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October 17, 2009

Bruins host Cal in key matchup

Saturday sees the invasion of the Golden Bears from north, the Berkeley campus of the U of California traveling down to play the team from the Los Angeles Campus, which is located in Westwood, in a game to be played in Pasadena. It may sound confusing, but it is the state of California after all, but there will be a football game between the two and both want to end a two-game losing streak.

Both schools started off 3-0 although the OOC opposition was quite suspect. The Bears beat Maryland, a low-level ACC team which isn't saying very much at all; then beat a directional school from the northwest, Eastern Washington, and finally beat a decent if not great opponent on the road in Minnesota, with UC's fine running back, Jahvid Best, encouraging Heisman Contender talk by scoring five touchdowns on the afternoon.

The Cal defense gave up 21 points to the Golden Gophers, however, a statistic that probably ought to have raised some warning signs for the California faithful. And those two records against that particular level of OOC opposition is why you don't really want to take early season results against unknown opponents all that seriously.

Since then, the Bears haven't scored a touchdown, not one. They have entered conference play, as have the Bruins, and with similar results. Of course their losses came at the hands of the two best teams in the conference, but they still had to hurt. A lot.

The Bears got rolled by Oregon, 42-3, then played USC tough in Strawberry Canyon last week, still losing 23-3. Therefore, both UC campus' Pac10 title chances are hanging by a thread - no surprise for the rebuilding Bruins, perhaps, but pundits were looking for Cal to be one of three contenders for the Pac10 championship this year along with the Ducks and Trojans. That question has probably already been decided on the field of play. What remains now is the rest of the season.

Cal's running game is strong with Best and also Shane Vereen capable of breaking away and taking the ball to the house on any play. Best is averaging nearly 6 yards a carry for the season; the team's average is about five. The hang-up, however, is at quarterback.

Based on past performance and the existence of a strong running threat, you would have expected quarterback Kevin Riley to have done quite well this year, especially under the guidance of Coach Jeff Tedford who gets a whole lot of mention as a quarterback guru. But that's just not been the case. Riley stands around 50% completion rate and has been unable to convert when required to keep drives alive against the strong defenses presented by Oregon (as the Bruins learned last weekend) and SC.

On the other side of the ball, Oregon just plain ran over the Cal defense, turning a tensely anticipated battle into a laugher. Oregon was playing at home and they had Jeremiah Masoli available at quarterback, but the point is they did it - literally - by running. No doubt Coach Rick Neuheisel and Coach Norm Chow will look to try to emulate that strategy on Saturday by trying to their running game into gear.

Like the Trojans, the Bruins will be going with a freshman starting quarterback in Kevin Prince, now with a game under his belt after his absence due to a broken jaw. The question here is if the Bruins' young offensive line has the strength and experience at this point to enforce the running game against the Bears.

Another factor in this game, like it was with Oregon, is the return home of a number of California players, including defensive back Darian Hagan from Los Angeles (Calif.) Crenshaw. These SoCal transplants will be steamed up to play well in front of friends and family members who will turn out to watch them perform. And of course Cal's season is on the line.

At this point in the season, it no longer takes a looking glass to foretell the possibilities. Stand back a bit and remember what you were thinking (not feeling or hoping but thinking) before the year began, Cal was supposed to be one of the top three in the conference. That's in question, now, largely because they haven't gotten the play at quarterback you'd expect a top conference team to get and because their defense hasn't met the challenges when they came.

But their two losses were to the two best teams in the conference. Stanford started out against Washington and Washington State; Cal had Oregon and SC first. What that means is that the two losses don't mean Cal can't still finish third in the Pac10. And, for the second week in a row, UCLA approaches this game as a 3 point underdog.

The Bruins were expected to be improved in this, Rick Neuheisel's second season heading up the football program at his alma mater. Most experts said six wins. Many Bruin fans were more optimistic and or hopeful.

Certainly the Bruins are a better team than they were a year ago. But problems, especially on the young offensive line and at quarterback - enormous problem areas a year ago - and on special teams covering kick returns, have limited their effectiveness.

The defense has been good but not great, vulnerable to giving up a big play here and there. But UCLA's defense gave up only 10 points to the high-flying Oregon Ducks (while the offense and special teams gave up a touchdown each). So, while the defense has drawn some criticism, it did perform better than did Cal's D against Oregon. It just isn't good enough to beat quality opponents by itself.

The keys to the game this weekend are pretty familiar. On defense, the Bruins' have to make sure to carry out their assignments. Without Masoli in there last weekend, the Ducks were only able to turn one offensive play into a breakaway touchdown. Best and Vereen are threats to do that on every play if Bruin defenders over-run the play or fail to stay in their assigned gaps. The Bruins' defenders have to perform within the game plan; in Coach Neuheisel-speak, they have to "execute."

For the Bears, on offense, Riley has to have a better game than he's shown against their last two opponents and on defense, they have to force Prince to try to beat them. On offense, the Bruins have to be able to rush successfully and to convert on third downs, by land or by air. Above all, both teams have to protect the ball.

Chow's offense is a pass-based, ball control offense. Those little dink and dunk pass plays along with the running game - that is the basic offense. That's what Chow did at SC - when he had Carson Palmer at quarterback. It's designed to take what the defense gives you. You then take the long pass play when it's open, if it's open, if your receivers can run the right route, make the right read, and catch the ball when it gets there and if your offensive line gives the quarterback the time to allow the play to develop before throwing it, and if he can get the ball out there far and accurately enough.

The short passing controls the game. It eats clock as well as yardage and keeps the opponent's offense on the sidelines. A bonus is that for the most part it also keeps young quarterbacks and receivers within their comfort zones and protects against turnovers. It's up to the players to learn to extend those comfort zones to include getting the ball down field when that's there to take, and breaking the big play off the run as well. But even more important to this young UCLA offense, don't turn the ball over and give opponents a short field with which to work.

So, the Bruins have to stay home on defense and stop the running game, dare Riley to beat you through the air, hoping he doesn't suddenly come alive, and take it away if they can force him to rush his throws. Cal will have the same game plan against the Bruins - play to stop the run and contain the short passing game and force Prince to try to win the game with his arm. Again the kicking game favors the Bruins. But can they effectively cover kicks to avoid giving up the big play? And can they get the ball across the goal line rather than have to settle for having the country's best field goal kicker put it over the crossbar and between the uprights?

Before the season you figured Cal would be a pretty heavy favorite in this one. And this wasn't one of the six games the Bruins were expected to win. But Coach Tedford hasn't been able to beat the Bruins in Pasadena and the Bears have shown enough vulnerabilities to lead the Bruins to believe they have a realistic shot at winning this one. A strong and supportive fan turnout could play an important role.


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