It's funny, but this game almost feels like more of a prove-it game for Cal than last week, even though no one will be watching. Not proof to the media or outsiders though. This one is about proving to the players, the coaches and Cal faithful that this team is better than they showed last week, that they are different than last year's team, and that the firepower we've seen glimpses of wasn't just a fluke. By far these have been my favorite kinds of games to watch since Tedford arrived at Cal. This is where he shines as a coach, and where his teams show their true colors. Don't be surprised if Cal takes the field like they were shot out of a cannon and plays with a lot more passion, polish and improvement over last week.
The Rams like to ram with their new coach who is a former Ram
Cal is going to see a very different team across the line of scrimmage than what they saw last season. The Rams have a whole new look under Coach Steve Fairchild. A former player, and then assistant coach, at Colorado State, Fairchild was most recently assistant offensive coordinator for the St. Louis Rams from 2003-2005, and then the offensive coordinator for the Buffalo Bills from 2006-2007. Before everyone gets too excited about the Rammies bringing NFL cred to Memorial Saturday, Fairchild's offenses didn't exactly light up NFL defenses the way, say, his predecessor Mike Martz's "Greatest Show on Turf" offense did. And with the Bills, his offense was downright bad, and his playcalling was widely criticized by the fans, media and players (I wonder what Lynch thought of it?). But hey, Pete Carroll proved to be a pretty good college coach after moderate success in the NFL, so you never know I guess.
CSU offense - probably not quite the Greatest Show on Turf.
Colorado State Offense
On offense, the Rams have two power backs, which suggests a traditional, power-type run scheme, but there is some talk from the players and coaches that they show some sophisticated looks in terms of disguising runs by showing pass blocking first. This is far more common in the NFL than in college, simply because it requires more athleticism and talent by the linemen. It also requires great quickness from the runningback to run from a dead stop after showing pass. Whether they can be successful with the two "big" backs they have, remains to be seen.
Where the Rams' offense will test the Bears is in the passing game. Coach Tedford alluded to the Rams' use of longer developing, deeper routes, such as "comeback" routes, which are more common in the NFL than in college. This is going to be a challenge for the secondary, both in route recognition and in technique, especially for Hagan who is still pretty green.
Of course, like everything in football, there's a counter. And the counter to deeper, more intricate routes is pressure on the quarterback. This is the primary reason more college teams do not run these kinds of routes. Most protection schemes in college simply cannot provide that kind of time and still have three options to throw to. It remains to be seen whether Cal's defensive line can take this away and keep the heat off of Cal's corners. According to Cal's defensive players when interviewed about CSU's passing game, they don't do a lot of short passes and dump-offs. Dear Bob Gregory, If there was ever a game to call for multiple blitz packages, this is it. Sincerely, bend-don't-break hater. Cal has the speed advantage over CSU to get to the QB with blitzes if he is going to be waiting on long routes.
Colorado State Defense
Don't know a lot about this defense, but one thing that is familiar is the coordinator Larry Kerr. He was Karl "Radio" Duh-rell's defensive coordinator from 2003-2005 during his forgettable run as UCLA's head coach (though he somehow managed to go undefeated against Tedford in Pasadena and then get blown out every year up in Berkeley). Sure some people touted UCLA's defense back then, but during those years, Cal never had a problem rolling up yards and points on UCLA. If the Rams' defense is anything like UCLA's was, it's going to be pretty vanilla - 4-3 base, predictable use of man and zone, some aggressive blitzing.
However, I suspect Kerr is going to mix it up a bit more. The Cal players and coaches seem to think this will happen, and frankly, after watching Maryland have success with overloaded, unbalanced, and shifting fronts, I have to assume Kerr will show Cal some different looks. Plus, it's one thing to play straight up when you have Pac 10 talent on defense. When you are a Mtn West team playing against a more talented offense, you have to take some chances and make things difficult. Thus, Cal should be ready for an extra safety in the box, nickel looks, shaded defensive ends, and pre-snap shifting to throw off Riley's and the o-line's reads. This to me will be the matchup of the game.
Colorado State Shifting, Unbalanced, or Overloaded Fronts versus Cal's Run Game
Because I like to repeat myself, this will be the matchup of the game. In previewing Maryland, I predicted this would give Cal problems because I noticed Wazzu actually make a little noise with this the week before. Now, any opposing defensive coordinator should lose his job if he doesn't try what Maryland did until Cal proves they can beat it. Of course, Maryland's defensive game plan requires very athletic linebackers who can fill quickly and beat the blockers to the point of attack, and it remains to be seen whether the Rams will have this.
That said, what happened to the o-line at Maryland is easy to fix, and Cal should have most of the kinks worked out. I predict Cal's run game is going to get back on track in a big way tomorrow. The one hitch is that left guard Guarnero looks doubtful for the game, which means soph Mark Boskovich will get his first start. Against some different defensive looks, a new guard, especially if he's pulling in power schemes, can have his work cut out for him.
Cal Secondary versus Fairchild's NFL Pass Scheme
A lot has been made of Darian Hagan getting torched for deep balls in last year's game, in a reserve role in garbage time, and how he is going to be looking for payback. I put very little stock in this. I think Hagan is going to play up to his talent and experience level regardless. Last year, those levels were low, and he got lit up. This year, he is much better, and he will play better, but he still has a ways to go. I think he makes athletic plays on the ball, and I think those plays will be there Saturday because CSU's QB is going to be under pressure and is going to be throwing deep.
But I also think Cal's secondary is going to get tested quite a bit if Gregory sends the house to get pressure on the QB. Of the four, only Thompson seems reliable at this point. Ezeff is great in run, but not so great with a receiver coming at him. A bit of an unknown is Brett Johnson who will be starting at FS for injured (and poorly playing) Hicks. Johnson plays faster than Hicks and definitely covers more range. But he, like Hicks, still has problems with play and route recognition. Against a deceptive NFL-type offense with more complicated routes, this could be trouble.
Edge: Push - Cal should get a pick or two, but they are also going to give up yardage.
Kevin Riley versus Himself
Not that he's a head case, but he clearly plays better when he's not thinking, and he's just playing. When he tries to be too "fine" with his deep throws, the arc and distance are off. When he's running around under pressure or throwing lasers, he looks great. In other words, he's the opposite of Longshore. Some of it is timing and comfort with the receivers, but some of it just appears to be him making what I call the "freethrow" passes. The ones where he is not under pressure, where it is a designed pass with no post-snap progression, and where he just has to put the ball in a spot, like a fade in the endzone (which he has yet to throw well once this season). It will be interesting to see if the loss provides the added focus he seems to thrive off of. He plays well when there is pressure and motivation, and this week would seem to provide some.
Edge: Riley, but for this week only. I think he will have a good game, though I think the run game will be good enough to keep him from having to win this thing. But I don't think we've seen the end of his struggles in the passing game for a few more weeks.
I think Cal is going to run the ball very well, Best is going to make some big plays, and Cal is going to shut down the run game of CSU. This feels like a 41-24 type game.