December 27, 2004

Wake the Heathens

"Ring the bell, Fred. Wake the heathens! Ring the bell!"

I liked minister Ken more the more I heard him preach. At first I was intimidated because he's quite a big man, wide and tall, in the same way that I'm not. Also, we were in his church, and he's a minister. I figured a real minister could see through me and know immediately that a hypocrite had entered his church on Christmas Eve.

But of course minister Ken is one of those religious people who actually takes the word of God to heart and has more interest in being kind to people than in judging them, like so many "religious" people focused on "moral values" who have risen to political power. So I came to realize quickly that neither he, nor any other member of the Buckingham Congregation, had judged me for attending Christmas Eve service while not believing in God. Plus, my parents are members of the church and my father a Deacon, so perhaps they assumed I actually do believe in God.

I don't know why, exactly, I like to attend Christmas Eve service. I certainly would never attend a mass, or even a congregational church service on any day other than Christmas Eve or perhaps Easter. The origins of our holidays are important to me, even if I don't embrace the true meanings of those origins. That is, when I truly search my heart, I can not find it within me to believe that a baby was born of a virgin in a cow stall, announced by angels with trumpets and wings, and that that baby became the Savior of all God's People. I have a difficult time believing in the infinity of a monotheistic deity that Controls all Things and Created Everything with a particular order, or that the human species happens to be foremost among His mind and that our Plight is his Main Concern.

I find it much easier to believe in an infinity of chance that everything just happened to come together in a certain way to create you, me, the Earth, the Internet (with a little help from Al Gore), and Blogger. I find it easy to believe that there is something larger than ourselves that we simply can't perceive or understand. But I just can't come to grips with the idea of God, or the idea that God decided to have a son during the Roman empire specifically for the purpose of having him suffer for everyone else's sins.

Maybe I was raised with too much Star Trek, which often took mythical figures and caricatured them by turning them into minor superhero type figures who had tricked Earthlings into believing in their divinity. Perhaps I was a product of the first really internationalized generation, exposed to so many different religious ideas that I find it impossible to believe that any one of them could be the "true" religion. Or maybe I've read too much medieval history to accept that the Christian church is really anything more than a corporation created for the express purpose of weilding political power amid all-powerful monarchies.

Whatever the origin of my beliefs, I still enjoy Christmas Eve service, which ends around midnight, particularly in the church of my father, in the neighborhood in which I came of age, surrounded by New England calendar photo-ops and comfortable wealth and self-righteousness. This year was a little different but still just as enjoyable.

As the congregation sang Silent Night to close the service, and the minister disappeared into the back to be at the door to wish us all merry Christmas on our way out, all these thoughts filled me, along with the intended inspiration of bearing goodwill to all mankind, everywhere in the world. I could not tell which around me believed every word said and sung about God and angels, but it did not matter in that moment.

Then, after Silent Night ended and the pianist and violinist struck up the farewell tune, minister Ken's voice came to us in the back of the room from just behind, telling my father to ring the church bell and announce that Christmas had come. "Ring the bell, Fred. Wake the heathens! Ring the bell!"

I had to like Ken at that point. He was only doing his job, waking the heathens. Though I don't share his beliefs about Truth, I still think it's important to ring the church bells at midnight on Christmas Eve, if only to remind us heathens that Christmas is not really about Santa Claus and Mattel and Gameboy and AA batteries. It is important to remember every holiday's origins and to realize what society has done to co-opt that holiday, to re-shape it and repurpose it. In that examination of the intent of the holiday, we can all come to terms with what the holiday means for each of us, heathen and Enlightened, and why we celebrate or eschew it.

I hope your Christmas was merry.

December 13, 2004

Cal versus Texas Tech : Holiday Bowl Preview

Cal: # 4 AP, # 4 ESPN, # 5 BCS, # 3 Sagarin
TT: #23 AP, #21 ESPN, #22 BCS, #19 Sagarin

Too early to have a betting line (at least I didn't see one on, but the Sagarin rankings make Cal a 13-point favorite, ignoring any "home field" advantage either way.

Cal: 10-1, 7-1 Pac-10
TT: 7-4, 5-3 Big 12

Sagarin rates Cal's schedule the 16th most difficult.
Sagarin rates Tech's schedule the 15th most difficult.

Cal's only loss was to #1 USC, 23-17. Had any number of wrong things gone right in that game, they'd have won (Lyman's injury, incomplete pass at the end, missed field goal, bad kicking game). Wins over bowl teams included Oregon State, UCLA, ASU, Southern Miss. Three other Cal opponents just missed the bowl party by ending up 5-6: Air Force, NMSU, and Oregon.

Texas Tech lost to Texas A&M 32-25 OT, Texas 51-21, Oklahoma 28-13, and New Mexico 27-24. They beat OK State, Baylor, K State, Nebraska, Kansas, TCU, and SMU. With a couple of breaks, Tech could easily be 9-2, with losses only to Oklahoma and Texas. Tech's bowl-bound opponents were OK State (win), A&M (loss), Texas (loss), Oklahoma (loss), New Mexico (loss). Only Nebraska, whom they beat 70-10, was on the cusp of a bowl at 5-6.

Overall, I would say that Tech played a strong schedule very well, but they missed out on a couple of wins they could have had. Cal played a similar schedule but did get those wins, in convincing fashion. And, just as the Bears had a scare against Oregon, Tech beat Kansas by only one point (31-30) after being down 30-11 at halftime.

Both teams have outstanding offenses scoring more than 35 points per game. Cal is a run-dominated offense, and Tech is a pass-dominated offense. There are differences in how they do it, however:

Cal has scored 26 points in every game but USC, and the Bears scored 40 or more six times. Only USC, ASU, Oregon, and USM held the Bears under 38 points. Their 37 points per game pretty much reflects their consistency. Tech, however, hung SEVENTY points on two different opponents: Nebraska and TCU. Otherwise, they tend to hover around 30 per game. They've been held to 25 points or fewer four times, but they've scored fewer than 21 only once (13 against Oklahoma). They, too, are very consistent.

Tech is a one-dimensional offense, but they are very good in that dimension. Although they've gained only 1,027 net yards rushing as a team, they have a phenomenal 389 yards per game passing (4,276 yards passing in 11 games). They have attempted 591 passes and have 31 passing TDs to 18 interceptions.

Such a pass-oriented offense begs a comparison to Oregon State or Arizona State, two familiar one-dimensional offenses that Cal has faced. OSU has the most pass attempts in the Pac-1 at 487 (104 fewer than Tech). ASU has the most passing yards at 3,438 (312 per game). Tech gets more than 75 more yards passing PER GAME than the top Pac-10 team. Additionally, Tech has 203 first downs by the pass but only 62 on the ground. That's a lot of first downs (Cal has 246, not including by penalty).

Tech has rushed just 272 times to complement their 591 pass attempts. Cal has passed just 289 times to complement their 470 rushing attempts. The result: Cal is overall a more efficient offense, scoring more touchdowns (53 to Tech's 51), gaining more yards (5,442 to Tech's 5,303), having a higher completion percentage (67.5% to Tech's 65.5%), having higher average per pass attempt (8.9 yards per attempt to Tech's 7.2), having higher average yards per catch (13.2 yards to Tech's 11.0), better TD-to-interception ratio (Cal has 26 passing TDs and only 7 interceptions, to Tech's 31 passing TDs and 18 interceptions) and controlling the clock better (Cal has TOP of 32:47 to Tech's 29:42). Yet Cal has lost 10 fumbles while Tech has lost just five.

It should be noted, however, that Tech was much more balanced in their final two games than the rest of the season. In their final three games, they rushed for 158, 117, and 155 yards. In the last two games, they passed for only 294 and 281 yards, the only times they've been under 300. Tech passed for over 350 in all but one other game and for over 400 in six games. This balance came against two bowl-bound teams (A&M, loss; and OK State, win).

Both teams are efficient on 3rd down (Cal 45.5%, Tech 47%) and 4th down (Cal 55.6%, Tech 41%). Tech, despite their number of pass attempts, has been sacked only 26 times (Cal has been sacked 22 times). Yet they also suffer a lot of penalties (102 on the year to Cal's 66).

Tech has outscored opponents in the 4th quarter 133-73 this year, with deficits in that quarter against only Texas and New Mexico (UNM came back from 24-21 at the end of the 3rd quarter to win by 3, in the only game in which TT did not score in the 4th, their 2nd game of the season). Similarly, Cal has outscored opponents 127-27 in the 4th quarter and 210-46 in the second half. The first halves for both teams are much less lopsided: Tech gets outscored 145-139 in the first half while Cal holds an edge of 200-101.

This is going to be a battle of two VERY good offenses. Both teams improve throughout the game, so no lead appears safe, and this could be a very exciting game. (Not quite the Bowl fireworks we saw last year, but exciting.) I think Cal has the edge in the second half because of the power running game. They have more of an ability to control the clock and dictate tempo. Tech does not really have that option. If Tech builds a decent lead, however, the Bears will have to mix it up and rely on the depleted receiving crew to gain some yards.

The real question then is, how do the defenses match up against the offenses?

Cal holds a strong statistical advantage over the Red Raiders on defense. The Bears give up only 13.4 points per game and have shut out two teams. Only three teams have scored more than 16 points against the Bears (USC 23, UCLA 28, and Oregon 27), and no team has yet scored 30.

The Bears shut out the Pac-10's top passing attack (ASU) and held the Pac-10's second-best passing attack (OSU) to just 7 points and zero passing TDs. Although Cal allows a relatively high 12.9 yards per catch, they hold opponents to just 49.7% completions, so they hold opponents to a low 6.4 yards per attempt. Cal has allowed only 14 passing TDs and collected 10 interceptions.

Tech, meanwhile, gives up 25.7 points per game. They've held four opponents under 18 points, but they've also given up 30 or more four times (including 51 to Texas). All their bowl-bound opponents scored 27 or more except OK State in their final game (just 15 points).

It's hard to see any real patterns leaping out from the stats to determine what type of game plan can consistently defeat the Red Raiders. Oklahoma, Texas, and A&M (all Tech losses) had strong rushing days against Tech, though so did SMU, K State, Baylor, and OK State (all Tech wins). Oklahoma stuck Tech for 221 yards rushing on 40 carries, and Texas pounded them for 351 yards and 5 rushing TDs on 71 carries. Tech has held just two opponents under 150 yards rushing (both wins).

Overall, however, the matchup favors the Bears. Tech gives up 172 yards per game rushing and 4.2 yards per carry, both of which would be in the bottom three of the Pac-10. In passing defense, they are more stingy, statistically similar to the Bears: They allow about 50% pass completion, a low 5.7 yards per pass attempt, 11.3 yards per catch, and have allowed just 12 passing TDs while collecting 10 interceptions. Their pass defense of 175 yards per game would be best in the Pac-10. Statistically, their defense is probably closest to Oregon State's in the Pac-10, except OSU has a slightly better rushing defense.

Cal's defense, however, has done very well against pass-oriented offenses. Cal held ASU to 238 yards passing and zero points, and they held OSU to 211 yards passing while collecting two interceptions. They gave up their worst defensive games, however, to more balanced teams that hurt them through the air: UCLA whacked the Bears for 299 yards passing and 4 TDs while Oregon also got 4 TDs but only 211 yards passing. Washington and Southern Miss both hit the Bears for more than 300 yards passing but scored only 14 points through the air combined. I think this phenomenon is a side effect of the Bears relying so much on their safeties--two of Cal's three leading tacklers are Gutierrez and Giordano. Against balanced or run-oriented teams, these guys have their minds more on the line of scrimmage, looking for a ball carrier, slowing their reactions to the pass. Against one-dimensional, passing offenses, they look for the pass first and break up plays.

In terms of yards, Cal's pass defense is not outstanding. Yet here again they are tremendously efficient. They give up 213 yards per game passing, but they are one of only two Pac-10 teams holding opponents under 50% completion, and they have 10 interceptions against 14 TDs allowed. Considering 8 of those TDs were to Oregon and UCLA and 2 more were to USC, they are pretty good overall.

On the ground, the Bears have allowed just four rushing TDs TOTAL, and only one in the past EIGHT GAMES (Southern Miss scored that one). They have not had a game where they gave up two rushing TDs. Between the first quarter of the Oregon State game and the 4th quarter of the USM game, Cal did not allow one single rushing touchdown. In addition, they've held four opponents to fewer than 50 yards rushing, including their last two games. JJ Arrington had more yards rushing against Southern Miss (261) than Cal's last three opponents did combined (131) and if that bogus penalty hadn't been called, you could have throw in Oregon's total as well to make it the last four opponents.

Tech's O line is big, averaging nearly 310 pounds. They have a very big center at 300 pounds. The LT, LG, and C are all seniors, and the RT is a junor (RG is a big sophomore, 324 pounds). I have no doubt these guys are great at pass blocking. They've given up only 26 sacks on nearly 600 passing attempts. It's no wonder that QB Sonny Cumbie is the nation's leading passer. Cal's D line is no bunch of little guys, though, averaging 285 with two 300-pounders in Alexander and Sverchek, and speedy Riddle the small fry at 250 pounds.

On the other side, Cal's O line is similarly large, averaging 312 pounds (only pipsqueak Marvin Philip, at 280, brings the average down... without him, the others are a beefy 320 pounds). Additionally, with the exception of Jonathan Giesel who missed one game midseason, this starting five has been together all eleven games. (To those looking to next year, Giesel is the only senior on the starting front five). Tech's D line is quite small: The four down linemen average just 282, and that average is brought up significantly by their big right DT, sophomore Ken Scott, at 315 pounds. Tech's linebackers are about the same size as Cal's. I am expecting the Bears to do a lot of running right up the middle and off tackle, take it right at these guys.

Tech has one tall corner (6'0") and one short one (5'10"), with a couple of 6'2" backups. They're generally a tall lot, and the Bears are without any real tall receivers. In fact, I don't think the Bears have any experienced receivers left over 6' tall. Lyman was the tallest at 6'4", Gray next at 6'3", and McArthur next at 6'1". Makonnen is 6'0". Toler (will he play?) is 6'2". DeSa and Jordan are just 5'11". So the height advantage goes to the Red Raiders. Rodgers will really have to be on his game if the Bears are to have much passing attack, or the young receivers will have to be very solid. (Both, really.)

On the other side, Tech's receivers are all tall. Their depth chart shows five receivers over 6', with two over 6'6". In addition, 6'0" Trey Haverty was named to the Sports Illustrated's All-America 2nd team... and he is only the 2nd-leading receiver on his team. 6'4" Jerrett Hicks was named to the AP All-Conference team first team for the Big 12. At 6-foot-four, you're always open.

The Cal defense will have its work cut out for it against this O line, this QB, and this receiving corps. The Bears have shown a strong ability to shut down pass-oriented teams, though, and to keep them out of the end zone. Similarly, the Tech defense will have a full day trying to contain Arrington and Lynch. The Raiders have shown an ability to give up big rushing days (see Texas, 5 TDs and 300+ yards), but they've also given up a lot of real estate while winning games, too.


This has all the makings of a very interesting game. I think the Bears will prevail, but Tech is no pushover even though they're just 7-4 and #22. They are just a few breaks away from 9-2 and probably a top-15 ranking. I have no fear that Cal will understimate them, however, and the Bears will come ready to beat up a team that both Oklahoma and Texas dominated. Cal has a lot to prove in this game, and the motivation should be strong.

The game will turn on how well Cal's defense can control Tech's passing attack, and whether the Cal offense can get the running game into "utter domination" mode without any real receiving threat. I think the Tech defense will step up and put up a good fight, but they will not be able to contain the Cal running attack in the second half. I think the Bears will again start slow, and the game will be very close at halftime. Then Cal will take over, as they have done all season. Tech will make a run back at it in the 4th quarter, but Cal's running game will control the outcome.

I think this game has less scoring than one might figure. I expect Cal to score at least 25, probably closer to 35, and I think they will hold Tech to the low 20s. I think the final ends up Cal 34, Tech 24.

Go Bears!

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!