Illinois @ Cal: A Preview

The Fighting Illini football season continues on Saturday when they travel to California to take on the Golden Bears.'s Brad Leshyn breaks down California in this game preview.

The good news is the Illini have never lost in four trips to Berkeley. The bad news is this isn't 2001 and Kurt Kittner and Brandon Lloyd will not be toying with the Bears secondary. Both teams have come a long way since that day. The Bears have gone from 1-10 to 10-2 and the Illini....well, we know that sad story all too well and it doesn't need to be relived here - or ever again, if there is a God. Jeff Tedford has resurrected Cal football and has taken them to heights they have not reached since the 1950's, while Ron Zook became the first Illinois coach to win his first two outings since Mike White opened 2-0 in 1980. The Illini have passed their first two early tests, but Cal is just a little bit better than the likes of Tony Soprano U.

Head Coach
The best off-season move by the California Bears was keeping coach Jeff Tedford, who will continue to be a hot commodity as long as he keeps working miracles in Berkeley. Tedford, who began his coaching career in the Canadian Football League, has a well-deserved reputation for developing quarterbacks, as NFL first-round picks such as Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, and Aaron Rodgers have all benefited from his tutelage. He took over a moribund Cal program that previous coach Tom Holmoe drove into the already-shaky Northern California ground, and turned it into a 10-game winner in just three seasons. He's already a two-time Pac-10 Coach of the Year and his Bears are looking to open 3-0 for the third time in his four seasons at the helm.

Offensive Preview
Yes, Aaron Rodgers and J. J. Arrington are gone. Yes, opening day starting QB Nathan Longshore suffered a season-ending broken leg in their opener. And yes, new starter Joseph Ayoob began his Cal career with 10 straight incompletions. But, no one should cry for the Bears offense, especially when master puppeteer Jeff Tedford is pulling the strings. In 40 games under Tedford, the Cal offense has exceeded 30 points in 25 of them, including topping 40 points 16 times. Numbers like that can't be helping Mike Mallory's sleep patterns this week. Ayoob, after his abysmal start, found his groove against Washington by completing 17-of-27 for 271 yards and four TDs. WR Robert Jordan, the only returning starter in the receiving corps, made Bears fans quickly forget record setting Geoff MacArthur by hauling in 11 passes for 192 yards and 3 TDs. Keep an eye on true freshman DeSean Jackson, who has sub-4.4 speed and spurned the likes of USC to play at Cal.

While Tedford is generally considered a guru of the passing game, many overlook the fact that the Bears have a running game that's dominant in its own right. Thus far in 2005, they are averaging 249 yards per game on the ground at an eye-popping 6.2 yards per carry, and they have now had a 100-yard rusher in 14 straight games. The offensive line returns four starters, all of whom received All-Pac-10 recognition in 2004. They regularly make opposing defenses look like sieves and they helped pave the way for Arrington to top 2,000 yards a year ago. As good as he was, 2005 starter Marshawn Lynch may eventually be better. As Arrington's understudy last year, he piled up 628 yards and averaged only 8.8 yards per carry. He broke his pinky finger last week, but, unfortunately for Illinois, that doesn't affect his feet. He will play and likely keep the Illini defenders grasping at air most of the afternoon. The biggest hope for stopping him may lie in the hopes he takes some time adjusting to his taped-up fingers and develops a case of fumblitits.

Defensive Preview
Cal is no slouch on this side of the ball either, despite the fact that only three starters return. One of those returning is S Donnie McCleskey. He was an All-Pac-10 selection in 2003 thanks to 11 passes broken up, 102 tackles, 5 ½ sacks, and 12 stops behind the line. He injured his shoulder early last season and struggled to reach his 2003 heights. He's healthy again and added another sack vs. Washington. Fellow DB Daymeion Hughes returned a pick for six last week along with recording six tackles. JUCO transfer LB Desmond Bishop has led the Bears in tackles in each contest and DT Brandon Mebane has tallied two sacks in the early going.

Thus far the Bears are allowing only 10 points per game and are allowing opposing runners only 2.3 yards a carry. They also lead the Pac-10 in pass efficiency defense. Granted, these numbers were compiled against former power and current patsy Washington and some school called Sacramento State. But as the Illini have also learned early in 2005, you gain confidence from every successful outing regardless of whether the opponent is an inconsequential lower division opponent or a wannabe BCS team. The Illini offense may find some tough sledding, but Tim Brasic is gaining confidence with every snap and with the emergence of Rashard Mendenhall, the running game could be as dangerous as it's ever been.

Final Analysis
The 'experts' don't think too highly of the Illini, installing Cal as an early 21-point favorite. They may be right. The Bears have weapons galore on offense and their defense is off to a promising start despite trying to incorporate several new faces. Meanwhile, the Illini have proven they can move the football and the defense has shown plenty of life since an uninspiring first-half effort vs. Rutgers. Last week's special teams breakdowns must be corrected, as the Illini cannot afford to give the Bears any gifts. They'll likely be plenty generous defensively as it is. The Illini must be flawless on offense and special teams to have a chance, but in the end the Bears just plain have more talent. Look for plenty of fight by the Illini, but the Bears running game will prove to be the difference in a 47-24 Illini loss.

Random Musings From My Couch
  • How about Rashard Mendenhall? In his debut he showed more burst and explosion than any Illini back I've seen. He was also a much tougher runner than I expected. This could be one special young man.
  • Lloyd Carr once again shows he's the coach in the Big Ten that does the least with the most. Every year he loses a game he shouldn't. But it was poetic justice to see those fumble calls be reversed. Wanna bet Lloyd Carr is first in line to try and have replay removed from Big Ten games in 2006?
  • Michigan fans should be ashamed of themselves for their behavior last week. Their constant arrogance is bad enough, but now they have to act like petulant children when calls don't go their way? No sympathy here.
  • I also feel nothing but glee about Iowa's loss to Iowa State. National Champs? Ha! They don't even get to call themselves State Champs. And no, I do not root for Big Ten teams just because they're Big Ten teams.
  • The Kentucky-Indiana game is good enough for ESPN Classic, and that epic and eagerly awaited tilt between Minnesota and Florida Atlantic is good enough for ESPN Gameplan, but Illinois-Cal and can't get on the air somewhere?

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