Sunday, August 5, 2007

2007 Preview: California Bears

After a bye, the Bruins will return to action in the 7th week of the season against the Cal Bears. Most pre-season magazines and polls have UCLA and Cal in a virtual tie for second place in the conference. This will be an absolutely crucial game for both teams and a likely must-win scenario if either program has dreams of taking the conference crown away from the Trojans. It has been a competitive series over the last decade with the home team coming away with a victory in the last seven meetings.

The Bears had a great 2006 campaign, racking up double digit wins, a conference co-championship, and an impressive Holiday Bowl beat down on Texas A&M. The key to their success was a high-powered offense that was able to compensate for a less-than-stellar defense. They still retain much of that offensive fire power but the other side of the ball will have quite a few new faces this season.

The high flying Bear's offense will match up against a very good UCLA defense. Walker and his squad were, unfortunately, out schemed and out played last year at Strawberry Canyon. I think this year they will come into the game much more aggressive and eager to atone for last season's defeat. The Bruin offense actually put up some big numbers last year, racking up a season high 516 yards against Tedford and company. However, they struggled to get the ball in the end zone and failed to capitalize on some good drives. The big question for this game is who will improve the most, UCLA's offense or the Cal defense? The answer will likely be the winner of the matchup, as well.

Offense

The Bears experimented with a "Ted-Spread" offense last season with some mixed results. This year there might be a little less spread, but the Bears are still focusing their offense through junior quarterback Nate Longshore. They'll also ask a lot form their versatile running backs and receivers as the Bears passing attack will again be very potent. They introduce a new offensive coordinator, Jim Michalczik, but Tedford is still the mastermind of this offense.

Nate Longshore is back behind center. In his first full season for the Bears he put up a very impressive 3,021 yards with 24 touchdowns. He also had the second best pass efficiency rating in he conference and the Bears will rely on Longshore's arm to win a lot of games this year. The one troubling number was the 13 interceptions. The Bruin secondary is going to have to try and take a ball or two away from the Bears and the opportunity is there.

The big loss for Berkeley was the early departure of Marshawn Lynch to the NFL. Lynch was a key component of the offense and he won't be easily replaced. Justin Forsett will step into the starting role for the first time, but he brings a lot of experience and physical ability to the position. The one question mark is his size. He's 5'8" and 185 lbs and he'll take a lot more punishment as the feature back this season. Joining him in the rotation will be two red-shirt freshman. James Montgomery and Tracy Solcum are the top contenders for the second tailback role and both bring a little more size and physical play than Forsett. The Bear's running game may not be as threatening this time, but the Bruin front seven will still have their hands full.

DeSean Jackson is still the headliner for the Bears at receiver and he is getting some pre-season Heisman hype. He is a big play and deep ball threat and his speed and natural ability makes him a very difficult matchup. Joining him is Robert Jordan who has a ton of experience and runs great routes and Lavelle Hawkins who is primed for an All American season. The Bruins tried to give a little more help to the corners last year and the zone matchups they employed were not very effective. Expect a much more aggresive, blitzing attack this year and that's going to leave Trey Brown and Rodney Van in more man-to-man coverage. They're going to have to bring their best game of the whole season if they expect to keep this unit in check.

The Bears have always had very good offensive lines and this season should be no exception. They do have to replace two of last year's starters, but they get back center Alex Mack. Mack was a first team PAC-10 selection and one of the best centers in the country. Despite that, the Berkeley coaches have considered moving him to tackle to allow talented backup Chris Guarnero to get on the field. Senior Mike Gibson and junior Mike Tepper are back. UCLA got almost no pressure on Longshore last year and the Bruin's defensive line is going to have to step-up and put a lot more heat on the Bear's quarterback.

Defense

The Cal defense gave up a lot of yards last year, ranking their total defense 8th in the conference. The flip-side of that number is that the Bears stood strong when required and had a surprisingly good scoring defense, second only to USC in the PAC-10. This bend-don't-break defense will be challenged this season as they need to replace three big stars and the vast majority of their front seven. When they come to Pasadena in the seventh week of the season, those new faces may not be so new anymore, but there still won't be a ton of experience on this side of the ball.

The D-line loses their big play maker and star tackle in Brandon Mebane. This unit will be starting almost from scratch having to replace three of last year's four starters. The sole returning player is the big man in the middle, defense tackle Matt Malele. The big 335 lb senior will be starting for the 3rd season in a row and he'll have to shepherd along the new guys. Mika Kane has played in the rotation the last two years and this will be his opportunity to really step up and prove himself. The ends, Tyson Alualu and Cody Jones, are young but Alualu brings a lot of size and Jones some speed. An experienced Bruin line should be able to provide better running lanes over last season's effort. Chris Markey had some nice holes and even cranked out a big 70-yard run for a TD up in Strawberry Cannon. He'll be asked to gain some yards in big chunks this time as well.

The Bear's lose two linebackers to graduation including Mickey Pimentel and standout Desmond Bishop. That might concern some teams but Cal has such a talented and experienced set of backups that there will likely be little to no drop-off this season. Worrell Williams is the sole returning starter and he'll be moving to the middle linebacker spot in Bear's 4-3. Anthony Felder and Zack Follett will be the new starters, but Follett is hardly a new face. He racked up 62 tackles, 12.5 tackles for loss and 5.5 sacks and four forced fumbles as a reserve last season. That effort was good enough to earn him a spot on the All Pac-10 team.

The biggest loss on defense was the departure of Daymeion Hughes to the NFL. This secondary has some talent but nobody will be able to replace Hughes. Syd'Quan Thompson is back at the other corner spot and Bernard Hicks returns at strong safety. Ben is a much better passer than Pat and he should be able to move the ball through the air in this game as well. We'll have to see how this unit handles the departure of Hughes and if the young blood can gel by week 7. If not then the Bruin passing attack under Norvell's pass-first strategy could garner UCLA some big gains.

Special Teams

Cal has struggled in this area in the past, and big punt returns by Maurice Drew absolutely killed Tedford's team back in 2005. That all changed last season and the Bears return probably the best special teams unit in the PAC-10 in 2007. The kicking game is very good with the return of the consistent Tom Schneider. The Bears also return punter Andrew Larson, who's 42.6 yard average, is almost identical to Aaron Perez.

Desean Jackson had an amazing four punt return touchdowns last year, including that big return against the Bruins that put the game out of reach. Perez will have to work on directing the ball away from Jackson. Forsett could take the kick return role and he's already proven to be a big play maker.


The Verdict

I've gone back and forth in my head on this one so many times I'm dizzy. Both teams have strengths and weaknesses that are the opposite of the other. Cal has a great offense and the Bruins have a stout defense. UCLA has a lot of veterans and Cal has some exciting young players. The Bruins have home field advantage and UCLA has been very tough to beat at home over the last two years. The Bears special teams unit could crank out another big play to push the game in Berkeley's favor.

In the end I'm going to give the nod to the Bruins, but just barely. I think this one comes down to the 4th quarter and I like all of the experienced UCLA seniors in that kind of scenario. I think a more aggressive Bruin defense will slow down Cal's offense and the Bears inexperienced defense will be just slightly less effective at stopping an improved Bruin offense. UCLA also has an extra week to prepare for this game and they were awesome against the Trojans last year with the extra time. Things could change by the time we get to this point in the season and predicting this far in advance is never easy.

CalPoly's Prediction: Bruin victory. (6-1, 3-1)

The Bear Brief

Recruiting rankings for the last 4 years (Scout.com is the first number, Rivals.com is the second):

2007: #12, #22, 25 commits
2006: #23, #19, 20 commits
2005: #09, #09, 24 commits
2004: #29, #23, 19 commits

2006 statistical rankings (National ranking is the first number, PAC-10 rank is the second):

Total Offense : 12, 2.
Scoring Offense: 11, 1.

Rushing Offense: 33, 3.
Passing Offense: 17, 3.

Total Defense : 91, 8.
Scoring Defense: 32, 2.

Rushing Defense: 47, 7.
Passing Defense: 50, 5.


Game info:
September 29. Time and TV package are still TBD.

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(photo credit: Ghetty Images)

2 comments:

Anonymous said...

You are quite right. You will both be playing for 2nd place.

MoreNCsarecoming 8/6/07

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