California Golden Bears preview

Many people who follow college football thought that the California Golden Bears would continue their stay toward the top of the Pac-10 standings and national rankings this season, even with the departure of their starting quarterback, leading rusher and much of their defense. But the Bears' three losses can probably be pinned more on the lack of veteran leadership and a killer instinct. Well, that, and the fact that their quarterback reads coverages like he's staring at the Matrix.

Most Bear supporters will point to their three losses and claim that each came by a touchdown or less, to teams with winning records and two of the three were on the road. However, the Bear's don't have a single win this season that they can truly be proud of. Sure, they came back in the final minutes against Washington State, but isn't that the same Washington State team that hasn't won a single Pac-10 game this season? On top of that, Cal's out of conference schedule was probably the easiest in the nation, rivaled only by Syracuse's men's basketball team. This team is also coming off a heartbreaking loss at Oregon. A win there would have given them some momentum heading into the game against the Trojans, and I understand the fact that they don't need anything else to get them motivated for USC, but some confidence that they can actually win a game against a good team wouldn't have hurt. What does hurt the Bears is that USC will be more psyched up for this game than any regular season game during the winning streak. With all the talk about the Bears playing the Trojans tough, this game is front and center on the Trojans' radar, and without the "sneak attack" factor that Cal had two years ago, it becomes talent against talent. And we've already seen that no team has the talent to match up with the Trojans.

Golden Bears on Offense

Quarterback – #18 Joe Ayoob

Heading into the season, Joe Ayoob was set as the second-string quarterback behind starter Nathan Longshore. An injury to Longshore during the season's opening game against Sacramento State and he has been everything you could expect from a backup quarterback. Ayoob was clearly nervous and unfamiliar with the Golden Bear offense in that opening game, missing on every one of his ten pass attempts before being replaced by Steve Levy, the former fullback turned third-string quarterback, not the ESPN anchor. On the plus side, Ayoob did rush for one yard on one carry. Ayoob was supposed to join this Cal team and provide a dynamic run/pass threat as a quarterback who could wreak havoc on opposing defenses. It's safe to say that hasn't exactly happened yet. From not beating out incoming freshman Longshore to the horrible debut to already three losses in what was supposed to be a championship year, Ayoob has been a disappointment across the board. Of course, one great game against the Trojans could change all that, but things don't look good in that regard for either Ayoob or the bears. Ayoob has yet to get through a game against a Pac-10 opponent without throwing an interception. In fact, he's thrown all ten of his picks against the Pac-10, and nine have come in the past five games. And as far as his running ability, it's been three games since he rushed for positive yards and his highest rushing output for the season was 27 yards on eight carries against Washington. Ayoob has the tools to be a good quarterback if he could just get a handle on reading defenses and calming himself down in the pocket. Occasionally it looks like he's dropping back in the pocket with his eyes closed, then opening them and throwing the ball at the first thing he sees. Pete Carroll has to be thrilled at the opportunity to game plan for Joe Ayoob simply because it seems this season that even the littlest defensive wrinkle looks like an advanced Organic Chemistry final to the Bear signal caller. On the season, Ayoob has thrown for 1,609 yards, 15 touchdowns against those ten interceptions and is completing under 50% of his passes. He has yet to throw for over 284 yards in a game, which he did against New Mexico State, and his quarterback rating is 75, due in large part to his last outing against Oregon. Against the Ducks, Ayoob completed ten of 26 passes for 88 yards and three interceptions. To make matters worse, the game ended when he missed a wide open receiver on fourth down in the first overtime. Ayoob is surrounded by some amazing talent at the skill positions, but it's safe to say that his play isn't exactly making Cal fans forget Aaron Rodgers.

Running Backs – #10 Marshawn Lynch, #20 Justin Forsett

Marshawn Lynch is the real deal in the Cal backfield. Lynch can do anything he wants with the ball in his hand. He has all the attributes you look for in a running back: great vision, good speed, strength and elusiveness. This season, Lynch has 842 rushing yards and six touchdowns despite missing more than two full games with an injury. He started the year off strong, going for 147 yards and a touchdown on 24 carries against Sacramento State, before breaking a finger against Washington and missing the next two games. Recently, however, Lynch has been fantastic. Against Washington State two weeks ago, Lynch ran for 160 yards and one touchdown on 25 carries and then bested that the following week against the Ducks, with 189 yards and two touchdowns. The best way for the Trojans to really shut down Marshawn Lynch is for the Trojan offense to jump out to a quick start and force Cal to put the ball in the air. If the Bears are able to keep it close as the game wars on, the Trojans don't have the same imposing defensive tackles that can contain the Cal running game for 60 minutes. Lynch is going to get those five and six yard runs, but it will be important for the Trojans to not let him break anything for long gains.

But even if the Trojans are somehow successful in shutting down Marshawn Lynch, they'll still have to deal with newcomer Justin Forsett. While the Trojans offer a true one-two punch with tailbacks of different styles, the Cal rushing attack is more of a one-one punch. Justin Forsett has come on in support of Lynch this season and leads the team with 899. With Lynch's absence against Illinois and New Mexico State, Forsett broke onto the scene with two monster games. He ran for 187 yards and two touchdowns on just 16 carries against the Illini, and 235 yards and a touchdown on 31 carries against New Mexico State. Since then, Forsett has alternated good and bad games, going for just 124 yards on 28 carries against Arizona, Oregon State and Oregon and carving up the Bruins and Cougars for 264 yards and a touchdown on just 22 carries. Sure, Reggie Bush leads the nation with 8.3 yards per carry, but Forsett is the only other player in the country averaging at least eight yards per rush. For the past three years, Cal is the only team in the nation that has never given up on the run against the Trojans. Head coach Jeff Tedford has shown that he has the confidence to line up and pound the ball straight into the heart of the cardinal and gold defense. On Saturday, with depletions all over the defensive side of the ball for the Trojans, Lynch and Forsett will be given ample opportunity to put up yards and keep the time of possession skewed toward the Bears.

Wide Receiver – #11 Robert Jordan, #1 DeSean Jackson, #7 Lavelle Hawkins

Robert Jordan and DeSean Jackson have put up very similar stats this season and are very talented wideouts. After missing the season opener, Jordan blew up against Washington, catching 11 passes for 192 yards and three touchdowns. Since then, he's been largely a non-factor and heading into the game against USC, that game against the Huskies basically represents half of his season totals. Jordan's 400 receiving yards lead the team, but he hasn't gone over 55 yards in any game since Washington. DeSean Jackson leads the team with 29 catches and his four touchdown grabs tie Jordan for the team lead. His 397 receiving yards rank just under Jordan's. Jackson has put together a few great games this season to go along with a few that he just didn't show up for. He seems to be a real emotional player, riding highs to take games over and disappearing when things don't seem to be going his way. Against New Mexico State, Jackson grabbed nine passes for 130 yards and against UCLA, he pulled down ten balls for 128 yards. Showing the type of player he can be, Jackson's first collegiate reception went for a touchdown against Sacramento State. But on the other hand, Jackson was completely shut out against Oregon, barely even getting a whiff of the football for more than 60 minutes. Jackson will be looking to have a big game against the Trojans, trying to prove that he made the right decision in choosing to attend Cal rather than USC. Lavelle Hawkins has missed three games this season, but he's performed about as expected from a number three receiver. He's third on the team with 14 catches for 159 yards and has shown that he can make plays when called upon, grabbing eight passes for 71 yards and a touchdown against Washington State.

The Cal receivers are very talented, combining good hands, speed and athleticism, but one thing they are short on is height. None of these three receivers stand over six feet and as we've seen throughout the season, it's been the taller receivers that give the Trojan secondary problems. These guys can run, but very few players can just use speed to get open against the Trojans. They are also young, and young players have been known to drop a few passes or lose their heads in big games. Not only will these three not be able to drop any passes if the Bears are to stay in the game, they'll need to make a few momentum changing grabs in order to prevent the Trojans from stacking guys at the line of scrimmage.

Tight End – #82 Craig Stevens, #4 David Gray

Craig Stevens is more of a blocking tight end for the Cal offense. He catches about one pass per game, picking up eight total for 99 yards and a touchdown. David Gray is a wide receiver playing tight end and is more of a threat to stretch the middle of the field. He has seven catches for 116 yards and two touchdowns on the year. They can play, but I wouldn't expect to hear their names called much on Saturday. Cal would probably prefer if they weren't called at all, because in all likelihood it would be for holding.

Offensive Line – LT #52 Scott Smith, LG #75 Erik Robertson, C #54 Marvin Philip, RG #65 Aaron Merz, RT #61 Ryan O'Callaghan

The play of the Cal offensive line has been one of the main reasons for the turnaround in the Golden Bear program. They returned four players from a line that paved the way for the nation's only 2,000 yard rusher last season, and are a huge reason that Cal ranks third in the nation, averaging 5.98 yards per rush. Marvin Philip is the anchor of the line both literally and figuratively. He is on the watch list for both the Outland and Rimington trophies as one of the best centers in the nation. Ryan O'Callaghan is another solid piece of the puzzle at the right tackle position and a one-on-one matchup between him and either of the Trojan defensive ends will be fun to watch. Scott Smith is in there in place of injured starter Andrew Cameron, but he's been playing for the majority of the season now. The line is much better overall in run blocking as they really enjoy the physical nature of moving the football on the ground. Their aggressiveness can get them into trouble in the passing game and, coupled with Ayoob's tendency to scramble, has led to 19 sacks on the season. They surrendered three sacks each against Washington, Oregon State, Washington State and Oregon, one each to UCLA and New Mexico State and five to Arizona. The offensive line will test the Trojan linebackers in the run game, but could have their hands full if Ayoob is forced to drop back and pass numerous times.

Golden Bears on Defense

Defensive Line – #94 Tosh Lupoi, #43 Abu Ma'afala, #52 Brandon Mebane, #53 Nu'u Tafisi

Cal has a fairly deep rotation along the defensive line, so these are just four of the names you'll see on Saturday. Brandon Mebane is an absolute force coming straight up the middle of the line. He leads the team with five sacks and is a guy who can get into the backfield with regularity. Nu'u Tafisi has chipped in with three sacks on the year, leads the defensive linemen with 33 tackles and leads the team with 8.5 tackles for loss. Tosh Lupoi and Abu Ma'afala are also very competent players along the line. The Trojans were not able to establish any kind of running game last year against Cal and if that happens again on Saturday, this year's game could look a lot like last year's.

Linebackers – #26 Ryan Foltz, #10 Desmond Bishop, #15 Anthony Felder

#10 reigns on both sides of the ball when it comes to the Cal Bears. Desmond Bishop is the leader of the defense, pacing the team with 63 total tackles. It's a given that the Trojan running backs will break runs through the initial line of defense, but it's going to be up to Bishop's crew as to whether or not they go any further. Thus far, no group of linebackers has been able to keep them from breaking long runs up the middle this season. Bishop is flanked by Ryan Foltz and Anthony Felder. Foltz is third on the team, with 44 tackles, but doesn't spend much time around the line of scrimmage. The Trojan offensive line has done a masterful job this season of picking up blitzing linebackers in the passing game and getting blocks on them in the running game. This will again be an integral part in the game against Cal.

Cornerbacks – #13 Daymeion Hughes, #22 Tim Mixon

Daymeion Hughes and Tim Mixon are probably the two most important players in this game. They have combined this season to allow opponents to complete just 52% of their passes and they rank 20th in the nation in defensive pass efficiency. Hughes leads the team with four interceptions and Mixon is just behind him with three. They are both lightning quick, but neither of them seems to match up well against Dwayne Jarrett when it comes to both height and strength. Hughes and Mixon should be matched up against Jarrett and Steve Smith all day and if those two Trojan receivers can win those individual battles, the Trojans could roll. The running game will be there for the Trojans as long as the receivers can make their presence felt consistently.

Safeties – #11 Harrison Smith, #21 Donnie McCleskey

Harrison Smith and Donnie McCleskey are very athletic safeties capable of making big plays anywhere on the field. They can cover tight ends and wide receivers and basically enable the Bears to play with four cornerbacks on the field. McCleskey is the team's second leading tackler, with 49, and has added two sacks, two forced fumbles and an interception. Harrison Smith has a sack and three tackles for loss among his 42 tackles. Smith and McCleskey will look to help keep the Trojan passing game in check, but it will be interesting to see how close to the line of scrimmage they are playing on Saturday because if they stay 10-15 yards behind the line of scrimmage, that could open things up for the running game to be dominant.

Golden Bears on Special Teams

Kicker – #15 Tom Schneider

Tom Schneider has been a pretty good kicker for the Bears this season. He has hit all 41 of his extra point attempts this season, but has only converted eight of 16 field goal tries. He definitely has the leg to make them from any distance, as he illustrated against the Ducks, hooking a 53-yarder just wide, but he's had periods of inconsistency as well, missing three straight at one point this year. If it comes down to a field goal this weekend, Schneider has the range to get it done.

Punter – #14 David Lonie

David Lonie handles the punting and kickoff duties for Cal and has been pretty successful at both this season. He is averaging over 41 yards on 48 punts, forcing seven fair catches, six touchbacks and dropping 18 inside the twenty. On kickoffs, Lonie has put 21 of 55 into the endzone, but Cal is forcing their opponent to start, on average, from their own 22 yard line.

Kickoff Returners – #10 Marshawn Lynch

Like Reggie Bush, Marshawn Lynch is too dangerous to let plays go by that are easy enough to get the ball in his hand. He has returned eight kicks this season, averaging 19 yards per attempt with a long of 34. There is no question that teams know they can return the ball against the Trojans, but hopefully the Trojans will build off the progress they made after Stanford's initial return to shut Lynch down and deny Cal a short field.

Punt Returner – #22 Tim Mixon

If the Trojans are forced to punt multiple times, Tim Mixon could become one of the more dangerous players in the game. He's piled up 340 yards on 19 punt returns, averaging almost 18 yards per return and breaking one 79 yards for a touchdown. When called upon, Tom Malone may want to show everyone the leg that he's got by just putting everything into the end zone.


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