Ah, Cal's annual 'C' matchup against an FCS team. This is always the most difficult preview to write, if only for a lack of meaningful information about whichever lower division team Cal plays each year. It took me a good 15 minutes just to find out that Southern Utah finished the 2011 season with the 87th ranked rush defense - and that's not even on a per play basis! Oh the tempo-free stat-nerd humanity!
Of course, for all of Cal's struggles over the last few years, the Bears have never even flirted with losing to an FCS team. Here's to small victories? So you're probably not reading this preview in an effort to decide whether or not Cal will win, even with last week's debacle fresh in the mind. This week isn't about winning or losing, it's about fixing what did go wrong last week so that it doesn't go wrong against Ohio St. and USC.
Last week, I wrote this:
If the offensive line struggles against Nevada's completely new and completely inexperience front seven, you have my permission to worry about how they'll do against the conference schedule.
When Cal is on offense, all I really want to see is an offensive line that executes and dominates. After last week, I'm not worried as much about the wide receivers. I'm not worried about Isi and C.J. I'm not worried about Maynard, assuming he, you know, plays the entire game. But an offensive line without Matt Summers Gavin, without Dominic Galas, without Mark Brazinski . . . that's a ton of turnover that may be too much for this team to overcome. The backups need to step up and gel this week, because things are going to get really tough really fast.
Here's an abbreviated Southern Utah preview, focusing more on what we'd all like to see from the Bears:
Defensive Line: Fr. DE James Crowser, Sr. DT Cody Larsen, Jr. DT Brad Meyer, RS Sr. DE Jeff Tukuafu
Linebackers: Sr. SAM Namari Flentroy, Fr. MIKE Zak Browning, Sr. WILL Rickey Clarke
Secondary: Fr. CB LeShaun Sims, Fr. SS Miles Killebrew, Jr. FS Tommy Collett, Jr. CB Tyree Mills
Four freshmen starters probably doesn't bode well for Southern Utah's chances, particularly when they have to play important positions like middle linebacker. The rest of the defense doesn't seem particularly young, but it's worth noting that Southern Utah lost their top seven tacklers from last year, and their returner with the most tackles is their free safety, which is generally a bad sign.
The man to watch is defensive tackle Cody Larsen, who was named to the All-Big Sky pre-season team. He finished 2011 with six sacks, an impressive total for an interior lineman. I would very much like Cal's make-shift line to hold him without a sack.
5.20 yards allowed/play, 49th out of 120 FCS programs (4.47 yards/rush, 6.18 yards/pass attempt)
Southern Utah allowed almost exactly as many yards per game rushing last year as they did yards per game passing, which tells you that either the Thunderbirds played some rush-happy teams, or their pass defense was well ahead of their run defense. That trend more or less continued last week against Utah St., although the game was out of hand quickly and I imagine Utah St. had plenty of incentive to run the ball frequently.
Unfortunately for SUU, the secondary is now starting two freshmen, so the 2011 stats that indicate an efficient pass defense aren't especially relevant. Utah St.'s gaudy 11.7 yards/pass attempt attest to just that.
Cal should be able to run and pass against this defense. If you were expecting to read something you didn't already know in this article . . . well, that's why it's free!
Stats of Dubious Value
22 forced turnovers (12 fumble recoveries, 9 interceptions), 45th in FCS
Opponent conversion percentage of 37.91, 61st in FCS
Scoring allowed in 85% of opponent red zone possessions, 89th in FCS
Touchdown allowed in 60.98% of opponent red zone possessions, 74th in the nation
Last year, Southern Utah had an average-to-below-average FCS defense, and that defense lost seven key contributors. That defense was then shredded for 581 yards by Utah St., a team that went 7-6 last year in the WAC.
I won't go so far as to say that the Thunderbirds are a bad FCS team, but they aren't Eastern Washington or anything. As long as Cal can send out 5 scholarship athletes to start along the offensive line they should be able to gain plenty of yards and points.
What I want to see from Cal's offense:
-Big holes for Isi and C.J.
-No sacks, no knock downs, and minimal pressure on Maynard.
-Exactly zero procedural penalties (this has nothing to do with SUU, but it would still be nice, wouldn't it?)
-No injuries (duh).