Friday, August 29, 2008

Key Matchups Saturday

Overall, this game is going to feature two very divergent styles of coaching, and divergent styles of play on both sides of the ball. Michigan State is a power team that likes to line it up and pop you in the mouth. Cal is physical too, but Cal is about pressure points, lethal blows, and death by 1,000 cuts. It should make for a great afternoon of football.

When MSU has the ball
Bottom line: MSU is coming right at the Bears, and I think it will be up the gut most of the time. That is the undisputed weakness of the Bear defense until proven otherwise, and I think the 3-4 may exacerbate that problem. Aside from running up the middle, the other trend I expect is for MSU to try and get Ringer the ball on screens and dumps, to slow down our safeties and outside pass rushers.

Cal NT and ILBs vs. MSU center and guards
This is the single most important matchup of the game, period. If Cal wins here, it should control the game. If it does not, it's offense better come up with some points.

In the 3-4, Cal's NT has to man both A-gaps (on either side of the center), which means he has to try and occupy two blockers as often as possible. The NT's job is not merely a question of strength or technique, but also endurance. In the 3-4, the NT is getting pounded on by fat, disgusting walruses who smell like a grease trap, play after play, often being double teamed, for hours. There is very little glory, and very little daylight. It's Andy Dufresne in Shawshank Redemption "crawling to freedom through five-hundred yards of shit smelling foulness I can't even imagine." Except there's no "freedom" on the other side. It's just more fat, and more hate, and more darkness, play after play, with the occasional precious assisted tackle by a handful of cloth or swipe of an ankle as the runner goes by.

If the NT does not hold his ground, MSU's big, fat, fat, and big 300+ lb lineman will be nuzzling Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder into their fatty chests while Ringer blows right by them and into the secondary. If Ringer is in the secondary, grab your ass and say goodbye. Cal cannot succeed in the 3-4 if the d-line does not keep the o-line off of the LBs, so the LB's can make plays.

To be successful here and keep guys fresh, the staff has to rotate the NT frequently, preferably going three-deep. However, Cal is already down to its second string NT, soph Derrick Hill (6-2 290). Sr Mika Kane was supposed to start, but he injured his ankle so he won't play. That leaves as backups Soph Mike Costanzo (who's never played) and true freshman Kendrick Payne (6-2 288 and barely 18 years old). Not surprisingly, I predict Cal is going to struggle here. The hope is that Cal is able to perhaps go with 1 safety deep and bring the other safety up in the box, and hope it doesn't get burned in pass.
Edge: MSU guards and center

TB Ringer vs. whole Cal defense
While this is a key matchup, there isn't much to say here. Ringer has big legs and great balance, so they are going to have to swarm to him, hit him low and pile on. I think he is going to get his yards. Cal's job is to limit the big play by staying home and being disciplined. This is especially true for d-lineman and backside LBs, to prevent cutbacks.
Edge: Ringer, but if Cal can make MSU rely solely on Ringer, it will win the war on defense

Cal DEs and OLBs vs MSU tackles in pass rush
MSU's o-line is not great in pass protection. In the new 3-4 we are going to see an OLB coming on almost every play. I fully expect pressure in passing situations, and I expect Cal to be disruptive in these situations, especially 3rd and long. Same for Rulon Davis and rising star Ernest Owusu at DE (though being double teamed, they are going to have some trouble getting to the QB). I frankly don't see MSU having much success without going max-protect (2 TEs and a FB), which limits their pass options severely.

The one caveat is the screen pass. Follett and Davis have a tendency to overpursue, and you can bet MSU will try to make them pay for this. Cal is going to have to leave someone home if they are going to cut these guys loose on third and long.
Edge: Cal

When Cal has the ball
Tedford and Cignetti will try out a few different looks early to see how Michigan State reacts (part of the "game within a game" I talked about in previewing Cal's offense). After that, Tedford likes to strike early, and likes to spread the defense out by putting the ball at different spots on the field and making the defense test all of its boundaries, hopefully exposing a weakness or a tendency.

Keep in mind, I don't expect the offense to be very smooth in the early going. I think we'll see some mistakes, dropped balls, incorrect routes, and broken plays. As a result, I expect to see a lot of screens and passes to the tailbacks, runs off tackle and outside, and passes to the tight end, to try and get something going, and get Riley and the tailbacks into a rhythm. I also suspect Cignetti will also take some shots down the field to keep the secondary honest, even if they are not completions. Once Cal finds what works, I think in the second half we'll see the offense try to establish the run up front. Tedford has always been patient with the run, and I don't think this will be any different, but it might take a while to get going.

Best and Vereen vs. MSU linebackers plus strong safety Otis Wiley
This is a key matchup largely because it is the strength of their defense going against the feature of our offense. I think Best and Vereen will ultimately succeed because Tedford and Cignetti will find the plays that work. But I think they are going to have to be patient because these defenders are going to be filling the lanes early. And it may take several plays before our tailbacks get into a rhythm.
Edge: Best and Vereen, but perhaps not until the second half

Left guard Guarnero and left tackle Teofilo vs. DTs Kershaw/Nwagbuo and DE Anderson
Neither guy on the left side of Cal's o-line are all that experienced (Guarnero has never started, Teofilo started one or two games). Guarnero is a 6-2 275 soph, and he'll be facing either 6-3 288 soph Nwagbuo or 6-5 273 sr Kershaw at DTs. The word on Guarnero is he has great technique and athleticism at pass blocking. I think he will be fine there. But where I think Guarnero may struggle is in the run game. Nwagbuo in particular is very stout and Guarnero is going to have to get his pad level down and hold his ground if Cal is going to establish the run on the left side.

Teofilo is also lauded by the staff as a very coordinated pass blocker with great feet. He will need them tomorrow, as DE Anderson is hyped as a formidable pass rusher. I suspect Anderson is going to get pressure, but the key is for Teofilo to drive him outside and for Riley to step up in the pocket. I think the coaches will move the pocket around a bit to aid this. I also think we'll see more 2 TE sets and keeping the fullback in the game in protection packages, like in the second half vs. Oregon last year.
Edge: MSU's right DT and DE - Cal is going to have its hands full on the left side

TE Cameron Morrah vs MSU LBs and SS
As I said in my preview of the Cal offense, I think Cameron Morrah is the Cal player most likely to have a true "breakout" season. He was underutilized last year because (a) his blocking needed work, and (b) we used Stevens most of the time. Morrah is a matchup nightmare for most linebackers because of his speed. He has a gliding gait when he runs that makes him appear deceptively slow, so as he approaches LBs and safeties, they don't start backpeddling as quickly as they would if say, Best were running at them. Frankly, even if they see him coming, I think his speed and height are too much for MSU's linebackers. If Cal uses him on some vertical routes and Riley hits him in stride (something Longshore did not do), Morrah could be dominant like Fred Davis was for USC last season.
Edge: Morrah


SJ Cal said...

Sounds like a close game coming up, with Cal having the home advantage, but many new players and a potential serious weakness against the run, MSU's strength, especially with all those "big, fat, big, fat," OL's! It would help if Riley has a good game, but having Longshore waiting is an insurance policy that few teams have. Hopefully Coach T will not have Riley on a short rope and screw up his confidence.

No prediction? How about Cal covering the 5 pt spread, 34-27, after a big 2nd half rally when the "big fats" are sucking wind?
After all, Javid is the Best, vero?

Admin said...

Thanks for the comment SJ! Looks like your prediction was not too far off. Look forward to your next one.

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