California Golden Bears at The Ohio State Buckeyes
The Ohio State Buckeyes enter week three a perfect 2-0 with their first BCS conference opponent test looming on the horizon in the form of the California Golden Bears. But despite a semblance of the ship veering in the right direction, much uncertainty and trepidation permeates through the air in Columbus.
Entering the season, there was little doubt in the Ohio State fan base's collective minds that the Buckeyes' should be vaunted defensive line was supposed to set the tone for the entirety of the 2012 season. Hyperbole rained down from the likes of this very site calling the group "the nation's best". Just about everyone assumed Johnathan Hankins and John Simon would meet at the quarterback time and time again en route to a memorable junior and senior campaign respectively only to run into one another once again next April in Radio City Music Hall for the 2013 NFL Draft. While Hankins was the lone Buckeye defender to grade out a champion in week 2, Simon's failed to live up to his mythos to point.
While it's important to remember that Simon's being double teamed on nearly every play, that's no excuse for the overarching lack of tangible impact. Sure he's likely opening up avenues for his fellow defensive linemen to take on the opposition's ball carriers and quarterbacks, but plenty of great ends and tackles alike have rendered venerable highlight films in the face of disproportionate adversity. For all Urban Meyer's lauding that Simon was the defensive second coming of Tim Tebow and for all the adulation that he epitomized everything you'd want in a versatile edge/interior rusher, the reality of the situation paints a far bleaker narrative. If Simon's unable to record so much as a single sack against the likes of Miami (Ohio) and Central Florida, what hope do the Buckeyes front 7 have when the rival gladiators have Michigan State or Nebraska over their shoulder pads? it's easy to minimize the importance of a return to form against Cal by saying "it's just another game" or "give him time, he'll be back", but this is the last set of jumper cables before conference play. Average play begets average play.
On the flip side, the sheer polarity flip from the milquetoast vanilla overdose offense of the Jim Bollman and Jim Tressel years to Tom Herman and Urban Meyer's laser guided hybrid chainsaw lightning gun is enough to sate most. Braxton Miller continues to fulfill every wishful thought about him going into his senior year, though the creeping worry in the back of most of everyone's consciousness is that of a hypothetical expiration date; the fear that one hit too many will expose Miller's mortality in jarring fashion and leave the potentially overblown Ohio State mess a full blown one.E
Enter Jordan Hall: the player Urban Meyer strategically omitted from the Spring Game (injury, mmmhmm) and one that the forced the entire offense to take multiple steps back schematically following a serious foot injury. After a week of practices with little to no setbacks, Hall is set to make his 2012 season debut. If the Jeanette, Pennsylvania product is even 75% of what his coaches think he is, Braxton Miller's crutch becomes a metaphorical one instead of ostensibly a literal one. An offense that was prolific by Ohio State standards but hardly ever in fifth gear discovers it has a sixth one. Braxton Miller survives a dozen weekends in the fall, and Ohio State is that much closer to the lofty (nay, unrealistic) standards their own backers set out for them each fall.
And standing on the opposing sidelines dead determined to prevent any fairy tales from coming to fruition might just be the luckiest man in America.
Jeff Tedford may be nearly unfireable for a budget strapped state school with an expensive new stadium renovation to pay for, but offense has typically not been the root source of ire during his tenure. In the 28 Cal football seasons before Tedford, the Bears had but eight winning seasons. The last ten with him guiding them, they've had nine. A track record of producing extremely draftable (see: no return policy) quarterbacks and other high impact offensive players doesn't deviate much with the 2012 iteration. The Cal offense begins and ends with junior Keenan Allen. The former five star wide out from North Carolina was remarkably uninform in the season's first two weeks ,pulling in 67 and 69 yards respectively. A season ago, Allen was targeted more than one in every three passes on the year. While that wasn't the case against the Bears' first two opponents, that could change, particularly with the signal caller responsible for distributing the wealth.
Former Buffalo transfer and Allen's half brother Zach Maynard leads the aerial effort for the Golden Bears. Consistency's never been Maynard's best ally though, and the senior actually played better in conference games a year prior than he did in their non-conference slate. After missing the first three series in the loss to Nevada due to missing a tutoring appointment, Maynard sleepwalked through an afternoon that saw him a shade under a 60% completion percentage, going 17/30 for 245 yards and 2 TDs. A week later hosting FCS Southern Utah, Maynard completed a higher percentage of his passes (17/23 for 229 yards) but also threw his first pick of the season. To his credit, Maynard added 39 rushing yards, though most came on a 22 yard improvised scramble. If 2011 (and the extremely small sample of 2012) is any barometer, Cal is better off when Maynard has less than 25 attempts.
Aiding in Cal's quest for balance is senior tailback Isi Sofele. A year ago the Salt Lake City product (who's name is pronounced EE-see so-fell-AY) rushed for 1322 yards and 10 TDs, putting him in line with a long class of outstanding Cal backs including Marshawn Lynch, Justin Forsett, Jahvid Best, and Shane Vereen. None the less, he's listed as co-starter with fellow senior C.J. Anderson, who's both effective in the short yardage game and out of the back field as a pass catcher. Sofele rushed for a hundred plus yards against Southern Utah but Anderson led the team with 66 against the Wolfpack.
Allen aside, the Bears are extremely green at receiver. True freshman Bryce Treggs, a 5'11" 180-ish product of Bellflower, California lines up opposite primarily from Cal's number one though true freshman Chris Harper is the team's leading receiver entering week 3. Phil Steele listed Treggs as the 11th best freshman wide out in the country with Harper ranked as his 62nd best. Both Treggs and Harper are solid route runners for their experience levels with Treggs being the speedier of the two. Sophomore Richard Rodgers of Worcester, MA is the team's tight end. He was one of only three true freshmen to play in all 13 games in 2011 for the Bears.
Former left guard Brian Schwenke is the Bears lone returning offensive line starter from 2011 still starting at present. Much like with UCF a week prior, Cal is well represented on the line by a single family. Brothers senior Tyler Rigsbee and redshirt freshman Jordan Rigsbee man the left side of things and could set the tone for the remainder of John Simon's 2012. Sophomore Chris Adcock and junior Bill Tyndall fill out the remainder of the Bears' starting five.
Entering their third year running defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast (late of the Arizona Cardinals)'s base 3-4, Cal's corners may have to carry the load for a defense still breaking in six new starters. Senior Marc Anthony will need to know where Jake Stoneburner and Devin Smith are virtually all afternoon while junior Steve Williams should be more than capable to help pick up any slack. Backups Stefan McClure and Kameron Jackson, both sophomores, add to what could be one of the better secondaries in the Pac-12. Josh Hill, last year's nickel back, and Alex Logan, a top backup a year prior, are the starting free and strong safeties respectively. Michael Lowe shined in special teams in 2011 and could also factor into the rotation.
Aaron Tipoti saw time primarily as nose guard a year ago, but has slid over to end in 2012. Kendrick Payne anchors the middle though sometimes yields way to talented sophomore Viliami Moala. The other end, Deandre Coleman, is arguably Cal's best lineman. He ruffled feathers earlier this week by suggesting that Ohio State's offensive wasn't "really that good or anything".
Sophomore Chris McCain sets the tone for the four linebackers coming off a 2011 which saw him produce 29 tackles, 6 of those for a loss. Seniors Robert Mullins and J.P. Hurrell are the pace setters from the interior and will be responsible for both stopping Bri'onte Dunn, Rod Smith, and Jordan Hall, and also keeping up with Nick Vannett, Jeff Heuerman, and any of the Buckeye receivers who try to cross the field. The amply named Brennan Scarlett, a sophomore, is the other outside linebacker. The group isn't the most experienced but talented overall. On the right Saturday, they can play over their heads and prove problematic for the opposition.
If you'd have told me before the season that my biggest fear entering Cal week would be Ohio State's defensive line, I would've had you committed (and then myself, because no one would believe I'd met a person from the future). But here we are. Even though Angry Iowa Running Back Hating God has seemingly decided to diversify by taking out Carlos Hyde mere months after Jordan Hall's glass bottle incident, the return of an even halfway there Hall is a net positive for an offense still coming into its own. Urban Meyer said after Wednesday's practice that "15" is the magic number of carries to get productivity while also maximizing health for Braxton Miller. I'd more realistically set the over/under at 19.5, but let's hope a win isn't going to necessitate 25-ish each week, or we could quickly be broaching Denard territory.
PREDICTION: Holy Diver – I wish I could say I thought Cal was better than most books are giving them credit for, but 13.5 points (now as high as 17 in many places) is what it is. The Buckeyes will set the tone for the majority of the afternoon and aside from perhaps the requisite Keenan Allen big play, never feel terribly out of control.
Ohio State 34 - Cal 17