Cal-Ohio State was a surprisingly close contest a year ago. Since then, Cal's made a coaching change, and Ohio State is finally out from under the shadow of a postseason ban. Though the status of Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is up in the air, after proving his bonafides yet again a week ago against San Diego State, senior backup Kenny Guiton seems poised to help Ohio State live up to their billing on the road against the Golden Bears.
In order to get the lowdown on this matchup, we caught up with atomsareenough and NorcalNick from California Golden Blogs. You can follow CGB on Twitter @GoldenBlogs.
Cal's defense gave up 500+ yards to Portland State. Where are the breakdowns defensively coming from? What position group are you most concerned about after two contests?
atomsareenough: The breakdowns are coming from lack of experience and lack of depth. We had 5 projected starters out against Portland State, including three D-linemen, our middle linebacker, and our best safety (out for the year), so we've been throwing a lot of young players into the fire, and they've had growing pains. The position group I'm most concerned about is the D-line, because they weren't able to generate consistent QB pressure against an FCS team. Everything starts up front, and if they're able to play better, it will take pressure off the secondary, who won't have to make as many tackles in space.
NorcalNick: All of them? Cal has major injury issues at every level of the defense, and as a result there's no unit that is free from concern. But the biggest is probably Cal's secondary, which was tenuously shallow even prior to safety Avery Sebastian's season ending achilles injury. Northwestern had their way through the air and there were multiple blown coverages against Portland State. The potential return of Chris McCain might help shore up the run defense a tad, but there's zero reason to be optimistic about Cal's passing defense on Saturday. The latest injury report indicates that 2 of the 5 injured defensive starters have been cleared to participate, although it remains to be seen at what capacity.
Brendan Bigelow burned himself into Ohio State's fan's memories after his outstanding play a year ago. How has he grown as a back this year, and how worried should OSU fans be about a repeat performance
atomsareenough: I think he's trying to be more of an every-down, can run-between-the-tackles back, and Cal fans definitely want to see him on the field a lot more regularly than we did last year. But so far he hasn't yet been able to bust out for as the kind of eye-popping big plays we saw last year. He's recovering from an off-season knee procedure, so that may be part of the explanation. That said, the blocking along the line hasn't been very good, and both he and freshman speedster Khalfani Muhammad have seemed close to busting free on multiple occasions, but just haven't quite been able to make that last man miss. I expect we'll see some big plays from them both before the season is up, and this week would be a great time to start. The coaching staff has voiced concern about the slow progress of the run game, and it has been an extra point of emphasis in practice this week. Hopefully that pays off and the o-line stays on their blocks long enough for the tailbacks to find holes. I don't know if we'll quite have a repeat performance of last year though, as I'm sure he will be a focus of the Buckeye defense, and he's not going to catch anyone by surprise this time around.
NorcalNick: It's tough to say. Both Northwestern and Portland State clearly made it a priority to stop the run, and as a result Cal has thrown the ball significantly more than the coaching staff would prefer. Bigelow has looked good so far, but the line hasn't done a great job of giving him chances to make plays in space. I think absolutely, he's a concern for Ohio State fans. He's talented enough to punish a mistake with his speed. But right now Cal's pass blocking appears to be ahead of its run blocking, so if the Buckeye defense is disciplined and makes it a point of tracking him, they can keep him penned in. It is worth noting that he's had an impact in the passing game as well.
Do they think Jared Goff will perform as well as he has been this season against an experienced secondary, including a preseason All-American cornerback in Bradley Roby?
atomsareenough: Roby's a great player, but he can't cover everybody, and Goff has been good at spreading the ball around and finding the open guy. He's thrown a lot to Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper, and they're both very good receivers and can get open reliably. We've got a lot of depth and talent at the receiver position though, so as long as Goff can get the ball out quickly and continue to make good decisions, I expect him to continue to rack up yardage in the passing game.
NorcalNick: I think Goff will rack up yardage again - it's what the offense is designed to do, and Cal has the luxury of many viable targets for Goff to throw to. The question is if Goff can convert those yards into points and avoid mistakes. Too often this year, Cal has settled for field goals. And although it would be harsh to blame Goff, two pick-sixes on tipped passes against Northwestern swung the game. If Goff throws for 400 yards, but can't convert in the red zone and throws two interceptions, the yards will be a footnote to the game. An important question is how much secondary depth Ohio State has. Cal will play four wide receivers as their base set, and many plays have 5 targets for Goff to throw to. He would likely be wise to avoid throwing in Roby's direction, but Roby can only defend one of Cal's five receivers. How good are Ohio State's nickel and dime packages? I suppose we'll find out on Saturday.
Who's a lesser known player Ohio State fans may not have heard much about that might show up and have a big impact on Saturday's game?
atomsareenough: I'm going to go with Khalfani Muhammad, our aforementioned #2 running back. He's got ridiculous speed (two time CA state champion in the 100- and 200-meters), and he had a pretty nice showing in the Portland State game. He's also been the guy handling kickoff returns, and it already seems like teams are starting to kick away from him. If he gets loose, you're not going to catch him from behind.
NorcalNick: I'd vote for Richard Rodgers, who is a tight end converted to inside wide receiver who has looked pretty good so far this season. He won't get as many targets as Chris Harper and Bryce Treggs, but he's very reliable, and can create matchup problems in the secondary with his size. Goff will look for him on 3rd downs, and he runs really well for a big guy.
What are Cal fans' expectations for this season? Would it take a bowl bid (and/or win) to be satisfied or is just a modest improvement over last season acceptable during the transition from Tedford to Dykes?
atomsareenough: Cal fans' expectations are kind of all over the map, I think. I'm sure a lot of folks haven't been expecting much this year. I, on the other hand, went into the season expecting a bowl game, probably around 6-7 wins, even with the toughest schedule in the nation. We seriously underachieved to go 3-9 last year, and we really just packed it in and threw in the towel toward the end of the season. It was pretty shameful. Anyway, as we showed in Columbus, the team has enough talent to be competitive. This year, the offense is much, much improved. I expected it to be better, but it's even surpassed my expectations so far. However, though I expected the defense to take a small step back, it has actually taken a HUGE step back, largely due to missing five starters to injury so far. So, we'll need to get healthy or the young players are going to have to improve pretty quickly there if we want to keep a bowl game within the realm of possibility. The Northwestern game was encouraging, as we hung around with and could have beaten a legitimately good team. The Portland State game was discouraging, as we barely beat an FCS team. I'm looking at the next two weeks (vs. Ohio State and @ Oregon) to be learning opportunities. If we win, fantastic, but if not, we just need to make sure we are ready for the main stretch of conference play after Oregon. That stretch will determine whether our season will be a success or not. If we're competitive and play hard and don't make dumb mistakes, then I won't care so much about the win total, but I do think a bowl game is still conceivable at this point.
NorcalNick: The simplest expectation was probably to make football fun again. Last year's loss to Ohio State was probably the second or third most fun game of the year for Cal fans, which isn't saying much. Fans expect the team to be better, but there is also an awareness that the team could improve significantly without that change getting reflected in the win column. Cal's schedule is so brutal this year that the W/L record might not fairly represent the team's true talent level. A bowl would be a pretty significant step, but with five expected starters on defense out indefinitely, pre-fall-camp expectations have been tampered down slightly. Mostly, we just want to see the Bears compete and give some ranked teams a scare. Hopefully starting Saturday.
Pretend the Pac-12 didn't have a grant of rights. Why should Jim Delany throwing a bajillion dollars at Cal to sneak out of the Pac-12 in the dead of night and join the Big Ten?
atomsareenough: First off, who wouldn't want the premier public institution in the country, and the flagship university of the biggest and best state in the union? Secondly, we're in a major metropolitan area, fertile recruiting territory, and an appealing west coast location. Great travel destination for the rest of the conference. We've got a proud tradition, good support, and many ingredients to be a perennial contending program.
NorcalNick: I'd like to think it wouldn't be hard to argue why Cal is more attractive as a conference mate than Rutgers or Maryland, both from a football prestige and TV market point of view. And, as a large flagship public university of a populous state, we have plenty of alums and a pretty wide recognition around the country (whether it's as Cal, the athletic entity, or Berkeley, the academic entity, a confusing branding issue that's a point of frustration for many alums). But seriously, I don't know how you guys feel, but 12 seems like a pretty ideal number for a conference. I'm kinda glad Texas torpedoed the Pac-16 and decided to keep their sweetheart deal in the Big-whatever. You can only dilute the product so much before interest starts to wane.
True or false: Bear Raid is the best name for a scheme in decades?
atomsareenough: TRUE. Honestly, what's scarier than the thought of a pack of marauding bears coming for you in the middle of the night?
NorcalNick: Well, you probably won't get much argument from us, although I have to give a shout out to the Pistol, despite the many horrors it has inflicted on Cal fans over the last few years.
Finally, how do you see Saturday's contest playing out?
atomsareenough: My head says that Ohio State's playmakers and offensive line are too much for our young and banged-up defenders to contain. My heart says that our offense will keep rolling and the defense will do just enough to win. I'm sticking with my Bears, 41-35.
NorcalNick: Cal racks up yards, but not nearly enough to keep pace with a potent Ohio State offense facing an inexperienced, depleted defense. It's 24-13 at the half. An early Cal touchdown in the third quarter inspires hope for the Bears and unnecessarily frightens Buckeye fans, but an early 4th quarter turnover eliminates any thoughts of a comeback. Ohio State 45, Cal 31.