Preview of California Game

UCLA travels to Berkeley to take on #8-ranked Cal Saturday. Cal leads in just about every major team category in the Pac-10 -- on offense and defense. Cal's offense could be the best in the country, going up against a UCLA defense that has struggled...

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- UCLA (4-1, 2-0) travels to Berkeley to take on California (3-1, 1-1) Saturday. Kickoff is at 4:00 p.m., with the game being televised on TBS.

-- Cal is currently ranked #8 in the Associated Press Poll and #9 in the ESPN/USA Today poll.

-- Cal has beaten Air Force (56-14), New Mexico (41-14) and Oregon State (49-7).  It lost to #1-ranked USC last week, 17-24, at the Coliseum.

-- Cal outplayed USC Saturday, out-gaining them in offensive yards and controlling the line of scrimmage. Cal had two chances to win the game where it drove the field in the second half but couldn't score. 

-- In the overall series between UCLA and Cal, the Bruins lead, 47-26-1. But since 1990, Cal has a 8-6 advantage. Before that UCLA held an 18-game winning streak.  Three of the last four games have come down to the final minutes.  Last year, Justin Medlock's 41-yard field goal in overtime decided the game, 23-20. 

-- Cal is coached by Jeff Tedford, and is currently in his third year as head coach, with an 18-12 overall mark.  The year before Tedford arrived at Cal, the Bears went 1-10. His first year, in 2002, they turned it around to go 7-5, and Tedford was named Pac-10 Coach of the Year. Last season, Tedford led Cal to an 8-6 record and the school's first bowl win - 52-49 over Virginia Tech in the Insight Bowl - in ten years.   Tedford came to Cal from Oregon where he served as the Ducks' offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach. Tedford is known for his dynamic and innovative offenses, and for getting every out of the quarterbacks he coaches. 

-- Tedford is the first coach at Cal to win 15 games in his first two seasons since Pappy Waldorf in 1948. 

-- When Cal was ranked #13 in the AP pre-season poll, it was the highest pre-season AP ranking for Cal in 50 years.  In the last 50 years, Cal has garnered a pre-season AP ranking only two times, in 1976 and in 1992.

-- If Cal posts a winning season this year, it will be the first time it has had three successive winning seasons since 1952.

-- Including last season, Cal is averaging 40.7 points her game and 511 yards per game. It has won 6 of its last 7 games and 8 of its last 10.

-- As a team, Cal's dominance of Pac-10 stats is impressive. Cal is:

#1 in scoring offense (46.2) (sixth nationally)
#1 in rushing offense (247) (13th nationally)
#1 in total offense (510) (#2 nationally)
#1 in passing efficiency (191 rating) (#1 in nation)
#1 in rushing defense (87) (13th nationally)
#1 in total defense (247) (fifth nationally)
#2 in pass defense (159) (12th nationally)
#3 in scoring defense (14.5) (16th nationally)

-- Aaron Rodgers, Cal's quarterback, has a passing efficiency rating of 179.5, which is #1 in the Pac-10 and #3 in the nation.

-- J.J. Arrington, Cal's tailback, leads the conference in rushing, averaging 144.5 yards a game, just ahead of UCLA's Maurice Drew who is averaging 138.2.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. CAL'S DEFENSE

This is a great matchup, the #2 overall offense in the Pac-10 against the #1 defense.  UCLA is averaging 445 yards per game, and Cal is only allowing 247 yards per game.

Something's got to give.

Cal defensive end Ryan Riddle.

Cal's defense has been the surprise of the team, and perhaps the biggest surprise of the Pac-10 season. It was fully expected Cal's offense would be dominating, but not too many expected Cal's defense to lead the league.

And it apparently is no fluke. Last week, the Bears only allowed USC's offense a total of 205 yards, and just 41 rushing yards and 1.6 yards per carry.  And in that game, the Cal defense was consistently given short fields to defend. They held USC to 3-of-11 on third downs, had four sacks and pushed USC back a total of 41 yards on tackles for loss.

Who are the guys heretofore unknown that are responsible for this?

First you have to give credit to Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory. His defense is primarily dedicated to stopping the run and putting pressure on a quarterback, and that aggressiveness has worked very well, especially since Cal's defensive secondary has been able to defend against the pass well.  Secondly, Cal returned eight starters. Now, even if you return starters that aren't necessarily incredibly talented, as we've been saying for years, in college football, experience sometimes goes as far as talent. 

Cal leads the Pac-10 in rushing defense, at 87 yards per game, and it starts with their defensive line. Senior defensive tackle Lorenzo Alexander (6-3, 300) was picked on some pre-season all-conference teams and is having that type of season. Being much heralded out of high school, Alexander has lived up to the hype in his career at Cal.  It was thought Alexander might not be able to play this week due to injury, but head coach Jeff Tedford said he will. It's unknown if his injury will be considerable enough to hamper him.

The guy that has really gotten Cal's defense wound up, though, is senior defensive end Ryan Riddle (6-3, 250). He leads the Pac-10 in sacks with a total of six and is third in tackles for loss. He's not very big, but quick and crafty, and is very good at getting to the quarterback.  The Cal d-line has also been greatly helped by the play of starting sophomore tackle Brandon Mebane (6-3, 290) who, if you remember, wanted to come to UCLA, but UCLA didn't offer.

In the middle, Cal returned all three starters at linebacker, but also go five deep with co-starters at a couple of positions.  Senior Wendell Hunter (6-1, 230) is their outside linebacker, and he's flying to the ball really well.  The middle linebacker spot is shared by senior Sid Slater (6-2, 230) and senior Joe Maningo (6-1, 230). They are the third and sixth leading tacklers on the team. 

The defensive backfield has been without its one star, junior rover Donnie McCleskey (6-10, 195) for most of the last two games. McCleskey suffered a shoulder injury in fall camp and has been hampered since, but he says he's ready to play this week against the Bruins.

One of the reasons Cal's defense has been so exceptional has been the play of senior Matt Giordano (6-0, 190), who has been filling in for McCleskey.  Not overly athletic, Giordano is smart and plays really well in the Cal system that allows the rover to work extensively in run support within the box.

What has also been surprising is that, with Cal's defense trying to take away the run and challenging the quarterbacks to beat them, their two young cornerbacks, junior Harrison Smith (6-2, 200) and sophomore Daymeion Hughes (6-2, 180) have held up well.  Both started last year when they were pretty green, and that year of getting burned fairly regularly has seemed to pay off in experience this season. 

It also needs to be pointed out that both McCleskey and Hughes were highly interested in UCLA out of high school, like Mebane.

UCLA's offense will be faced with a similar challenge to what it did last week against Arizona - having to pass effectively to move the ball. Cal's defense is schemed differently than Arizona, but the philosophy is close to the same: take away the run and make an opposing team's quarterback beat you through the air.

UCLA tight end Marcedes Lewis

It will demand another big game from UCLA quarterback Drew Olson.  His decision-making has been steadily improving, and it made a leap forward last Saturday against Arizona. Even though Cal's defense isn't one that you need to read as much as Arizona's, he'll still need to have another good game making decisions, being able to make reads and checking out of running plays into pass plays.  That was key in being effective last week, and particularly key in creating some of those critical completions to Marcedes Lewis and Marcus Everett last week.  No matter how many reads Olson will have to make, he'll have to play a close to error-free game in being able to find his open receivers quickly before Cal's pass rush finds him.

Lewis, again, could be critical against Cal, as he was against Arizona. Against a defense that likes to pressure a quarterback, a tight end like Lewis becomes a huge target. Well, he already is a huge target, but he becomes even bigger.  Being able to slip through seams in the middle of Cal's defense so Olson can find him quickly will be huge. The issue, though, will be that Cal, after last week's game, will probably be dedicating double teams to Lewis.

Which, then, will have to open up other receivers.  It's a big blow to UCLA that star receiver Craig Bragg won't play, still recovering from his shoulder separation. Thursday he practiced lightly, and he'll make the trip to Cal, but Head Coach Karl Dorrell says he won't play.  Without Bragg, and with Lewis probably getting a double team, a great deal of responsibility falls to UCLA's other receivers. If this were a Hollywood script, you would think it would be the perfect time for senior Tab Perry to have a big game since he's returning home to the Bay Area and will be playing in front of family and friends.  Probably again you can expect Everett, the true freshman who has, in the last couple of weeks, been UCLA's most important receiver, to again be a factor. 

UCLA, with its strong running game and an offensive coordinator who is dedicated to the run, will definitely try to do it against Cal.  It's going to be tough-sledding and probably the best matchup of the day - UCLA's running game against Cal's rushing defense.  UCLA running back Maurice Drew was spared some extra hits and bruises in sitting out the majority of the second half of the Arizona game, mostly so he could be well-rested and completely healthy for the Cal game. You can probably also expect to see Manuel White quite a bit, since he tends to get the call more often against defenses where the running holes are small and the pile needs to be moved. UCLA also gets back a critical cog in its running game, starting center Mike McCloskey.  There was a marked difference in the play of the offensive line last week in his absense. 

Advantage:  Even. Cal's defense has been very effective so far this year, but we're banking on the fact that they hadn't really faced a great offensive opponent, and that USC's offense is a bit over-rated, given its young offensive line.  UCLA's offense will probably be the best they've seen, even though it's severely hampered without the availability of Craig Bragg.  If Bragg were available for this game, it might tip the scales in favor of UCLA here.  UCLA's offense has been tested on the road so far this season, going to Illinois and Washington, and weren't phased, so playing at Cal won't probably impact them much.  The matchup will be won in the air, depending on how well Olson can execute and get the ball into the hands of his receivers, and how well Cal's defensive backs can stay with UCLA's receivers. If Lewis is open, you'd think that UCLA is going to get him the ball, so Cal could be overly concerned with taking away Lewis. We've also been saying all year that UCLA's offense has been kept under wraps a great deal, and this would be the game where it shows more cards.  You can't expect UCLA to be drastically different offensively, but look for more new wrinkles in this game than in any previous, with new ways of utilizing its personnel. 

CALIFORNIA'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

This is the most one-sided matchup in the conference - the best offense against the worst defense, statistically.

There isn't any way to spin this positively for UCLA. 

Plain and simple: This should be ugly.

You can't find too much wrong with Cal's offense.  They have, perhaps, the best quarterback in the country in junior Aaron Rodgers (6-2, 200), in possibly the best offensive scheme that college football has known in the last decade or so.  Ask Oregon fans if the Ducks have been the same since Tedford left three years ago and took his offensive with him.

Cal running back J.J. Arrington.

It doesn't stop there. They perhaps have one of the top five running backs in the country in senior J.J. Arrington (5-11, 210).  Arrington was just okay last year as a junior, but Tedford said in the off-season that Arrington had "taken it to another level," which Arrington has proved to be true. Arrington looks like lightning hitting a hole and doesn't seem to ever go do on the first hit, which is extremely bad news for a UCLA defense that didn't tackle very well last week. 

Cal also has one of the most consistent and productive receivers in the Pac-10 in senior Geoff McArthur (6-1, 200). 

Perhaps the only chink in the armor here is that Cal lost the services of senior wide receiver Chase Lyman, who is out for the season due to knee surgery.  Lyman was Cal's leading receiver this season, tied with McArthur for the most receptions at 14, but also averaging 103 yards per game. He was, so far this season, their big-play man., Against Oregon State two weeks ago, Lyman had three touchdown catches in the first quarter.

How good Rodgers is, though, can probably mask the loss of Lyman easily.  Rodgers completed his first 23 passes against USC last week, tying the NCAA record. Against Oregon State he was 12 of 16.  He's completing an astounding 78% of his passes. This is a guy who is highly accurate and efficient in his throws, is very intelligent, makes great decisions and knows Tedford's offense thoroughly.  He's so good there's very little you can do to combat him from being effective.

The unit that has really given Cal's offense that extra boost is its offensive line. It was a bit of a question mark going into the season, with four projected starters having to sit out spring ball.  But the line has regained its health and has really stepped up, providing great holes for Arrington to run through and enough time for Rodgers to throw. Junior tackle Ryan O'Callaghan (6-7, 340) is a standout.

Cal also has some good skill players in its two deep. Freshman running back Marshawn Lynch (5-11, 200) has been a threat when he's given Arrington a breather. Senior tight end Garrett Cross (6-5, 230) hasn't gotten a great deal of attention, but he's been very effective for the Bears, catching 13 balls so far this season, and many of them being very critical catches.  Senior receiver Burl Toler (6-2, 190) has also been a solid performer for them.

UCLA's defense would be overwhelmed if it had all of its starters available and healthy, but it doesn't. 

Starting defensive end Justin Hickman is out, getting knee surgery today. Defensive tackle C.J. Niusulu started last week, but is still not 100% from the knee surgery he underwent a few weeks ago.  Defensive end Kyle Morgan, who hasn't done much to notice so far this season, is still not 100% from his knee surgery.  And now, true freshman Brigham Harwell will start this week, with Harwell saying that he's getting close to 100% after his knee surgery.  Yes, to play on UCLA's defensive line, you have to have knee surgery.

Then, at middle linebacker, Justin London will start, but he's not 100% as a result of a lingering high-ankle sprain.

UCLA linebacker Spencer Havner.

Again, a huge responsibility will fall onto the shoulders of linebacker Spencer Havner. Havner, though, is at least excited that he's returning primarily to the position he prefers, the weak inside linebacker position, this week. For the last couple of weeks he had been moved to the outside linebacker position due to lack of bodies at linebacker.  Havner leads the nation in tackles, and very well could finish the season leading the nation in tackles. It's not only a testament to how good Havner is, and how he's kept the UCLA defense from falling completely apart this season, but also that there just aren't that many others on this defense who can make tackles.

UCLA's defensive backs will get the test of their career.  As a defensive back, it's easier to defend against really good receivers than it is a really good quarterback. If you're defending a really good receiver, he's nothing if the quarterback can't get him the ball, and a really good quarterback can get the ball to even a mediocre receiver.  Cornerbacks Matt Clark and Marcus Cassel have more of less had good years, with Clark playing very well, and Cassel showing some vulnerability recently. Put it this way:  If Cal receivers can get open for deep balls like Arizona's did last week, you can be certain that Rodgers isn't going to miss them like Kris Heavner did. 

UCLA's defense has been the epitome of bend-and-not-break. It has allowed opponents to run for acres, but hasn't allowed them to score that much, particularly when they've gotten to the redzone. You can expect UCLA to make the bend-and-not-break philosophy its mantra this week, trying to make Cal drive the field for its scores rather than getting them in quick hitters.  If UCLA's defense could accomplish that against Cal, it would be considered a huge win. And even accomplishing it, UCLA could still give up 40+ points. 

Advantage: Obviously Cal.  Even the UCLA coaches conceded that you can't hope to stop Cal's offense, but possibly just slow them down.  It's, though, the worst possible matchup for UCLA's defense. UCLA's defense is among the worst against the run in the country, going against one of the best rushing offenses in the country..  Take away Rodgers' ability to beat you through the air, that alone is enough for Cal to cut through UCLA's defense.  But you can't take away Rodgers' ability to beat you through the air. In fact, you probably have the most efficient quarterback in the country at beating you through the air.  This is a matter of hoping and praying that 1) Cal's offense just has a bad day, is off in its timing, etc., 2) Somehow some individual matchups throw off Cal's advantage, 3) Cal turns the ball over a dozen times, or 4) there is divine intervention.

Prediction:  Given the strengths and weaknesses of UCLA's team, this Cal team truly is the worst possible matchup. Every weakness UCLA has matches up against Cal's strengths.   The one aspect of the matchup where UCLA could have an advantage is in its passing game, against Cal's passing defense.  While UCLA tries to run and might have moderate effectiveness in doing so, the success of UCLA's offense is going to depend on Olson and company's ability to move the ball through the air.  Again, the fact that Craig Bragg is not playing in this game is a huge factor.

But actually, it might only be a factor between UCLA losing by one less touchdown or so.  There isn't any indication here that UCLA's defense will be able to stop Cal's offense. Even if Cal doesn't accomplish any big passing plays, you can expect them to do it on the run, and for Arrington to break a couple himself.  Cal probably wouldn't even have to go to the air to put up 40 on UCLA, and it's frightening to think they have the possibly the best and most efficient quarterback in the country to do it.

Coming off the disappointing loss to USC last week could be a factor. Cal out-played USC, at the Coliseum, and now returning home they could be particularly angry and want retribution. They are, though, a bit nicked up after playing USC. But you'd have to think they are going to be highly motivated to prove that they are in fact the best team in the conference after the USC game.

You can probably expect UCLA's offense to be able to move the ball relatively well. The problem will be getting the ball away from Cal's offense and having enough opportunities to do it. 

No UCLA fan will concede a loss. Every UCLA fan will go into this game thinking that, if just a few things break right, UCLA could win. Of course. But when making predictions, we have to at least partially have a foot in reality.

Cal 45
UCLA 24


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