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October 8, 2010

Into the Lair with the Bear

As all Bruin fans know, this week's opponent, the University of California at Berkeley Golden Bears, has spent the last two weeks doing the two most important things on their football agenda: getting healthier and preparing for in-State, in-system rival, UCLA.

The former effort has paid off as the Bears expect to have several players back this weekend. The latter could pay off even more as Coach Jeff Tedford started working his team on game preparation a week early in anticipation of Cal's rematch against the Pistol offense.

The first go-round didn't work all that well for the Golden Bears. They got clobbered by Pistol inventor, Nevada head coach Chris Ault and his Wolf Pack, 52-31 on September 17 at Nevada. But the Wolf Pack have the most experience anywhere running the Pistol offense and feature a fine quarterback specifically recruited with that offensive scheme in mind.

The Pistol is a bit difference - it's not a traditional T nor is it a full spread. It enables the Bruins to launch their big and mature offensive line in zone blocking schemes - fewer details to have to perfect to get things right, an ability to go all-out and just let things happen on the field. For an offensive line that lost four potential starters coming off last year including their leader, starting center and signal-caller Kai Maiava, those are significant factors and have helped to turn the offensive line, expected to be a serious question-mark this season, into perhaps the team's foremost strength.

The pass protection on drop back plays still isn't there, but the running attack and gone from truly anemic - to say the very most - to one of the most successful in the country with the line - nicknamed the "filthy five" - a moniker Coach Rick Neuheisel embraces albeit with an apology to the young men's mothers - also helping lead the emergence of UCLA's running back corps onto the national scene.

There are a number of differences between Nevada's Pistol and UCLA's. The Bruins are still learning and expanding their operations in the scheme and their quarterbacks aren't the same masters of the potentials for quarterback as runners that Nevada's is. Also, the Bruins' passing game is very much a system in the building stages.

Even so, the Bears' earlier experience facing a solid (top 25 ranked) Pistol team will eliminate some of the shock value that comes in facing the system on the field for the first time. Moreover, the experience no doubt has increased the effectiveness of Cal's practices over the past two weeks.

Both match-ups on Saturday - Bruin O vs. Cal D and Cal O vs. Bruin D - present questions yet to be answered.

The start with, Cal's base defense is a 3-4. Like some previous UCLA opponents, Cal's down linemen aren't all that large in size. Unlike some previous UCLA opponents, however, the Bears' linebackers are very big all across the field.

The combination presents the Bruins with an interesting front seven to attack - the down three may well get in the way and have the quickness to make some plays but perhaps not enough size to keep the Bruins' Filthy Five from getting bodies on the second line of defense Bears players. However, the size of the Bears' linebacker will create interesting blocking challenges for the Bruins at the point at which the blockers and the ball carrier reach the point of conflict with the defense.

Cal's defensive line is anchored by 300 pound nose tackle No. 96 Kendrick Payne, who is 6-2; the defensive ends are both 6-4 and one linebacker No. 47 Browner, stands 6-6 while another, No. 18 Mike Mohamed, is 6-3 - I would expect to see UCLA roll their quarterback out on passing plays as often as not, especially on anything other than a quick three step drop and throw pass.

Bruin fans will remember both Browner and especially Mohamed from a year ago. All four starting linebackers for Cal run in the 240-250 pound range.

Cal's starting cornerbacks are No.2, sophomore Marc Anthony, and a name that's somewhat familiar to Bruin fans who follow recruiting, now-senior No.26 Darian Hagan. The safeties are No.17 Chris Conte and No. 23 Josh Hill.

That unit was pretty chewed up in Nevada; it will be looking to redeem itself big-time against UCLA. At the very same time, of course, the Bruins' rediscovered ability to mount an offense will be on display as well, the Bruins looking to ride the Pistol-generated running attack and to use it to open some opportunities to continue to improve their passing game to keep moving the chains, confining the Bears' own potent offense to the bench for a majority of the game.

Interestingly, UCLA ranks third in the Pac 10 in terms of rushing offense, averaging 218 a game on the ground alone, while Cal ranks third in the Pac 10 in total defense, allowing 282.5 yards a game in total offense.

The reverse match-up raises just about as many questions after the first third of the season.

After getting off to at best a stuttering start on defense (helped not at all by the offense's inability to maintain possession and give the defense some rest), UCLA's defense emerged against a couple vaunted spread attacks, dismantling both Houston and Texas before stuttering - again - and taking a significant step backward against Washington State last weekend in the Rose Bowl. The struggles of the defensive secondary in that game stood out. Another factor was Coach Paul Wulff's preparations to try to control UCLA star Akeem Ayers who took Texas seemingly completely by surprise the week before.

Cal presents some weapons highly enough thought of to have raised expectations on how the Bears would do this year to the upper half of the Pac 10. It starts with senior quarterback No.13 Kevin Riley (6-2, 224) and very talented. Riley stands fifth in the Pac 10 at this point in passing efficiency.

Cal's star running back is No.34, 5-10, 204 pound Shane Vereen, who currently stands third in conference stats, trailing only UCLA's Johnathan Franklin and conference-leader - by a significant margin - Oregon's LaMichael James who leads the nation in terms of college football running back power rankings.

A big boost to Cal's offense this week is the return to health of freshman wide receiver No.21 Keenan Allen (6-3, 195) and No.1 junior Marvin Jones (6-2, 200) and tight end No. 80 pound junior Anthony Miller (6-3, 260) complete the starting receiving corps for the Bears.

Cal's offensive line is experienced - only one sophomore and no freshmen starting - but is significantly smaller than is UCLA's OL, with only one player over 300 pounds. We'll have to see if that's something the Bruins can take advantage of to get some penetration from the down four in this game, leaving the linebackers and defensive backs to focus on closing the seams and lanes, maintaining containment on both Riley and Vereen, and trying to step up and get back to the level they played in the Texas game against the Bears' passing attack.

Statistically, the Bears and Bruins both stand pretty much in the mid-range of conference rankings with the Bears generally rated a bit higher than the Bruins in most areas. Having the home field advantage in addition to that has led odds-makers to set the Bears as slightly better than one touchdown favorites.

For the Bruins to turn that around and come out with a victory in the series they lead 49-30-1 (but having lost the last two to UCB), UCLA will have to protect the football at all costs, move it primarily on the ground but take the pressure off the running game by some timely pass completions, and move the chains - and the clock - at the same time. On defense, they will have to get some pressure on Riley and maintain containment on the ends, not allowing Riley or Vereen to get to the outside and down field on them.

It's sibling rivalry time again, this year in Berkeley, California, and both teams' hopes for a successful season are on the line.


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