With Arizona State's "Most Important Game of the Year" just a few days away, we caught up with our friends over at California Golden Blogs to get an insider perspective on the Sun Devils' next opponent.
House of Sparky: Like ASU, Cal seems to have been an underachiever for the last several seasons. What is your assessment of the current state of the program?
California Golden Blogs: There's some sort of disconnect that nobody can seem to diagnose. Cal has talent, and you can see flashes of that talent every week. You see it when Brendan Bigelow pops off a huge run, when Chris McCain bursts through the line to make a tackle for a loss, when Keenan Allen does almost anything, when the entire team outperforms Ohio State on the road
And yet the Bears are 1-3. It's very frustrating to watch as play after play gets derailed by a penalty or an execution error. You start to get the sense that even the coaching staff is struggling to come up with answers - at least, when it comes to USC, who owns Cal the way
Hos: How much of the 1-3 record is a product of the tough schedule and how much is it a reflection of the talent level on the roster?
CGB: It's hard to distinguish. If Cal had played against USC the way they played against Ohio State, then they could credibly argue that the Bears would be 3-1 against the type of schedules the Big-12 and SEC typically set up for themselves. But the performance against USC was so flat in every way that it's tough to argue that Cal's record isn't exactly what they deserve.
However, like I said above, the roster undeniably has talent (much of it on the younger side, some of it injured), so the hope is that everything coalesces at once in time to salvage the season.
HoS: Zach Maynard seems to be one of those quarterbacks who has fan ripping out their hair one moment, then jumping for joy the next. What's your take on how his senior year has gone so far and what he'll bring to Saturday's game?
CGB: I'm one of the rare folks who appreciate what Zach Maynard is, which is an average Pac-12 quarterback. He's not the type of QB who can win a game by himself, and he's aided by a relatively strong group of skill players, but he's still a critical component of Cal's offense. If you need any proof of that, just look at what happened to the Bears when he was forced to sit during the 1st quarter of Cal's loss to Nevada.
Maynard is probably the quarterback Cal needs at the moment because he's mobile and he'll keep a few plays alive with his legs behind a make-shift offensive line. When he's playing well he'll make impressive throws on the run to keep the chains moving. When he's playing poorly he'll throw a mind-melting interception. You take the good, mix it with the bad, and you get average.
HoS: The big name playmaker for the team is of course wide receiver Keenan Allen, and Isi Sofele is coming off a 1,300-yard season. After those guys, who should ASU fans be on the look out for offensively for Cal?
CGB: All Cal fans are hoping that you have to watch out for Brendan Bigelow. The immensely talented sophomore burst onto the scene with two long, impressive touchdowns against Ohio State. Everybody wanted to see more from the guy who was finally 100% healthy . . . and he only got 4 (reasonably successful) carries against USC.
He has the type of gamebreaking speed Cal hasn't had since Jahvid Best went pro, so needless to say the fans are restless for more carries. We'll see if he gets them.
HoS: The usually very stout defense has really fallen off so far this year. What have been the reasons, and do you think they can recover?
CGB: Prior to the season Cal fans were giddy about the depth of talent on the defensive line. But the group has been hammered with injury after injury starting in fall practice and the results just haven't been there. Mix in a young linebacking corp struggling to replace the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year and a thin secondary and you have the makings of a defense that has struggled all year.
I do think they can recover, particularly as the young linebackers gain experience. They've been burned by big plays, so hopefully as they play more they get more disciplined and keep things in front of them. But this isn't some of the better Cal defenses we've seen over the last few years.
HoS: What must Cal do to come away with a win on Saturday?
CGB: Well, they certainly can't allow Taylor Kelly to have the type of day he had against Utah. Against Graham's offense it will be about discipline and tackling. I'd like to see some pressing against the QB, but considering Cal's struggles in that area and the speed with which the QB gets rid of the ball in that offense, it will come down to players preventing yards after the catch.
I don't know exactly what to make of the Arizona State defense, but every single Cal fans wants to see the running game control things regardless of the opponent. Tedford's offenses rely on a crushing ground attack unless they have a 1st round talent at quarterback. The offensive line needs to step up their game and create enough space for Sofele, Anderson and Bigelow to make plays.
HoS: It seems Jeff Tedford's seat is perpetually warm to some degree. Do you think he is in danger if this season ends badly?
CGB: If he makes a bowl then he'll be back for sure. If he fails to make a bowl game that opens up the possibility of a change, although I'm still not sure I'd bet on it. Cal fans have a strange relationship with Tedford at this point - he's our most successful coach in 50 years and a stand-up guy . . . but he hasn't done anything particularly impressive in four or five years.
As the season progresses, take a glance at how full the seats are at Memorial Stadium. That might be the most telling sign of all.
HoS: How do you see the rest of 2012 playing out for the Bears?
CGB: If it's your classic "Tedford-post-Rodgers/healthy-Longshore-season" then Cal will beat Arizona State, UCLA, Washington State, Utah and Washington, lose to Oregon State, Oregon and Stanford and finish the season at 6-6
Unfortunately, Cal fans are a bit more pessimistic, and when you look at the schedule the only games that jump out as likely wins are against WSU and Utah. That means there's a worst case scenario of a 3-9 season, which is just unfathomably bad considering how this team has recruited over the last few years.
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We want to once again thank Nick Kranz and the California Golden Blogs staff for their great insight in previewing the Bears. Check out their site for more information and analysis on ASU's next opponent.