Preview of the California Game

#9-ranked Cal comes to the Rose Bowl after a devastating loss -- kind of like UCLA. The Bears' offense is one of the best in the country, and presents the biggest challenge of the season for UCLA's D. Can the Bruins pull off the upset?

NOTEWORTHY FACTORS

-- The California Bears come to the Rose Bowl to face UCLA Saturday at 12:30.  The game will be televised by ABC with Dan Fouts, Tim Brant and Todd Harris calling the action.

-- UCLA is 4-2 overall and undefeated in the Pac-10 with a 3-0 conference record.

-- Cal is 5-1 and 2-1. The Bears are currently ranked #9 in the ESPN/USA Today Coaches poll and #10 in the AP poll.

-- Cal defeated then-#15 Tennessee, Colorado State, Louisiana Tech, Arizona, and Oregon, to then lose to Oregon State last week, in Berkeley, 31-24.

-- The series between the two schools dates back to 1933, with UCLA holding a 48-28-1 edge. 

-- UCLA and Cal have split the last six meetings between the schools, with the home team winning in every game. UCLA has won the last three meetings at the Rose Bowl.

-- Last season, Cal beat UCLA, 38-24.  In that game, quarterback Patrick Cowan threw for a career-best 329 yards, and Chris Markey ran for 136 yards.   UCLA amassed 516 yards of total offense in what was UCLA's best offensive display of the 2006 season.

-- In the last match-up in the Rose Bowl in 2005, UCLA rallied in the fourth quarter to pull off an upset of #10-ranked Cal, 47-40.  Tailback Maurice Jones-Drew tied his own school record with five touchdowns, with the last two coming in the final 1:35. 

-- Last week, Cal suffered easily one of its most disappointing defeats in its football history. Ranked #2 in the country, Cal was looking at jumping over #1-ranked LSU, since the Tigers had lost earlier that day. It would have been the first time Cal had been ranked #1 in 56 years. But Oregon State stood in the way.  Cal trailed 31-28, with 1:27 left in the game, and quarterback Kevin Riley, in his first career start, drove the Bears to the OSU 12-yard line.  With 14 seconds remaining, and no timeouts, Cal decided to attempt a pass play, to see if it could score a game-winning touchdown and not have to go into overtime with a field goal. Riley couldn't find a receiver and should have merely thrown the ball into the back of the endzone to stop the clock and call on the field goal kicking team. But Riley, in a moment he and just about every Cal fan alive would like to have back, scrambled and was tackled, with the time running out before they could get off another play. 

-- Being ranked #2 last week was Cal's highest ranking since 1951.

-- Cal has now been ranked in the AP poll for 25 straight weeks and 51 of the last 55 weeks of rankings.

-- This is the first ranked team UCLA has faced all season.  It's only the third team that's had a winning record coming into the game against UCLA (BYU was 1-0 and Washington was 2-1). 

-- It's also just the third ranked team UCLA has faced in its last 13 games. 

-- Cal is coached by Jeff Tedford, who is in his sixth year in Berkeley, with an overall record of 48-21, and 29-15 in the Pac-10. Tedford, in his first season at Cal in 2002, orchestrated one of the biggest turnarounds recently in college football, going 7-5 after the Bears won just one game in 2001.  He then went 8-6, 10-2, 8-4, and 10-2 in the four subsequent seasons.  In the six years before Tedford arrived, the Bears had just 12 victories total. His six-year stretch is the most successful for Cal in over 50 years.   The Bears have been ranked in the top ten in each of the last four seasons under Tedford, and gone to four straight bowl games, winning three of those to make Tedford the first Cal coach with three bowl victories.  Previous to this run at Cal, Tedford had been the offensive coordinator at Oregon, where had earned an excellent reputation as a great offensive mind and quarterback guru.

-- Tedford has been consistently the highest-paid employee in the UC system.  His new salary calls for him to make approximately $1.8 million per year, but there is a plethora of incentives that could easily push that to close to $2 million this year.  Also, there are bonuses in his contract that will play him millions more for merely staying at Cal for the duration of his contrac, which runs through the 2013 season. If he fulfills the contract, and reaches a good amount of the contract's incentives, by 2013, Tedford could make over $4 million per year.  It is believed that a good portion of his salary is provided by Nike, which is the school's athletic gear sponsor.

-- Since Tedford has been at Cal, the Bears have had 22 straight games that have drawn over 50,000 fans, which is every home game in the last four years.  Its game against Oregon State last weekend was the 12th time it's drawn over 60,000 for a home game under Tedford. Cal had only drawn 60,000 for a game nine times in the 12 years before Tedford arrived in Berkeley.

-- Cal established a record for average attendance in 2006, averaging 64,318.

-- It also has established a new season ticket sales record this season - 41,336.

-- The year before Tedford arrived, when Cal went 1-10, it was the worst year for football in the last 104 years for the Bears.

-- The current six-year streak for Cal is considered among the best few eras of Cal football.  Tedford's five straight winning seasons is the first time that's happened in 50 years, dating back to the last great era of Cal football, from 1947 to 1952 when the famous Pappy Waldorf reeled off six straight winning seasons and went to three Rose Bowls (losing all three, by the way).

-- Cal hasn't won a conference title since 1975.

-- UCLA, at home under Karl Dorrell, is 22-6, which ranks the program 20th for home records in college football in four-plus years.

-- The weather is calling for low 70s on Saturday at the Rose Bowl, with clear skies.

UCLA OFFENSE V. CAL DEFENSE

Cal's defense isn't stellar, but it's not horrible either. 

They have yet to really shut down anyone. They're more of a defense that has found its success by limiting opposing offenses just enough to allow its own offense to outscore the opponent.

Luckily the Cal offense has obliged.

Until last week, that is, against Oregon State.

It was a week when Cal couldn't rely on its offense to out-score their opponent, with its starting quarterback out, and needed more from its defense.  And the defense didn't deliver. While OSU didn't run over Cal by any means they did score 31 points and gain 339 total yards. 

And that was in Berkeley - against the same offense that, in Corvallis, UCLA's defense pretty much shut down.

The main issue for Cal defensively has been trying to replace three all-conference defensive players and seven starters total from last season. They've had just a so-so result in doing it.

They've really felt it on the defensive line, where they had to replace three starters, including one of the best defensive tackles in the country from last season, Brandon Mebane.

Matt Malele (SR, 6-1, 312) is the only returning starter, and he hasn't stood out much so far this season.  Mika Kane (JR, 6-3, 305) stepped into the vacant DT spot and has played well, and had perhaps Cal's best defensive moment of the season when he batted away a Dennis Dixon pass to preserve Cal's win over Oregon earlier in the season.  Cal has used its back-ups pretty extensively, gettting some solid minutes from both Cody Jones (SO, 6-5, 270) and Derrick Hill (FR, 6-3, 289).  Hill, if you remember, was a big recruit and they expect him to be the next big thing at DT.

The two defensive ends are first-year starters and having their ups and downs.  Tad Smith (SO, 6-6, 250) and Tyson Alualu (SO, 6-4, 288) had some playing experience coming in, but are now making the jump to starters, and sometimes making mistakes.  There has been a knock that opposing running backs have had success turning the corner on Cal's defensive line.  Also getting time there has been true freshman Cameron Jordan (6-4, 260). Out for the week with an sprained foot is Rulon Davis (JR, 6-5, 275), a good athlete Cal has been waiting to step up.  They haven't, as a group, gotten a lot of pressure on opposing quarterbacks and many Cal watchers point to that as one of the biggest reasons the Cal defense hasn't been dominant.

Linebacker Zack Follett.


Cal's D is designed, though, for its linebackers to make plays and get plenty of tackles, and that's what's been happening this season. It was expected that Zack Follett (JR, 6-2, 232), after a couple of seasons of being a super reserve, would blossom into a star, but so far he's had to sit out 2 ½ games with a neck stinger, and he could sit out at least some of the UCLA game.  At the strongside spot, Follett has a rep for being a big hitter and causing a good share of fumbles.  The Bears have gotten some good help from Justin Moye (SR, 6-1, 228) who stepped in admirably for Follett while he's been hurt. With Follett on the mend for a good portion of the season so far, the guy who has stepped into the void has been weakside linebacker Anthony Felder (JR, 6-4, 231). Felder leads the Pac-10 in tackles, with 62 total, averaging 10.3 per game.  He was all over the field against Oregon State last week, and generally has been very disruptive to opposing offenses, causing fumbles and hurrying quarterbacks on blitzes.   He was a freshman All-American two years ago but has been battling injuries since, until this season when he's been injury-free.  The other starter is middle linebacker Worrell Williams (JR, 6-2, 243), who moved from the weakside spot a year ago, and has had a good year thus far, fourth in the league in tackles (59) and leading the team in tackles for loss (4.5).  Williams has done well to make up for the loss of all-conference MLB Desmond Bishop a year ago. 

It was thought the defensive secondary would be a bit shaky coming into the season, and it's lived up to that.  It leaves a considerable hole in your defensive backfield when you lose a player of the caliber of Daymeion Hughes, an All-American at cornerback.  Cal had a pretty stiff competition to replace him and the more experienced Brandon Hampton (SR, 5-10, 193) won the spot over probably the more talented but inexperienced Darian Hagan (FR, 6-1, 180), and Hampton has done fairly well, grabbing a couple of opportunistic and key interceptions this season.  On the other side is returning starter Syd'Quan Thompson (SO, 5-11, 181), who has been good in run support, but somewhat suspect in coverage.  Bernard Hicks (JR, 6-1, 202) is the returning starter at rover, with the new starter at free safety being Thomas DeCoud (SR, 6-3, 204) who has made the most of his opportunity.  Back-up rover Marcus Ezeff (SO, 6-0, 194) is expected to return to action this week after suffering a strained quad, and should see some action.

Cal's passing defense hasn't been fantastic, but it still isn't as bad as you might think from just looking at stats. The Bears have had to face quite a few pass-oriented teams, and/or teams that have been trailing and passing the ball to try to come back, so the stats might be a little skewed. 

UCLA's offense will have to bring a balanced attack to the Rose Bowl Saturday to be successful against Cal's defense.  Patrick Cowan, recovering from a sprained knee, practiced this week and looked only marginally limited. This being only his second week of practice since fall camp, he hasn't, surprisingly, looked too rusty either.  But you'd have to think that getting right back into it, after suffering the knee injury and a hamstring injury before that, and getting little practice, will have some impact on his effectiveness. 
Brandon Breazell.


It's key that Cowan can find some UCLA receivers open, and the only guy who has been consistent in doing that so far this season has been Brandon Breazell.  Senior Marcus Everett looks to be recovered from his injury and should possibly see more time Saturday, but overall the UCLA wide receivers, except for Breazell, have been vastly disappointing so far this season. Their inability to find some space has been one of the most least noticed - but prevalent - reasons UCLA's offense has struggled so far this year.

Advantage:  Cal.  It would have been a huge edge to Cal if Cowan weren't available, but, as stated above, even though he's going to play, you have to consider the two injuries and the rustiness that Cowan will have to overcome.  Cal's defense, while it isn't stellar, it isn't bad, by any means. They've gotten a rep as being mediocre because, first, they're not a clamp-down, big-play defense that pressures the quarterback and, two, they've generally played against some pretty good offensive teams. Cal does, however, have some pretty good depth, and some decent talent, but just lacks experience overall on its defensive unit.

UCLA will have to run the ball (but, well, we said that two weeks ago in our preview of the Notre Dame game, so take this with a grain of salt).  It could be the biggest indicator of the game, whether UCLA can begin picking up decent yards on the ground in the second half. Cal's rushing defense is, again, not that bad, and with Cowan probably not being 100%, it's critical that UCLA can run the ball for it to win. It was huge that UCLA had two weeks off to get its running backs healthy - or healthier.  Kahlil Bell is thought to be recovered from his shoulder injury, but Chris Markey is still questionable with turf toe.  It is significant that UCLA will now have its best offensive lineman, Shannon Tevaga, completely recovered.

It will be interesting to see if UCLA goes to the air consistently.  It did so against Notre Dame early on with Ben Olson before he was hurt (and did, also, inexplicably, with McLeod Bethel-Thompson), and you'd have to think it would continue with that same, balanced approach in this game against Cal, which doesn't have a defense that is particularly better at stopping the run or the pass.

But you probably have to give the nod to Cal's linebackers, who are among the best linebacking units in the conference, over UCLA's offense, that still hasn't proven it can be effective, especially with all the injuries.
 

CAL OFFENSE V. UCLA DEFENSE

The big question is whether quarterback Nate Longshore (JR, 6-5, 233) will play.  Longshore's sprained ankle kept him out of the game against Oregon State last week, which was a huge loss, and his status for this Saturday is still unknown. 

Most sources close to the situation believe Longshore will play.

In fact, it's been funny this week, with the two situations at quarterback for UCLA and Cal. Both Cal's Jeff Tedford and UCLA's Karl Dorrell are trying to almost one-up each other in keeping mum about their quarterbacks' status.

If Longshore does play, and he's not hindered by the ankle much, it's a pretty significant boost for Cal.  He brings the experience with Cal's offense, and allows Tedford, the offensive coordinator, to use quite a bit more of his playbook.

It's not, though, as if Longshore's stand-in, Kevin Riley (R-FR, 6-3, 215), wasn't good last week.  He threw for 294 yards on 20-of-34 passing and two touchdowns in his first college start.  That would be a hugely successful day for any UCLA quarterback.  But he'll be remembered for the brain freeze he had on the last play of the game last week.  If there's a kid ever who is looking for redemption, it's Riley. 

Riley, too, is considered Cal's quarterback of the future, with far more mobility than Lonshore.  In fact, there has been some talk around the UCLA program that Riley could be more difficult to prepare for because of his ability to run.

With Longshore or Riley, Cal's offense is the most potent one UCLA has faced all season. It's averaging 37 points and 434 yards per game, and it has a vast array of weapons for either Longshore or Riley to choose from.

And that's what the Cal quarterback does. In Tedford's offense, the quarterback's role is to get the ball into his playmakers' hands and not make mistakes.  He's not necessarily asked to make big plays himself to move the ball down the field, but be efficient in allowing his skill position guys to do it.

And Cal might have the best set of skill position guys in the country.  While they might have been over-rated at #2 in the nation, the one aspect of the team that lived up to that billing is Cal's skill guys.

The headliner is DeSean Jackson (JR, 6-0, 172), who, through his flashy big plays and blazing speed, gets plenty of national hype, including some Heisman Trophy mentions.  Jackson is one of the most elusive receivers in the nation, and can change the course of a game with one punt return (he's returned six for touchdowns in his career).  Cal has many plays designed to get Jackson the ball in space and let him create. If Cal's offense can get him turned up field he's just too fast for anyone to catch.

The irony in the Jackson Hype, though, is that Cal's other receiver, Lavell Hawkins (SR, 5-11, 185) is consistently the more productive player, and every bit as much of a threat as Jackson. In fact, the fact that Hawkins is there is probably what has made Jackson so dangerous, with opposing defenses not able to bracket Jackson with Hawkins out in the pattern, too.  Hawkins is quick and has good hands, and he leads the team in receptions (36), receiving yards (534) and yards per catch (14.9).   Hawkins had a Heisman-like effort himself last week against Oregon State, with nine catches for 192 yards and two touchdowns. 

And Hawkins, officially, isn't even the starter. That title goes to Robert Jordan (SR, 5-11, 171), who seemingly has been at Cal for a decade.  Jordan gives Cal a devastating trio at receiver; he's another quick, game-breaking type of player that's averaging about 4 catches per game himself.  Jordan has caught a pass in 36 consecutive games for Cal, which ties him for the school record.  Jordan does have a shoulder sprain, which, hopefully for UCLA, could slow him down.

Cal also uses its tight end well, with the position having 16 catches so far this season. Cameron Morrah (SO, 6-4, 243) is the second-stringer, but he's stepped up this season to prove himself as a viable weapon. Morrah also, though, has a sprained shoulder and it's uncertain how much he'll play in this game.  The starter is Craig Stevens (SR, 6-5, 258), who is very capable himself.

Sheesh. That's a lot of people to throw to, if you're the Cal quarterback. 

Cal's Justin Forsett.


And then, on top of that, Cal has more weapons running the ball, averaging 196 yards per game on the ground.  The primary ground gainer is Justin Forsett (SR, 5-8, 196), who is one of the most productive running backs in the nation, averaging 122 yards per game (10th in the country and #1 in the Pac-10).  There was a question after last season, when Cal lost Marshawn Lynch to the pros, whether the smallish Forsett would be able to carry the bigger load, and he's answered those questions clearly.  Forsett is really coming into his own, too; last week, against a very stingy running defense in OSU, he had 150 yards, and he's seemingly getting stronger as the season progresses.

Behind Forsett is James Montgomery (R-FR, 5-10, 205) and Jahvid Best (FR, 5-10, 185), who don't get many carries, maybe 5-8 between them for an entire game.  They're both capable and have looked good, but Cal rides Forsett.

The thing about the Cal offense is how it utilizes its weapons.  Its receivers run the ball on reverses and end-arounds, and the receivers catch the ball quite often out of the backfield, once again, to try to get the Bears' playmakers into open space.  They'll definitely give Jackson the ball on an end-around  at least once in every game.

The offense's success, though, has been due a great deal to a very good offensive line.  The Bears had to replace the two starters on the left side from a year ago, and they've done so without missing a beat. Mike Gibson (SR, 6-5, 302) switched from right to left tackle, to be the quarterback's blindside protector, and experienced OL Brian De LaPuente (SR, 6-4, 302) stepped into the left guard spot.  The line is anchored by one of the best centers in the league in Alex Mack (JR, 6-5, 300), who will probably be first-team all-Pac-10.  On the right side is Norris Malele (JR, 6-3, 303), a returning starter at guard, and Mike Tepper (JR, 6-7, 308) who has done well as a first-year starter.

Remarkably, this OL has allowed just 7 sacks in six games, which leads the Pac-10.  It was the biggest reason that Riley, in his first career start, did so well against OSU last week - having a good amount of time to throw against OSU's big pass rush.

UCLA's pass rush is a hot-and-cold proposition. It has 19 sacks on the season, which gets it ranked #3 in the conference, but it doesn't bring consistent pressure to the quarterback.  One great battle in this one will be UCLA's defensive end Bruce Davis against Cal's Gibson. Davis has made some big plays with some timely sacks, but has disappeared for long stretches of games, especially when going up against particularly good offensive tackles.

UCLA's linebackers might not be completely at full strength for Saturday. Reggie Carter, the weakside linebacker, who has been having a good season, had arthroscopic surgery on his knee last week. Tuesday, when he got the sutures out, he wanted to practice, but he waited until Wednesday and only saw light action. It's thought he probably won't be 100% for Saturday.  Josh Edwards, a former walk-on, will get the reps in his place. Aaron Whittington, who was the starter at the strongside linebacker spot, hasn't regained the starting job since sitting out early this season with an injury. His replacement, Kyle Bosworth, has been doing okay, but it still, with the injury to Carter, combines for some weakness at linebacker.

Add that to the fact that star defensive tackle Brigham Harwell is still out with his knee injury, and starting defensive end Nikola Dragovic is out with a hip injury, and UCLA is looking a bit dinged up, even after the bye week, in its front seven.

UCLA's Christian Taylor.
It puts a heavy load on veteran middle linebacker Christian Taylor, who has quietly had a good season for the Bruins.

Advantage: Cal.  It's easily the marquee match-up in this game - Cal's glamorous offense against UCLA's good, blue-collar defense.

UCLA's defense, however, hasn't faced an offense as good and as explosive as Cal's yet this season. The Bruins, in fact, had their defensive turn-around against some pretty weak offensive teams in its last three games - Washington, Oregon State and Notre Dame. The only offense that compares to Cal's on UCLA's schedule so far has been BYU's, and the Cougars gained 435 yards against the Bruins, without near the explosive athletes that Cal has. 

In other words, there is a concern here that how good the UCLA defense has looked in the past three games is a bit of fool's gold.  The three offenses they've faced had very ineffective quarterbacks - Washington's Jake Locker, Oregon State's Sean Canfield and Notre Dame's Jimmy Clausen.  This week, against Cal, whether it's Longshore or Riley running Cal's offense, UCLA will see a step up in production from the opposing quarterback position.

How to defend Cal, too, is a dilemma. If you try to put pressure on the quarterback, the Bears have good pass protection, and then you're putting so much pressure on your defensive secondary to defend Cal's dangerous receivers.  If you don't put pressure on the quarterback, Cal, with such a good, efficient passing game, will sit back and pick you apart all day. Then there's the Cal rushing game, which, single-handedly can win the game for them. If you try to cheat up someone to help against the run, they'll then exploit you again through the air.

It's a huge test for the UCLA defense. They probably won't allow Cal's offense to walk over them, but the Bears just have too much to keep them contained for 60 minutes.

On special teams, UCLA's main focus is to keep the ball away from Jackson on punt returns. It will be a big test for Aaron Perez, UCLA's punter, to see if he can direct his punts away from the dangerous Jackson. Many punters have tried and many have failed.  And they haven't failed by punting the ball to Jackson but mostly by shanking their attempts at directional punts and giving Cal good field position.  Cal's punter, Andrew Larson, is having an excellent season, and is coming off a Cal single-game record for punting, averaging 55.8 yards per punt last week against Oregon State.  He's also very good at pooch punting.  In a strange development, Cal's kicker, Tom Schneider, who is one of the best field goal kickers in Cal history, tore a muscle in his leg when warming up for the season opener against Tennessee and won't be able to play this season. His replacement, Jordan Kay (JR, 5-10, 197) has been serviceable, making 4 of 9, but being just 2 of 4 from within 40 yards. 

Prediction

A big factor here is the mental state of both teams.  Is Cal going to be a group of angry Bears, coming off one of its most devastating losses in its history?  Is UCLA pretty much feeling the same way, coming off the embarrassing loss to Notre Dame?  It's almost always impossible to predict the mental state of teams, but what tends to predict whether a team is mentally focused and playing hard is what they're playing for.  Cal is ranked #9 in the country and still playing for a BCS bowl berth.  UCLA, on the other hand, is trying to motivate itself by its 3-0 record in the Pac-10 and staying viable for a Pac-10 championship.

Of course, the biggest indicator in determining the outcome of a game is turnovers.  Cal, last week, uncharacteristically, coughed up the ball against Oregon State and those turnovers were key in the loss.  Prior to that, Cal was one of the best in the nation at not giving up the ball, committing only four turnovers in its first five games.  Cal is still the best in the Pac-10 in turnover margin, while UCLA is one of the worst. Cal, for the season, has scored 49 points off opponents' turnovers, and has given up just 19 points as a result of their own.

While you'd think that the #9 team in the country should trounce a team that lost to Notre Dame, it really is quite a bit closer than that. UCLA's defense won't allow Cal to walk all over it, keeping the Bruins in the game. Probably the determining factor here will be whether UCLA's offense can put up some points.  Cal gives up an average of 25 points per game, with very little of that coming from turnovers, so its defense can be porous.  But can UCLA's struggling offense exploit that enough to out-score Cal's offense?

Probably not. But again, it should be a lot closer than you might expect.  And don't be surprised if the Bruins pull off the upset.

Cal 31
UCLA  24


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