Friday, September 5, 2008

WSU - Preview and matchups

Aside from whether the young Bears can avoid soiling their britches in a letdown and stay sharp on the road, the 2 keys to this game are (1) the Bear offense's ability to adjust to what I expect will be different defensive looks from the Cougs, and (2) the Bears' pass coverage.

Unless the Cougs gamble to stop the run and Riley can make them pay with some deep balls, I predict the game is going to be a grinder in the first half. It almost always is for every team that travels to Pullman, with most visiting wins coming late in games. With Cal being young and on its first road trip, especially to the Palouse, it may stay close and ugly in the early going. If Cal wins, I think the difference will be Cal's depth late in the game, ability to make adjustments and take advantage of its talent, and a few Cougar mistakes on special teams and offense where they are youngest and most inexperienced. But if Cal makes mistakes, turns it over, or plays flat in the secondary, they are in for a long day.

Cal offense vs. Cougar defense

Cal showed a dangerous run game last weekend, and surprisingly, MSU really never completely sold out to stop it, especially in the second half when the Bears were really pounding them. If I were an opposing defense, I would sell out to stop the run, make the Bears 1-dimensional and force them to pass. Sure Riley has a good arm and has made good reads thus far. But he doesn't have any proven weapons at receiver. Cal's rushing offense is far more dangerous than its passing game right now. Best was one cut away from breaking off TD runs a few times Saturday. That would scare me more than Riley throwing deep to Sean Young.

I predict Wazzu will do just that - they will try to bottle up the run game and see whether Cal's wideouts can make them pay. What will be interesting is how Cignetti and Riley deal with it. If Riley sees man coverage or 1 safety over the top, will he recognize it and call the right play? Longshore killed teams with this the first half of 2006. The first team to adjust to it and take it away from him: Washington State, in Pullman. Now it's the run, not the pass, that seems more dangerous. It will be interesting to see if Wazzu tries to take it away, and interesting to see how Cal reacts.

Bear secondary vs. WR Brandon Gibson

Wazzu has had great speed athletes for years and Brandon Gibson is the latest example. Coming of a 1st-team all Pac 10 season, Gibson decided to forego entering the draft to come back for one more year. The guy is a playmaker, plain and simple. He's fast, cagey, has great hands, and has a knack for getting open. He racked up 136 yards against the Bears last season, so he knows how to beat us. After watching Mark Dell get open time and again last weekend, you can bet Wazzu is going to line Gibson up in every possible way to get him the ball.

In fairness, Dell got a lot of yards on a few plays, and took advantage of the sidelines when the Bear corners were playing inside to stop the run. But still, 220 yards receiving is 220 yards, no matter how you get it. What I noticed most watching the Bear secondary last weekend was late reaction to the receiver routes (other than Thompson who played his best game as a Bear). Ezeff, Conte and Hagan, especially early on, looked caught off guard by the MSU receivers. I attribute that to being run-focused, but they better be ready this weekend, because Wazzu has a much more sophisticated passing game.

Plus, Wazzu runs a no-huddle, so they are going to be reading the Cal defensive sets and personnel, doing a lot of pre-snap shifts and motion, and trying to find holes and mismatches in the secondary. For one, they are going to try and get Gibson to go against Hagan and Ezeff and avoid Thompson. Gregory rarely asks his corners to follow a single player, so Hagan and Ezeff are going to get tested.

The Cal defenders are going to have to be ready to play fast because the Cougs are going to try and hit them with quick strikes, go routes, and skinny posts. An added dimension is that their QB is 6-7 with mobility, so he is going to have great vision, and can roll out to change up the looks.


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