An Analysis of the Cal vs WSU Matchup this weekend

<p class=txt>This Pac 10 opener matches Cal, the pre-season pick for the cellar, against the pre-season favorite, Washington State; this game will clarify whether the Bears can compete with upper division teams in the conference.

From a Wazzu perspective, it should also serve as a measuring stick on how good their team really is entering league play. After all, the Cougs host USC for their homecoming game next week. WSU has played only one formidable opponent, Ohio State, in their first four games, and crumbled badly physically and emotionally during the second half of that contest, losing 25-7.

On the other side of the ball, Cal can draw some tentative conclusions from its four non-league games as well. The Bear's winning formula under new head coach, Jeff Tedford, and his staff seems to encompass the following lucky seven (7)  components:

  • winning the turnover battle each game: Cal leads the Pac 10 and is ranked #2 nationally with an unbelievable +11 turnover margin or a positive 2.75 TOs per game!
  • overall excellent special teams play: Cal's kick return units are at the top of the Pac 10 and ranked nationally; the Bear's coverage teams have been consistent ; and their punting and place-kicking, respectively, has been beyond reproach. Air Force, however, did block a FG and held Cal to a total of 8 return yards.
  • red zone scoring is perfection minus one (a field goal block last Saturday); the only unfavorable trend was too many FGs (3 points)  rather than TDs (7 points) vs. Air Force, resulting in Cal's first loss of the 2002 season...
  • fast starts: Cal has built a substantial lead in the first quarter of its three victories. Last week, however, Cal's offense sputtered "out of the blocks" with dropped passes and penalties, netting only 8 yards of offense after fifteen minutes
  • formidable offensive line play, particularly stellar pass protection for Kyle Boller. Cal's OL has yielded a single sack per game with only one coming via an opposing defensive linemen. The other three sacks were caused by blitzing linebackers.
  • strong defensive line play by Cal's deepest unit: the Bears have racked up 34 TFLs (tackles for loss)  including 11 QB sacks in 4 games! The triple option of Air Force killed these stats because they never passed the football. Cal only garnered 3 TFLs and zero sacks, lowering its TFL game average from 10.3 to 8.5...
  • consistent play by senior leaders, QB Kyle Boller and TB Joe Igber, has steadied the ship, the USS Tedford, keeping it going full speed ahead.

Interestingly enough, many Cal strengths are also Washington State strengths. Also, both teams' statistical averages after four games are surprisingly similar in virtually every category. Since Cal has played a tougher schedule to date, this reflects positively on Cal's chances. WSU has suffered several injuries (especially against Ohio State)  that have definitely hindered their results as compared to their fabulous 2001 season (with a 10-2 record) .

The Cougars possess superlative special team units, too. For example, they are ranked #11 in punt returns (17.8 ypa)  nationally over Cal's #22 mark of 15.3 ypa. Drew Dunning was the pre-season all-Pac 10 place-kicker in most publications. Their coverage units are slightly superior to Cal's group early on...

The Coug offensive and defensive lines were also generally rated #1 or #2 in the Pac 10 conference during pre-season forecasts. The scariest proposition is that their QB, Jason Gesser, and their WR corps (4 legit NFL prospects)  seem even stronger than Cal's formidable talent at those positions.

Cal Offense vs. Washington State Defense

Bottom line: Cal's offensive line MUST keep Washington State's super-strong defensive line under control to facilitate a competitive game. After viewing the matchups for this game, that certainly seems feasible.  Also, here's two intangible stats that may be critical: WSU's sack attack (40 total)  registered only one sack against Cal and zero against Oregon's "moving pocket" last season.

WSU's best DLs will matchup head-to-head with Cal's best OLs. That outcome may determine the game. To start, the focus will be on the pass rush. The Cougs do NOT need to blitz to get pressure, generating 14 of 15 sacks this season solely by the defensive line. The weak side defensive end position is shared by two speedy but undersized sack-masters, Isaac Brown and DD Acholonu, that tied for second in the Pac 10 last season with 9.5 sacks apiece. Cal's Mark Wilson will draw the task of keeping this dynamic duo off of Mr. Boller. Hopefully, Iggy will help out on occasion in case one of these guys successfully beats Wilson off the edge...  This season the tandem has 7 TFLs inclusive of 4.5 sacks in 4 games. 

Next door to those guys, junior RT Rien Long(6'6" 286)  roams free, a pre-season AA candidate. Weak side guard Scott Tercero will draw this assignment. In three games played, he has posted an incredible 17 tackles! These stats reflect 5.5 TFLs including 3.5 quarterback sacks. To give some perspective on Rien Long's accomplishments, the Bear's sack-master Tully Banta-Cain has 13 tackles in 4 games. Tedford will certainly move the pocket constantly to present a moving target.  Also, expect center Ryan Jones to double-team Long frequently.  The nose tackle starter will probably be Jeremy Williams (3.5 TFLs/1.5 sacks)  matched up against Cal strong side guard, Jonathan Giesel. Strong side tackle, Chris Murphy, will lock horns with Oakland's Fred Shavies at strong side DE. Shavies has tallied 3.5 TFLs including 2.5 sacks . Bear TE, Tom Swoboda, will probably hit Shavies on most plays before venturing out for a pass.

To prevent this talented front four from "teeing off" vs. Air Tedford, the Bears need to show a stout run game. To neutralize WSU's speed, the Cal Bears might run right at it! Cal should be able to run at the edges of this defense or "off-tackle" often. Washington State stopped Ohio State for a half in Columbus, but the Buckeye's powerful freshman, Maurice Clarett (230#), ran wild thereafter, triggering more than 200 yards on the ground.  Oregon ran for 446 yards in Pullman last season while Stanford pounded for 219 yards in Palo Alto against these guys. Generally, Wazzou's front holds firm for a while but when the dam breaks - and then comes the flood. I'm still hoping for and expectantly waiting for Cal to pound the football inside this season. After all, Tedford called the plays for the Ducks when they bulldozed the Cougs in 2001...

The Washington State linebackers and secondary are below average by Pac 10 standards. They lost their four top tacklers and playmakers in safety tandem, Lamont Thompson and Billy Newman, as well the respected linebacker pair, Raonall Smith and James Price. If the Cal front can provide time for a passing game, the Bears have a chance to win this game. WSU's total defense is vulnerable, ranked #8 in the Pac 10, just slightly ahead of Cal (ranked #9) ...  

The Cougs rank seventh in rushing defense and eighth in passing defense! Al Genatone is the only returning linebacker on the weak side. He's steady but unspectacular. Mawuli Davis (from Skyline HS in Oakland) and juco AA Kevin Sperry, the team's #2 tackler with 20, share the middle spot. The strong side backer is Ira Davis, also a newbie. Redshirt frosh, Will Derting, made news earlier this season with three interceptions in one game but has been hurt, playing in only 2 games. Cal will focus on exploiting these guys - the weakest link of a strong team. Tedford will probably employ draws, traps, several types of screens, play action passes to the fullback and the tight end to isolate these linebackers in coverage and force them to make plays. The Cougars could counter with a zone pass defense to alleviate the pressure on the linebackers.

Tedford's new offense has Cal ranked #6 in the Pac 10 in passing offense. Cal's aerial game plan against the Coug secondary will probably try to complete short passes (outs and slants) as well as to exploit the deep middle against the two new safeties, Erik Coleman and Virgil Williams. A repeat of some type of reverse pass "gadget" play, trying to get the safeties to bite on the play action fake would seem to fit the situation. The two aggressive Washington State safeties are #1 (29)  and #4 (19)  on the team in tackles this season. The free safety, Coleman, has two pass defensed while the strong safety, Williams, is still looking for his first one. The Bears should avoid two-time all-Pac 10 cornerback, Marcus Trufant, if possible. He patrols the left cornerback area probably opposite LaShaun Ward. Look for Ward to frequently run him deep to clear him out of the action. 

Boller will probably pick on the right cornerback, Jason David, as well as the nickel corner, Alex Teems. David (12 pbu and 3 interceptions in 2001) is a risk taker that can make the big play but also often gets burned. Geoff McArthur should line up across from him the majority of the time while slot back Jonathan Makonnen will draw coverage by Teems. According to Wazzu message boards, the short pass has been open most of the season. Montana State's Junior Adams (ex-Amador Valley star) had a field day last Saturday against the Cougar secondary, catching 11 passes for 2 touchdowns and 181 yards.

In summary, Cal will probably be able to move the chains steadily by mixing the run and pass. Washington State is rated #7 in rushing "D" at 128.3 ypg, so the Bears should attempt to assert their will this Saturday afternoon. This pass defense is tailor-made for Cal's short passing game with YAC (yards-after-catch)  being critical. If Igber can find space beyond the defensive line, he should be able to teach a lesson or two to the rookie linebackers and safeties. Periodically, as and when the Wazzu defense tries to tighten up, Boller will show them his arm, testing them deep. (He completed a long pass to Ward for a TD in 1999 for Cal's only score). Last season, Boller threw for a meaningless 296 yards in a blowout loss in Pullman, 51-20. Kyle Boller is 0-3 for his career against WSU without really a good game. Motivation, Kyle? On the other hand, Oregon offensive coordinator Jeff Tedford faced Wazzu four consecutive seasons and the Ducks won all four meetings. However, the last two were by just 3 points (in OT)  and 7 points. Tedford's offenses scored 51 (1998) , 52 (1999), 27 in OT (2000)  and 24 (2001) , respectively. Hmmm?

Washington State Offense vs. Cal Defense

The pre-season outlook had seven starters returning from an explosive Washington State offensive unit that was ranked 10th in passing offense (301 ypg) nationally, 13th in scoring offense (35.2 ppg) and 17th in total offense (439 ypg) . Their offensive line was consensus #1 in the Pac Ten. Their quarterback, Jason Gesser, was usually rated the best while WR Mike Bush (6'6"), the basketball star, was projected all-conference as well.

However, the old canard applies: football games are not played on paper. Starting left tackle, Josh Parrish, suffered a broken bone in his leg against Ohio State. Starting left guard, Phil Locker, also was injured in that game. The Cougs shuffled right tackle, Calvin Armstrong (6'8" 315)  to the left side to protect the blind side of the team MVP, Mr. Gesser. They plugged newcomer Billy Knotts (6'7" 284)  in at left guard. Three-year starters, Tyler Hunt (6'3" 290)  and Derrick Roche (6'6" 296), man the center and right guard positions, respectively. Roche and Hunt were first and second team all-Pac 10 in 2001, respectively. The new right tackle is monster, Sam Lightbody (6'9" 310) . Obviously, with the musical chairs going on along the offensive line, the WSU quarterbacks got hit quite a bit the past two games. Both Gesser and experienced backup, Matt Kegel, are probable for the Cal game although neither will be 100% Chris Hurd, a Deer Valley HS product, took most of the practice snaps this week. He could start but based upon Gesser's track record of playing with a similar rib cartilage injury in 2001, my money is on Mr. Gesser.

For Cal to slow down the fast break potential of the Cougar passing attack, the front seven will have to apply constant pressure. If one or both of the experienced quarterbacks get hammered, the Bears might end up facing RS freshman rookie, Hurd. Here's the line matchups: Cal's sack-master (6), Tully Banta-Cain, will go head up against Armstrong. Undoubtedly, the WSU running back will double down on Banta-Cain, too; Tom Canada will spell him. Weak side DT, Josh Beckham, will confront Knotts with some respite from Lorenzo Alexander. It's about time for 'Zo to begin producing.  (Andre Carter began to emerge as a star during his soph season). The Coug center, Hunt, will look for blitzers and help out Knotts. Cal nose tackle, Daniel Nwangwu, will have the difficult task of dealing with AA RG Roche. Tom Sverchek will split time with Nwangwu. Cal needs to get more production from its defensive tackle group with only 1/2 sack by Beckham to show for 2002 to date. Strong side DE Jamaal Cherry(2.5 sacks) will encounter RT Lightbody with relief help from Josh Gustaveson. Cal's DL averages 6'3" vs. WSU's OL standing about 6'7". The Bear defenders need to stay low on their line charge to maximize leverage in this type of situation. The Cougar offensive line is thin now so if they incur anymore injuries the health of their quarterbacks could be in constant jeopardy...

Washington State is in the same boat as Cal in that they need to establish a running game to slow the opposition's pass rush. WSU is currently in a tie for sixth in the Pac 10 in rushing with USC at 125 ypg. (Cal is in eighth place only 5 yards behind averaging approximately 120 ypg.) The Cougars are probably licking their chops at Cal's ninth place (157.5 ypg) ranking in run defense. However, this stat could be misleading due to the simple fact that Cal has played two option-oriented offenses in its four games. Air Force led the nation in rushing entering their game vs. Cal. The Bears could also be hurt by its one significant injury, the loss of King Kong Klotsche at MLB. He was Cal's leading tackler last season with 71. Marcus Daniels is faster and seems to be a superior pass defender. However, the verdict is still out on his run stopping skills especially after last week. The Cougs are trying to blend in two juco AA running backs, Jermaine Green (5'11" 221 4.35)  and Jonathan Smith (5'10" 185 4.4)  at the tailback spot. Green returned for last week's game from a bruised knee and Smith is supposed to be back for Cal this week from a hamstring injury sustained vs. Ohio State. Both of these players have big time potential but could also cough up the football early in their Div I careers. Both are adept at catching swing passes out of the backfield so Cal's linebackers/safeties will have to be awake or one of these talented backs could "take it to the house." Cal's Matt Nixon reportedly has a sprained knee so his play may be limited. Wendell Hunter may finally receive an opportunity to show what he can do. With a linebacking trio of Hunter, Daniels and Ugenti - Cal's speed quotient goes up measurably at its slowest position...

The most difficult matchup in this game is the four speedy WSU game-breakers matched up against Cal's 3 cornerbacks (Powell, Bethea and Harrison Smith) and rover Asomugha. Florida State transfer Devard Darling(6'3") is their "go-to" man this season with 22 receptions for 275 yards. He caught the early TD at Ohio State and caught the initial touchdown pass in both the first and second halves last week. Darling will usually split right against James Bethea. Mike Bush who caught 46 passes for 10 TDs and a 20.8 ypc average last season is playing second fiddle to Mr. Darling. He'll split left facing Jameel Powell. The slot receiver in Mike Price's version of the spread offense is a walk-on possession guy, Scott Lunde (6'2") . This guy is amazing - he led the team in catches at Ohio State and last week vs. Montana State, totaling 18 on the season. However, he was filling in for Cal-killer, Jerome Riley(6'2" 4.4), who caught two long bombs against the Bears in Pullman to fuel the blowout last season. He's practicing this week but is questionable for Saturday. Harrison Smith, a converted safety, would have to line up opposite him. Hopefully, he'll be out one more week. The fourth speed merchant is Juco AA Sammy Moore(4.3) . This kid originally signed with ASU as a Dream Team prep from Arizona but couldn't qualify... If Price benches the TE position this game because of injuries and lack of production-then Nmamdi Asomugha will have to cover Moore. 

Hopefully, Cal's secondary will stay in zone the majority of the game because this is one team that Cal cannot match up with man-to-man. It's easier to keep the ball in front of the secondary so they can converge on the ball, hoping to intercept or strip the ball away (if caught). Free safety Bert Watts is also banged up from his 11 tackles in the Air Force game but is listed as probable for Saturday. If he can't go, then Jeremy Drake will fill his spot. One worrisome sidebar is that Cal's new defensive coordinator, Bob Gregory, faced WSU in game #2 last season at Boise State where he served as their DC. The Cougars passed for 380 yards (24 completions out of 35 attempts) in a 41-20 blowout of Boise State. However, it was decidedly worse the next week against Sentencich's scheme - Gesser "blew up" for 513 yards in a 51-20 rout of the Golden Bears. Even in Oregon's victory over the WSU last season, the Ducks "D" (same model as Cal's current version)  still yielded 312 yards passing.

How does this all balance out?  Cal 30, Washington State 24

The special teams could again play a crucial part in the game's outcome. Both team's have excellent return men. What's scary is that the Coug's don't have any punt blocks yet this season. Washington State has blocked at least one Cal punt for three consecutive years. Cal lost 21-17 in Berkeley in 2000 specifically because of three botched punts: two blocks and one whiff by a nervous punter, Nick Harris. The Bears offensive and defensive lines are the key to winning this game against a very formidable opponent. Cal's DL needs to keep in mind the "contain" of Jason Gesser. In the 2000 game at Memorial, Gesser repeatedly made big completions by avoiding sacks and breaking contain-then throwing on the run deep down field to his tall WRs on "broken" plays...Gesser's scrambles and the failure in the punting game cost Cal a victory that day. 

THIS VICTORY OVER # 16 WASHINGTON STATE WILL SEND A MESSAGE TO THE REST OF THE PAC 10: Tedford's Bears did not fold after the last second loss to Air Force last week. 

It's a new era of Cal football. GO BEARS!


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