December 1, 2004

Cal vs USM

We all know that Cal is powerful and USM is, well... not. It's difficult to compare teams that have no common opponents, but it seems pretty clear that the Bears have a significant advantage in talent, reputation, and preparation. I think they also have an advantage in intangibles. This should be a pretty big win for the Bears. But don't take my word for it. Read on for the reasons I think so...

Cal: #4 AP, #4 Coaches, #4 BCS, # 3 Sagarin (95.59)
USM: NR AP, NR Coaches, NR BCS, #64 Sagarin (70.90)

Sagarin predicts a 28 point Cal victory. The betting line says 24.

USM has already accepted a bowl invitation, and their fans have already begun discussing North Texas in detail, skipping right past Cal. On the other hand, undefeated (10-0) TCU went to Hattiesburg in their final game last year and got beat. Meanwhile, Cal has had a week of rest and has everything to gain by a dominant win and everything to lose by a weak win or (god forbid) a loss. No doubt the Bears will get a good dose of heckling for postponing the game due to a little wind and wet weather, but I venture that they will be more amused than chagrined.

The best situation for Cal would be a very full, very hostile stadium. Tedford's teams have thrived in that environment, particularly in front of a large TV audience as well.

USM is 6-4 after coming from behind to beat UAB, 26-21 last week. They began the season 4-0 and 5-1, then lost three straight conference games (Cincinnati, Memphis, and TCU). During their first six games, they scored 27 or more points in four games, all wins. Since a 51-point effort to beat East Carolina, they have not scored more than 26 (their last four games).

USM has beaten Nebraska, Tulane, South Florida, Houston, East Carolina, and UAB. They have lost to Alabama, Cincinnati, Memphis, and TCU. The average Sagarin rating for the teams they beat is 97.5. The average Sagarin rating for teams that beat them is 65. They have played only one team in the top FIFTY (Alabama, #45). They have played four teams over 100 (USF, Tulane, Houston, ECU).

Compare this to the Pac-10, where eight of the 10 teams are in the top 50 and only one (UW) is over 100 (#105). Even Arizona is ranked better than six of USM's opponents, and UW is ranked better than three of them. The Sagarin rating average for teams Cal has beaten is 48. The Sagarin rating average for teams that have beaten Cal is... um, 1.

There is no doubt that the Bears have gotten their stats against FAR superior competition. Keep that in mind when reviewing the stats below.

Cal has the ONLY running back in the nation to gain 100 or more yards in every game this season. JJ Arrington's 158.4 rushing yards per game compares favorably to USM's 156.0 rushing yards per game. Arrington has 14 rushing TDs; USM as a team has 17. Arrington averages 6.8 yards per carry; USM averages 3.8 (not necessarily a fair comparison since that would include sacks, but you get the point).

Complicating matters for USM is the fact that their rushing defense is only 7th in C-USA. They give up 170 yards a game on the ground, at a healthy 4.3 yards per rush. They've given up 16 rushing TDs.

They do, however, have a reasonable pass defense. They limit opponents to 205 yards per game through the air and a 51% completion rate. Also, they have 13 interceptions to just 16 passing TDs allowed. Finally, they allow a low 6.8 yards per catch. They also collect 2.5 sacks per game and hold opponents to just 37% third down completions. They also allow a reasonably low 18.5 first downs per game.

In the red zone, they've allowed 26 TDs in 42 tries, along with 9 field goals. Not great--those stats would be good enough for a tie for last place in the Pac-10. (Six Pac-10 teams have better red zone defense than the best C-USA team.)

USM's defensive line is not huge, but their strength is the middle where the two tackles are both seniors and average 297 pounds. Their outside guys are not big--235 and 250. Their DBs are all juniors, but two of them are only 5' 11". We might see a little more of 6' 3" David Gray, and 6' 1" McArthur should have a good day as long as Rodgers has time to throw and is consistent.

The USM offense, however, is not so great.

Their offensive line is much smaller than most Pac-10 lines, averaging a paltry 290 pounds. The only reason it's so high is because of 6'7", 324-pound RT Parquet. All the other linemen are 288 or less. Compare to Cal's beefy D line, at 282 pounds. In terms of matchups, the Cal D line will often outweigh the USM O linemen they're working against.

This plays to the Bears' favor because USM does not have a very powerful offense. They score just 26 points per game, and they've been at or below that average in their last four games. (An interesting statistical rarity: they have scored and allowed exactly 262 points. Seems like they should be 5-5, not 6-4...)

USM's rushing offense is mediocre, as noted earlier, averaging just 156 yards per game. In the Pac-10, that would be good for 5th and rivals Oregon's 158 ypg. But their passing attack is weak. They average just 162.5 yards per game passing, which would be 11th in the Pac-10 (even behind Arizona). In addition, they only complete 48% of their passes (a dismal number) and have a pathetic 5.7 yards per catch (last in C-USA and better only than Washington in the Pac-10). Finally, they have only 13 passing TDs but have given up 8 interceptions. In short, their passing attack is bad. That said, their backup QB came off the bench in the second half last week to have probably the best passing half of their season, scoring two TDs and notching a come-from-behind win.

All in all, USM's statistics taken as they are would make them a middling Pac-10 team: Rushing attack around #5, passing attack around #9, scoring offense around #4. They're very similar, statistically, to Oregon offensively. BUT: those stats were gained against many out-and-out bad teams. I have no doubt that in the Pac-10, they would by more in line with Arizona or Washington than Oregon.

Defensively, they would be weak, statistically, in the Pac-10: Their current numbers would put them at 8th in scoring defense, 8th in rushing defense, 7th in total defense, 5th in pass defense. Defensively, they are most like Arizona in terms of statistics--maybe somewhere between Arizona and Stanford. I think they are similar to Stanford in their ability to gain interceptions and their inability to stop the run effectively. BUT: Again, these stats are gained against seriously inferior competition. USM did not play C-USA champ Louisville this year.

OK, maybe not interesting, but I note them anyway:

Cal has owned time of possession and is #1 in the Pac-10 in that category. Only twice (Air Force and OSU) did they have the ball less than half the time. In five games, they've held the ball seven or more minutes longer than their opponents (i.e. T-O-P of 33:30 or better).

Cal in the red zone is remarkable. They score 84% of the time, with 28 TDs in 37 attempts. On defense, they only allow opponents to score 62% of the time (10 TDs in 26 attempts). The Bears score 38.4 points per game, better than any C-USA team except Louisville. Meanwhile, they allow only 13.1 ppg, better than any C-USA team and second in the Pac-10 only to USC.

The Bears have been held to under 200 yards rusing only thrice: OSU, USC, and Arizona. Similarly, those are the only teams to hold Cal under 5 yards a carry. Since the Bears pretty much dismantled two of them and out-statistic'd the other, that's not necessarily an indicator of anything.

All in all, the pollsters and the oddsmakers have this right. I think I would take the points, however. The only way that Cal can lose is if they simply don't show up. Think of the only two tight games they've played: Against USC, special teams put the Trojans in a short field every time, and the missed field goal forced the 4th-down pass instead of allowing the possibility of overtime. Against Oregon, turnovers hurt terribly, as did the lack of a running game in the first half. I think Tedford got caught second-guessing himself too much since he was going against Bellotti. In the second half they went back to their running game (the Oregon game was Cal's season low for number of rushing attempts) and pounded the Ducks the rest of the way for the very close win.

I don't think the Bears will do themselves in this Saturday. Even if they do, they have so much talent and athleticism that they can still escape with a win... but we all know what an ugly win would do to their ranking and BCS hopes.

While a shutout is a very difficult thing to obtain, I think the Bears can achieve it this week (though I don't expect it). It should be their goal in any case. I expect the Bears to dominate the first half with the running game, just barrel downfield. I think they'll be up 28-0 at halftime, and the fourth quarter will be all 2nd and 3rd string players as Tedford shows off the team's depth and gives the younger players some additional road game playing time. The offensive line should be monstrous and unstoppable after Arrington was snubbed for the national awards this week. They should take it personally. My prediction of the final score: 42-10.

Go Bears!

No comments: