Cal Game Q&A with Tightwad Hill

Cross-posted from Conquest Chronicles; the good stuff comes from Tightwad Hill and Displaced Trojan; I’m responsible for the rest.
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This week’s blog Q&A exchange is with Cal site Tightwad Hill. The brain trust on both sides convened and here’s what Tightwad Hill had to say to us:

1. Just how angry / stunned were the Cal Fans about the loss to Arizona? What’s the sense of the mood of the team going from favorites to slight underdogs? Does anyone in the Bears Nation actually believe that the Bears are underdogs this weekend?

Yeah, I do.

You have to understand Cal’s team, though. Because of the big-play capability, it’s not unreasonable to think they can beat anyone in the nation. They can also lose to teams like Arizona, though, when they get subpar quarterback play and lose the turnover battle.

As for the mood, it’s more stunned than angry – maybe puzzled is the best word. Nate Longshore had one of the finest performances in recent Cal history against UCLA, and then looked lost against Arizona. Our receivers, who had been terrific all year, couldn’t get open in the short and intermediate passing game. To the fan that’s watched Cal all year long, the Arizona game just didn’t make sense.

But the mood has come around this week, and I think the team is feeling pretty good right now. From the start of the season, the team and its fans were focused on one thing – winning the conference and playing in the Rose Bowl. The loss to Arizona didn’t change much with respect to that goal – Cal still needs to beat SC. I have no doubt that Tedford will have the team ready from an emotional standpoint.

2. So far, no team has been able to put together a solid running game against USC. Jonathan Stewart was held to 42 yards on 14 carries, Nebraska and Arkansas were unable to run the ball, and Ryan Torain was also shut down. What does Cal need to do for Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett to be a big factor?

Block Rey Maualuga and Oscar Lua. Like most backs, Lynch becomes much tougher to bring down three yards past the LOS. With Lynch it’s even more of a problem, owing to his unique mix of speed and lower-body strength. Cal needs to force SC’s safeties and corners to become involved in the run game, and that will only happen if Maualuga, Loa, Rivers etc aren’t making plays on one and two yard gains.

Cal’s OL has fallen off a bit in the run game of late. They need to perform at a higher level for Cal to beat SC on Saturday. Key players are center Alex Mack and fullback Byron Storer – Storer is a very good lead blocker. SC will be their biggest test.

3. Cal’s defense seems to be riding “bend but don’t break” to the limit — the team is giving up a lot of yards but not a lot of points. What’s the key to Cal’s success in this area? Is the secondary up to containing a healthy Jarrett and Smith?

Takeaways: The Bears have 25 takeaways on the year, and our DBs and LBs have shown great ball instincts in the passing game. The yardage statistics are a little misleading for a couple of reasons. First, Cal has had a few games (ASU, OSU, Oregon) that were basically over at halftime and opponents were free to roll up big numbers in the 2nd half. Second, Cal’s defensive philosophy since the Tennessee game has been fairly conservative, with an emphasis on preventing big plays and yards after contact.

As for the secondary, Hughes is a lock-down corner, though he’s coming off his worst game of the year against Syndric Steptoe. On the other corner is RS freshman Syd’Quan Thompson, who has tons of potential but is still learning the position. Thompson will play conservative and look for lots of help from FS Bernard Hicks against Smith or Jarrett. Cal will rotate lots of guys in the back seven, so depth is not an issue.

4. As you noted, Longshore is not the most mobile of QB’s. SC’s pass rush has been showing signs of improvement, along with the aforementioned success in slowing down the running game. Has Cal needed to chip away at plays with a high proportion of plays to yards gained per play? How would you expect to see Tedford react to that situation?

Cal is very explosive on offense – only 21 of its 45 touchdowns have come from offensive snaps in the red zone. That said, Cal’s passing game is based on timing, and lots of those big plays are generated with yards after catch. Tedford and OC Mike Dunbar are very good at flooding zones and creating mismatches for our 2nd and 3rd receivers.

I do expect Tedford to open up the passing game and put pressure on the young players in SC’s secondary. It wouldn’t surprise me if Cal featured the deep ball a little more than they have in recent weeks. Of course, if SC can generate a pass rush, then all that’s out the window.

One other note – Cal is most effective when Longshore can involve both backs – but especially Lynch – in the passing game. Tedford/Dunbar will scheme to create opportunities for Lynch in space, and don’t be surprised to see #10 lined up wide on more than a couple of occasions.

5. Conventional wisdom among the media is that Jeff Tedford is the only coach in the Pac-10 who has proven that he can consistently challenge Pete Carroll, if not out-coach him. Assuming last year was an aberration, given Joe Ayoob’s “performance,” why do you think Tedford seems to have Carroll’s number?

It’s simple – he’s one of the two best coaches in the conference (along with Pete). I also think Cal has matched up pretty well against the Trojans throughout the Tedford era. In ’02, I thought SC didn’t show up ready to play and Cal nearly knocked them off. In ’03, Tedford had a great offensive game plan with good balance in the passing game, and we were peaking at the right time. ’04 was a coaching push, in that Tedford took what Carroll gave him the short and intermediate passing game – the teams were comparable in terms of talent, but SC still won the game. ’05, as you noted, was the year of Ayoob and we shall not speak of it further.

Unlike many Cal fans, I’ve got lots of respect for Pete. His teams play hard and smart, which is a rare combination. He’s like Dennis Erickson with better impulse control. Now Dirk Koetter – he is truly JT’s bitch. [Couldn’t agree more – DT]

6. Your prediction for the game?

You guys are correct that this is probably a field goal game either way, though SC is the deserving favorite. SC in 2006 will want to look like Cal in 2004 – playing keep-away with short passes and runs. That’s probably a good strategy given Cal’s personnel and philosophy, but it hinges on SC’s ability to keep the score down in the first half. If Cal has 17+ points by halftime, they will win this game – and I’m betting they will.

Mind you, I have no good reason to feel this way given last week’s performance and years and years of watching Cal spit the bit in clutch situations. Call it a hunch that they can pull the upset: Cal 31 USC 28.

And a bonus question:

7. USC has only 1 Nobel Laureate versus the 7 carelessly littered around the campus at Berkeley. Do you find that this helps with recruiting?

I’ve spoken with Tedford, and he honestly believes it does – not so much the actual # of Nobels as Cal’s excellent academic reputation. He puts a huge emphasis on academics in his visits because many of his main recruiting rivals – Dorrell and Bellotti to name two – don’t. Personally, I love the fact that Nobel Laureates get huge cheers before football games. It’s very Berkeley. Here’s proof.

Thanks to Tightwad Hill; our words of wisdom can be found on his blog here. Here’s looking forward to a clean, injury-free game.

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