Through the first few weeks, Berkelium and I have unintentionally established a pattern that I'm sure will continue all year. He terrifies you by describing just what Cal's opponent can do to a broken, battered defense. Then I step in on Friday to perhaps convince you that Cal's offense can out-do their counterparts.
I can't tell you that it's terribly likely this week, but I'm willing to go out on a limb and say that there is a chance. Last year, Ohio State had a pretty good defense, but that didn't stop Cal's less than mediocre offense from putting up more than 500 yards. Now, Ohio State only has four starters returning. Does that mean that there might be just a chance that the Buckeye defense is vulnerable, that the Goffense can put together a 3rd straight high-octane performance and give Cal a chance to win in a shoot-out?
Because Ohio State has seven new starters and hasn't played anybody meaningful yet, it's somewhat tough to provide concrete details. Suffice to say that this is a high variance preview. Let's dive in:
Last year, Ohio State's defensive line completely destroyed Cal on passing plays. Zach Maynard was abused all game long, to the point that he ended the game just walking out of bounds. Zach was pretty heavily criticized for that, but if I had been hit as many times as Zach had, I probably would have done the same.
As a result of a season of weak performance, the entire Cal line has been rebuilt, with younger starters in many spots. They'll be a facing a completely rebuilt Ohio State line, as three players graduated and another declared early for the draft. As a result, the defensive line is perhaps the biggest question mark on Ohio State's roster.
Of course, there's still talent, which kind of goes without saying at schools like Ohio State. In fact, defensive line recruiting has been perhaps the strongest of any unit for Urban Meyer. Spence and Washington are both 5 star recruits Still, Cal fans could tell OSU fans about the dangers of expecting a fast transition from recruiting stars to production on the defensive line.
Also, Ohio State calls one of their defensive ends a VIPER. Eleven Warriors has a good breakdown on what that meansin the middle of a larger treatise on Urban Meyer's defensive line philosophy, but the basic thing you need to know is that Spence is the guy who, more than anybody else, is expected to put Jared Goff on his back.
Key Matchup: Right Tackle vs. VIPER. Urban Meyer showed he was completely willing to move John Simon anywhere where he could be effective (which, alas, was pretty much everywhere against Cal's line in 2012). Here's to guessing they'll focus on attacking Steven Moore and the right side of Cal's line.
The Buckeyes aren't just remaking their defensive line - they're basically remaking their entire front seven. Ryan Shazier is the only returning starter at linebacker, which means that they are breaking in six entirely new players up front.
To be fair, Shazier is a pretty damn good foundation, and Curtis Grant has seen plenty of the field in a non-starter role. Perry is a 4 star recruit himself. This is what you get when you have back-to-back top 5 recruiting classes. Cal fans really need to hope that the young guys aren't 100% ready for the first decent offense they've seen in 2013.
Key Matchup: Linebackers vs. Nickel/Dime coverage. Does Ohio State decide to keep their linebackers on the field to cover Cal's 4 and 5 WR sets? Do they play constant nickel and dime coverage?
Ahh, but the secondary. Considering how the first two games have gone, Cal fans would perhaps most like to see an iffy, inexperienced secondary. But as is often the case, we don't get what we want. Roby, Bryant and Barnett are all returning starters, and Roby is an All-American candidate. Barnett and Bryant aren't quite as highly regarded, but both were honorable mention All-Big-10, so Cal can't exactly expect them to be easy pickings.
It is worth noting that OSU's nickel back and 4 of the 5 back-ups listed on the two deep are underclassmen, so it's possible that there will be some inexperienced players on the field for Tony Franklin to try to exploit.
Key matchup: Roby vs. Bryce Treggs and/or Chris Harper. Ohio State's All-American is back from suspension, and he'll look to shut down one of Cal's two main outside threats. I'm of the opinion that Cal will need a good game from both Treggs and Harper to knock off the Buckeyes, so keep your eye on perhaps the best one-on-one matchup you'll see at Memorial Stadium on either side of the ball, no matter who Roby happens to be covering on any particular play.
Against the Run
2012: 3.55 yards allowed/attempt, 20th in the nation
2013: 2.21 yards allowed/attempt, 8th in the nation
So here's the thing. I'm going to be quoting two numbers in every section, and neither of the two numbers are likely to be very representative of what Ohio State may or may not be capable of this year. It's always risky quoting numbers from the previous season for any team, but especially when you lose 7 of 11 starters. But two home games against Buffalo and San Diego State won't tell you anything either. Just remember that context for every stat you see the rest of the way.
So. Ohio State was plenty salty against the run last year, and they have successfully shut down two overmatched opponents forced to immediately play from behind. Basically, your best guess is as good as mine.
Cal hasn't had much success on the ground lately, and you wouldn't necessarily expect that to change against a top 5 team who got embarrassed by Brendan Bigelow last year. Maybe Urban Meyer overreacts to Jared Goff's eye-popping start to the season and there's space to run the ball, but I think the Buckeyes know what Biggie can do and will work very hard to prevent it from happening again.
Against the Pass
2012: 6.4 yards allowed/attempt, 26th in the nation
2013: 5.5 yards allowed/attempt, 33rd in the nation
Last year, pass defense was probably the strength of the team. Not necessarily because the secondary was amazing, but because OSU had two NFL talents on the line, and they could get consistent pressure on the quarterback. The question this year is if a veteran secondary can take that step forward from 'good' to 'great' while young talent keeps things rolling on the defensive line.
The Buckeyes have four sacks so far this year. If Jared Goff drops back to pass 60 times tomorrow, I'd be just fine with only two sacks. Hopefully Cal's line is better than San Diego St. and Buffalo.
Stats of Dubious Value
As a reminder: Below are stats that, while interesting, may have little if any predictive value on what will occur over the course of 80-100 offensive snaps tomorrow.
2012: 21 forced turnovers, 69th in the nation (7 fumbles, 14 interceptions)
2012: 5 forced turnovers, 20th in the nation (2 fumbles, 3 interceptions)
Ohio State didn't have much luck forcing/recovering fumbles last year, but the interception total is a bit healthier. With three returning starters in the secondary, this is a team ready to punish mistakes in the passing game. The question is whether or not a rebuilt front 7 can provide the same amount of pressure that the 2012 defense surely profited from.
2012: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 32.81%, 18th in the nation
2013: Opponent 3rd down conversion rate of 20.0%, 9th in the nation
A fearsome pass rush and an excellent secondary made for a team that could get off the field on 3rd down last year. It's likely to be a key for the Cal offense on Saturday.
2012: Opponent scoring percentage of 72.22%, 14th in the nation
2013: Opponent scoring percentage of 60%, 19th in the nation
2012: Opponent touchdown percentage of 50%, 19th in the nation
2013: Opponent touchdown percentage of 60%, 61st in the nation
Something to watch: Cal has had 10 redzone trips so far this season, more than all but 5 schools in the country. Even better, every trip has resulted in points! Unfortunately, only half of those scores have been touchdowns (and one of those 5 touchdowns was on a fake). Better redzone conversion rates would have made a huge difference against Northwestern and would have made the Portland State game significantly less nerve-wracking. I don't think I'm going out too far on a limb to say that Cal can't beat the Buckeyes by settling for field goals.
Cal is the underdog for a reason. While two stellar performances has me believing in Jared Goff and the Bear Raid, Ohio State has talent to spare on defense. Young though it may be, it's not especially likely that Cal moves the ball at will. While the Bears will likely score points, there will also be some punts, or field goals instead of touchdowns.
So the question is: Just how good does the Cal offense need to be to outscore the Ohio State offense? Unfortunately, the answer is probably ‘very.' The Bears can't turn the ball over, can't blow convertible 3rd downs, can't settle for field goals . . . in short, all of the little things that conspire to stall an offense. All of the little things that have caused Cal to score in the 30s twice despite 500+ yards of total offense.
I don't think that's likely, but I also think it's firmly rooted within the range of the possible.