California 101: An early Pac-10 challenge

PAUL WULFF's FIRST GAME didn't go as planned, but observers could also see the positive signs of what he's doing with the WSU program. The second game of the season features a faster and more aggressive foe, and the Cougs could be without a large number of starters and key reserves. Washington State can try to play things close to the vest and hope they are rewarded for their patience, or....

...More than likely, the Cougars will need to be ready to take some risks and try force Cal to make mistakes if they are to upset the heavily favored Cal Bears -- who boast a balanced, high octane offense and a speedy, heavy hitting defense.

Cougars (0-1) vs Bears (1-0)
AT A GLANCE
KICKOFF:
3:30 pm Pacific Time

WHERE:
Martin Stadium (35,117)

TELEVISION:
FSN Regional

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

THE LINE:
Cal by 13.5

LAST MEETING:
Last year in Berkley, Cal won 20-17.

THE SERIES:
Cal leads the series 39-25-5

CF.C PREDICTION:
In a heated, split decision among the Cougfan.com braintrust, pessimists call it Cougars 30, Bears 24....while the optimists see a 31-30 Cougs upset win.

THE BEARS ON OFFENSE

Players to Know
Kevin Riley, QB: Any lingering quarterback controversy was likely settled this past Saturday. Riley was smart and efficient while Nate Longshore threw two picks in but five attempts. Riley has good mobility and makes good decisions with the ball, and that is really all Cal needs.

Jahvid Best, RB: Cal continues to plug and play with their running backs. Best has 111 yards last week, backup Shane Vereen added another 101 rushing yards, though 80 of that came on one play. Best is also a great receiver out of the backfield, catching five balls for 63 yards last week.

Alex Mack, C: Mack is the leader of one of the more polished offensive lines in the conference. Cal averaged 5.6 yards per rush last week against Michigan State and did not allow a sack.

Overview
The Bears do most everything well on offense. They use a ton of offensive formations and will rarely line up the same way in consecutive plays. The loss of DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins, and Robert Jordan has left a hole in their receiving corps, but any Jeff Tedford designed offense will usually find ways to hurt you with the pass.

Strategy
The key to stopping a Tedford offense is disruption -- stuff the run and put all the pressure the quarterback. If the Cougs sit back and play a bend but don't break defense, Best and Riley could go video game on them. As with anything, there's always a tradeoff. If the Cougs blitz like their life depended on it, they'll be putting their young, inexperienced corners on an island and they'll have to hope the running backs don't slip past the blitzing 'backers. Still, going with the more aggressive, attack style defense may be worth that risk.

THE BEARS ON DEFENSE

Players to Know
Zack Follett, LB: Follett combines with fellow seniors Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder to make up one of the better linebacker corps around. All are fast, hard hitting, tackling machines.

Syd'Quan Thompson, CB: Thompson is aiming to be one of the top cover corners in the conference and got off to a pretty fair start last weekend, though he looked to get beat badly on MSU's last touchdown. Teams are still more likely to opt to try and pick on left corner Chris Conte, who showed himself to be much more questionable against MSU.

Overview
Cal switched to a 3-4 this season in an effort to utilize its depth at linebacker and to better compete against the increasing number of spread offenses in the conference. As with the Cal offense, they will offer a variety of pre-snap looks on D -- they often switched to more of a 5-2 formation when trying to stop the run last week. Cal's defense allowed only 2.6 yards per rush against Michigan State and although they surrendered 321 passing yards, they allowed only a 41 percent completion percentage. At the same time, Cal's defense could never quite put Michigan State away last week in their 38-31 win.

Strategy
The way to beat the 3-4 is to effectively run the pigskin, but the quality of Cal's linebackers and d-line made that a tall task for the Spartans. WSU's young offensive line got a good initial push last week, but they didn't dominate. The usual delays and draws don't figure to give Dwight Tardy and Chris Ivory a decided advantage. The Cougs might be well served to attack between the tackles quickly and force the linebackers to commit to stopping the run. Bob Gregory's defense will be faster and more aggressive than the one WSU faced last week, but they can also be more mistake prone. The Cougs, if they execute, could set up the play action pass and give Cal a run for their money. The other part of the equation is they need to hope the somebody can emerge as a reliable target other than Brandon Gibson and that Gibson, who had three uncharacteristic drops last Saturday, turns in a stellar performance.

THE BEARS ON SPECIAL TEAMS

It's a new year, but the Cougars continue to hemorrhage yardage though poor special teams play. Cal blocked a punt last week and will try to do so again, although the Cougs appear likely to get staring punter Reid Forrest back. Cal's freshman punter, Bryan Anger, showed off a huge leg Saturday, with three of four punts sailing over 50 yards. But he also botched a snap, leading to an MSU touchdown. Cal has a freshman kicker David Seawright, he looks to be accurate. But Cal only averaged 53 yards in the air on kickoffs -- WSU last week by comparison, who did not force a touchback, averaged 60 yards. Cal's coverage teams did better than WSU's, however. Still, Cal's net yardage on kickoffs was 37 yards and if the Cougs want to even their record, they will need to take advantage of every chink in Cal's armor.

FAMILIAR FACES

Cal o-line coach Jim Michalczik and Wulff are very good friends and d-line coach Bob Gregory was at Washington State when Wulff was a player.

FINAL THOUGHTS

WSU comes into the game seriously banged up and with backups thurst into key roles. Starters Andrew Roxas, Jeshua Anderson, Alfonso Jackson are all out, and Daniel Blackledge is expected to be limited. Another starter, Fevaea'i Ahmu, has been suspended while Wulff gathers facts stemming from a missed court appearance. Jason Stripling, in effect a fourth starter at linebacker and who was stellar this past Saturday before spraining a toe, is out. Starter Xavier Hicks will sit this game and next. Markus Dawes is another projected starter who missed last week's game on the mend from surgery. Another starter and a key reserve, OL Dan Rowlands and DL Andy Roof, respectively, departed from the program on the eve of the season.

That is 10, yes 10, mostly starters, along with key rotational reserves for the Cougs, who are either out or expected to be limited for Cal.

On the bright side, Cougar fans last week got a glimpse of the kind of offense Wulff and OC Todd Sturdy are implementing at Washington State. Unfortunately for Cougar fans, it was out of rhythm for most of the opener. There were a couple of series in the second half where the Cougar's no huddle attack showed its potential and when it works, the opposing defense has to show its hand before the snap and doesn't get a chance to breathe or change personnel. But unless the Cougars start to improve their passing game dramatically, the only defense that won't get a breather is their own.

The Cougar D held up admirably last week, but with three more key components potentially missing the Cal game on defense, in addition to previous attrition, it may prove a difficult task indeed to turn back Cal enough times, for all four quarters, in order to pull off the upset.


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