Finally, it's football season fans. "The Snap's" initial Cal football preview focuses in on this Saturday's opponent, Cal's neighbor to the north, the Sacramento State Hornets. Unlike most of the previews that fans will read, "The Snap" examines the game from both sidelines. That starts off with the Hornets and third-year head coach Steve Mooshagian, who Cal.Rivals visited on Wednesday during and after a CSUS practice.
The Hornets are obviously massive underdogs against the Golden Bears this Saturday. There's little doubt in every prognosticators mind that Cal will be the winner of this game when the final gun sounds. But for Cinderella's sake, with 60,000 fun-lovin' college football fans likely to be in attendance, previewing what they might see on the field sounds like a great idea to us. So here is a is a preview of the Sacramento State Hornets, the Big Sky's predicted 2005 last-place squad.
CSUS Long-Term Goals
"The goal for us is to be the best athletic program in the Cal-State University system," said Sacramento State athletic director Dr. Terry Wanless during practice. "We feel we are heading in that direction. We have 20 athletic programs here at CSUS now and we are improving our facilities as we speak."
In the CSUS football program, the Hornets are currently trying to get to what they like to call "normal" in Coach Mooshagian's third year. After taking over a program that recruited in an extremely limited fashion, CSUS football staffers' have had plenty of issues developing players that were already in the system. Therefore, bringing in new players that possess the talent level that CSUS wants to be known for has been the key. In recruiting, Coach Mooshagian has definitely raised the bar since his arrival. The former Cincinnati Bengals receivers' coach, who helped shape part of All-Pro receiver Chad Johnson's career as well as the budding stardom of wideout T.J Houshmandzadeh, came back to his native California because he wanted to build a college program that his family could be close to. With his son Bobby Mooshagian now a freshman and part of the Hornets receiving corps, plus numerous family and friends a key component of the CSUS program, Coach Mooshagian has accomplished a number of his goals.
"Yes, those indeed were my goals when I came to Sacramento," said Coach Mooshagian. "My dad will see his grandson play his first college football game this Saturday so it's a great thing." To be coaching against a close friend across the sidelines will be even more thrilling. Coach Mooshagian and California head coach Jeff Tedford have been lifelong friends since their teenage days in Fresno, California. They were teammates at both Cerritos Junior College and Fresno State, roommates during road games, and assistant coaches for the Bulldogs in the early 90's. A wide receiver for the Bulldogs, Coach Mooshagian was even Tedford's host during his visit to Fresno State.
"Where's the Beef?"
While Coach Tedford also has fond memories of Coach Mooshagian, the Sacramento State coach also has one outstanding story to tell about the Golden Bears current coach. "I know too many stories about Jeff and if he isn't good to me, I'll leak them to the media," said Coach Mooshagian with his familiar smile. "But actually, the one story that comes to mind is that when he came to back to Fresno State as a coach (in 1992), Jeff and his wife Donna had decided to start saving money. Like everybody else, you bring a lunch to work and Jeff always had two slices and cheese - no meat. So we always use to joke him about not having any meat. After he was hired at Cal, I called him and told him that I am sure he's got plenty of meat on his sandwiches. He just replied, 'how do you remember that stuff?' But truly, Jeff hasn't changed at all."
The Buzz on Offense
Under Coach Mooshagian, the Hornets have possessed a very balanced offensive attack over the past three years. Last year alone, CSUS rushed for 1,080 yards on 343 carries (averaging 3.1 yards per attempt) and passed for 2,109 yards on 346 attempts (averaging 6.1 yards per attempt). Throwing 346 times and rushing 343 times is extremely balanced. Much of last year's passing attack featured Sacramento veterans Ryan Leadingham, a four-year starter, and Division 1-AA All-American Fred Amey, perhaps the Hornets greatest offensive player ever. The surprise of the San Francisco 49'ers pre-season, Amey caught a pass in each of his collegiate games and left Sacramento State as just the second player in NCAA Div. 1-AA history to record over 4,000 career receiving yards and 6,000 career all-purpose yards. He was the one player the past few years that made Sacramento State fun to watch. Amey looks like he'll make the 49'ers roster as a non-drafted free agent. Former CSUS quarterback Ricky Ray is already the Canadian Football League's highest paid player and fellow Sacramento State alum Charles Roberts has been the CFL's top back three years' running.
So with the loss of CSUS veterans Leadingham and Amey, the Hornets will have to find players to step up on offense. The candidate most likely to step in to Leadingham's QB spot is recent UTEP transfer Chris Hurd, who came to Sacramento State just a few weeks ago after stints at both Washington State and UTEP. A native of Antioch, Calif., Hurd will be a senior in 2005. He began his career in 2001 when he redshirted at Washington State under head coach Mike Price. The following season he played in four games. After missing the 2003 season due to an injury, Hurd transferred to UTEP in 2004 where he rejoined Coach Price. NCAA transfer rules forced Hurd to sit all of last season with the Miners.
Why is Hurd such a big story? If he's eligible, he will be the starter for the Hornets this Saturday. He possesses the arm strength, running ability, and experience to be a major factor in the Big Sky. There's no questioning his talent; he was easily the best quarterback during Wednesday's practice and has clearly been the best all fall. The Bay Area native is hoping to be eligible prior to the opener. If Hurd isn't cleared to play by the NCAA, senior Brad Tredway will get the nod. He's an adequate quarterback who likes to move when he throws but possesses limited arm strength and experience. Tredway played sparingly last year behind Leadingham, picking up less than 30 attempts in four games.
What player will step into Amey's role? It'd be hard to find a player to do what Amey did during his illustrious CSUS career. However, senior Ryan Coogler will give it his all. Expect him to be Hurd or Tredway's number one target in the offense. Coogler will also return kicks. Sophomore Billy White will be part of the rotation along with freshmen Brian Mooshagian and Elon Page. Sacramento State also has a number of sophomores they bring back at the wide-receiver position, plus converted quarterback prospect Chris Cavender.
The one familiar commodity Coach Mooshagian welcomes back on offense is an experienced running game. The offensive line has all five starters back plus their top two reserves. Sixth year senior Mason Mitchell has been a big surprise in camp after converting from the defensive line. Starting senior tackles Dustin Nicolodi and Chris Samuels anchor the line. They are both all-Big Sky candidates.
Running behind the underrated Sacramento State offensive line is sophomore starter Ryan Mole. The co-Big Sky Newcomer of the Year from central California, Mole gained 858 yards in 9 games earning Div. 1-AA Freshman All-American honors. Mole really cranked it up at the end of the season last year gaining 422 yards in back to back games against Montana State and Montana. He had runs of 87, 63, and 50 yards which showed his explosiveness.
"I was really happy with some of my games last year," said Mole after practice. "My goals this year are 1,500 yards and 20 touchdowns. I want to show leadership to some of the new guys but most importantly, as a team, we want to win."
Experienced Hornet D'
Defensively, Sacramento State has an experienced group back. They have three all-Big Sky defensive backs returning and their top six defensive backs overall. That list includes starting corners Brandon Smith, a senior, and Bryan Parker, a sophomore, plus second-year starting safeties Brett Shelton and Brent Webber. Sacramento City College transfer Keil McDonald, a 2004 starting cornerback for Arizona during the first two games, should play plenty on Saturday.
The leader of the Hornets defense is senior Matt Logue, a solid linebacker that the Bears will be keying on. In passing situations, finding out where Logue lines up will be important for the Bears blocking back. He's a four-year starter who has an outside shot at becoming Sacramento State's all-time tackling leader.
The defensive front has 7 players that return. They are highlighted by senior Jacob Houston and sophomore Chris Hurts. "We have a key group of returners which we'll count on up front," said Coach Mooshagian.
Asked what kind of game-plan he would like to see Cal employ Saturday, Sacramento State head coach Steve Mooshagian responded that he wants the Bears to run the ball 90 times.
Why? "That will get the game over in 2 hours 15 minutes," Mooshagian said.
Certainly this weekend's season-opener will not be a close game. It will not answer every question about the 2005 Bears. But with the team's first Pac-10 game only a week away here are five things that you will see:
Mooshagian will not get his quick-game wish. With an unproven starter in Nate Longshore and an unproven backup in Joe Ayoob, the Bears will certainly put the ball in the air. If Longshore is able to build a lead early, do not be surprised he shifts to the sidelines and Ayoob comes in firing.
Tedford declared this week that while he would like to see both quarterbacks get the opportunity to play, that, "this is not going to be a two-quarterback system." Unlike in 2003, "I don't think that this will go four games. It's a different situation; then we had Reggie [Robertson] who had experience in Pac-10 play. This is different; both of them have a lack of experience."
In order to settle whatever quarterback controversy remains, look for both quarterbacks to utilize most of the full playbook for at least a few series. Especially in a lopsided game, some focus may be placed on each quarterbacks weaknesses. For Longshore, that would be maneuverability and for Ayoob, his arm strength. Both should be throwing to open receivers with starters DeSean Jackson and Lavelle Hawkins getting the separation that their speed brings to the table. Look for lots of receivers to rotate in-the teams only receiver with true experience, Robert Jordan, is suspended for the game.
Marshawn Gets His
Tedford, frustrated last year that J.J. Arrington, the nation's best running back in nearly every category, received little postseason award consideration will see to it that things are different for Marshawn Lynch.
While Tedford's mantra through summer camp has been that Lynch is simply a talented member of a talented team, his actions have shown that the sophomore is getting special consideration. Tedford has made Lynch only available to the media on Tuesdays, and has strictly limited his number of interviews. This policy has already attracted mention in some national publications. Clearly, Tedford expects more attention for the charismatic Lynch than the quiet Arrington never received.
Despite the presence of three other talented running backs (Justin Forsett, Terrell Williams, and Marcus O'Keith) Lynch will receive enough carries and yards that the game does not count against him come postseason awards time. If the Bears have the ball near the goal line, look for Tedford to forego the quarterback option he frequently employs and instead hand the ball to Lynch. The numbers go up while Lynch will then take his spot on the sidelines. Lynch should remain in the game long enough to replicate the stats of Oregon State's Stephen Jackson against the Hornets two years ago. On 23 carries, Jackson ran for 129 yards and two touchdowns in a 40-7 win.
Inexperienced California D'
As previously mentioned, the Hornets area of relative strength is their running game behind a decent offensive line and experienced sophomore running back, Ryan Mole. Against the Bears, he will face a largely untested defensive line. But the Bears front four still should dominate. On the interior Brandon Mebane appeared to be a force at times last year and his junior year could lead to first-team all Pac-10 honors. During his press conference on Tuesday, Tedford identified him as the player that will soon become a household name. "Brandon Mebane's a guy who can step up and be one of the most dominating players in the conference," Tedford said.
The questions are on the outside where Bob Gregory has four players who might see significant playing time-senior Tosh Lupoi, juniors Nu'u Tafisi and Fahim Mujaahid Abd Allah, and sophomore Philip Mbakogu. Lupoi, now in his sixth year, missed last season due to injury, but likely would have started in 2004 if healthy. "He has experience obviously," Tedford said. "He's always been an intense person, but now, coming back he has a renewed passion."
The linebacking corps is similarly inexperienced. However, it is a group that has seemingly inspired more confidence in Tedford. Middle Linebacker Desmond Bishopwas the best defensive player in the country while at City College of San Francisco. He will be joined by Ryan Foltz, who started five games at the beginning of 2004, and Greg Van Hoesen, a talented sophomore.
The secondary is clearly the most experienced unit on the defensive side of the ball. The most important change in the off-season was the move of cornerback Harrison Smith to free safety. Always a hard hitter, Smith had struggled in one-on-one situations but improved last season and was an honorable mention All-Pac-10 selection. Tim Mixon, who led the team with three interceptions, will now get the opportunity to start every game opposite Daymeion Hughes. The unit's strength will be at rover where 2003 All Pac-10 selection Donnie McCleskey is healthy and will be joined by Thomas DeCoud.
Special Teams Fireworks
Physical advantages, especially in speed, will make for a huge special teams day for the Bears. Assuming Cal is able to shut down the Hornets offensive, punt returners Tim Mixon and DeSean Jackson should have numerous chances to break for big gains. Jackson will be looking to win the return duties away from the veteran, consistent Mixon. With better than 4.4 speed, Jackson could be the game-breaker that the Bears have lacked since Deltha O'Neal graduated. Kickoff returners Justin Forsett and Daymeion Hughes will probably have fewer chances since it is unlikely the Hornets will be putting many points on the board.
David Lonie has looked improved on kickoffs during camp, and he should get plenty of practice Saturday. Tom Schneider again will be handling field goals, and will likely get several opportunities on extra-points as the Bears easily move the ball up and down the field Saturday. Tedford likely will want to avoid last year's situation where Schneider did not attempt a field goal before the team's match-up with No. 1 USC. In that game, he missed a crucial kick with less than seven minutes remaining that would have brought the Bears within three points.
The Bears Win Big
The Bears enter the game as prohibitive favorites. They should have no problems scoring, and no problems stopping the Hornets offense. With so many players looking to prove they belong in the Bears starting lineup, do not look for them to simply build a lead and sit on it. Prediction: Bears 70 Hornets 6
Kevin Morsony writes a weekly premium article for Cal.Rivals entitled "The Snap". He served as a writer and columnist for The Daily Californian covering football, basketball and rugby for the last three years. Last season, he was the paper's football beat writer traveling to Air Force, Oregon State, USC and the Holiday Bowl. His feature, "King of California" earned 2nd place by the American Society of Professional Journalists for "Best Sports Writing" for California, Arizona and Nevada colleges. A true self-loathing Cal fan, his best moment as a writer was when he was told to keep his head up by Ben Braun after the men's basketball team lost 106-73 at home to Washington last season. Some of Kevin's first memories are of a nearly empty Memorial Stadium, where his father has held the same seats in section EE since 1974.