September 29, 2006

I am so tired. But there's still energy for Cal at OSU

A harder week at work I have not had in probably 15 years. I'm exhausted.

But I think the Bears will win up in Corvallis this weekend. Oregon State has good defensive stats, especially in the secondary. Only one touchdown allowed to five interceptions and only 5.9 yards per pass. They're also allowing only 3.6 yards per rush and 115 yards per game on the ground. They allow opponents only 12 first downs a game (Cal allows 19.5), and they have 11 sacks in 3 games. They've also held opponents to an astounding 5 third-down conversions in 33 attempts (15.2%).

Their worry on defense, though, is in the red zone. Oregon State has not yet stopped an opponent from scoring in the red zone, giving up five TDs on their opponents' five opportunities. USC and UCLA are the only teams to allow fewer red zone appearances... that's one reason they're #1 and #2 in the conference in scoring defense.

But the Beavers will face an offense like they've not yet seen in the likes of Eastern Washington, Idaho, or even Boise State. Cal QB Nate Longshore has won two of the four Pac-10 Offensive Player Of The Week awards and is the league's top-rated passer in efficiency with 66% completion, 10 TDs, and 3 interceptions. DeSean Jackson has six receiving touchdowns in four games and is the league's top receiver in yards per catch at 18.5. Then there's Marshawn Lynch, the league's second-leading rusher at 112.2 yards per game. He has three touchdowns and leads the league's top rushers at 7.2 yards per carry. Cal's offense has faced Tennessee on the road and Minnesota and Arizona State at home--all of them supposedly tough defenses. Cal's scoring has gone up game over game, and they've scored 42 or more in their past three contests. Will the Beavers' stats hold up when they face this kind of offense?

On offense, the Beavers do not look so dominant. They take care of the ball and score well (36 points per game), but they're middle of the Pac in most statistical categories on offense. While the Beaver defense makes plenty of appearances at the top of the statistical tables, you have to go pretty far down the chart to fine the OSU offense. In fact, I can't find a single category worthy of note.

Cal's defense is not so hot, statistically, however. They're allowing 4.3 yards per rush and 165 yards per game on the ground. Meanwhile, they're last in pass defense with 223.5 yards per game. Daymeion Hughes has five interceptions in his last three games, but Cal is #9 in the conference at 7.8 yards per pass given up, and they've allowed a league-worst 8 passing touchdowns to go with their league-best 8 interceptions. Sort of a big-play defense on every down, you'd guess, one way or the other.

The only other stat to note is that this game pits the only two Pac-10 teams that have scored on punt returns. The Bears did it last week against ASU, and Oregon State is the only team to have done it twice in this young season. Plus, they sport an eye-popping 19.3 yard average on their punt returns. Special teams could be a big factor in this game if it's a close game.

For me, this game hinges on two things:
First, is the Beaver secondary as good as their stats? We saw last week that ASU's high-powered offense built their hot stats against weak competition. But sometimes good stats are good stats, no matter who the competition is. Can the Beavers shut down one of the best offenses in the league, if not the country? Or are the Bears balanced enough to score even if OSU takes away the pass?

Second, will the atmosphere bring down the Bears? Cal is third in the Pac-10 with an average home attendance of 58,000. The crowd is pretty enthusiastic at Memorial, too. But get into Corvallis and they'll be lucky to play in front of 40,000. Tedford's teams tend to play better in front of big crowds, TV audiences, loud pressure (Tennessee is the exception). Ironically, the best thing for the Beavers could be a half-empty stadium with no noise at all. The Bears would have a hard time gearing up for that environment.

All in all, though, I come back to this: OSU's schedule so far. Destroyed Eastern Washington at home, 56-17. Got creamed at Boise State, 42-14. Demolished Idaho at home, 38-0. They can mop up the patsies, but can they play a good team like Cal close?

I predict Cal would win this matchup 9 out of 10 times, barring crazy injuries. The Beavers just don't have enough of an offense to compete with Cal's offense, even if the defense is pretty strong.

Cal's more difficult schedule is an advantage, though Longshore still has never won a game on the road.

I'm betting on a relatively mundane game. No crazy turnover frenzies or kicks returned for scores. A lot of running on both sides, a lot of clock management and balanced offense. I think the Bears will build a steady lead, up 21-10 at halftime and 35-23 at the final gun.

Go Bears!

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