We've hit game week. Less than six days away, the first game - the long-awaited Cal-Maryland matchup - is right around the corner. While we'll probably do a full preview eventually, the folks at California Golden Blogs were nice enough to virtually sit down with us and exchange some questions. So, for your second look at Cal, without further ado, I give the floor to the interview:
How confident are you with Kevin Riley at QB? I saw he was officially named the starter, but I never knew there was even a battle for that spot. Was there really a competition?
Last season Riley never fully earned the starting spot. He was always looking over his shoulder at Nate Longshore, wondering if he'd get the hook from Tedford. Also there's evidence indicating that he never got on the same page with his offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti.
That isn't the case this year. From the beginning of camp Riley was the clear #1. Cignetti is gone, replaced by Andy Ludwig, who by all accounts has meshed far better with the junior quarterback. He had far more experience over the two QBs he was battling (Brock Mansion had taken only a few garbage-time snaps last season, Beau Sweeney hadn't seen the field at all). Given the extra year of experience under his belt
Remember, for all his struggles, Riley still managed to go 7-2 as a starter last season. And he did turn what looked like a blowout in College Park into a fairly tense game in the late stages. The potential was there in 2008, and given the favorable conditions in coaching and confidence, we feel this is the season he'll finally put it all on display.
On a similar note, Maryland's defensive strategy last year was basically "stop Jahvid Best at all costs". As it so happened, Cal couldn't beat Maryland through the air on that day. If the Terps adopt that strategy again, do you see Cal's passing game as good enough to win this time around?
Let's be honest, our passing offense, in specific our WRs, were bad last year. Near the end of the year, Best and Vereen were the primary receivers for the team. In that afore-mentioned Big Game [ed's note: actually, it's below, but whatever], all but one of Riley's passes went to a RB or a TE. Vereen actually ended up with the 2nd most receptions on the team.
Again, having a fresh set of legs in Vereen could be very beneficial. And having Vereen as a receiving threat certainly can't hurt Cal's chances at winning this one.
Alex Mack was one of the best centers in the game last year, and he's now in the NFL. As Maryland fans already know, a poor offensive line can ruin even the best talent at RB, so how's Cal Mack-less OL looking?
Sadly for you guys, better. Let me qualify that. Chris Guarnero is a step down from Alex Mack, but the word out of camp as early as two years ago was that Guarnero would've been ready to start if Mack hadn't already been established in the center position.
Additionally, the Bears were a revolving door at left tackle last season with Mike Tepper missing all of last season. Thankfully for us, Tepper was granted a sixth year of eligibility and will return to protect the blind side. Talented sophomore Mitchell Schwartz (who played both tackle positions last year as a redshirt frosh) will guard up the right side.
The only questions might be at guard, where neither has seen much PT, but starters Matt Summers-Gavin and Justin Cheadle have been touted for sometime as the future at guard, and their backups Chet Teofilo and Mark Boskovich have plenty of game experience. Add in capable Donovan Edwards and the Bears run at the least nine deep on the O-line.
Sooo...I'd say we feel better about our O-line this season.
For more on the Cal O-line, check our O-line preview: http://www.californiagoldenblogs.com/2009/8/21/983710/cal-2009-position-previews, and additional o-line player analysis from The Bear Will Not Quit: http://thebearwillnotquit.blogspot.com/2009/08/offensive-line-preview-2009.html
Cal's defense was less than impressive last year [ed's note: meant to say against Maryland]. Of course, any number of factors - jetlag, humidity - could've influenced that, but that's what I have to go off of. Will it be better this year?*
If you only saw Cal's defense vs. Maryland, you're probably underrating what was a pretty darn good D the rest of the year. They held three opponents to a touchdown or less, and nine opponents (including USC, Oregon and Miami) to less than three TDs. That first quarter-plus at Maryland, however? 3 drives, 3 touchdowns, probably the second-worst quarter of football they played all season (exceeded only by a 28-point 3rd-quarter meltdown at Arizona, and even that included a pick-six that you can't pin on the defense).
Statistically, the Cal defense doesn't actually look that bad against Maryland: just 19 first downs (Cal had 26), only 297 yards given up (Cal had 461) and two fumbles recovered. And after the Bears fell behind 21-3, their defense held the Terps to fewer than 30 yards on 6 of their next 7 drives, giving the offense a chance to get back into the game (a chance the offense would squander).
My sense of the Cal defense was that, for whatever reason (the humidity is my guess), they were playing somewhat slower than normal. Defenders took bad angles to the ball carriers, turning medium-sized gains into big ones, and wide receivers were able to create just that much more separation. Cal just looked sluggish out there. Of course, I'm certainly willing to concede the possibility that players like Scott, Meggett and Heyward-Bey made the Cal defense look slow.
Overall, though, the Cal defense was pretty good last year (26th in the NCAA in total defense, 23rd in scoring defense), and they return a number of quality starters, including their entire defensive line and their entire secondary. They do have to replace three senior linebackers, but the feeling around camp is that the new guys are pretty talented, and that a second year with Cal's base 3-4 defense will pay additional dividends. I don't expect that Maryland will score five touchdowns again this year.
Everybody knows about Syd'Quan Thompson and Jahvid Best, but who's one Golden Bear (on either side of the ball) that fans don't really know about that could cause Maryland trouble?
Trevor Guyton is a sophmore on the team with a lot of promose. He currently is set as a back up Defensive End. He briefly supplanted starter Cameron Jordan during fall camp, although that may have been a motivation ploy for the apparently too relaxed Jordan. Nonetheless, it shows that Cal is very high on Guyton. Look for Guyton to get solid playing time and could potentially make some hay in the trenches there.
Over the course of a long game, depth is key. Having a fresh Guyton come in could be beneficial for Cal's chances.
On the offensive side, keep an eye out for Shane Vereen. Again, a back up, but one that could probably start in many, many, many other places. He is, after all, backing up Jahvid Best.
Vereen is also really good at catching the ball out of the backfield or even well downfield. Last year, Kevin Riley hit him in stride last year in the Big Game against Stanford for a 59 yard TD reception.
If you had to gameplan against Cal, what is the biggest weakness would you look to exploit?
Despite Cal being known as a passing team due to the whole Pac-10 stereotype and the whole Jeff Tedford QB guru stereotype, that's not true. Cal is a running team. Running the ball is Cal's strength and it's no secret that Cal's passing attack is suspect due to Riley's shaky play last year and the abundance of inexperienced wide receivers. So, if I were to play Cal, my main focus would be on stopping Jahvid Best and making Cal beat you through the air.
Cal will most likely try to zone block against Maryland as since Cal had tons of success with zone blocking last year. Maryland's defense should actually be more concerned about not giving up openings on the backside of the zone blocks. Jahvid Best does the most damage on zone blocking runs by hitting the cutback lanes. Maryland should not over-pursue on the zone blocks. In other words, they should not flow too quickly to the point of attack otherwise lanes will form on the backside of the zone blocks and Best will go for big gains. So as long as Cal maintains good gap protection on the backside of zone blocks, it will force the Cal OL, and Jahvid Best get their rushing yardage at the point of attack. Best will have more blockers and defenders ("trash") in front of him at the point of attack than on a backside cutback lane and will be less likely to run for big gains.
On passing downs I'd try and press the Cal WRs. The Cal QBs and WRs have been practicing a lot without defenders to get their timing with the QB down. By pressing the WRs and getting their timing off, Maryland can make things a lot harder for Kevin Riley. I would also be willing to bring pressure on Riley early on to test the pass blocking abilities of Cal's OL. Cal is starting a few relatively inexperienced players on the OL, so they may not be quite up to speed on the blocking assignments.