Friday, October 24, 2008

Bring on the 'Ruins

Saturday is the annual Joe Roth memorial game - here's
hoping for a better outcome than last year.

First off, let's get something straight. I've heard a lot of talk of a "friendly rivalry" between Cal and UCLA, and I think it's a bunch of bull. I actually think this has become one of the more intense games on Cal's schedule. Since Tedford arrived (and not coincidentally, since Cal stopped being UCLA's doormat), UCLA players have talked more trash after beating Cal than any other conference team. Whether it was Verner gloating about knowing what play we would run last year, to the players saying they dominated Cal in yardage but couldn't score in 2006, there seems to be no love lost between these teams. Since I can remember, other than USC, UCLA talks more trash to Cal on the field and off than any other team.

And frankly, in recent years, the fans have been no better. I was at the 2005 game in Pasadena when Cal's special teams decided to take PCP before the game and (1) have 10 men on the field on a fake punt and (2) pretend Jones-Drew had on a red jersey and not tackle him. I heard from a number of UCLA fans that was the loudest and craziest they'd seen the Rose Bowl for a non USC game in a long while. I can't compare to other games at the Rose Bowl (what Cal fan can?), but I can tell you it was as loud as any college game I've been to. And I was heckled by children, adults, and the elderly, donning UCLA mardi gras beads and face paint. All this hate for little old Cal, UCLA's little football brother. I am not so sure this is a friendly rivalry.

Onto the preview and matchups.


The Karl "Radio" Duh-Rell era is over. While I'd like to make the obvious joke that this is sad for Cal fans because Dorrell was so beatable (the same joke the rest of the Pac 10 made when Braun was fired), the fact is Tedford never beat Dorrell in Pasadena. It just felt like UCLA was not very good under Dorrell (frankly they weren't, regardless of how Cal played against them). Now it feels like they went out and got some very good coaches, and it looks like they might be good again. That makes me miss Radio.

We miss you Radio

However, it remains to the be seen whether the holy trinity of Rick Nudeweasel, Norm "Puppy" Chow, and DeWayne "Dy-No-Mite" Walker can deliver UCLA back to football greatness. Frankenstein efforts, particularly in big sports markets like LA and New York, to bring in a group of seasoned players or coaches who've won elsewhere hoping their combined pasts can coalesce into a championship, tend to blow up in people's faces. It's not as simple as good coach + good coach + good coach = great team. Resumes don't win games, and typically, throwing the same colors on a bunch of people who have won elsewhere doesn't mean they'll all win together.

USC fans will tell you Puppy Chow can't recruit and didn't start doing well at USC until Leinart got there. Washington and Colorado fans will tell you that Nudeweasel will start pointing fingers and placing blame, alienating his coaches and players at the first sign of trouble. And Dy-No-Mite lobbied hard for the UCLA job and wants his own head coach position. All three of these guys are strong personalities, with big egos, used to doing it their own way. They get a free pass with all the injuries this year, but it will be interesting to see how long this menage-a-trois works if UCLA doesn't show improvement over the Dorrellian years.

DeWayne Walker: Dy-No-Mite like Jimmie JJ Walker,
and lobbying hard for Neuheisel's job


Memo to Nudeweasel and Puppy Chow: run the 2-minute offense all game.

Kevin Craft looks like John Elway in the two minute offense, and John Rocker in every other kind of offense. It is hard to tell from watching UCLA whether this is the Chow offense, the Neuheisel offense, or a hybrid. The 2 minute offense looks more like Chow's if only because they are going 4 and 5 wide, guys always look open and the QB doesn't hold the ball a long time. But they are definitely not running the old BYU, Lavell Edwards stuff (which I happen to think was some of the most entertaining offense ever in college football).

In terms of scheme, neither Chow nor Neuheisel runs a complicated system. Chow in particular likes to keep things very simple for his QBs - simple read, very few routes, and then short, medium and deep throws. Where Chow had so much success at USC was knowing what play to dial up (and having a freakish amount of talent to work with). Obviously he has neither now, so the offense looks a lot more straightforward. Both coaches strive for balance in run and pass, and being sound in their execution. They are not gimmicky in their schemes, but they like to attack the whole field. Honestly though, with the injuries at offensive line, and the total lack of production for Craft except in two late game situations, it's hard to get much more of a read on this offense.


Cal's secondary and linebackers vs Kevin Craft

Craft has definitely had trouble with bone-headed turnovers, particularly INTs early in the game. Many of them have been sort of head-scratcher plays where he just plain threw it where no receiver could catch it, right to a defender. For some of its struggles against good passing teams, this Cal defense is a good ballhawking defense, especially in zone. I think they will be looking for the pick all day long, and I expect them to be disruptive to Craft's rhythm. If the d-line can get pressure (which they should with UCLA"s banged up o-line), I see Craft making mistakes, similar to the way Carpenter did vs. Cal a few weeks ago.

Edge: Cal

Caveat: If this game stays close and UCLA goes 2 minute, Cal is in trouble. If UCLA has to drive in crunch time, Cal will very likely give up a score.

Cal's d-line and linebackers vs. UCLA's pass protection

This is another area where UCLA has struggled, and where Cal has had some success. UCLA's offensive line is a patchwork unit right now that is pretty banged up. They've been able to avoid a ton of sacks because they roll Craft out so much. But if Gregory lets the dogs loose (which he should), I think Cal is going to be all over Craft. Williams and Follett rushing, plus some zone blitzing using Syd, could make things very difficult on a QB who is already struggling a bit to get comfortable in games, especially on the road.

Edge: Cal - if Gregory goes jailbreak. Otherwise, Craft is going to get comfortable in the second half and start lighting us up.


UCLA's defense under Walker is a gambling, attacking defense, that swarms to the ball well, and attacks the line of scrimmage well. While they will not necessarily line up in a run-heavy set, they play the run very aggressively, especially the safeties, which is why they can be beaten over the top at times. But generally, they are very disciplined in stopping the ground game and short to medium pass game. Their corners play some press and can get beat in man. Cal had virtually no success running on them last year, and not much more the year before - Lynch got his yards on screens and a few bigger plays.

Cal run game vs. UCLA defensive tackles Price and Harwell

Cal is about to face a black hole the middle of the defense. Defensive tackles Brian Price and Brigham Harwell are big, strong, and quick, and in my opinion, are the best Pac 10 DT tandem since Cody and Patterson at USC. Both guys, Price in particular, are NFL caliber players, and absolutely control the middle all game long, in pass and in run. I hate to say it, but Malele and Boskovich run the risk of being outmanned and outclassed tomorrow. What's worse, Malele is a bit gimpy, Boskovich is making his third start, and both their backups have never started and barely seen playing time. To give you an idea of what lies in store for our young guards, last year, Mack had arguably his worst game as a Bear against this defense - Harwell was hurt, but Price was playing.

I really don't see Cal having a ton of success with runs up the middle. I think some of their power schemes can work if UCLA doesn't load the box, because of the blocking angles those plays allow, but overall, these two tackles are going to disrupt things all day long.

Edge: UCLA

Cal passing game vs. aggressive run defense

This has really become the monkey on Cal's back this season. Ironically, Jeff Tedford, the guy who epitomizes offensive balance and precision passing, is having trouble making teams respect his passing game. I would say Cal should be able to exploit UCLA since Longshore did a decent job of it last season in the first half, but Longshore did that versus ASU and Arizona, and those games were not good offensive games for Cal. Plus, with Cal's defense giving up big plays here and there (this is becoming a trend), Cal will likely need to pass well for 4 quarters, something they haven't done all season. And if Riley starts, who knows if he will be able to beat teams deep - outside of two passes versus Michigan State, he hasn't yet.

The other problem is the wide receivers. Cal's receivers have made some good plays, but they've also been sloppy coming out of their breaks, mis-run their routes, and dropped balls. UCLA has young corners who can be taken advantage of, but so did Arizona, and Cal couldn't capitalize enough on that. Unlike some things in football, WR struggles are often not about effort. Catching balls and route running are about lots of repetition and practice. I am just not sure Cal's WRs are there yet.

Edge: Push. I think Cal will continue to struggle deep, but I think they will succeed with some screens, quick balls over the middle, and some play action.

So where do I think Cal is going to get its points? I think the defense is going to keep getting the ball back, and I think Cal is going to get some big plays off turnovers and special teams. UCLA is not a great road team and Cal is going to be jacked up at home. Traditionally, this has meant big plays for Cal.

Other things to watch for:

1. Don't be surprised to see Best and Vereen on the field together. I think the coaches are going to look for ways to get both guys involved, both to protect Best from the pounding of running the ball, and to take some of the pressure off the receivers to produce in the passing game.

2. I expect Riley to play in this game, maybe not start, but play sooner, especially if the offense sputters, which it might.

3. I think Cal may try some gadgetry in this game. This seems like a perfect time to do it, with the team looking for some mojo, and facing an offense in UCLA that is probably not going to drop 40+ on Cal and make it pay for every mistake.

I see Cal coming away with the win, but this is not going to be the game where the offense pulls it all together. I think the defense is going to make plays, Anger is going to make life difficult for UCLA's offense, and Cal is going to make enough plays to keep the momentum on their side and the crowd involved.


Anonymous said...

Your previews have been pretty spot on so far so I take them seriously. Not a pretty offensive game for both sides, tho watch out for UCLA gadgets as well. Don't let Craft get into any rhythm!! For the Cal O - after watching Toby Gerhardt run over the UCLA D, it's hard to think we can't be effective. But the O-line hasn't been our strong suit this year. Passing game - this will be one of those where we need to be patient, take the sacks & timing disruptions, but burn them on big plays. Riley's the guy.

SDGoldenBear said...

Well the Bears took your advice anonymous - they didn't let Craft get into a rhythm. And they burned them on big plays.

Look forward to your comments on the Oregon preview.

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