Q&A with Cal insider as Cougs vs. Bears looms

WE WANTED MORE INSIGHT into the California squad Washington State faces in Berkeley on Saturday (1 p.m., Fox Sports 1) so we went to the guy who has his finger on the pulse of all things Golden Bears football -- BearTerritory.net Publisher Ryan Gorcey. And he had lots of nuggets and insights to share on Cal for CF.C readers...

COUGFAN.COM: How much does Sonny Dykes' version of the Air Raid run the ball, what's the balance level like and why haven't the Bears been more successful at running the ball this season – is it more on the running backs or o-line?

RYAN: Ideally, the ‘Bear Raid,' as it's been christened, is far more balanced than other offenses from the Air Raid lineage. Last year at Louisiana Tech, Dykes and his staff ran the ball 521 times to 533 passing attempts, but this season, that ratio is quite a bit off as California has rushed 166 times to 214 passing attempts. Part of that is due to the fact that true freshman quarterback Jared Goff – his 15-snap fizzle in the monsoon last week at Oregon notwithstanding – has been so very good. Goff has a 132.42 passer rating, and has completed 60.6 percent of his passes for 1,317 yards and seven touchdowns. So when the run game sputters early – as it has in each of the past four games – offensive coordinator Tony Franklin has had no qualms about turning to Goff's arm.

So far, the Cal rushing attack has only averaged 125.2 yards per game on the ground and 3.0 yards per carry, and with speedsters like Khalfani Muhammad and Brendan Bigelow in the backfield, along with sledge hammer Daniel Lasco, that's just not what anyone expected. Now, Bigelow has spent the past five practices without the knee brace which he felt slowed him down for the past four games, and he's looked positively electric. If Bigelow can break off some quality runs early – he's been this close to a few big plays only to get halted by the brace's restrictiveness – then I foresee the running game getting on track.

The biggest issue after that, though, is the offensive line. Only left guard Jordan Rigsbee and left tackle Freddie Tagaloa had any appreciable experience coming into this year, with center Chris Adcock spending last year at right guard and right tackle Steven Moore redshirting in 2012. Add to that the fact that starting right guard Matt Cochran went down against Ohio State with a high ankle sprain, and Moore going down last week with a head injury, and you have a very young, very inexperienced and very inconsistent offensive line. Tagaloa has also not played up to his considerable potential, which makes life that much more difficult for the running backs.

Who are the key Cal players on offense and defense that WSU fans should watch for -- and why?

I mentioned Goff and Bigelow already, so on offense I'll go with the other weapons the Bears have, and those are the wide receivers. Headed by a pair of Biletnikoff Award Watch List members in true sophomores Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, this is a very, very versatile unit, and that's not even taking into account the men on the inside. Treggs and Harper have combined to catch 54 balls for 687 yards. Both are legitimate stretch-the-field options, and both have the vision to be able to execute some fly sweeps and end-arounds out of the backfield. Harper in particular, I feel, is going to be the biggest factor on Saturday, so keep an eye out for No. 6.

A fun guy to watch on offense is fullback (or ‘bone') Lucas Gingold. Not many folks know that this offense uses a true, knock-em-back, NFL-style fullback, but Gingold is an absolute beast. He's also been known to catch a pass or two when the situation calls for it, and when he does, he's going to lower the boom.

Defense is a different matter. With injuries to projected starters Nick Forbes (MLB), Mustafa Jalil (DT), Avery Sebastian (FS) and Brennan Scarlett (DE) keeping more than a third of the starting lineup off the field all season (Sebastian played for over a quarter against Northwestern before tearing his Achilles), most of the playmaking has had to come from the linebacking corps. Jalen Jefferson (SLB) had a breakout season last year due to injuries, and this season, he's the tip of the spear again, particularly because the defensive line just hasn't been able to get any kind of appreciable push.

It's unclear whether No. 2 corner Kameron Jackson will play (he's questionable with a lower leg injury), but No. 1 corner Stefan McClure has gotten better and better each game in his first action in 20 months, after going down at the end of 2011 with a terrible triad injury in his knee.

How about a comprehensive review of how QB Jared Goff has done through five games?

First off, Goff has tremendous poise for a true freshman. His dad played in the Major Leagues, so that ice water in his veins is genetic. He's gotten some bad breaks – two pick-sixes in the opener off of tipped balls – but he's also gotten some good ones, throwing into double- and triple-coverage five times against Ohio State and only throwing one interception. What we haven't seen much of so far is his ability to run, because the offensive line just isn't advanced enough yet to open dependable lanes. When he does take off, he won't take many direct shots, and he can wriggle and snake his way to some big gains on the ground if the passing windows aren't open. His biggest attribute is his ability to make the easy throws, upon which this offense is built. The short screens are his best weapon, but he's also shown that he has a big-time arm, dropping dimes 40-50 yards down field. Occasionally, he'll overthrow those long routes, but it's better to overthrow those than not get enough juice.

We saw some spectacular passing performances from him in the first three games but at some point, he was going to look like a true freshman, and that came last week against No. 2 Oregon in Autzen Stadium, in the middle of a biblical monsoon. He saw the ball pop out of his hands on the take-back three times and had two fumbles (he saved a third by picking the ball up off the bounce and throwing an incompletion), and was benched after 15 snaps in favor of cannon-armed redshirt freshman Zach Kline. Fortunately for Goff, Saturday's forecast is clear skies and 82 degrees – perfect weather for throwing.

What has Cal done well on defense, and what areas need the most work?

Not much. The secondary was better last week than it has been over the first three games, thanks in large part to the fact that unit was relatively healthy coming in, and got more time practicing together during the bye week. Against the Ducks, the defensive line finally got some push, and defensive tackle Deandre Coleman finally had a game we'd expect out of the 6-foot-5, 300-pound redshirt senior -- but overall, he's been largely invisible. After the dismissal of rush end Chris McCain and the absence of Scarlett, the line is now working with very inexperienced d-ends, so getting pressure on Connor Halliday is going to be a challenge. If Coleman can have a repeat performance, and nose tackle Viliami Moala can continue his strong play up the middle, the line can definitely get some push against a spread-out line, but the weak spots are on the outside.

Linebacking play has been very steady, despite the absence of Forbes, in large part thanks to Jefferson's leadership. The weak point there is the fact that middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, Jr., may have his father's NFL instincts, but not his speed or size. Cal has been able to make up for that somewhat with the play of WILL linebacker Michael Barton, who, despite missing a game with a sprained knee, is sixth on the team with 19 tackles. Barton and Khairi Fortt (the team tackles leader with 32) have been platooning at the WILL, and I expect that to continue on Saturday. Illustrative of the defensive line's issues that I mentioned earlier is the fact that Fortt leads the team with 3.0 tackles for loss.

Notice that I haven't yet mentioned the secondary. That unit is paper-thin, and with time lost to injury on the part of safety Michael Lowe, the season-ending injury to Sebastian (who had 11 tackles and a pick in just over a quarter and a half of play before going down) and such inconsistent play on the part of redshirt senior Alex Logan that he has been dropped completely off the two-deep, it's a unit that is in desperate need of a win. Second-team safety Jason Gibson was a four-star defensive end coming out of high school, and moved to the defensive backfield from outside linebacker during the summer. True freshman Cameron Walker came in as a corner, and only had three days practicing at safety before facing the Buckeyes and acquitting himself quite well. Back-up corner Joel Willis is a converted receiver, though he did play both ways in high school. All in all, the secondary has been hit hardest by injury and youth, which could very well play right into the Air Raid's hands.

Does the o-line incorporate the wide splits that Mike Leach likes and how is the Cal o-line adjusting to the new offense, new position coach?

They do, but not to the same extent. From the outside looking in, it's largely the same philosophy but the Cal line is a bit closer together to facilitate more power runs. As I said earlier, the line is very young and very inexperienced, so they'll be growing right along with first-year OL coach Zach Yenser, who played in this system not too long ago at Troy. Yenser is a very attentive and energetic teacher, and his players absolutely love him and respond well to him. The more talented a player is, the tougher he is on them, which will pay dividends in the long term, but with a patchwork starting unit, it's really tough to judge his effectiveness at this point.

The real key is the center position, because that's who calls out the snap count and the cadence. It's a unique system, and arose out of the fact that the quarterback is always in the shotgun, and if he yells out the calls in a hostile environment, the call may not reach the tackles. With the center calling it out to the guards, and the guards relaying it to the tackles, there's less than five yards between the caller and the next man, as opposed to 15 between the QB and the ends of the line.

The win against Portland State was hard-fought, was that an anomaly or something telling for the 2013 season?

It really was a microcosm of what the season's been thus far, which is inconsistent. The defense was caught flat-footed early and got burned by an unfamiliar scheme, but adjusted after halftime. While the Bears went 5-for-5 in the red zone, they had to settle for field goals twice. The offensive line didn't get penalized until the 45th minute of play – a long way from the early miscues that marred the opener – but the right side was a bit leaky, allowing unnecessary pressure on Goff, who also took a sack when he got tangled up in Moore's legs. Essentially, that game showed all the hallmarks of this being the second-youngest team in the nation. Some of those problems have gotten worse, and some have shown signs of being corrected. When you look at what the Vikings have done thus far this season, though, they've proven that they are a very good FCS team, averaging 41.0 points per game and rushing for 299.4 yards per contest, while going 3-1 and outscoring opponents nearly 2-to-1.

What do you see this game coming down to in the end from Cal's perspective – offense, defense or special teams?

Defense. The Cal secondary has to show improvement, and this would be the game to do it. The offense fell on its face last week because Goff had a series of freshman moments that were a long time coming, and he's entered this week with a renewed vigor and intensity, along with the rest of the offense. I don't think scoring points will be an issue for the Bear Raid, but whether defensive coordinator Andy Buh can contain the Air Raid will be the biggest question mark, especially considering that the Bears will be facing a true, drop-back passing attack for the first time this season.

OK, here's one from left field: Any idea what Ziv Gottlieb is doing these days? Aficianados of WSU's 1994 Palouse Posse defense will never forget the guy -- a scrappy little receiver who came off the bench to play quarterback against the Cougs because Dave Barr, Pat Barnes and Kerry McGonigal were injured.

Gottlieb didn't play a game in 1995, and only completed three of seven passes for 37 yards and one touchdown in 1996, and actually never caught a pass in any of his three seasons. That was the end of his football career, and I haven't heard what's become of him since.

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