California Preview

When Cal comes to the Rose Bowl Saturday, it will only be the second time since 1952 that the Bruins and Bears played each other when they were both nationally ranked. Both teams, though, are still fairly unproven. Will either one expose the other as a pretender?

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS:

-- The California Bears come to the Rose Bowl Saturday for a 4:30 kick-off, with the game being televised by TBS to a national audience.

-- Cal comes into the contest 5-0 and ranked No. 9 by the USA Today/Coaches and No. 10 by AP. 

-- UCLA is 4-0 and ranked No. 16 by USA Today/Coaches and No. 20 by AP.

-- It's the first time UCLA and Cal have both been ranked when they've faced each other since 1991. The last time before that was 1952, when UCLA was coached by Red Sanders and Cal by Pappy Waldorf.

-- The UCLA/Cal series goes back to 1933, with UCLA holding a 47-27-1 edge.  The Bruins have won the last two games played in the Rose Bowl and have split the last eight meetings. 

-- Cal won last year's match-up, 45-28.  Two years ago, UCLA beat Cal at the Rose Bowl in overtime, 23-20.

-- Cal has beaten Division 1-AA Sacramento State (41-3); Washington in Seattle (56-17); Illinois (35-20); New Mexico State (41-13) and Arizona (28-0). 

-- Cal's opponents this season are a combined 5-19 on the season.

-- Cal has started off a season 5-0 for the first time since 1996. If they beat UCLA and go 6-0, it will be the best start for the Bears since 1950 when they started the season 9-0 (again, under Pappy Waldorf).

-- Cal's current 12-game regular-season win streak trails only USC (26) and Virginia Tech (13) in the nation.

-- Cal's current streak of eight straight Pac-10 wins is the longest in its history.

-- Cal is coached by Jeff Tedford, who is in his fourth season at Berkeley.  Tedford is considered one of the best, young coaches in the game, posting a very impressive 30-13 record since being at Cal. The year before Tedford arrived, the Bears went 1-10 and the program was in disarray. Tedford turned the program around immediately, posting a 7-5 record in his first season, then a 8-6 mark and the school's first bowl win in 10 years in 2003. Last season, he guided Cal to a 10-2 season, earning a berth in the Holiday Bowl and a No. 9 final national ranking.  Tedford came to Cal from Oregon, where he was the Ducks' innovative offensive coordinator and quarterbacks coach.

-- Karl Dorrell is in his third year at UCLA, with an overall record of 16-13. He has guided UCLA to its first national ranking in nearly three years this season. In fact, the Bruins are ranked in the top 25 for three straight weeks for the first time since late in the 2001 season.  Dorrell is 1-1 against Cal and Tedford.

-- Cal has had such success so far this season with a team that lost many players from its 10-2 season a year ago.  Cal entered the season with the fewest returning starters in the Pac-10, with just three on defense.

-- The match-up between UCLA and Cal is a showdown of sorts, between two UC schools nationally ranked but both a bit unproven so far and trying to earn respect.

-- Former UCLA standout Carnell Lake (1985-88) will serve as the honorary team captain.  Lake was an All-American linebacker in 1988, and then played in the NFL, where he earned All-Pro distinction. Lake is in the UCLA Hall of Fame, and still holds the school record for career tackles for loss (45.5).

CALIFORNIA'S OFFENSE V. UCLA'S DEFENSE

Let's throw some stats at you first:

Cal is gaining 259 yards per game on the ground, which gets them ranked 7th in the nation.  UCLA is allowing 179 yards per game rushing and is 91st in the country in rushing defense.

The Bears are ranked 19th nationally in total offense, averaging 458 yards per game. UCLA is 55th in the country in total defense, allowing an average of 364 yards per game.

Oy.

Cal's Jeff Tedford.

Yeah, those numbers might be a little tweaked since UCLA did face Rice, which only runs the ball, and Cal hasn't faced an opponent with any kind of defense.  But still, it's cause for worry as a Bruin fan.

For Cal, it all starts with their offensive line. They're easily the cog in the wheel that's driving Cal's offensive success so far this season, and is probably the most talented unit on the team.  "The Berkeley Wall" is huge, averaging 320 pounds per man.  It features four returning starters and two senior, first-team All-Pac-10 selections in center Marvin Philip (6-2, 305), who also received many All-American honors a year ago, and right tackle Ryan O'Callaghan (6-7, 360). 

You might marvel how the Trench Gods would hit UCLA with a major blow - losing starting defensive end Nikola Dragovic for the season last week -- after already having lost starting defensive tackle Kevin Brown, before facing Cal's offensive line. But the Trench Gods move in mysterious ways, striking down a returning starter to Cal's OL, junior tackle Andrew Cameron, with a torn ACL himself.  His replacement is untested junior Scott Smith (6-4, 282) who gives up 20 pounds to Cameron. 

UCLA sophomore defensive tackle Brigham Harwell has continued to improve as he's gotten healthier through the first four games.

Still, though, Cal's offensive line against UCLA's defensive front is the biggest mismatch of the game. It pits an experienced, talented, all-conference-earning offensive line, that is huge, by the way, against a young, inexperienced, undersized and increasingly thin UCLA defensive line.

You might want to turn away and not watch the wily veteran Philip go up against UCLA's undersized true freshman nose tackle Chase Moline.  You might as well stay turned away when O'Callaghan matches up against sophomore defensive end William Snead, who will be stepping into start for Dragovic.

UCLA's Brigham Harwell.

If Cal doesn't try to run the ball over UCLA's defense all day it'd be the most shocking thing of the 21st century.  Not only does Cal have a great OL, but some exceptional ball carriers.  Sophomore Marshawn Lynch (5-11, 215) is scary, and hopefully is still hampered a bit by the broken finger that kept him out of a couple of games.  Lynch is fast and strong and looks like he's running downhill.  While Lynch was nursing the finger, sophomore Justin Forsett (5-8, 180) stepped in and took over, averaging 117 yards per game.  Forsett is the smaller, shiftier change-up to Lynch. Last week, with both healthy, they combined for 181 yards.  And then, after Lynch and Forsett, you have junior Marcus O'Keith (6-1, 190), who might be starting for a few other Pac-10 programs, averaging over 11 yards per carry.

When Cal faced Washington a few weeks ago, it rushed for 286 yards total.  That's against a defense that last week UCLA could only gain 65 yards on the ground against. 

Oy.

And if you want to talk about running, Cal's new starting quarterback, junior college transfer Joe Ayoob (6-3, 220) also has to be noted. Probably Ayoob's best asset is his running ability, being an option quarterback in high school.  He is big, quick and pretty shifty, which isn't a good thing since UCLA has struggled so far this season with mobile quarterbacks. 

Ayoob got the starting job when redshirt freshman Nate Longshore broke his ankle in the season opener against Sacramento State. Ayoob stepped in and missed his first 10 passes and was immediately yanked for a back-up.  The word on Ayoob heading into the fall was that, coming from the JC, he hadn't mastered Tedford's offense and it was apparent in his first appearance. The Cal faithful were in a panic mode, especially when Ayoob came out the next week against Washington and started off the game shaky. He settled down, though, and finished the game 17 of 27 for 271 yards, and has settled into the position. Ayoob's ability to execute the position well enough has fueled Cal's 5-0 record, and he's improving and gaining confidence every week. He has yet to face a defense that pressures him and still has decision-making problems. When he knows where he's throwing, and the receiver's open, he's safe. Looking to a secondary receiver has been a challenge, and he appears to be quick to pull the ball down and run.

But for UCLA that could be a problem, as stated above.

Ayoob does have a very talented group of young receivers as targets for Ayoob.  Sophomore Robert Jordan (5-11, 160) is Cal's leading receiver, and most experienced returning receiver. He's a deep-ball threat, with a good ability to separate.  Probably the best freshman receiver in the conference so far this season has been former Long Beach Poly great, DeSean Jackson (6-0, 175), who has shown an ability to get open and catch the ball.  Jordan had 192 yards receiving against Washington and Jackson had 130 against New Mexico State. Another potential threat is former hyped high school recruit, sophomore Lavelle Hawkins (5-11, 175). 

Cal also utilizes its tight ends and running backs in its passing game. Senior fullback
Chris Manderino (6-1, 230) has run the ball 7 times so far this season, while catching six passes, and is a tough threat out of the backfield.  Cal will swing the ball to its tailbacks to get them open field and Forsett has proven very dangerous this way so far this season. Sophomore tight end Craig Stevens (6-5, 255) will also get at least a few passes thrown to him in every game.

UCLA's experienced up-the-middle guys will have to really step up and shoulder the burden of stopping Cal's potent offense. Linebacker Justin London has been alternating between good games and bad so far this season, depending on his health, so that figures to make Cal a good performance for him. His running partner, Spencer Havner, will have to be far more focused and sharp then he was against Washington a week ago if UCLA has any chance to stop Cal from running over them.  Wesley Walker will probably see an increased amount of time at the outside linebacker position and if his play from last week is any indication, he should provide some help. 

Cal's passing offense hasn't been as potent as it was a year ago, and is averaging only about 200 yards per game, but it's still probably better than any passing offense UCLA has seen yet this season.  Cal's speedy and quick wide receivers will be a challenge for UCLA's cornerbacks, and it's vital that at least Trey Brown, who has emerged as UCLA's best cover corner, lock down one side of the field at least.  Watch for a fun match-up of former Long Beach Poly teammates, with UCLA's corners Rodney Van and Byron Velega possibly going up against DeSean Jackson.

Advantage:  Cal.  Perhaps the biggest advantage either team has in this game is Cal's running game against UCLA's rushing defense. It could very well be the difference-maker in the contest.  With Ayoob having the potential to be shaky, and UCLA's weakness against the run, it'd be bizarre if Cal didn't run the ball close to 50 times in this game. The Bears' offense dictates that it throws the ball, and it undoubtedly will, but Cal will definitely be dedicated to establishing the run against the Bruins, and it shouldn't be too tough of a challenge.  UCLA Defensive Coordinator Larry Kerr will again try to offset UCLA's vulnerability against the run by keeping Cal off-balance with Bruins blitzing from various spots.  Watch for UCLA to sneak more defenders into the box and run blitz quite a bit.  UCLA would like to do everything it can to contain Cal's running game, or at least limit it, and make Ayoob beat them. It could make UCLA, then, vulnerable to Cal's deep-threat wide receivers when the Bears go up top.  UCLA emphasized work on pursuit and tackling this week in practice, and they'll need it trying to contain Lynch, Forsett and Ayoob on the ground.

UCLA'S OFFENSE V. CALIFORNIA'S DEFENSE

One of the biggest surprises in the Pac-10 so far this season has been the performance of Cal's defense.

They lost eight starters from a year ago, and it was generally thought they'd struggle a bit.

But they are sixth in the NCAA in points allowed per game (10.6) and #20 in total yards (288), which is also #1 in the conference.

Now, you have to consider that Cal hasn't played anyone good yet, much less anyone with a good offense. They've faced two Pac-10 teams that have two of the three worst offenses in the conference, a bad WAC team, the worst offense in the Big Ten, and a 1-AA team.

Not exactly a stellar resume there.

Cal's Hughes and Mebane.

It will definitely be something new for Cal when they face UCLA's offense. They haven't really seen the likes of Maurice Drew and Marcedes Lewis, or even a decent quarterback.  While Cal has done really well against the run (92 yards per game), they haven't faced a team that runs the ball well.

Not that UCLA is necessarily that team. The Bruins have been struggling on the ground for the last couple of games, averaging just 74 yards per game rushing against Oklahoma and Washington. That's just not going to get it done. Drew has been locked up generally.

This week the UCLA coaches and players attributed UCLA's stagnant running game to merely a few blown assignments, by its offensive line and running backs.  They've talked pretty succinctly about getting those little issues fixed this week against Cal, and it's perhaps the biggest question about UCLA going into the Cal game: Will they be able to get their running game on track and be productive?

Is it really just a matter of a few blown assignments? Is it that UCLA just doesn't run-block very well? Could it be that UCLA telegraphs its runs by running predominantly out of the same formations?

There is a bit of validity to all of these questions.  UCLA has blown some assignments.  It probably doesn't run-block really well, given the youth on the line, starting three sophomores, Chris Joseph, Shannon Tevaga and Brian Abraham, and the fact that both its veteran linemen, Ed Blanton and Mike McCloskey, haven't had good performances in their first four games.  It also could be that UCLA's offensive approach is to execute so well that it doesn't matter if the defense knows what you're doing. A failure in the first two issues makes the third issue very salient.

UCLA's Chris Joseph.

The Bruins will also be going up against a pretty good defensive front line when it faces the Bears, led by junior defensive tackle Brandon Mebane (6-3, 290).  Mebane recorded a sack in each of Cal's first four games. He's a bullrush type that pushes back his blocker to disrupt the offensive backfield.  Also having a good year so far is new starter, sophomore defensive end Phillip Mbakogu (6-3, 265), who has been good at pursuing running backs on the edge. Cal observers say that the other defensive end, JC transfer Nu'u Tafisi (6-2, 260), is one to watch.

California had to replace all three of its starting linebacker this year, and was supposed to be Cal's weakest unit this season, but so far they've fared pretty well. Senior Ryan Foltz (6-2, 225) was mostly a back-up for his career, but steps into a starting role at outside linebacker, and is second on the team in tackles.  A JC transfer, Desmond Bishop (6-2, 245) has shown flashes at middle linebacker, with good pursuit to the ball, and actually leads the team in tackles with 38.

Cal, though, has probably one of the best defensive back four in the conference.  They're led by senior rover Donne McCleskey (5-10, 190), a ball hawk who will be on many All-Pac-10 teams at the end of the season. Senior free safety Harrison Smith (6-2, 200) doesn't get as much pub, but is still solid. They're flanked by two very good corners, juniors Daymeion Hughes (6-2, 185) and Tim Mixon (5-10, 190).  Hughes has the size and mobility of a potential NFL corner, and is tied for the lead in the Pac-10 for most interceptions with four.  He had two picks last week against Arizona.  At Washington, he returned an interception 41 yards for a score, and against New Mexico State, he returned one 59 yards.  Mixon has the speed, and boasts two interceptions this year so far himself.

UCLA's passing game will be challenged more against Cal than they were against both Oklahoma and Washington.  Washington, after scouting UCLA in the Oklahoma game, was dedicated to disrupting UCLA's short passing game, and was effective, at least for three quarters.  UCLA will have to keep Cal's secondary honest by going deep, with Brandon Breazell and Marcus Everett the likely deep-ball candidates.  Watch for quarterback Drew Olson to increasingly get confident in Everett, as the sophomore receive continues to prove himself as a clutch play-maker.

Whenever you look at these matchups, Marcedes Lewis always, on paper at least, looks to be a big factor.  While Cal is playing tight, trying to limit UCLA's quick-drop throwing attack to the edge, it gives Lewis room to roam over the middle. He's also possibly UCLA's best deep threat down the middle since he's just too big for defensive backs to body up on.

Olson will have to have a better game than he did against Washington if UCLA is to win. Cal isn't a great pass rushing team, lacking the real edge quickness while relying more on strength up the middle of its defensive line, so Olson should have a good amount of time to throw.

On special teams, it's a matchup of two of the best punt returners in the country in Drew and Mixon. Maurice Drew is #3 in the country, averaging 25 yards per return, and Tim Mixon is fourth, averaging 21 yards.  The biggest question mark on special teams for either team is UCLA's freshman punter, Aaron Perez.

Advantage:  UCLA. While Cal's defensive stats are impressive, and they've looked good defensively so far this season, you have to discount their performance because of who they've been up against.  Probably where the truth lies with Cal's defense is somewhere in the middle - not nearly as good as their numbers indicate, but not as bad as many anticipated going into the season having to replace eight starters.  UCLA is taking it as a personal challenge and calling-out to get its running game established, so watch for Offensive Coordinator Tom Cable to try to institute a few new wrinkles to the playbook to loosen up the line of scrimmage a bit.

Prediction:

It's a tough call, since it's really tough to get an accurate bead on either team. For being top 20 teams, both are still fairly unproven.  It might very well be that one team emerges here as clearly better and the other is exposed as a pretender.  It might be both are pretty good teams and worthy of their rankings. Or both could be pretenders. 

More than likely, neither are probably as good as their rankings, but have enough strengths to make this a very competitive game. Cal will ride the back of its offensive line, which you would have said would be the deciding factor here before it lost starting tackle Andrew Cameron last week.  It still will, though, more than likely dominate the line of scrimmage against UCLA's diminishing DL.  With Cal able to control the line of scrimmage when its offense is on the field, it will probably dominate the time of possession, and be able to keep UCLA's offense off the field.  If that's the case, UCLA's defense will wear down.

UCLA's offense, though, is too potent not to keep the Bruins in the game. And it very well could be that Cal's defense is a fraud and UCLA's offense puts them in their place. More than likely, UCLA's offense will be good enough to put a good amount of points on the board.

But it probably won't be enough to overcome Cal's offense dominate UCLA's defense.

Cal 34
UCLA 27


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