After two consecutive victories at home for the Golden Bears, California now faces the toughest test of its young season: a road game. In a contest between two undefeated teams, California will be looking to continue its stellar offensive production against a Minnesota squad that appears to be more effective on the defensive side of the ball.
In the Bears' first two wins, Kevin Riley and Jahvid Best have helped catalyze an offense that averaged 55.5 points per game and amassed a total of 1,049 yards. Conversely, the Golden Gophers have only edged out wins, with a 23-20 overtime victory over Syracuse and a 20-13 win against Air Force at home.
The vast majority of the pressure remains on California. Jahvid Best is now third on the Heisman watchlist, and the Golden Bears have become the trendy pick to finally knock USC off their perch atop the Pac-10. On the other hand, Minnesota is at best a team that can compete for a third or fourth place finish in the Big Ten, and at season’s end accept an invitation to something akin to the Meineke Car Care Bowl.
As long as Rich Rodriguez is in control of the Michigan program and Jim Tressel’s sweater-vest roams the sidelines at the Horseshoe, the Wolverines and Buckeyes will consistently be the preeminent programs in that conference. That is not to say that Minnesota has absolutely no chance of beating the Bears, but a lot of things will have to go right in order to defeat the No. 8 team in the nation.
Here are three keys for Jeff Tedford’s squad heading into Saturday's game:
1) On the Road, Again: California limped its way to a 1-4 road record last season, with the lone victory at Washington State. In the four road losses, the Bears' offense mustered a measly 78 total points while allowing 128. The team flew to Minnesota Thursday, giving them an extra day before a 9 a.m. PDT kickoff, the same time the Maryland game started in 2008. A strong beginning to its road slate in Minneapolis would prepare the team well for the start of its in-conference games next week at Oregon.
2) On the Defensive: Sure, the Bears have limited opponents to an average of ten points per game, but no California defender has intercepted a pass this season. The team accrued an astonishing 24 total picks last season (including the Emerald Bowl).
Syd’Quan Thompson will probably be covering the Golden Gophers' leading receiver, senior Eric Decker, which is a difficult size matchup for the cornerback. But an early interception from anyone wearing blue and gold will help energize the team in a tough environment and quiet the crowd at Minnesota’s new facility, TCF Bank Stadium, which holds over 50,000 people.
3) Spread the Ball: California is playing tremendous team football, with Kevin Riley making completions to eight separate receivers last Saturday. The ground game is running similarly smooth, with five different players rushing for at least 25 yards each. In addition to Best (144 yards) and Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson (92 yards), Shane Vereen contributed three short touchdown runs. The Bears would benefit from distributing the ball similarly against Minnesota, in order to keep the defense off-balance.
Prediction: The Bears in a close one—California 28, Minnesota 20