California 101: A critical test

IN LESS THAN a month, California has gone from No. 2 and controlling a spot in the BCS title game to a spiraling three game losing streak and out of the Top 25. A game the Bears might have treated as a gimme a few weeks ago, is now a must win. But the newly confident Cougars, who are fighting for their own bowl hopes, might not be the tonic Cal needs to right the ship.

THE BEARS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Nate Longshore, QB: Longshore can be effective but he has been banged up lately. He missed the Oregon State loss and has an injured ankle that has him listed as questionable for Saturday. His backup is Kevin Riley -- who played quite well in the Oregon State game before a much talked about metal collapse at the finish.
Justin Forsett, RB: Through eight games he has 900 rushing yards and 10 scores. Forsett is Cal's workhorse and had been doing a good job filling the shoes of Marshawn Lynch until recently when injuries began to crop up.
DeSean Jackson, WR: Jackson is bolt of lightning in cleats but the Bears have been using him more in the short passing game in an effort to get him the ball more frequently. He is complemented by Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins to form arguably the conferences' top receiving corps.

Overview
Cal generally works out of pro-set formation and strives for balance between the run and pass. Coach Jeff Tedford is all about efficiency, and his system has broken down during the three game slide with a failed running game.

Strategy
Cal's running game has all but vanished in the last two games. Expect them to have made that a priority in this week's practices and to try to establish the ground attack early in this game. The Bears also know they can use their receivers to make the Cougars pay if WSU devotes too much focus to stopping the run. A 3-4 defense tends to be weaker against the run, but the Cougars looked strong against UCLA so the WSU coaches might be reluctant to change until it lets them down. The Cougs probably need to take away the running game and force either a less than healthy Longshore or an inexperienced Riley to try and beat them but the Cougs also needs to pick their spots. The secondary is improving and they played a great game against UCLA, but they're also still learning and gaining experience..

Cougars (3-5) vs Bears (5-3)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
7:00 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Memorial Stadium (75,000)

TELEVISION:
FSN

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

THE LINE:
Cal by 14.5

LAST MEETING:
2006 Cal Won 21-3

THE SERIES:
Cal leads 38-25-5

CF.C PREDICTION:
WSU 34, Cal 30

THE BEARS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Worrell Williams, Zack Follett, and Anthony Felder, LBs: Cal has a great group of linebackers trying to back up a young and injured defensive line. With o-linemen in their collective faces, they haven't been able to live up to their potential but still have 187 tackles between them this year.

Overview
Cal's 4-3 is generally the bend but don't break variety. They've had some injuries, as everyone does by this point in the season, but their team speed remains top notch. Linebacker is an area of strength and experience, but they are very young at cornerback and thin on the defensive line.

Strategy
Turnovers will likely be huge in this game. Under Tedford, the Bears are 22-2 when they win the turnover battle and 9-15 when they lose it. Opponent turnovers have dropped off dramatically in their three losses so expect plenty of aggressive play by their defense this week. Alex Brink has to be smart with the football and avoid giving away his signals which smart cornerbacks have converted into interceptions this year. The Washington State receivers are a pretty stout group in their own right, and it will be critical for starters Brandon Gibson, Michael Bumpus and Charles Dillon to make yards after the catch in this one. The Cougar offensive line and Kevin McCall, in for the injured Dwight Tardy, will need to take advantage of what the Bears give them. Do-everything tight end Jed Collins could be the x-factor in the game, and is the Cougs' third leading receiver this season.

THE BEARS ON SPECIAL TEAMS
DeSean Jackson brings his gamebreaking ability to Cal's punt return team. He has six returns for touchdowns in his career. WSU would be wise to ‘intentionally walk' him whenever possible. Cal lost placekicker Tom Schneider early in the year and has had to make due with Kay Jordan, who has barely converted over half of his kicks this year. Cal leads the conference in net punting but doesn't have a big leg for the kickoffs.

FINAL THOUGHTS
This was originally setup to be a perfect sandwich game for the Cougs, with Cal coming off road games against UCLA and Arizona State, and the Bears looking ahead to USC next week. Instead the Bears are wholeheartedly focused on beating the Cougs this week and getting their season back on track. Meanwhile, the Cougs are fighting for their bowl lives. A little belief can go a long ways, and Washington State found some against the Bruins. If the Cougs are to win, they have to start taking advantage of their scoring opportunities on offense -- they've been coming away with no points after crossing into enemy territory much too often. With Tardy out for the season, Washington State needs the line and McCall and/or Marcus Richmond to step up and provide balance between the pass and the run. Defensively, the Cougs cannot give up the big play and how the WSU d-line fares against Cal's athletic o-line will be paramount. Win the battle up front and allow the WSU linebackers and secondary freedom to roam and make plays, and the Cougs can come out of a stern road test with a win.


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