Hi, everybody. Hope you all enjoyed the bye week, because I know I didn't. Nothing like having 12 days in between games to really let the bitterness over a loss in a very winnable road game simmer. And as many learned in my Washington post two weeks ago, losing to your spouse's alma mater for the third time in a row is just the expired mayo slathered onto the shit-sandwich that is said conference loss. To her credit, WomanDawgWash was both gentle and gracious in victory. That's a good thing, because I'm seldom gracious at all....and the last week and a half were no exception. SULK MODE INITIATED!
That said, it's time to stop bemoaning the questionable play-calling and personnel decisions on offense, along with the missed tackles and horrendous pass defense we saw in Seattle...because we've got a game this week. And we're playing the #9 ranked Oregon Ducks. On a Thursday night. On national television. In Eugene. *HEAD EXPLODES*.
After a tough loss to the top-ranked LSU Tigers at JerryWorld in Arlington, Texas in week 1, the Ducks seem to have settled into their usual groove of putting up lots of points and rushing for absurd yardage week after week. And of course, we all remember what happened last year at Memorial when the Duckies came to town. Our defense submitted its best performance of the season, while our offense and special teams submitted their usual performances. DERP. Ducks win, 13-15.
Much was made of that game, mostly as it pertained to our defensive line faking injuries to slow down the Oregon offense. Frankly, I didn't give a rat's ass about that whole mess then, and I certainly don't now. With or without faking injuries, the Cal defense provided a blueprint for how to stop the Ducks vaunted offensive attack. But that was last year. Oregon's offensive personnel is a little different this season, as is the Cal defensive personnel. And this game is at Autzen Stadium *shudders*. So the question is: will this year's Cal defense be able to stop the Oregon offense? On a Thursday night? On national television? In Eugene? Will my head explode? Read on to see.
2011 record: 3-1
Week 1: LOSS vs. LSU (27-40)
Week 2: WIN vs. Nevada (69-20)
Week 3: WIN vs. Missouri State (56-7)
Week 4: WIN at Arizona (56-31)
Last Season: 12-1 (WIN @ Cal 15-13)
2011 Offensive Stats:
Passing: 234.25 yards/game
Rushing: 299.5 yards/game
Scoring: 52 points/game
STARTER - Darron Thomas, Junior - 6'3, 215 lbs
Darron Thomas is off to a great start in the 2011 season, completing 61.1% of his passes, while throwing 12 TDs against just 1 interception. Clearly he makes much better decisions with his passes than he does with his carpool companions. He's also still dangerous with his feet, totaling 15 rushes for 99 yards and 2 more TDs through 4 games. Despite that, it's interesting to note that Thomas's carries per game are down from an average of 7.15/game last year to just 3.75/game this year (thus far). Personally, I think this is due to a heavier reliance on the running backs to play a more versatile role in the offense, and thus limit the number of hits Thomas takes per game. Either way, it seems to be working. He's has yet to be sacked, not even against LSU. Of course, Thomas primarily operates out of the shotgun and most of Oregon's passing plays require a quick delivery or play action, so he rarely holds onto the ball for too long. Backing up Thomas is Redshirt Freshman Bryan Bennett. He's seen some time in mop-up duty this year...but has yet to be tested. Thomas going down would be catastrophic for the Ducks. Wouldn't it be great if that happened tonight?
Upside: Mobility, decision-making.
Downside: Arm strength, depth, smells like weed.
What to expect:
Chris Conte, we miss you. With the way our Safeties have played in coverage against the two competent offenses we've faced, I'm terrified that Thomas could have a huge day through the air. His passing seems to have markedly improved since last year, and we know he is a threat to run. We have not fared well against mobile QBs thus far, and Thomas may be the most mobile we see this year. Highly likely that we will attempt to duplicate the success we had on D against Oregon last year by putting a spy on Thomas. Guessing it will be Josh Hill. I actually feel okay about that. But pardon me if I just don't have a ton of faith that our secondary will magically start showing a little discipline in coverage, especially against an offense that thrives on misdirection and feasts on safeties who bite too hard on the run. Sean Cattouse, if you're out there somewhere, I'm talking about you. We'll need to hit Thomas early and often...but even that may be tough (see O-Line section).
STARTER - LaMichael James, Junior - 5'9, 195 lbs
I think we're all pretty familiar with what "The Michael" is all about at this point. He's small, he's fast, he's good...and his pimp hand is like concrete cyanide. After getting bottled up pretty well by LSU in week 1 (18 rushes for 54 yards, 1 TD), he's returned to his old form in the last three games (47 rushes for 559 yards, 6 TDs). As an added bonus, James is not only being used a bit more in the passing game (11 catches already when he had 17 total last year), but he's also returning punts for the Ducks and took one to the house already. NOT GOOD. His supporting cast is pretty damn talented too. Along with Kenjon Barner, freshmen Deanthony Thomas and Tra Carson have also shown to be versatile, speedy, and capable runners when James has needed a break. Thomas is the 5-star 2010 recruit who flipped his commitment from USC to Oregon close to National Signing Day last Spring...which was pretty funny because SC people got all pissy about it. He had an issue with fumbles against LSU, but has come on strong as a serious playmaker in both the running and passing game (23 rushes for 173 yards, 1 TD and 11 catches for 172 yards, 2 TDs). Look for him to be lined up out wide on occasion as well. Yikes.
Upside: Speed, big-play ability, speed, depth, versatility, speed and...speed.
Downside: Size, restraining orders.
What to expect:
The Cal defense has fared pretty well against the run thus far this year (78.3 yards allowed per game), but this Duck running game is a different animal than the conventional attacks we've seen thus far. Stopping it will require some sure tackling, athleticism and discipline. The discipline factor is what concerns me most. While we have an experienced duo in the middle of the linebacker corps with DJ Holt and Mychael Kendricks, will our young OLBs struggle with containing the Oregon running backs or biting on fakes and misdirection? I think it's likely. Just as I bemoaned the departure of Chris Conte, this game will make us miss Mike Mohamed just as much. We've also struggled mightily with running backs who can get involved in the passing game. Well, these guys will. Open-field tackles will be critical because these guys all have run-from-the-cops speed (HEYO!). If they can get to the second level and we miss a tackle, it's going to the house. It's gonna be a tall order to keep them bottled up all day. Our defensive line depth will hopefully offer some relief and allow our big boys to stay fresh. If not, they can just pretend to cramp up. No biggie, right?
Lavasier Tuinei, Senior - 6'5, 216 lbs
Justin Hoffman, Junior - 6'1, 206 lbs
Rahsaan Vaughn, Senior - 6'2, 192 lbs
This WR group has underperformed thus far, but is plenty capable of making big plays. After losing Jeff Maehl and DJ Davis, a couple new faces are in the starting lineup. Vaughn is a JuCo transfer that is becoming a pretty solid deep threat (6 catches for 115 yards and 1 TD), while Tuinei has been more of a possession type guy. Both Hoffman and Will Murphy have been unspectacular thus far, but I'd watch out for Josh Huff off the bench. We all remember Tuinei, right? He's big and awesome at cheap shots. Dante Rosario is impressed. I don't like him one bit, but his name kinda rhymes with Courvoisier...and that is pretty cool. Outside of Tuinei (15 recs for 177 yards, 3 TDs), no Duck WR has more than six catches on the year. I think the loss of Maehl is substantial. Hard to replace a guy who had 77 catches for 1076 yards and 12 TDs. The numbers were good, but Maehl had a knack for getting open and also acted as a gritty little security blanket for Thomas last year. Judging by the numbers, Thomas is leaning more on his running backs in the passing game this year.
Upside: Size, athleticism, run-blocking, good at throwing illegal picks
Downside: Consistency, experience
What to expect:
Not sure. If the Ducks are throwing the ball a lot, that means we've done a good job against the run. Soooo...more passes would be good, right? Depends on our tackling and coverage. You can bet that Chippy is aware of how much success Colorado and Washington had throwing against us. While I don't expect Oregon to alter their game plan too much, the tendency of our secondary to suffer from brain farts at the wrong time is not a good thing against a team constructed like Oregon. When Thomas does throw, will we be ready? These WRs can capitalize on mistakes, and we tend to make
some lots. Ugh. This isn't a real good group, but if we miss reads and assignments... they don't have to be. I think we do a decent enough job as a whole in coverage, at least when it comes to the Oregon receivers.
STARTER - David Paulson, Senior - 6'4, 241 lbs
Paulson is good. Just a solid tight end. And the Ducks have already brought highly touted 2010 recruit Colt Lyerla into the fold to complement Paulson. Lyerla only has three catches on the year (for 53 yards total)...but they've all been touchdowns. Bogus. Also, these guys appear to have benefited from the issues in the Duck WR group. I have questions about their blocking ability, but the image of 2009 Ed Dickson scoring touchdowns that is dancing in my head would seem to be overshadowing any negative judgments I have towards the Oregon tight ends. Well, except this: I'd put good money on Lyerla being one of the next 5 or so Ducks who get arrested. Okay, done now.
Upside: Pass-catching, athleticism
What to expect:
Mildly concerned. Paulson is very well-rounded and Lyerla is a freak athlete. He's not as big as Austin Seferian-Jenkins, but he's much faster. Paulson is a nice safety valve option for Thomas when the Ducks go to the air and we haven't done real well covering TEs thus far. Lyerla is obviously a guy we'll need to be aware of in the red zone. Key here again will be finishing tackles and COVERAGE. I really don't know how much the Tight Ends will be used in this game. They haven't consistently been a huge part of the offense yet. Of course, Oregon hasn't necessarily needed to heavily rely on them yet because the run game has been so effective. If Paulson and Lyerla have a quiet day, I'll be happy...but surprised. Prove me wrong, Clancy! DO IT!
LT: Darrion Weems, Senior - 6'5, 302 lbs
LG: Carson York, Junior - 6'5, 292 lbs
C: Hroniss Grasu, Freshman (RS) - 6'3, 291 lbs
RG: Mark Asper, Senior - 6'7, 325 lbs
RT: Nick Cody, Junior - 6'5, 301 lbs
Numbers don't lie with this group: 1 sack allowed (backup QB Bennett was sacked in garbage time against Nevada, not Darron Thomas) and almost 300 yards rushing per game. That's decent. Of course, having a slippery QB and an All-American running back can make an offensive line look pretty good. Asper and York are the leaders of this group and the lone returning starters. Both guys are smart and versatile. The tackles have some decent experience, and the Redshirt Freshman Grasu has performed pretty well thus far at Center. These guys adhere to their schemes well and get a good push up front. It was believed by many that the departure of three starters on the O-Line would hurt Oregon. It doesn't seem to have affected them much though. I really don't have a lot to say. No arrests here, so no easy jokes. Sigh.
Upside: Run-blocking, fitness, no criminal records.
What to expect:
If LSU couldn't get to Thomas, I don't know if we will. We also don't have Cam Jordan this year, though Trevor Guyton has been solid. I've been underwhelmed by Owusu at the other end spot and both Tipoti and Payne at Nose, so I'm hopeful we'll see some liberal subbing along the defensive line...which is highly likely. Moala clogging the middle and demanding double teams would be a great way for Kendricks and Holt to have some potential success with inside blitzes. It's also possible that Pendergast channels Bob Gregory and chooses to not bring much pressure. I don't have a big problem with that against this offense, as long as we're aggressive getting to the ball. An elusive QB can make any offensive line look better than it is, but I think it's safe to assume this will be the best of the four offensive lines we've faced thus far. Expect us to have some success with pressure though, I'll just throw it out there.
I'm skeered! After last year, I can't totally rule out the possibility of an upset, but the four guys who made our defense so effective last year (Conte, Mohamed, Jordan and Hill) are gone. That's essentially our top performer at each level of the defense, not to mention guys that all had HUGE games against the Ducks last year at Memorial. We've replaced them with some nice pieces, but this offense is one that requires discipline and savvy. Haven't seen a ton of that from this defense on a consistent basis yet. I'm encouraged that we've had extra time to prepare, but this is still a road game against a very prolific offense. On a Thursday night. On national television. And pardon me if i just can't quite shake the memory of 2009 at Autzen *bangs head on desk*.
As we learned from Kodiak, our offense could have some success against the Oregon defense if we can sustain drives and Maynard can consistently make the throws that have, at times, been so erratic to this point in the season. The Duck defense lost some key guys there. Important to remember that even a mediocre offense could have helped us clinch the upset last year.
BUT...we won't win a shootout with the Ducks. And that is what we would have to do, because I don't see the Cal defense of this season being able to contain Oregon's offense. We're not there yet. Not enough experience. If we keep it respectable...well, I'll still be pissed off. But slightly less pissed than if we get killed. We won't slow them down enough in Autzen. Prediction: 28-42 DUCKS.
Am I channeling the Doombringer, or is this all an elaborate reverse-jinx? What say you, people who read this?