It's very likely we could lose on Saturday night, for reasons both obvious and not-so-obvious. We shouldn't get so down on ourselves if we're 2-2 going into the bye week. There are a lot of problems with this team that still have yet to be fixed, and until they get fixed, we're going to have to live with the ups and downs and recognize defeat is just as possible as victory. Patience is a necessity with this team, although patience is in short order in the world of college football.
Cal defense vs. Arizona offense.
1) Watch for playfakes. Don't think Arizona watched that gametape last week and wasn't thinking, "Oh, wow, I wish we ran the Pistol." There are plenty of other ways to use the Airraid to set up an opposing defense and bust it open. Play action is of course one idea, but generally, make a defense pay for being too aggressive and trying to be instinctive. This could cause all sorts of havoc and lead to huge plays by simply releasing the ball early.
2) Stop the run. Oh yes. Despite all the focus I put on the Airraid this morning, Arizona does run the football. People forget they beat the Furd last year off of two of these plays (when the Cardinal sold out to stole the pass and got caught napping when they were blocked out of the play). And don't forget the secret ingredient to victory for Arizona in 2008 wasn't the passing game (which did get a few huge throws), but Keoala Antolin gashing the front seven and forcing single coverage deep for Willie Tuitama to beat up. That cannot happen again. Him and Nic Grigsby must be bottled up.
FYI, here are the standard plays Arizona runs from either under center or in shotgun (usually a stretch or a dive). After seeing how Nevada needed only four base plays to run all over Cal, you'd have to think the Wildcats might want to go back to basics.
3) Linebacking play will be critical. A lot of this hinges on Mike Mohamed's presence, because in tandem with D.J. Holt. If he's not on the field, then Cal will be severely hampered down the middle, and Arizona can rely more heavily on their mesh route against the inexperienced side of the formation (namely, Robert Mullins, J.P. Hurrell, Steven Fanua). The shallow route could be particularly potent.
Even if he returns, it's hard to imagine Mohamed being super-effective after two weeks off practice. And...well, this is the most important area of the field, because these are the guys who have to chase the receivers running underneath. Not looking forward to see that play run over and over again.
4) Discipline. I wasn't kidding last week folks. Foles might not make many mistakes, but don't be dumb and let him beat you deep. Keep him front of you and force incompletions and punts. Tighten up the windows he has to throw to. Jamming receivers to throw guys off their routes and disrupt timing could also be a big help. But basically a much better effort is required to beat Arizona this week.
Clancy Pendergast had a terrible Friday in Reno. He has to show his unit's got more backbone this week.
5) No way will number 97 be allowed to rampage the way he was last season, so other defensive stars will have to emerge. Cameron Jordan double-teams mean other people will have to take advantage. Mychal Kendricks stunting inward or pressuring from the outside, or Derrick Hill rampaging in the middle, or Holt stepping up to pick up the slack for Mohamed's absence or problems. Someone will have to step up and make a few big plays, because it's hard to see the defense doing their thing for most of the game without doing something remarkable in stopping the Airraid attack.
6) Safeties will have to be prepared to knock on receivers on fade routes. Foles doesn't have an exceptional deep ball, but he can throw a pretty good fade to the sidelines. Of course moving the safeties outside will live the interior mighty vulnerable to a good crossing pattern, so whoever is back there (Josh Hill, Sean Cattouse, Chris Conte), they'd better be ready to make good reads.
7) Collapse the pocket. Last year, Cal managed to get plenty of pressure on Foles, with only three down linemen and a rush linebacker. The same formula might need to be in place here to ensure Arizona gets off the field. Iowa might've slowed them down, but our defense is no Iowa.
Cal offense vs. Arizona defense
1) Kevin Riley struggled with Arizona's defense last year. 13 of 22 with one touchdown and two picks isn't stellar (especially that pick by the red zone). He clearly can't replicate those numbers on the road and expect to win. Again, he has to establish short and middle throws. If he ends up doing what he did against Arizona in the 4th quarter last year and start hurling bombs up for grabs (which he tends to do when he panics), then the Bears are going to lose, and it'll not be pretty.
2) Offensive line's has to pass protect. Donovan Edwards and Mitchell Schwartz have their hands full against Ricky Elmore and Brooks Reed. If they can't, expect a lot of play-action rollouts to evade the pass rush, or expect the Bears to call a lot of screen plays or quick hitting motion on passing downs.
3) Running game has to get going. The Cal offensive line has been unimpressive in opening blocks for Shane Vereen. No one is expecting Eric Stevens to be great, so the guys with experience in front can't keep on getting pushed around up front. Isi Sofele needs those blocks to be effective as well.
The good news is that Vereen performed well last year behind a bad offensive line. The bad news is good defenses tend to play better at home, and Arizona has an imposing front four in Elmore, Reed, and Justin Washington and Lolomana Mikaele. The Wildcats have only allowed 2.49 rushing yards per attempt, and they seem like the perfect storm for a Cal offensive line that has yet to kick into high gear.
4) The most entertaining one-on-one matchup should feature wideout Marvin Jones vs. Arizona's big corner Trevin Wade (who had another pick six last week). Wade will be competing for All-American status, but Jones has shown he can go toe-to-toe with many a cover corner and put up big numbers. If Jones can have another big performance, he can keep Cal's offense from sputtering.
5) Attack the linebackers. That's why it's key that the tackles can hold their assignments one-on-one, since Anthony Miller can probably be utilized a lot more downfield in attacking the seams. If the safeties start have to play inside to provide support, then that'll open up the deep routes that Riley is so fond of throwing.
6) Spread out the field. The defensive line is clearly Arizona's strength. Take them out of the play by setting up wide receiver screens to guys like Keenan Allen, or a sweep with Jeremy Ross. Fake the handoff to Vereen, then let him roll out to the flat and play-action fake to him. Again, Riley has to step up and make the throws. He is going through his reads and controlling the offense. This is the week he has to seize the moment.
7) I very much doubt Arizona will big blitz. Their front four generates the majority of their pressure, so they should be ok on their own; the Wildcats should be content to drop their guys into coverage and make Riley beat them. Plus Vereen and Sofele might be two of the best backs at picking up blitzes. If that happens, some draw plays could catch Arizona off-guard.
Cal special teams vs. Arizona special teams
1) Giorgio Tavecchio and Jeff Genyk's kickoff coverage gets their first real test in Travis Cobbs. If Arizona doesn't make any noise in the kick return game, then I'll truly believe Genyk's team can truly be considered the revelation so far this season.
2) Arizona has a good kicker in John Bonano, who isn't too far behind Tavecchio's average. Both of them appear to be on par, although the kick return advantage is in Arizona's favor. Alex Zendejas was 17 of 22 kicking field goals last year, and 3 of 3 to start this year, so the advantage in placekicking and kickoffs seems to be in Arizona's favor.
3) On the flip side, Cal probably has the edge in punting. Arizona does not have a strong punter. Keenyn Crier only booted each punt an average of 37 yards against Iowa, and is averaging about 38 yards per punt on the season, good for 94th in the country. Can Ross make things happen on a short boot from Crier?
4) Arizona does not have a strong punt returner, averaging only 7 yards a return. Bryan Anger does have a strong leg, ranked in the top 15 of punting average. Field position is a huge deal for Arizona's offense. Make them drive long and they'll struggle. Give them short fields and they will score.
This is the weakest Cal team to ever set foot in Tucson, and they'll be facing the strongest Arizona team of the Tedford era. Arizona just had a landmark victory the weekend before that established them as the biggest challenger to Oregon's title defense, and they have a schedule that brings Oregon State and USC to their desert environs. The Bears, on the other hand, are reeling from a painful defeat. Cal will be the barometer for whether Arizona has made the next step, and Arizona will be the barometer for Cal for whether they have any real chance of competing for a conference title.
So if the Bears plan on winning this one on Saturday night, they're going to have to go out and take it from the Wildcats.