2007 Look Ahead: Cal

For the second straight season, Stanford Football will close its regular campaign with a December edition of Big Game. Cal comes to Stanford Stadium this year, and the Bears will bring a special set of receiving talents in tow. Much ink has been paid to that group, but recent years have shown that Cal's success closely tracks with their defense, which does not return much for 2007.

California Golden Bears

First Down: Quick Hitters

California @ Stanford – December 1

Last Meeting: Cal 26, Stanford 17

Side-by-Side Stats: (Cal/Stanford)
Returning Offensive Starters: 8/8
2006 Points Per Game: 32.8/10.6
2006 Rushing Yards Per Game: 163/65
2006 Yards Per Carry: 5.0/2.1
2006 Passing Yards Per Game: 253/167
2006 Pass Completion Rate: 59.3/52.8
Returning Defensive Starters: 5/8
2006 Points Allowed Per Game: 19.3/31.4
2006 Rushing Yards Allowed Per Game: 125/211
2006 Yards Per Carry Allowed: 3.8/4.9
2006 Passing Yards Allowed Per Game: 241/177
2006 Pass Completion Percentage Allowed: 56.3/60.3
2006 Record: 10-3/1-11
2007 Projected Record: (8-4, 5-4)/(3-9, 2-7)
2007 Projected Pac-10 Finish: 4th/T-9th

Second Down: Offense

Jeff Tedford's teams have traditionally won with lockdown defenses and a yard- and clock-consuming rushing attack.  This year, though, an explosive offense may air it out and try to provide as much cushion as possible for a young defense.

Junior DeSean Jackson, seniors LaVelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan, Florida transfer Nyan Boateng and senior tight end Craig Stevens form the best receiving corps in the country.  Jackson (First-Team All Pac-10, 1,060 yards on 59 catches in 2006), Hawkins and Jordan combined for over 2,300 receiving yards last year alone, plus senior tailback Justin Forsett has great hands out of the backfield.

Forsett provides a nice counterpunch out of the backfield.  An incredibly shifty runner, he spelled Marshawn Lynch for 670 yards on 119 carries (5.3 average) last year and should put up a four-digit total this season.  Still, Lynch's early departure to the NFL (Buffalo's first-rounder) hurts this unit – he was only 137 yards from the school rushing record after putting up nearly 1,800 all-purpose yards last year.  He should have been a Heisman finalist and was the Pac-10 Offensive Player of the Year.  There is no way Cal matches the insane numbers of the last three seasons (5.0 last year, 5.8 in 2005 and 6.1 yards per carry with J.J. Arrington in 2004), no matter how talented Forsett is.

The drop-off might not be as large as expected though, as three linemen return, including All Pac-10 center Alex Mack and tackle Mike Gibson.  At 6-foot-3 and 294 pounds, junior right guard Noris Malele actually represents the smallest guy on the line – this unit has some serious beef and should cope just fine despite the loss of two All Pac-10 Honorable Mention starters, left tackle Andrew Cameron and left guard Erik Robertson.  Stevens is an excellent blocker, too.  Still, this unit will not be able to match last year's outstanding rush numbers, both because Lynch is gone and also because the receivers' talent dictates that Cal run a pass-first offense.

The question mark in my mind is still quarterback Nate Longshore.  His numbers (over 3,000 yards on a 60 percent completion rate, 24 touchdowns and 13 interceptions) were solid last year, but in Cal's three losses, he completed less than half his passes and threw six interceptions to just two touchdowns.  Joe Ayoob and Steve Levy of 2005 Big Game fame are both gone now, so Longshore can relax and know that the job is his.  He has great size and a great arm, and if Tedford can turn him around like he molded Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers, Cal could make a push for the Pac-10 crown.

Third Down: Defense

From 2003 through last season, the Bears returned two, eight, three and seven defensive starters respectively.  Their points allowed almost directly correlated, bouncing from 24.4 to 16 to 21.1 to 19.3.  So did their record: they won just seven regular-season games the years they returned two and three starters, won 10 games when they returned eight defensive starters in 2004, and won nine games last year, with seven returning starters.

Cal splits the difference this year, returning five on defense.  By extrapolation of the above data, that suggests a 8-4 season, mediocre by their recent standards.  But given the relative lack of standout talent across the defense relative to the other top Pac-10 programs, that is exactly where I peg the Bears.

While none of the defensive position groups stand out, the back seven looks to be in good shape, and the front four in decent shape.  Up front, only senior tackle Matthew Malele returns – gone are Albert Maafala and All-Pac-10 linemen Brandon Mebane (third-round draft pick) and Nuu Tafisi.  A major question is the health of 2005 starter Phillip Mbakogu (knee).  His experience would be valued, because junior college transfer Rulon Davis may well be the only other upperclassman in the line's two deep.  Still, Cal allowed an uncharacteristic 3.8 yards per carry last year, their worst mark under Tedford, so I think the line will improve this year.

Desmond Bishop and Mickey Pimentel arrived at Berkeley two years ago as junior college transfers and anchored the linebacker group last year, combining for 190 tackles.  Bishop, a First Team All Pac-10 selection, went to Green Bay in the sixth round this April and Pimentel is also gone.  But the rest of the two-deep returns, including returning starting middle linebacker Worrell Williams and presumptive starters Anthony Felder and Zack Follett, all juniors.  Plus, senior Eric Morrah transferred from Kansas State, and junior college transfers Alex Cook and Devin Bishop will look to keep that JUCO pipeline flowing.  So there is plenty of talent in this group, but to match Desmond Bishop's productivity (126 tackles – the next Bear had 72, 12 tackles for loss, three interceptions) will be a tall order.

The best two players (Mebane and Tafisi) are gone up front and the best linebacker is gone in the middle (Bishop).  You cannot help but think this is a rebuilding year as the trend continues in the secondary, where Pac-10 Defensive Player of the Year Daymeion Hughes (eight interceptions, NFL third rounder) is now with the Colts.  Hughes' likely replacement, redshirt freshman Darian Hagan, has impressed in practices, and all three other starters – corner Syd'Quan Thompson and safeties Bernard Hicks and Thomas DeCoud – do return.

Fourth Down: Extra Points

Cal's special teams are the best in the conference, with senior punter Andrew Larson (Second-Team All Pac-10 last year) and senior kicker Tom Schneider (15 of 20 field goals in 2006, long of 55) holding down the starting spots, plus top recruit Bryan Anger, a punter, waiting in the wings.

Cal had their chance to get over the hump, win the Pac-10 outright and make a BCS bowl last year, but was shocked at Arizona and stung at USC in consecutive weeks.  That Arizona loss turned out to be decisive – after USC lost to UCLA, Cal would have otherwise made the Rose Bowl.  At 10-1, the Bears should have made the BCS in 2004, but were outlobbied by Texas and Mack Brown.  Unfortunately for Bears fans, I think these near-misses are going to sting for another year, because this season really looks like a rebuilding year, given that only five return on defense.

Next year though is a completely different story.  Six offensive starters are seniors today, but Longshore and Jackson are both juniors and tackle Matthew Malele and free safety Thomas DeCoud are the only starting seniors on defense.  If Jackson and center Alex Mack come back for their senior seasons and Longshore stops pulling a Houdini in the big games, this is a top-five team in 2008.

The schedule does Cal no favorsin 2007, as they must visit every other second-place hopeful (Oregon, UCLA and Arizona State) and host Tennessee to open their season.

The stats were virtually identical in last year's Big Game: both teams threw it 31 times for just over 200 yards and ran it 33 times.  The only difference: Stanford's 33 runs went for just 65 yards, while Cal's went for 127.  This year, Tedford and company will have more motivation (they seemed flat last year, though the gusty conditions may have had something to do with that).  Not only has Harbaugh called out Cal's low graduation rates, but also USC and UCLA face off that day, which means that unlike this year, the Bears' Pac-10 title hopes may well be alive entering the afternoon.

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