I think its time for a reset on the season. We've lost our last three. No shame in that, but it was the way in which we lost the last two that is pretty disheartening. We got blown up by the Ducks in Eugene, and then blew ourselves up against SC at AT&T. Back to back double-digit losses, both on nationally televised Thursday night games. Embarrassing.
With the first half of the season in the rearview mirror, we're a .500 team with no conference wins, whose still struggling to find its identity. Are we a strong defensive team? Colorado, Washington and Oregon would deny that. Are we an offensively potent team? Not consistently, that's for damn sure.
We need a slumpbuster.
Enter, the Utah Utes...sporting an identical 3-3 record and also searching for that elusive first conference win. After dropping three straight PAC-12 tilts against SC, Washington, and ASU, the Utes traveled east last week and with the help of a strong and opportunistic defense, took down a pretty meh Pitt team in one of the more horrendous offensive showings you'll ever see. Still, full marks to Utah for a win on the road. They now travel west over the Bonneville Salt Flats to San Francisco, for what will surely be an epic battle of conference mediocrity.
The Utes are dinged up, but hungry to earn that elusive first conference win as a member of the PAC-12. Are they more mediocre than us? Offensively, I'd say yes. Read on to see why.
2011 record: 3-3
Week 1: WIN vs Montana State (27-10)
Week 2: LOSS at USC (14-23)
Week 3: WIN at BYU (54-10)
Week 4: BYE
Week 5: LOSS vs Washington (14-31)
Week 6: LOSS vs Arizona State (14-35)
Week 7: WIN at Pittsburgh (26-14)
Last Season: 10-3
2011 Offensive Stats:
Passing: 201.5 yards/game
Rushing: 129.3 yards/game
Scoring: 24.8 points/game
STARTER- Jordan Wynn, Junior - 6'2, 202 lbs (OUT FOR SEASON, shoulder)
STARTER- Jon Hays, Junior - 6', 212 lbs
Hays, a product of Chico's own Butte Community College, has taken the helm of the Ute offense after starter Jordan Wynn went down for the season with a shoulder injury in a week 4 loss against the Washington Huskies. This is good news if you aren't a Utah fan. I'm sure we all remember Wynn torching us in the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl. Oh, to reach those heights again. Sigh. Anyways, Hays has had an up and down run over the last three games, throwing for 482 yards, with 3 TDs and 4 INTs. He's hovered right around 60% passing, however, which around these parts is friggin stellar. To be fair, the coaching staff has not asked Hays to do a whole lot. Their gameplans have been pretty safe, relying heavily on the run while implementing lots of short throws to the flats and underneath. The picks have come when Hays had tried to push too much (I think we all know what that looks like). Hays need to work on his awareness too. In the last two games, he's been sacked 10 times, with 7 (SEVEN!) of those coming last week at Pitt. Now, some of that goes on the offensive line, but DAMN. With a new QB still getting the feel of the offense, the Cal defense could be poised for a nice day.
Upside: He completes 60% of his passes, which is more than SOME PAC-12 QBs can claim...sad face.
Downside: Experience, awareness, not all former Butte QB's can be Aaron Rodgers.
What to expect:
Hays got beat up last week with the Pitt defense essentially deciding to pressure him at all costs (SEVEN SACKS!). That opened things up big time for the Ute running game (we'll get to that soon), and also did not succeed in forcing Hays to turn the ball over (no picks or fumbles). I'm curious as to what kind of plan Pendergast implements on Saturday. Utah's red zone offense is awful...like REALLY awful, ranked 118 out of 120 nationally. For perspective, we're ranked 65, and we've got plenty of our own issues. I think we can get pressure on Hays, but will we choose to do so if it opens up our exceedingly soft underbelly to the short passing game? I'm going to go ahead and say...YES. I think Pendy brings the heat this week. Sacks make everyone happy. They help morale. We need sacks. I've been proven to look really stupid before on here (thanks again, Steve Marhsall!), but I think this Cal defense is looking for a big win and a statement. They played well against SC last week, but got zero help from our offense. Utah fans will know how that feels. To me, that means beating Hays to a pulp. He may still get his 60% completion rating, but he has yet to throw for over 200 yards. I don't think we're scared of Jon Hays. And I don't think Jon Hays can beat us.
STARTER- John White IV - 5'8, 186 lbs
After losing their two leading rushers from the 2010 season, White has been a pleasant surprise for the Utes...rushing for 671 yards and 6 TDs in six games this season. He really showed up last week at Pitt, toting the ball a remarkable 36 times for 171 yards. He's a little feller though, so don't expect him to be able to handle that kind of workload consistently. Still, he's good for about 20 carries a game, with mixed results. He was fantastic against Montana State, BYU and Pitt (6.42 ypc)...but was essentially shut down against SC and Washington (2.67 ypc). Still, he runs hard between the tackles and has the kind of quickness you'd expect from a guy who looks...small and quick. If given holes to work with, he can make some things happen. He's been almost a one-man show in the Ute running game though, as Utah's two hefty Polynesian RB's, senior Tauni Vakapuna and freshman Harvey Langi, have been either dinged up or ineffective in the snaps they've seen. Both guys are over 225 pounds, but if their job is to be pile movers, they've really just been piles. Vakapuna has an injured ankle, so its more likely Langi plays the role of the bruiser, if needed. Still, White is the guy here.
Upside: Agility, quickness, numerical lineage.
Downside: Size, experience, depth.
What to expect:
Utah's offensive strength plays into our defensive strength, and that's good for us. We're strong against the run, and I expect that trend to continue. It also pleases me to type that White is not heavily utilized in the passing game, totaling just 7 catches in six games. That could certainly change this week, for a couple reasons. 1. We don't defend the flats or middle screens all that well (gameplan). 2. Utah's starting TE is out for the year (safety valve needed). And 3. Utah will likely look for ways to take pressure off of Hays if the running game sputters (short dumpoffs). That said, I'll be more than happy to see White finish with 5 or 6 catches...and less than 25 carries on Saturday. He'll still get some totes, but if he gets over 25 carries, it means our run defense is not holding up. Or it could also mean that our offense is crapping the bed again and the game is a lot closer than it should be. That is also a distinct possibility. This seems like a good time to mention that Mychael Kendricks is hurt...but should play (huge sigh of relief). His presence inside is something we can ill afford to lose, especially in a game where he has a chance to really shine. Make sure to monitor his status near the end of the week. Kendricks playing and being his usual beastly self is critical to our continued success against the run. If he plays and plays effectively, we're fine here. And Utah will be in serious trouble if they fail to establish the run.
DeVonte Christopher, Junior - 6'1, 200 lbs (QUESTIONABLE, ankle)
Dres Anderson, Freshman (RS) - 6'1, 171 lbs
Reggie Dunn, Junior - 5'10, 170 lbs
Luke Matthews, Junior - 6'2, 206 lbs
Christopher was Utah's leading receiver in 2010, and remains so this year, despite only playing in 5 games (23 recs for 351 yards, 2 TDs). He missed the Pitt game with an ankle injury, and is questionable to play on Saturday against Cal. That's worth monitoring, because there's a dropoff in production after him. Freshman Dres Anderson (18 recs for 256 yards, 2 TDs) is a speedster and has also been used sparingly in the running game (2 carries for 24 yards). If Christopher can't go on Saturday, expect Anderson to be the guy that stretches the field for the Utes. Juniors Dunn and Matthews account for 19 catches and 228 yards between them on the season, with Matthews notching the Ute's lone offensive touchdown last week on a rather fortuitous play where the ball caromed right over the head of a Pitt DB and into Matthews' hands. Dunn has some wheels, but has had an issue holding onto the ball. This group has some playmakers, but is not at the level of some of the receiving corps we've already faced this year. I'll grant that they at least seem to spread the ball around a bit, which is more than some offenses can say.
What to expect:
Not a lot. If Christopher misses this game it will really hamper the Utah passing attack, which hasn't been all that stellar anyway. This isn't a team that is built to light people up through the air, and that's not really how they play (see Hays not yet throwing for over 200 yards). Consider them an opportunistic group that can make you pay if you give them space and disregard them completely. Anderson has some wheels, but athletically we match up pretty well with this group. I don't really see Williams and McClure struggling too much here after just having to deal with Robert Woods and the SC receiver corps...who they did pretty well against if you recall. If we make our tackles and keep this group in front of us, we'll be just fine.
Dallin Rogers, Junior - 6'3, 245 lbs (OUT FOR SEASON, knee)
Jake Murphy, Freshman (RS) - 6'4, 255 lbs
Tight end is yet another position that has been bitten by the injury bug for the Utes. Starting TE Dallin Rogers went down for the season with a knee injury last week against Pitt. That's a big loss, as he was second on the team in receptions (22) and third in receiving yards (160). He had also proven to be a handy, safe option for both Hays and Wynn. Alas, no more. Stepping in is redshirt freshman Jake Murphy, who has tallied just 3 catches for 51 yards and 1 TD in limited action this year. Why, those are Cal tight end kind of numbers! Murphy is a big body who moves pretty well. It's possible we'll also see junior Kendrick Moeai, whose YPC (4.57) would indicate he's more of a short route kind of guy. Of course, since he's essentially been beat out by a younger guy...he might just be lousy. Five of his seven total catches came in week 1 against Montana State, and he didn't play against Washington or ASU. Me thinks he might just be lousy.
Upside: Uh, run-blocking?
Downside: Depth, experience.
What to expect:
I'd expect to see Hays lean on Murphy and possibly Moeai throughout the game. The question is whether they will be able to duplicate the kind of productivity that the Utes lost when Rogers hurt his knee. I don't think so, but it won't stop Utah from trying. Still, if Christopher also can't go, I see these guys as the ones who will likely benefit the most in the passing game. And while we seemed to handle the TE coverage pretty well against SC, I'm still skeptical as to whether we can do it with any consistency. The other thing to consider is whether Murphy and Moeai will maybe be kept for max-protect sets if we're really pressuring Hays well. Best way to stifle a passing game is to sack the quarterback before he can throw the ball. Talent-wise, these guys are not worth worrying too much about. But that's just my opinion.
LT: John Cullen, Junior - 6'5, 300 lbs
LG: Miles Mason, Junior - 6'3, 316 lbs
C: Tevita Stevens, Junior - 6'3, 300 lbs
RG: Sam Brenner, Junior- 6'4, 300 lbs
RT: Tony Bergstrom, Senior - 6'6, 315 lbs
A couple good pieces have not exactly added up to a good unit when it comes to the Utah offensive line. Bergstrom is a very good player who has started every game at right tackle going back to the beginning of the 2009 season, and played in and additional 10 games back in 2008. Tevita Stevens was a two-year starter at right guard before moving to center this season...which is apparently his preferred position. Brenner is a first-year starter, but is already proving to be a quality player and leader on the line. Miles Mason arrived in camp during the last week of fall practice after transferring for El Camino Junior College, and has started ever since. He's big and athletic, but he's still green and getting up to speed. That leaves John Cullen at left tackle. Well, Utah folks don't seem to care much for Cullen. Strange that a guy whose in his second year of holding down the left tackle spot on the line would draw so much ire, but apparently he has a tendency for committing idiotic, drive-killing penalties and/or just not blocking real well. In my opinion, he's a decent enough player, and he's aggressive. Not real bright, but aggressive. I think this group is actually pretty good, they just haven't seemed to be able to put it together yet.
Upside: Run-blocking, aggression.
Downside: Pass-blocking, discipline, consistency.
What to expect:
I think this will be a pretty interesting matchup. Our front seven is tough against the run, and these guys like to run the ball. On the other hand, I've been massively disappointed with our passrush, and these guys can make mistakes leading to some easy QB pressures. Fair to say its strength on strength, and weakness on weakness. As an unapologetic Cal homer, I'll say that the Cal defense has a good amount of success against the Ute offensive line. I wouldn't be surprised to see things get a little chippy either, as both of these groups will want to impose their will on the other. Still, if we allow Utah to hang in this game, those big guys up front could wear us down. The only way a little guy like Tyler gets 36 carries in a game is if the guys up front are making it easy on him. And they can. But I also think we'll be one of the better fronts they've seen, and that our own size and athleticism is more likely to wear them down first. Favor us here, unless this group had some sort of a Steve Marshall-inspired epiphany in the last week. Which they could. After all, the last time we faced a team who gave up seven sacks the prior week, we didn't tally any. I think I need a drink.
Utah has had some tough luck. Losing their starting quarterback and tight end for the season, and possibly their primary receiver for more than a week during a pivotal stretch has hurt them. Its made their offense fairly one-dimensional. Fortunately, they have a good running back at that one dimension...and guys at other positions of need that are surely ready to prove themselves. But this is not a great offense. Frankly, its not even a good offense. At least, right now. They're awful in the red zone, and if the running game isn't clicking, they can't move the ball. But just to be clear, I'm not burying the Utes at this point in the season. They went to Pitt and won last week, despite surrendering seven sacks, and giving up two touchdowns on special teams miscues. That's impressive. And with regard to their offensive question marks, Hays could look like a Heisman candidate against us on Saturday. White could have one of his good days. If Christopher doesn't go, Anderson and/or Matthews could show up big in the passing game. After all, we're the team that has lost three in a row...not them. But while our defense has been spotty, we've looked bad against better offenses than this one. If we look bad against the Utes, we've got SERIOUS problems.
Honestly, this isn't the side of the ball that Cal fans should be worried about. Its the matchup between Utah's feisty defense and our schizophrenic
quarterback offense. That's where the game will be determined. Make sure to check out Nick's post on the Utah defense tomorrow for more info on that key matchup. Our defense should do its job against the Utah offense, but Cal turnovers or complete offensive ineptitiude will make this game far closer than it needs to be. If we don't score more than, say, 20 points, we're not going to win. And that would be a shame, because this is a game that a team aspiring for bowl eligibility should win.
Me? I think the defense comes through. And based on just about nothing, I think Maynard and Co bounce back as well this week. The Cal defense makes some plays, the offense makes a few of its own, Utah's even-worse-than-us special teams unit makes a blunder or two, and after the game, Cal fans' expectations rise just enough for us to get punched in the collective nuts...again. Just not this week. PREDICTION: 27-17 BEARS.
Do you guys want to talk about it? That'd be neat.