November 23, 2011

First look: Cal

Washington State hadn't created many headlines before it defeated Arizona State two weeks ago, but something coach Paul Wulff said stirred reporters across the Pac-12 landscape into a fury of tweets, mini-stories and blog posts.

Wulff said California was the most talented team his had faced -- better than Oregon and Stanford.

The statement was used to paint Wulff as a crazy-man.

But maybe he wasn't so far off.

With the third best recruiting class in the Pac-10 in both 2010 and 2011, per Rivals.com, it's not such an outlandish claim.

Over the last two years, the Golden Bears have been good enough to nearly beat three Top 15-teams, losing by a grand total of six points in those games, including a loss by two against the Ducks last year (giving up just 15 points), while coming within a field goal of Stanford last week. In five of their last six conference wins, they've been good enough to blow out the opponent by 17 points or more.

But they've also been bad enough to be virtually uncompetitive in many of their losses during the last two years -- seven by 17 points or more.

Given Arizona State's most recent loss to Cal -- 50-17 last year in Berkeley -- and given the must-win situation the team is in, one would think the Golden Bears are viewed as perhaps the second best team, at least on paper, to come into Sun Devil Stadium this year.

"You look at Cal and they probably have as good of talent as anybody in our league on both sides of the football," ASU coach Dennis Erickson said. "You look at them defensively and they're extremely physical in their front seven. They've had great recruiting classes the last two or three years. They can dominate. They're big up front offensively. They run the football, their offensive line is good. Their quarterback (Zach) Maynard is playing a lot better. He played extremely well against Stanford after watching that game. They're a team I'm sure that is pretty disappointed with where they're at also."

Cal has the 21st ranked defense in the country. It has the 41st ranked offense in the country. It has a positive turnover differential. It's eighth in net punting, and middling to good in most special teams categories. The Bears look like a team that should be in the top-25 or close to it. They are certainly more impressive statistically than the Sun Devils, who appear significantly boosted by a fluky turnover differential, yet somehow share their record and aren't thought of as in the same ilk -- underachievers.

What gives?

One is tempted to say penalties, as Cal has racked up the most penalty yards in the country, 120th to ASU's 119th ranking.

Confounding, however, is the fact that Cal has been more penalized in wins than losses, and in its losses it hasn't had a significant penalty yardage differential with its opponent.

They're even more enigmatic when viewed game-by-game.

It lost to Washington despite outgaining it and receiving two more turnovers. It had 465 yards and no turnovers against Oregon yet scored 15 points. It out-gained USC but lost by three touchdowns.

Outside of the UCLA game, where it was significantly outgained with a negative three turnover margin, the mere fact that the Golden Bears lost, or the margin with which they've lost doesn't add up.

Perhaps Cal's most recent defeat to Stanford could provide a glimpse of its capabilities.

Its three-four base defense, led by future NFL linebackers Mychal Kendricks and D.J. Holt, ends Trevor Guyton and Ernest Owusu, held Stanford a yard below its rushing average on the year. And that doesn't tell the whole story because 34 yards came on a wide receiver reverse. The Cardinal's leading rusher, Stepfan Taylor, was held nearly three yards below his average on the year - 2.9 per carry.

And the Golden Bears secondary, lead by future NFL safety Sean Cattouse, held Andrew Luck to his third least efficient passing game of the year -- perhaps his second least efficient overall considering his (-1) rushing yards.

"They're extremely athletic, especially their defensive line," ASU junior quarterback Brock Osweiler said. "Those guys really impress me up front. Overall, I would say their entire defense has a lot of teams to beat. In saying that, this is one of the better defenses that we have played all season. We really have our work cut out for us offensively this week."

Offensively, Cal has one of the better offensive lines in the conference, with left tackle Mitchell Schwartz -- a projected mid-round pick -- leading the way.

Its No. 1 running back, breakaway threat Isi Sofele, has 420 yards on 67 carries the last three weeks (more than six yards per tote).

It also has one of the country's top young receiving talents, sophomore Keenan Allen, who put together a three game stretch against Washington, Oregon and USC where he put up the following numbers: 10 catches for 197 yards, nine catches for 170 yards and 13 catches for 160 yards -- all of which came with a struggling quarterback.

But Golden Bear signal-caller Zach Maynard didn't struggle last week, putting up his highest quarterback rating of the season against Stanford.

While California isn't playing for a spot in a conference championship game like ASU, and its coach Jeff Tedford isn't fighting for his job and is seemingly locked into the program's long-term plans, it may the most difficult home opponent ASU plays all year given the circumstances it faces.



 

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