victory.
CAL OFFENSE-NEW MEXICO STATE DEFENSE
As previously stated, New Mexico State returns four starters although one has been relegated to second string. Basically, NMSU has a strong safety tandem that was #1 (Shabazz) and #3 (Gifford) on the team in tackles last season with 107 and 84, respectively. They also have NT Joe Olivo (6'2" 260) who is an Outland Trophy nominee, registering 10 quarterback sacks plus 20 TFLs during his two seasons as a starter for the Aggies... They have six new starters on their front seven including all three linebackers. Their secondary scheme was changed from man to zone last season to limit big plays. The Aggies also extensively feature a nickel back in their zone concept.
Last week, Shabazz racked up an exceptional 12 tackles (10 UA), MLB Cottrell debuted with 10 stops (9 UA) and Gifford tallied 7 (5 UA). The two left defensive ends (last year's starter, Laborin, and current top man, Bullock) split time & totalled 7 tackles (6 UA). It's hard to evaluate those stats without witnessing the game because they came against an option attack plus were they made on average 5 yards downfield. The only sack for New Mexico State came from RDE, Scaffidi(6'4" 255).
Bottom-line: Cal should be able to run and pass the football against this inexperienced group. Boller needs to account for the safeties and the nickel back every time that he comes to the line of scrimmage. He also must remain cognizant that he's facing zone coverage. I predict that he'll throw at least one interception because of his unfamiliarity with 100% zone pass defenses. From message board information - if you can call it that - I get the impression that the Aggie cornerbacks play off the WRs 7-10 yards. Boller should target the cornerbacks (LCB Canidate (5'8" 177) and RCB Bernard (5'11" 177)) by throwing quick outs and short (5-7 yard) slants. This will bring their secondary up, setting up the deep pass to Ward, Makonnen or McArthur. If Cal gets in the red zone, Tedford might call a fade pattern to Gray or McArthur.
Regarding Cal's running game, Joe Igber should be able to elude a lot of tackles against the rookie linebackers for NMSU. Terrell Williams should see more action this week so that the Bears can pound between the tackles against the Aggies front. This defense yielded 4.4 ypc and 177 ypg rushing last year - not good numbers. Remember Cal's record when they run for more than 155 yards? The optimal point to exploit along the line would seem to be behind Cal's best linemen, Tercero and Wilson, on the weak side against rookie starters, RDE Scaffidi and RDT Barth. Tedford should be able to befuddle this rookie-dominated defense simply by the myriad offensive sets that he has in Cal's offensive arsenal. . In other words, he will "out-scheme" NMSU often. This happened to Cal last week on the 85 yard touchdown pass. Cal had not prepared for that formation. The result-the man was left completely uncovered. It would not be surprising if Cal runs for 200 yards and passes for 300 yards. New Mexico State's veteran defensive unit yielded on average 417 ypg in 2001 including 240 yards passing each week... When is the last time the Cal Bear offense exploded with anything of this magnitude?
NEW MEXICO STATE OFFENSE - CAL DEFENSE
The type of quarterback that has always given Cal trouble has been the combination runner & passer like Tuiasasopo recently of Washington. If Bear fans flash back to Nebraska, it was Heisman Trophy winner Eric Crouch that killed Cal. The Bears stuffed the fullback dive for the most part and the tailback pitch (except for one run down the sideline) but Crouch broke off a few nifty runs. He also caught a pass from Newcombe. He lined up as a flanker and ran a reverse, etc. What concerns me is that inexperienced sophomore QB, Buck Pierce, is reportedly a superior passer than runner. In his initial game as a RS freshman QB against Louisville, he galloped 75 yards for a touchdown. This type of athletic talent can be hard to defend. The Aggies were balanced against Charlie Strong's tough Gamecock "D"... My biggest concern is Cal's lack of speed at its linebacker positions and Bert Watts at free safety. Unlike the defensive players that defensed Nebraska, does the current CAL defensive personnel possess the speed to contain the tailback along the sideline or to stop the impromptu runs of the option quarterback? We'll learn the answers today.
The Aggies offensive line is rated in the top 25 in the nation with three senior stalwarts: center BJ Van Briesen(6'3" 325), strong side right guard Shalimar Jackson (6'3" 324) and strong right tackle Steve Mascorro (6'5" 346). Jackson is another Outland Trophy candidate. New Mexico ran the ball 59% of the time and passed the pigskin 41% of the time vs South Carolina. The Aggies averaged 5.3 ypc against a nationally ranked SEC team. Their skill people are solid Div I athletes (kind of like Cal's personnel) but nothing exceptional. They shuttle 3 tailbacks including speedy Walter Taylor who keyed the upset of ASU in ‘99 with 117 yards & a TD. Their big WR is Riordan's HB Briscoe(6'3" 188) who South Carolina simply had no defense for! Briscoe was Pierce's "go-to guy" the entire game, ending up with 7 receptions for 113 yards. Their speed WR is PJ Winston(6'0" 188 4.3) who grabbed 4 passes last Saturday. Last season, Winston led the way with 46 receptions while Briscoe followed with 32. Watch out for undersized TE, Alex Davis (6'4" 230), who broke the ice against the Gamecocks with a 34 yard TD reception. Cal gave up in excess of 400 yards against Baylor so I anticipate that New Mexico State will rack up at least that much Strawberry Canyon real estate...
Both teams have both their kicker and punter returning. The placekickers are accurate and the punters are ok but inconsistent. I'm still wary of punt blocks this week even though long snapper, Matt Nixon, seemed to have a good game vs Baylor.
In summary, this has all the makings of a "donnybrook" - and a Cal triumph. I can see turnovers on both sides that lead to points -- and both offenses breaking several big plays. If either team is able to sustain long drives frequently that could have a bearing on the outcome of the game just by keeping the opposing offense off the field. I see Cal scoring 5 TDs (1 by TO or via special team) plus 2 FGs. I foresee the Aggies scoring 3 TDs as well as 2 field goals.