California 101: Thin OL makes for intrigue

THE BEARS' SEASON could be on the line this week. They started out hot but have lost two games in two weeks they probably should have won. California has a 5-2 record and still sports a top 25 ranking, but their wins have come against opponents with a combined 6-26 record and Cal is now a team desperate for a win to get their season back on track. Sound familiar?

Cougars vs. Bears
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
Saturday, 7:15 p.m. PT

WHERE:
Memorial Stadium (74,909 capacity)

TELEVISION:
National broadcast on FSN

RADIO:
The Cougar Sports Radio Network covers much of the West. Click here for listings.

THE LINE:
Cal by 11.5

THE SERIES:
Cal leads 36-25-5. In 2002, WSU won 48-38

CF.C PREDICTION:
Cougars 38, Bears 37


THE BEARS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know:

Joe Ayoob, QB: Took over the starting job after Nate Longshore suffered a broken leg in Week One. Looks like another typical Jeff Tedford signal caller at times, then inexplicably is inaccurate for extended periods of the game. Runs very well, has completed 50% of his throws this year but looked out of sync last week against a ferocious Beaver pass rush.

Marshawn Lynch, RB: Lynch is one of the more explosive backs in the conference, but injuries and a bad case of fumbilitus has hampered him the past few weeks. Second stringer Justin Forsett is now ahead of Lynch statistically and could see plenty of time against WSU.

WRs DeSean Jackson and Robert Jordan: Jackson and Jordan have been outstanding with a combined 53 catches for 771 yards and eight touchdowns. No other receiver has more than six receptions on the team. Both are currently nursing injuries and if they are unable to play it will put all the more pressure on Ayoob.

Overview: Tedford's offenses are known for their high powered passing games, but losing starting QB Nate Longshore in the opening contest and the subsequent inconsistency of Ayoob have forced the Bears to operate a more run-based offense. Cal has plenty of talent at tailback, but injuries to the offensive line have finally caught up with them. They generated just 315 yards of offense against Oregon State last week.

Strategy: Tedford's playcalling ability still makes this offense dangerous, but injuries up front give the Cougs a huge opportunity to disrupt this offense. Shutting down the run on first down is absolutely essential as Cal averages 7.1 per rush on first down, but struggles when facing 3rd and long. If the Cougs can contain the run game and establish a pass rush, the Bears could be in big trouble. Expect the Bears to go after the WSU corners and also attack the middle of the Cougar defense.

THE BEARS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know:

Donte Hughes, CB: Hughes was asked to help defend Mike Hass last week. He did an outstanding job limiting Hass to just 17 yards. He'll likely have similar duties this week against Jason Hill.

Brandon Mebane, DT: Mebane is one of their few experienced leaders, but is currently nursing an ankle injury. The defensive line was completely exposed against the run in his absence.

Tim Mixon, CB: With the safeties either helping against the run, or focused on containing Hill, Mixon is going to be left on an island most of the day. This could be the guy for Brink to try and pick on when he feels the defense creeping up on the run game.

Overview: Cal's offensive firepower last year forced teams to pass early and often, allowing guys like Mebane to tee-off on opposing QBs. But the young front seven this season has had to evolve to full-time run stoppers. Cal's defense is still among the league's best statistically and particularly tough against the pass, allowing just four touchdowns with nine interceptions. They typically run a 4-3, Cover 1 with the corners locking up, ficusing on eliminating QB's favorite target and containing the deep ball while picking and choosing when they want to blitz. Expect Jason Hill to get lots of extra attention from the safeties.

Strategy: The Beavers frustrated the Bears with their running game and dominated the time of possession. The Cougars might be able to do the same. However, much like UCLA, there will likely come a point where Cal over-commits itself to stopping Jerome Harrison. When that happens Alex Brink must make plays to keep them honest. A deep ball or two could go a long ways to keeping the entire offense flowing.

THE BEARS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
Cal's kick coverage has been absolutely awful this year so punt returner Michael Bumpus should be licking his chops. The Cougs need to focus on containing the Bear's Tim Mixon who has been a dangerous punt-returner in his own right. Punter David Lonie averages a respectable 41.3 per punt, but coverage issues have blunted his net average to only 21 yards the past two games. K Tom Schnieder is a bit of a question mark. Made field goals include a 49 yarder, misses include one from 34 yards.

INJURY REPORT
WSU: MLB Will Derting, KR Lorenzo Bursey (shoulder) and RB Kevin McCall (ankle) are out. Jerome Harrison (shoulder), Ropati Pitoitua (leg), WR Jason Hill (thigh bruise), WR Chris Jordan (groin pull) all probable. DE Adam West (concussion) questionable.
Cal: QB Nate Longshore (broken leg), LT Andrew Cameron (leg) are out. OT Ryan O'Callaghan (concussion), WR DeSean Jackson (shoulder), Robert Jordan (questionable), DT Brandon Mebane (questionable) and DE Philip Mbakogu (knee) all listed as questionable.

FINAL THOUGHTS
The Beavers presented an excellent road map for teams to follow on how to beat Cal. Shut down the run, pressure the QB and turnovers should follow, something WSU hasn't done with their usual tenacity this year. Offensively, run the ball, control the clock, and make the Bears pay for their mistakes. Neither team has been able to hold onto a second half lead lately so don't be surprised if it's another game that comes down to the fourth quarter. Both squads look psychologically shaken at the moment so the advantage will go to the aggressor, particularly late in the game.

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