October 12, 2006

not the end of the world but you can see it from there...

Until I read it today, I hadn't realized that Tedford has never appeared in Pullman as a head coach. Two years Cal did not meet WSU, and two years the Cougars came to Berkeley. This means that although the Bears have not won in Pullman since 1979, they also are unbeaten in Pullman in the last five years.

I think that the Bears win this game 9 out of 10 times. I just can't shake the feeling, though, that this has the same feel as the game when Cal beat USC in Berkeley lo these many years ago. USC underestimated the Bears, but Cal had seen similar top-notch competition (Kansas State) early in the year. The Bears were at home, ravenous for a signature game, ready to break out.

If you read cyberbears, Bear fans are certainly looking right past WSU. It's a checkmark on the list, a stamp in their Pac-10 passports. Oh, we'll say "one game at a time" and all that, but truth be told, very few Cal fans think much of WSU. But in fact, they were quite possibly the best 1-7 team in Pac-10 history last year. They lost by three to Stanford, UCLA, ASU, and Oregon, and they lost by four to Cal. Every week it seemed they were on the verge of a big win, but they never got one (can't really call beating UW last year a "big" win).

This year they're 4-2, and one of their losses was their opener on the road at Auburn. If we can write off the Tennessee game, then we have to give them similar respect. Which means that they are 4-1 in games that count, with the one loss a reasonably close affair against USC at home (28-22).

This one has "upset" written ALL OVER it, folks.

The big talk in Berkeley this week? The banana uniforms. The team is either loose or overconfident--it's impossible to tell which. No TV to pump up the Bears. The smallest crowd in the Pac-10 (yes, even smaller than Stanford--WSU averages a league-worst 35,302 per game). WSU homecoming day. The Palouse... it's not the end of the world, but you can see it from there. A talented, underrated team ravenous for a signature win...

This one is either a nail-biter to the end or the biggest blowout of the season. I'm hoping the latter, but I'm afraid it will be the former.

OK, on to stats: In the stats, the Bears clearly own offensive superiority. No doubt about it: Cal scores nearly 40 points per game (5th nationally) to WSU's 26. The Bears are 11th nationally in pass offense and 8th nationally in total offense. But wait! WSU is 24th nationally in passing offense and 17th in total offense. So the superiority may not be so clear. Let's dig deeper:

Cal nets 6.8 yards per play, best in the Pac-10. WSU is third, however, at 5.8 yards per play. The Bears have scored 27 offensive TDs to WSU's 19, so that's a big difference. Cal has 18 TD passes to just 6 interceptions, but WSU is nearly as good with 13 TDs to just 5 interceptions in the same number of games. Both teams are just above 60% completion rate. We know Cal has a great passing offense; WSU also has a very good passing offense.

Similarly, both teams are good at running the ball. Cal nets 4.9 yards per carry and 167 yards per game, but WSU is right behind at 4.5 yards per carry and 162 yards per game. Both teams also have positive turnover margin. Cal leads with +6 (+1.0 per game) with WSU at +2 (+.33 per game).

WSU is #1 in the Pac in first downs with 135 in 6 games; Cal is right behind with 130. Both the Bears and WSU are around 43% in 3rd down conversions. WSU has allowed 12 sacks to Cal's 7, but they're slightly better in time of possession. The real difference may be in the red zone, where Cal has scored 14 TDs in 19 appearances (plus 2 field goals). WSU has 14 TDs in 27 appearances plus 6 field goals. Three of their fumbles have come in the opponent's red zone, and their red zone TDs are overwhelmingly through the air.

All this says to me that the Bears had better be ready for a team that will attack with a very strong passing game. They will get big yardage and will probably score a few. Although Jason Hill injured his shoulder last week, it looks likely he will play. Against ASU and Oregon, the Bears faced inexperienced quarterbacks who got rattled under pressure and gave up big turnovers. Don't expect the same hospitality from Alex Brink. The best way to keep WSU from scoring will be to keep their offense off the field.

But that may not be an easy task, either. Everyone is raving about WSU's underrated defense, which has held four opponents under 15 points (their four wins). The Cougars allow a miserly 18 points per game (3 better than Cal's 21 ppg allowed). They are strong against the run, holding opponents to 3.3 yards per carry and just 98.8 yards per game. They have not allowed a 100-yard rusher since Auburn's Kenny Irons in their opener. Cal, meanwhile, is just 7th in the Pac-10 against the run, allowing 3.8 yards per carry and 131 yards per game.

Like Cal, however, WSU has a weaker pass defense... at least at first glance. They give up 221 passing yards per game (better than Cal's 238), bu they are more efficient, collecting one interception per game and allowing just one passing TD per game. The Bears, meanwhile, are a big-play defense: 10 passing TDs allowed, but 11 interceptions grabbed. WSU leads the nation in sacks with 27 (4.5 per game!). The Bears have been improving in that category and are 5th in the conference with 16 QBs bagged. The Bears are good at protecting Lonshore, though, giving up a little more than one sack per game.

WSU also has the better red zone defense, giving up just 8 TDs in 20 opponent appearances. The Bears have given up 8 TDs in 15 appearances. So... does that mean WSU is better in the red zone, or does that mean the Bears are better at keeping opponents out of the red zone? Hmmm...

So, these teams are remarkably similar. How about their competition? WSU has a blowout loss in their opener at Auburn and a close loss to USC at home. Their wins came at Stanford and Oregon State, and at home against Idaho and Baylor. Their win last week at Reser Stadium was 13 to 6. Certainly, Cal fared better in Corvallis.

Finally, a quick look at turnovers and special teams. I have this nagging feeling in the back of my mind that says, one of these days the Bears are not going to benefit from a lot of turnovers by the opponent. One of these days, the opponent is going to protect the ball. I worry that it will be WSU on Saturday, and the Bears will have to prove they can finish a close game in the second half.

On special teams, the Bears appear to have the hands-down advantage. Cal is 3rd in the league in kickoff returns, and WSU is 9th in kickoff coverage. Maybe this week will be the week the Bears run one all the way back. On the other side, the Bears are 7th in kickoff coverage but WSU is only #8 in kickoff returns, so it's a wash there. Both teams punt well: WSU is 4th with a net of 35.5 yards per punt and 1 touchback, while Cal leads the Pac with 38.3 yards per punt with 3 touchbacks. Cal has the league's second-best punt return average at 14.8 yards per return, however, and is one of two teams with two punts returned for touchdowns. WSU, however, gets only 5.8 yards per return and has not (yet) run one back all the way.

All in all, I do think the Bears win this game 9 times out of 10. The talent and depth is simply awesome, and the defense appears to be improving each week. I think Cal has played a tougher schedule, though not THAT much tougher.

I think this game hinges entirely on two things: First, Cal's defense shutting down WSU's passing game. They don't have to keep Brink and Hill from getting yards... they have to keep Hill out of the end zone. Some of that will be pressure, and the middle of the O line is where their inexperience is. The Bears need a good push in the middle of the line to disrupt Brink's pocket and rush his passes.

The other thing this game hinges on is Cal's ability to protect the ball. If the Bears suffer minus-two or worse in turnovers, they will lose. If they hold on to the ball and don't get sloppy, they should roll.

I am hoping for the blowout victory, of course, but I think this one won't have the benefit of a first-play-from-scrimmage turnover. We can't count on the Cougars imploding the way the Ducks did last week, and I think they will play tough for all four quarters. In the end, though, this is not that tenth game out of ten that the Cougs win. It is maybe the fourth game out of ten, which is still a Cal victory, with the final score Cal 38 WSU 28.

Go Bears!

1 comment:

2cmac said...

Dude you are scaring me now. Let's hope Tedford has done a good job of getting these guys mentally prepared for the game.