A year ago, the Golden Bears surprised the world by making a monstrous comeback after being down 20-7 against the then-12th ranked Ohio State Buckeyes. The game would eventually be tied at 28 with a little over three minutes left in the game before the Buckeyes would pull ahead via a 72-yard touchdown reception by Devin Smith. Ohio State would end the year undefeated and ranked as third best team in the nation (according to the AP Poll), while Cal would end with a 3-9 record and a regime change.
This year, the Golden Bears, led by a freshman quarterback and a new head coach, have higher stakes on this game than they did last year. They will be massive underdogs (the Buckeyes are favored by 14.5 points). And yet, with 150 prospective recruits ascending on Berkeley this weekend while the rest of the world watches on a national network during the prime-time hour, this is a game they have to perform in. The question is: Can Cal find a way to win this game? Will this become an exciting game that rights the ship in Berkeley, or will this be a romp that will lead towards the downward spiral of the Golden Bears?
Ohio State Buckeyes (2-0) at California Golden Bears (1-1)
Kickoff: 4 p.m.
TV: FOX, Gus Johnson (Play-by-Play), Charles Davis (Color Commentator), Kristina Pink (Field Reporter)
Where: Memorial Stadium, Berkeley, CA
The Cal Offense vs The Ohio State Defense
Cal’s offense has been the star of the show thus far this year. Led by freshman Jared Goff, who has been the best freshman quarterback of the year so far, the offense has purred. He has thrown for over 400 yards in his two games (one of which was against a tough Northwestern defense), and this is without the running game to keep the opposing defenses on their toes. He consistently makes throws that only the best quarterbacks can make, be they deep routes and intermediate passes that most freshmen would be afraid to attempt. He has also spread the ball around, finding thirteen different receivers in two games.
The problem is that Cal has been one-dimensional. Their run game, something they’ve relied on a lot in the past, has been mute through the opening games. On one hand, the opening game was against a defense who has prided themselves on stoping the run in Northwestern. That said, game two was against a mid-tier FCS team that was able to keep Brendan Bigelow and Khaifani Muhammad quiet through the first half. This has led to opposing defenses preparing more for the pass game than the run game, which in turn has led to three interceptions.
If Cal is to win this weekend, or at least make a game out of it, the offense is going to have to eliminate the turnovers (or at least keep them at a minimum) and get a more balanced offense on the field against the Buckeyes. They’re going to have to do it against one of the best defenses in college football. The Buckeyes have a +2 in turnover differential (so far), and have kept opponents to 68.5 yards per game on the ground.
Ohio State’s defensive backfield includes a group of ball hawks who have the talent to take parts of the field away from opposing quarterbacks. The group starts and ends with Bradley Roby, who hasn’t reached midseason form yet, but looked good in his one game thus far. But with Roby back, and the other star defensive backs (Ron Tanner, Armani Reeves and Doran Grant) already looking ready for the upcoming Big Ten season, Jared Goff will be going up against the best defensive backfield he will see all season.
With the pass game being contested between Goff (the young gun) and the established core group that the Buckeyes featured on last year’s undefeated season, the run game is going to be the difference maker. Mind you, this is a team that has constantly kept the top rushers in the Big Ten well below their season averages last year. The last time they gave up a big game to a running back was when the Buckeyes allowed Brendan Bigelow to run for 160 yards and two scores.
The Buckeyes have a talented linebacker corps that includes Curtis Grant and Ryan Shazier, who lead the team in tackles thus far this season. They also have a very good defensive line that loves to put pressure on the opposing offenses, sacking the quarterback four times for a loss of 34 yards. They look to do the same this week against an offensive line that has allowed their quarterback to be sacked 8 times thus far.
The Cal Defense vs The Ohio State Offense
Soon enough, Cal will have to go from being called the Golden Bears to the Walking Wounded. Cal will be without their best playmaker on the defensive side in safety Avery Sebastian for the remainder of the season. Some other names who are injured are defensive ends Brennan Scarlett and Chris McCain (who is cleared to play); linebackers Michael Barton and Nick Forbes (who is also cleared to play); safeties Michael Lowe and Damariay Drew; and defensive tackle Mustafa Jalil. Some of those men are going to play this weekend, but even those men aren’t likely to be at 100%. Needless to say, with so many injuries, this lineup was likely to have a rough time against any team they faced. It only becomes worse with a talented Ohio State defense rolling into town.
Ohio State features a Heisman hopeful in Braxton Miller, who is probable for this game (after straining his MCL last weekend against San Diego State). Miller is a dual-threat quarterback very much in the vein of Troy Smith and Terrelle Pryor, but better in both the running and passing departments. He, along with his three-headed running back stable of Jordan Hall, Dontre Wilson and Ezekiel Elliot, bring a balanced attack this season that would make a healthy, experienced defense struggle. Let alone one that is without most of it’s health and experience.
If Miller does not play against Cal, it will be Kenny Guiton, a quarterback who has patiently sat behind three quarterbacks over the last five years. And the thing is, Guiton looked a lot better in his three quarters of play than Miller did in the first five. This leaves Cal in a horrible position. They won’t have an easy match-up either way. The on good thing is that both Guiton and Miller are the same kind of player, a solid duel-threat quarterback who can actually throw the ball like a passer and run like a running back. Cal will need to put pressure on Miller/Guiton with McCain/Forbes/Barton/Khairi Fortt and whomever else is inserted into the lineup. Cal must keep the running game at bay and must create turnovers.
The game must include a night where Stefan McClure (who played in 11 games with in his freshman year in 2011 before being out last year) plays like it’s 2011. In two starts that year, he recorded 24 tackles, one of them for a 5 yard loss, and one interception before his injury. Along with McClure, Kameron Jackson will need to play like he did during last year’s Cal/UCLA game when he had a three-interception night.
The Match-Up of the Game
This night will come down to Cal’s running game vs. Noah Spence. That said, the match up of the game isn’t even one that will take place on the field of play. The one to watch will be Sonny Dykes vs. Urban Meyer. Meyer was a media darling once he led the Utah Utes to a Fiesta Bowl championship after the 2004 season. He became the hottest commodity in the coaching world, eventually landing the job at Florida, where he won two SEC Championships and two National Championships. He was known for being an offensive guru, a quarterback whisperer and a program rejuvenator.
I am not saying that Sonny Dykes is the same thing, but there are some similarities. He built up a hapless Louisiana Tech program, taking them to the best years in program history (9-3 last year), and probably would have had them in a better position this year had he stayed. Instead, he is trying to take over for thee most successful coach in Cal’s history (Jeff Tedford), and take the program to their first Rose Bowl since 1959. He is trying to be everything that Meyer was to the Gators program he took over (which had been driven into the ground after a few years with Ron Zook).
Meyer is already at the mountain top, all he’s doing now is proving that Ohio State is the best in the world (which it may be). Dykes just wants to get his team on track. It will be a massive undertaking against this well-oiled Buckeye team. But, Dykes will likely pull out all the stops, and this could get Meyer sweating (especially since the Buckeyes have not had the best experience so far here in the Bay Area). A good start to the game could have both coaching staffs pulling out all the stops in this game.
Ohio State- 31 Cal- 23
This may be wishful thinking, but I expect Cal to get up for this game. A top-end opponent with national championship aspirations from another AQ Conference should always be a game you get up for. Cal should be firing on all cylinders early. They had the Buckeyes beat last year, and they let them get away. This year, at home, with more potential and experience than they had last year, and a way better quarterback, they should at the very least make this competitive. There will be 150 recruits on hand, and hopefully a sold out Memorial Stadium, that should pouring their energy into helping this Cal team play a good game. I expect it to work, at least for three quarters. I’ll guess that Miller has a mediocre game, and because Meyer is too stubborn to sit the guy, he will make plenty of mistakes all game long. What will kill Cal in the end is they will be drained by a deeper Ohio State team that is really without major injuries. The game will be in doubt to the very end, but Goff will show that he is a freshman and make a few blunders. Expect to lose, but have pride in the way Cal plays.
Moral victories during a rebuilding year are real. I hope to get one out of the Golden Bears this weekend.
Tags: Armani Reeves Avery Sebastian Bradley Roby Braxton Miller Brendan Bigelow Brennan Scarlett Cal Golden Bears Cal/Ohio State Preview Chris McCain Curtis Grant Damariay Drew Devin Smith Dontre Wilson Doran Grant Ezekiel Elliot Jared Goff Jeff Tedford Jordan Hall Kameron Jackson Kenny Guiton Khaifani Muhammad Khairi Fortt Michael Barton Michael Lowe Mustafa Jalil Nick Forbes Noah Spence Northwestern Wildcats Ohio State Buckeyes Ron Tanner Ron Zook Ryan Shazier Sonny Dykes Stefan McClure Terrelle Pryor Troy Smith UCLA Bruins Urban Meyer