Although the personnel matchups predominantly favor Michigan State, many intangible factors make this game appear winnable from a Cal perspective. The Bears will need to execute a multi-faceted gameplan to be successful; otherwise, the Spartans will triumph by 10-21 points.
Thanks to Jeff Tedford and his coaching staff-the Cal "team" has successfully been reborn (2-0 record) in 2002. Fortunately, this hungry group of players "bought in" 100% to what the JT was "selling", commiting to the hard work required. Nothing makes believers like tangible results! The Bears are playing @ a high level right now and, quite frankly, collectively believe that they can defeat anybody if they efficiently carry out the weekly gameplan. Cal has NOTHING to lose. This is the opponent that everyone penciled in as a loss out of the four non-conference teams scheduled prior to Pac 10 competition. Since the Bears are on NCAA probation and are not bowl eligible this season, this is the Rose Bowl-Pac 10 vs Big Ten-for the 22 Cal seniors. In reality, this game serves as an exam to measure how good this Cal team potentially is for the Pac Ten season.
On the otherhand, many pregnosticators forecast Michigan State to be 8-0 when the Spartans visit Ann Arbor to play Michigan for the Big 10 championship on November 2nd. Their schedule looks very favorable on paper with 8 home games and only 4 road contests. The Spartans also do NOT play nemisis, Ohio State, during conference this season. They host Wisconsin & Purdue. The initial five games are home affairs with the only potential bump in the road seemingly game #4, Notre Dame, their annual rival. Although, Michigan State is undefeated (2-0), even their headcoach Bobby Williams admitted that his team was fortunate to emerge victorious over the Rice Owls last Saturday afternoon. Rice won the first half, 10-7, but folded in the second, losing 27-10. The only MSU offense that was mustered was the passing combination of QB Jeff Smoker to AA wide receiver, Charles Rogers. They connected 9 times for 155 yards and 2 TDs. The Spartan running game was stuffed (58 yards). Now, here comes the Pac 10 dormat, Cal (1-10 in 2001), to East Lansing for a nationally televised game but not the "Teddy Bear" variety that was originally envisioned.
CAL OFFENSE-MICHIGAN STATE DEFENSE
At first glance, this matchup strongly favors Michigan State. The Spartans might have the best secondary of any Cal opponent this season. However, the front seven is nothing special, yet. This group returns two DLs and two LBs as starters but all seven are sophomores and juniors. Actually, on its two-deep depth chart, nary a senior can be found upfront. Although Cal has run on exactly half of its plays, the Bears have not run the ball effectively to date, averaging a pedestrian 3.6 ypc. Tedford's gameplans for Baylor & New Mexico State went for the jugular (vein) from the first snap, featuring "Air CAL". The master design was to build confidence in quarterback, Kyle Boller, and the overall offensive unit which averaged only 19+ ppg in 2001. Mission accomplished: 52 ppg average!
However, a good team MUST be able to run the football against top level opposition. Cal needs to demonstrate beginning this week that its offensive line can open some holes & run block. To defeat Michigan State (or other Pac 10 teams), Tedford needs to able to succeed on land as well as in the air. Last season, Terrell Williams started the final five games in place of injured Joe Igber. He rushed for in excess of 100 yards in three of those contests, garnering an impressive 688 yards for the season (or 4.3 ypc). Williams hammers inside the tackles while Iggy (Joe Igber) operates better in space outside. Igber averaged 4.2 ypc last season. As predicted for the Baylor & NMS encounters, Iggy should again wreak havoc early on with the young Spartans due to his unorthodox running style. He's averaged 4.9 ypc so far although he's had to improvise on multiple occasions to get it... Three of Cal's offensive line starters return so only the strongside guard, soph Jon Giesel, & strongside tackle, junior Chris Murphy, need to prove their mettle. Although Michigan State seems to have trouble primarily with option offenses, its defense yielded 4.4 ypc (or 181 ypg) last season.*** To WIN this game, Cal needs to run for 150 yards minimum!*** Michigan State's junior MLB, Mike Labinjo(6'1" 256), is a major obstacle to this goal. He played strongside linebacker last season, racking up 64 tackles, 12 TFLs & 5 sacks. This season the coaching staff moved him to the middle of the fray. The Spartan defensive front sacked the quarterback only 1.5 times per game (18 total) in 2001 and has averaged only a single sack per game this season. Of the returning defensive lineman, weakside DE, Clifford Dukes(6'3" 259), seems to be the best pass rusher. He had two sacks last season and has the only one in 2002. If the defensive line doesn't supply enough pressure, anticipate that strong safety, Thomas Wright(1 sack in 2001), will be coming along with MLB Labinjo. Wright is a stud. He earned all-Big 10 honors with 92 stops last season. He also intercepted a pass against Rice. This season the Spartan's two top tacklers have been its two safeties, Wright (16) & sophomore free safety, Jason Harmon (15). Most likely-this is a bad omen...The MSU defense uses a read & react approach to stop the run first. They only have 11 TFLs in 2 games as compared to Cal's 25 TFLs against a similar level of competition.
Cal's passing attack will have to be patient & pick its spots this week. Cal's OL has yet to yield a sack to an opposing defensive linemen. The Bears have given up only 2 sacks in two games to blitzing linebackers. Hopefully, solid pass protection will enable Boller not to force the ball into coverage, but instead, to check off to a safety valve option. Fresno State's David Carr "blitz-krieged" the MSU secondary for 531 yards in the Silicon Valley Bowl last year. Don't expect a repeat performance by the Spartans this Saturday. Four Michigan State defensive backs missed the season due to injuries or academics in 2001 yet the Spartan secondary still finished #1 in the Big 10 in pass defense(ypg) & #14 nationally. Cal fans-take a gander @ these three senior cornerbacks for Michigan State. Their lock-down corner, Cedric Henry, returns this year after being ineligible. Henry broke up 22 passes in 2000, earning all-conference honors. His replacement last season, Broderick Nelson, is back, too. All he did was pick off 5 passes and defense 20 others. Nelson is the nickle back this fall because he was beaten out by Demario Suggs for the other cornerback job. Suggs missed last season due to injury.
Tedford is the x factor in this game. He was the offensive coordinator for Oregon in 1998 & 1999 against the Michigan State Spartans. The Ducks split the two games. His offenses were able to move the ball so hopefully he'll "out scheme" the opposition like he has demonstrated in each of the past two games. Cal's big wideouts(McArthur, Ward, Gray) need to use their bodies to shield the corners away from the ball in tight coverage situations this week. Tedford will probably go after corner Suggs(5'11) & free safety, Harmon(5'11"). He might go for a post pattern early to LaShaun Ward to test the inexperienced (free) safety help while showing off Mr Boller's cannon. This will loosen up the secondary. If the safeties blitz and run support too often-look for TE Swoboda or the slot WR to exploit the vacated middle of the field. Freshman fullback, Manderino, could play a vital role in this smash mouth type of football game, too. Tedford should manage this game aggressively, too, realizing that he needs to take some calculated risks to win this game on the road. Gadget plays-look for at least a couple. Michigan State right? Michigan State left? Here come the Bears...
CAL DEFENSE-MICHIGAN STATE OFFENSE
Again, personnel matchups favor Michigan State over Cal due to speed at the skill positions. Jeff Smoker is rated the top QB in the Big 10 in most pre-season publications and Charles Rogers(6'4" 205 4.3) is the consensus #1 WR in the nation. Hopefully, Mr Rodgers won't visit the Bear secondary's neighborhood too often...Projections of their TE, Eric Knott(rated #1 in the nation as a prep), & their speedy RB trio defended by Cal's linebackers or safety, Bert Watts, are not comforting thoughts, either.
Cal's defensive objectives: keys to victory!
#1-***Cal must stop the run to win the game(less than 120 yards)***
#2-***Cal must "double-team" Rogers with a cornerback, Powell, & rover, Asomugha, (limiting him to 6 receptions for 1 TD, totaling 100 yards maximum)***
#3-***Cal must put consistent pressure on QB Smoker via its front four plus blitzing linebackers( tallying at least 4 sacks and a half-dozen " knock-downs" and/or QB "hurries")***
#4-***Win the turnover battle for the third consecutive game.***
Michigan State returns its offensive line intact. However, they are young-one soph, three juniors & a RS freshman(who is starting ahead of the lone senior returning from 2001). With TJ Duckett(260 pound wunderkind), the Spartans still averaged only 3.7 ypc but 155 ypc in 2001. The Rice "D" stuffed their rushing game by putting 8 men "in the box" but got burned by speedy WR Rogers. For the third consecutive week, the oppositions' best offensive linemen is their strongside right guard, sophomore William Whitticker(6'6" 312). However, overall, I would definitely rate New Mexico State's offensive line superior to this group, and perhaps, Baylor's OL, too. The Spartan OL gave up an unprecedented 44 and 43 sacks during 2001 & 2000, respectively. Last Saturday, Rice registered four more sacks. The key for Cal is to stop the MSU run with only its front seven. This leaves the safeties back to defend the tight end(10 recs in 2 games) & double on Rogers(13 recs for an average of 22.5 ypc). The Spartan RBs are a converted fullback from 2001, Moss(236#), and two true freshmen, David Richard(230#) & speedster Jaren Hayes(180#). Richard is a DJ Williams' clone (rated the #10 LB in the nation) & Hayes was a prep AA (rated #30 by PrepStar). The Golden Bears traditionally can handle power backs(especially with the gang tackling this year) but need to be wary of Hayes getting around the corner..Expect a fumble out of those frosh TBs! Cal is 3-deep on its defensive line so the linemen should be rotated often in the Midwest humidity. Hopefully, Cal can obtain sacks from other DL positions besides weakside DE (Banta-Cain (5.5) & Parson(1)=6.5 sacks). Beckham played his first game last week and registered a 1/2 sack among 3 TFLs from weakside tackle. When is Mr Alexander going to register a sack? (nice punt block, ‘zo). NT Sverchek took on Outland Trophy nominee, Antoine Murphy, from Baylor in the opener while Nwangwu returned to action last weekend to be held to a solo tackle against another Outland Trophy candidate, Shalimar Jackson. Both Cal strongside tackles should rotate this week to stay fresh. The right SDE has been split between Josh Gustaveson & Jamaal Cherry. Gustaveson couldn't be any closer to a sack without being credited with one. He could have had a partial on one of Banta-Cains plus he's had the quarterback in his grasp at least twice when he simply threw the ball away... Cal's front seven should be able to contain the Spartan ground game but could get worn down in the second half against those big backs(remember the Illinois game in Champaign)?
The pass defense has been inconsistent, coughing up 242 ypc. JD Williams coached the secondary @ Fresno State in the Silicon Valley Bowl and Rogers went "off" for 270 yards receiving! Cal obviously needs to use bracket coverage like they executed during the Big Game when a corner had Teyo Johnson underneath while safety Asomugha came over the top for the pick...The number #2 target for Smoker has been the TE, Eric Knott. The other wideout is still a battle between BJ Lovett(6'3") & Canadian Ziehl Kavanaght(5'11"). The Bear's other cornerback , Bethea, will have to" man up" his guy as the third MSU receiving option.
Intangibles could factor decisively in the defensive outcome, too. Cal's defensive staff has ex-Oregon DC, Bob Foster, & ex-Oregon secondary coach from the 1998 & 1999 Michigan State games as well. With JD William's infamous experience vs Rogers last season, hopefully these guys can devise a defensive gameplan to control the Spartan's overall team speed. It should be interesting...
The first quarter outcome will likely dictate the outcome of the game. Cal loves to start fast with Tedford's game planning. Michigan State will probably go deep to Charles Rogers on the initial offensive series of the game to test the waters(Cal's suspect secondary). The Fighting Illini's Brandon Lloyd is only a second team all-Big Ten performer & no true Cal fan will ever forget the damage that he did. The macho Big Ten & MSU headcoach Bobby Williams will almost certainly come out with double tightends to prove that they can run the football down the California boys' throats... It's important if the Spartans can succeed or not. It remains to be seen whether or not QB Smoker can be as effective without TJ Duckett as the focal point of most opposing defenses. Smoker finished last season with three fabulous games when he completed slightly over 70% of his passes. MSU was unstoppable then with total offensive yards ranging between 550 & 650 per game. This is a new season-no TJ Duckett. I'm not impressed with the first two seasons of the Bobby William's regime @ Michigan State (record 13-11 prior to this season). The pressure is definitely on the Spartans and their brain trust in this game...Both teams have fabulous special teams with the exception of punting the football. Michigan State suffered 7 punt blocks last season and Cal had their fair share, too. I'll predict that both teams will block a punt in this game. Both teams lead their respective conferences in kickoff coverage. Michigan State returned three punts for TDs last season and Kavanaght returned one for 47 yards last Saturday. I also anticipate interceptions by both secondaries due to conditions aforementioned.
PREDICTION: Cal 27, #15 Michigan State 23
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