Well, first off, let's dispel a myth. This isn't Mike Leach's Air Raid offense, per se. Yes, over the first two games, the Bears have rushed the ball 78 times and thrown it 116 times, but that's been more a function of what freshman quarterback Jared Goff has been able to do and what the offensive line has given the Bears. The right side of guard Matt Cochran and Steven Moore has been mediocre, and the interior gaps – on both sides – have just not been there for the run game to exploit, forcing the Cal tailbacks to try and get to the edge when that may not have been the initial plan going into the run. If this offense does get going in both facets, you'll see a very balanced attack. Last year at Louisiana Tech, this offensive coaching staff passed the ball 533 times, and rushed it 521 times, so that's partially what they're shooting for, ideally. Goff's accuracy has fallen off in the fourth quarters of games mainly because, it seems, he's had to throw the ball so much. You'd like to see him be as steady in crunch time as he's been in the first three quarters, but the only way he'll be able to do that is with a running game to take the weight off of his shoulders.
Goff has really shown his down-field play-making ability with his arm, but the real hallmark of this offense is its simplicity and its dependability, mainly derived from the fact that the bread-and-butter plays are the short, underneath routes and short timing routes to the outside. If there's any complaint with Goff so far, it's that he doesn't quite have those throws completely polished yet. If this offense is run the way it can be run, you'll see short, 5-7 yard passes and runs, play after play, sustaining drives, and then you'll see the home run big play, either on the ground or through the air, because the speed will wear a defense down.
We haven't really seen but one or two drives so far where the offense gets plays off in 9-14 seconds, consistently, but when it does, it's tough to slow down.
2. One of the biggest stars of last year's OSU-Cal game was running back Brendan Bigelow, who ran for 160 yards and two long TD runs. How has he done since then and how does he fit into the new offense?
He's been a hair away from big plays a few times in the first two weeks, but he's graded himself out at a D-. Some would argue he's being harsh on himself, but he's only averaging 4.1 yards per carry – less than half what he averaged last year. Part of that is due to the line, and part of that is due to the fact that he's not quite ready to trust his knee 100% after a surgery this offseason to clean up a meniscus issue. He's looking stronger every day, making harder cuts, and this week, he's been force-fed between the tackles to get him ready for what's expected to be a fairly focused Buckeyes defense that won't get surprised twice.
As far as how he fits into this offense, his speed and shiftiness are a perfect fit. The offense is much simpler than the over-complicated scheme which limited him last year under fired head coach Jeff Tedford. He doesn't have nearly as much to worry about when he's in the backfield, apart from "run left, run right, run up the middle," and that comes directly from the new coaching staff.
Both head coach Sonny Dykes and running backs coach Pierre Ingram watched that Ohio State game as soon as they were hired, and both were blown away by what they would have in their holster when the season started. He needs to improve at catching the ball off free releases or out of the backfield, but if the line opens up the holes he needs, he'll be exactly the back Buckeyes fans remember.
3. Talking about Cal's passing attack, what did Jared Goff do to separate himself from the other players vying for the starting job? And who are some of his favorite targets and what do they bring to the table?
Above everything, Goff is very, very consistent and steady. He's a calming influence out on the field, and in the locker room. He's very quiet and stoic, which makes him a rock for the rest of the offense. The thing that most impressed me about Goff from spring to fall was the fact that he took the one weakness he was perceived to have – in relation to redshirt freshman Zach Kline, the other contender – which was his arm strength, and vastly improved it. He doesn't have the howitzer that Kline has on his shoulder – and not many do – but his marked increase in velocity and what he did to achieve it showed that he has the maturity and self-awareness to correct mistakes and adjust. You can tell that his dad played in the Major Leagues for six years – the calm, apparently, is genetic.
What Goff also has above Kline is the fact that, while he's not a true dual-threat, he can run, and run effectively. He won't try and force a ball into double coverage (though he did on his third pick against Northwestern), but will instead pull the ball down and run if he doesn't have any options. That pick was a freshman mistake, but generally, he doesn't make many of them. Kline is more apt to try and throw a receiver open, and gambles more than Goff, which, again, is why Goff earned the gig – he's not too conservative, but he knows how to gamble smartly – that's probably the best way to put it.
As far as his favorite targets, well, 12 different players have caught passes in two games, with nine hauling in at least two. Goff has plenty of options, but the top two are sophomores Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, at the X and Z receiver positions, respectively. The two have combined for 475 yards and 36 catches through two games, and both have speed to spare, with Treggs having run a 10.7 100m as a senior at Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco. Harper's shoulder has been a bit dinged up, but the Biletnikoff Award Watch List member has been stellar, leading Cal receivers with two TD grabs. Treggs's father played for the Bears back in the early 1990s, and briefly in the NFL. He's spent a lifetime honing his son's route-running to the point where you'll only see better footwork and route discipline on Sundays. These two are going to play at the next level, barring anything catastrophic.
Beyond the top two, big Richard Rodgers -- another Cal legacy, who's father participated in The Play in the 1982 Big Game – has dropped 30 pounds since last season, and showed just how quick a 6-foot-4, 250-pounder can be with a 75-yard catch-and-run touchdown last week against Portland State. Rodgers has the size of an NFL tight end and the speed to match up against linebackers and safeties, so he's difficult to solve, particularly because the Buckeyes did not see Rodgers last season because he was out with an injury.
Watch out for true freshman tailback Khalfani Muhammad. While the two-time California state 100m, 200m and 4x100m relay champion has more straight-line speed than he does side-to-side wiggle, he's proven to be probably the best pass-catcher out of the backfield, with five grabs for 103 yards. He's also just a hair away from breaking off a kickoff return for a touchdown, if Ohio State decides to kick to him.
4. Lost in all the talk about the offense is the defense. What can we expect from the Cal defense and which players are worth knowing about for Buckeye fans?
If I could tell you what to expect out of the defense, I think I'd be the only one, and that includes the coaching staff. Giving up 245 rushing yards to FCS Portland State (553 total yards of offense) certainly does not portend well against a running quarterback like Braxton Miller, though, if I'm the Bears, I'm taking at least some solace in facing a quarterback who's a better runner than a thrower, on a knee that's not 100%.
At the same time, that probably means that Miller is going to throw a bit more often, and that's not exactly a poison Cal would have picked. Starting safety Michael Lowe is still hobbled by a rolled ankle suffered during the win over the Vikings, his fellow starting safety Avery Sebastian is out for the year with a torn Achilles and backup safety Damariay Drew has not practiced all week. The cornerbacks have not looked as good as many thought they'd be, but part of that, I think, is having to contribute some to stopping the run on the outside and being concerned about the big play. Speaking of the big play, over the first two games, the Bears have allowed 21 passing plays of 10 yards or more, which is pretty damning for the secondary.
The defense up front is better – on paper, at least – than the back side, but the defensive line has failed to get any kind of real push or quarterback pressure, tallying just 0.5 sacks. NFL prospect Deandre Coleman has been publicly called out by the coaching staff to up his game, as he's been just about invisible so far. That lack of production is even more concerning in light of the fact that the young man who was supposed to start next to him -- Mustafa Jalil -- has not played a single down because of a balky knee.
All in all, between Sebastian, Jalil, Lowe, linebacker Nick Forbes, linebacker Khairi Fortt, defensive end Chris McCain and defensive end Brennan Scarlett, six projected starters have lost time due to injury, with Jalil, Forbes and Scarlett having not played a single snap. Because of an injury on Saturday to backup linebacker Michael Barton -- who's had 15 tackles total in two games – we might very well see true freshman Johnny Ragin III get some time, as he's been repping with the two's all week. Former four-star defensive end recruit and former linebacker Jason Gibson has been converted to safety, and there's a better chance than not that we see him start at safety alongside Alex Logan on Saturday.
5. We'll put you on the spot: Can Cal pull off the upset? What will the Bears have to do in order to knock off the Buckeyes?
Can they? Yes. I think they have a better chance than I thought they did at the beginning of the year, simply because the first two games have not been cleanly-played. The run game has to continue to improve, the offense has to find balance, young defenders need to step up or shut up and the defensive line can't keep just standing there. Dykes has told this team after each game that they're not good enough, and they need to get better, and that goes for the coaching staff as well, the admission of which is a pleasant change from the previous regime. I said earlier on local radio that this is going to be a shootout, not because I think so little of the Buckeyes' defense (the secondary is very, very scary), but because those players have not seen an offense move as quickly as this one. The Cal defense, on the other hand, has seen two straight running quarterbacks, but nothing like Miller. I can easily see this being a 49-37 game, at the very least.
If the Bears are to upset Ohio State, it's going to be because of the offense. Obviously, the defense needs to get its act together, but for now, the plan on the offensive side of the ball should be to score as many points as possible, as quickly as possible. They need to continue a good streak of not committing offensive line penalties and taking care of the football. Most importantly of all: The running game has to be there. As Buckeye fans know all too well, Bigelow is a tremendous weapon, as are Muhammad and Daniel Lasco. Running the ball will open up the passing game even more for Goff, and will keep him fresh. It may seem like a tired refrain to go back to Bigelow once again against Ohio State, but that's exactly what Cal needs to do, at least early, to keep the Buckeyes' attentions focused on No. 5 between the tackles. Then, if I were Tony Franklin, I'd go to Muhammad in two-back, speed bone-formation sets to draw defenders' attention to Bigelow, and then hit them with the Muhammad sucker punch.