California-Arizona: Five Matchups That Could Kill The Bears
After last week's forgettable performance in Reno, the Golden Bears find themselves in an odd spot as they prepare to start conference play later tonight.
Their Rose Bowl hopes, for all intents and purposes, have transmogrified into something more akin to a collective pipe dream.
But they're still a very good team, and one way or another, they're going to have an impact in the Pac-10 before the season is over. And it starts tonight in Tucson, against the No. 14 Arizona Wildcats.
The Bears are 6.5-point underdogs, and the Wildcats are riding a high that they haven't felt in nearly a decade.
If they are going to stand a chance, they're going to need to perfectly execute just about every phase of the game.
Arizona is definitely the better team, and they pose plenty of matchups that are problematic for the Bears.
Of those matchups, these are the most dangerous.
Marvin Jones Vs. Trevin Wade
Since his outstanding debut against Davis in the first game of the season, Keenan Allen sightings have been few and far between. Meanwhile, junior WR Marvin Jones is the leading receiver in the Pac-10, and he has emerged as Kevin Riley's clear go-to guy.
And this is precisely why he should fear Arizona's Trevin Wade. The junior corner is in the running for the Jim Thorpe award, and you can bet that he knows that bottling up Jones would be very helpful in that regard.
Wade's comrade Robert Golden is a very good cover corner in his own right, but Wade is the one who is primarily used to silence the opposition's go-to receiver.
This was plenty evident in last week's victory over Iowa, where Wade was regularly used on Marvin McNutt. McNutt ended the game with only 3 catches for 66 yards, and his touchdown late in the game was caught over Golden.
When Iowa QB Ricky Stanzi tried to force one to McNutt early in the game, Wade took a tipped ball 84 yards to the house. It was his second career touchdown, both of which have come off of Stanzi.
If Wade proves to be too much for Jones, the Bears are probably screwed. After all, Shane Vereen is facing an dreadful uphill battle.
Shane Vereen Vs. The Pac-10's Best Rush Defense
Let's face it, every week when I review California's matchups, Shane Vereen is going to be on the list. In the words of Reggie Jackson, he is the straw that stirs the drink for Cal's offense.
And that's precisely why Arizona stands a good chance of wining this game. They don't allow anything on the ground. Not even grass.
Stopping opposing runners is Arizona's bread and butter. In three games, the Wildcats have allowed a grand total of 259 yards rushing.
And worse, they haven't allowed a single touchdown on the ground. Most recently, they held Iowa's gruesome twosome of Jewel Hampton and Adam Robinson to 35 yards on 17 carries.
In their first two games, that same tandem combined for 349 yards. Clearly, the immovable object was the winner.
Arizona's front seven, which doesn't boast any underclassmen, is plenty experienced, and are only getting better. This was the same unit that watched Vereen torch them for 159 yards in last year's tilt in Berkeley. They probably want revenge.
If Vereen is contained, finding a way to consistently move the ball is going to become a Herculean task for Cal offensive coordinator, Andy Ludwig. This is especially true once you consider how well the Wildcats can pass the ball.
Cal Secondary Vs. The Pac-10's Best Passing Attack
After what Nevada's Colin Kaepernick did to them last week, the Bears are probably thanking the college football gods for their matchup with Mike Stoops' spread offense. Indeed, a team that doesn't run the option and that has no rushing attack to speak of must sound like an absolute blessing.
But no team in the Pac-10 moves the ball through the air better than Arizona. Junior QB Nick Foles's 877 yards passing lead the conference, and his 164.5 trails only (surprise!) Kevin Riley and Andrew Luck.
Make no mistake, Arizona represents the first true challenge for Cal's secondary this year. Indeed, Kaepernick's success throwing the ball last week was mostly due to the threat of him taking off on any given play. Judging from the coverage, it was clear that Cal's secondary was more worried about him than it was his receivers.
In actuality, the secondary actually performed better than you might think last week. Sophomore corner Marc Anthony, a first year starter, recorded nine tackles and his first career forced fumble. Sophomore safety Josh Hill added eight tackles of his own. There's no telling how many yards the two of them saved.
Against a pocket passer like Foles, the secondary can afford to take it for granted that they're not going to be relied on to make that many tackles again.
Instead, you'll know they're doing a good job if the pressure is getting to Foles, and perhaps if the Wildcats start running the ball an inordinate number of times.
The good news for both Anthony and Darian Hagan is that Foles' primary receiver, junior Juron Criner, is questionable with turf toe.
At 6'4", he towers above both of Cal's corners. His absence would be a huge break. And on a night where Cal's passing attack is probably going to have to match Arizona's, they're going to need as many breaks as they can get.
Cal's Tackles Vs. Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore
The Bears pass rush is probably going to need good pass coverage in order to succeed. Arizona's defensive line requires no such support.
Led by quite possibly the best defensive end duo in the country in Brooks Reed and Ricky Elmore, they're going to get after the quarterback no matter what. Containing the unit as a whole should be a priority, but above all they need to neutralize Reed and Elmore.
In three games, the Wildcats have tallied 11 sacks (6th in the country) and 23 tackles for loss. Of those 11 sacks, five belong to either Reed or Elmore.
And against Iowa, when it mattered most, they were absolutely monstrous. Ricky Stanzi was sacked six times, four of which were by the Reed/Elmore tandem.
Cal right tackle Mitchell Schwartz doesn't need to be told that the Cal O-line has their work cut out for them against those two. He's had the displeasure of facing Reed and Elmore several times now, and you can bet that he remembers Reed's performance in Cal's last visit to Tucson in 2008.
In the Wildcats' 42-27 win, Reed had two sacks and a forced fumble, and the pressure Arizona placed on the quarterback played a big role in Tedford's decision to yank Nate Longshore in favor of Riley. A similar scenario tonight would be an absolute disaster, and Cal would be irrevocably doomed for the rest of the season.
It falls to Schwartz and left tackle Donovan Edwards to be the main cogs in a game in which the offensive line pretty much has to play the game of their lives. With Vereen likely to struggle gaining yards, Riley and co. are going to have to take on the bulk of the offensive output.
And knowing Riley, that's going to be hard enough without two ravenous defensive ends chasing him around all night.
Kevin Riley Vs. The Pressure
The intense pressure of Arizona's D-line notwithstanding, the true anxiety for Kevin Riley should be the pressure for him to live up to the tremendous amount of promise that he has shown in his better games.
It's no secret that Riley has tended to fall flat in big games, at times being the one weak spot in what was otherwise a solid all-around effort. If Cal is to have any chance tonight, this can't happen.
Of course, this is hardly the first gut-check moment of Riley's career. Just the most recent. And maybe, just maybe, he'll finally be up to the task.
Make no mistake, Riley is a very good quarterback; his 165.3 rating is the second best in the conference. Nevertheless, even the most diehard Bears fan would be hard pressed to make the claim that Riley is one of the best quarterbacks in the Pac-10. In fact, probably the only person who thinks he is would be Riley himself.
During an offseason interview with ESPN, Riley was asked if he felt miffed about being excluded from a media tour for the Pac-10 that featured Foles, Andrew Luck, Jake Locker, and Matt Barkley.
"I think I'm better than those guys," he answered. “They are great players, but I have more wins than all of them."
Leading the Bears to a win on the road against a hot team like the Wildcats just might legitimize that claim, and silence a hell of a lot of critics as well. He blew a chance to do so on national TV against Nevada. Here's hoping he takes advantage of this one.
If he has another one of his bad games, Cal is not going to win this game. That simple.