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Holiday Bowl Preview: California Offense

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DANG! What's up with all these books?

Read this 1868 write-up in the New York Times detailing a not-so-epic, mostly very sad, Texas bull-California grizzly contest decried as a "burlesque of civilization" (after several breathless paragraphs detailing the action, mind you). It is equal parts compelling, fascinating, cruel, and lamentable and features 2,000 California hoopleheads - early adopters of reality television - watching the spectacle at the outrageous price of $1.

It turns out large animals don't just attack each other for no reason and you have to beat them and pull on them with ropes to do so. Then they mostly bellow and lay on their sides panting and begging for water. Much like our offense after Fozzy went down.

I had a chance to dig down a bit on Cal's offense and I think the match-ups are favorable for the Longhorn defense. Assuming Manny Diaz doesn't lose his mind and Zach Maynard doesn't suddenly channel Aaron Rodgers. Cal's offense finished in roughly the top third of college football, but did so against more than its share of bad defenses. However, over their last four games, Cal saw their efficiency and efficacy increase as it moved the burden of playmaking from Zach Maynard to their running game, stopped forcing their defense to defend short fields, and played a SEC version of Pac 12 football more favorable to their personnel mix.

Cal's best football was over their last four games (went 3-1, with 3 point loss to Stanford) and over this time Maynard averaged 23.8 attempts per game vs. 34.8 attempts per game in his previous eight. Similarly, he had one interception in those four games vs. ten in his previous eight. I will now solemnly intone cliches like game management and not beating yourself, but in this case, they're actually true.

Jeff Tedford has learned that less is more when it comes to the Cal passing game. It will be difficult for that formula to hold against Texas since I don't expect them to run all over us, unless he's just counting on our offense imploding like a super nova while his offense takes advantage of whatever we hand them. Which isn't a bad bet.

Offense

Jeff Tedford's offensive load on the QB is famous and QB Zach Maynard didn't handle it all that well in losses to USC, Oregon, and UCLA (those three games accounted for 7 of his 11 interceptions, less than 6.5 YPA in each). Tedford wants his QB to have the answers to every question and instead of focusing on "let's do these five things well" he wants his guy to know the one perfect audible/read combo for every situation. This goes against the grain of college football's recent spread movement where reads are simplified and uncluttered minds housed in athletic bodies making plays are favored over cerebral dissections, but Tedford is married to his outlier status.

Run the number of defensive looks a QB can see multiplied by the number of Cal's sets and you start to get into large numbers. The downside is athlete overload, the upside is the ability to put together a one play, 70 yard scoring drive when the stars align appropriately and you call the perfect play. Avoiding the latter is how we win the game.

QB

Zach Maynard transferred from Buffalo (started all year for them in 2009) and has had an up and down year in 2011. He's skinny, mobile (he can scoot, but isn't much featured in the Cal running game) and can make most of the throws. At his worst, he's the inconsistent impediment to the full realization of Cal's passing game (decent OL, great WR duo). At his best, as against Stanford, he's an efficient operator who can hurt defenses downfield in play action when the Cal running game is garnering respect. He's not terribly accurate (57% completion), but in his defense, Cal features a downfield passing game and three yard gimme completions aren't hardwired into what they do.

We've seen at least a half dozen QBs better than Maynard this year and he will fold if you hit him consistently. He's also better than anyone we have. YOU HAVE TO BE CRUEL TO BE KIND.

RB

Isi Sofele put together a great statistical year (232-1266-9 Tds, 5.5 ypc) and he's basically a less versatile, Tongan Hodges Mitchell. He runs surprisingly well between the tackles given his diminutive stature and does a nice job of making sharp interior cuts to green space, but he doesn't break many tackles and tends to feast off of well-blocked runs and good play calls (Cal's two back shotgun set features wrap around draws, counters, traps that particularly exploit his niftiness) more than spectacular innate playmaking. Cal has a long history of elite RBs and though Sofele is productive, don't confuse him with Marshawn Lynch or Jahvid Best. He's backed up capably by CJ Anderson who sees extensive work as the goal line back (8 rushing touchdowns).

Note: Surprisingly, Sofele is not a receiving threat and not much involved in the Cal passing game, which has historically used their RBs cleverly to shut down blitzes. Acho and Robinson may have free reign to bring the pain.

WR/TE

The best players on the Cal offense. The three top WRs are all 6-3 and possess ball skills. All-American Keenan Allen had a huge year and he's a long strider (6-3, 205) who will go and get the ball (89-1261-6 TDs) with an array of crafty routes and strong hands that pluck the ball from tight spots. He's not a crazy combine athlete - just a badass, general baller. Easily Cal's best player and he'll draw Carrington Byndom's attentions with plenty of late arriving help over the top from our coach on the field. He has knack for coming up big against Cal's biggest opponents and he's a legit NFL dude.

Marvin Jones is similarly built (6-3, 200, 55-762 yards) and he has been a consistent fixture in Cal's starting line-up for several years. I expect his size to give Quandre Diggs some trouble, but he has seen a decline in his production over the last half of the season. He's a reliable veteran who won't be phased.

Cal passed for 2806 yards this season and Allen and Jones accounted for 2023 of them. When two guys account for 72% of your passing offense, it's pretty clear where you'd like the ball to go and I suspect Manny Diaz will discern this over four weeks of film study.

Big TE Anthony Miller (6-4, 260) and big body WR Michael Calvin (6-3, 215) will be asked to make some key third down catches if Cal wants to move the chains.

OL

I think they're a solid group, possibly even underrated by Cal fans themselves since I'm not blown away by Golden Bear talent at RB and QB. There are no Alex Macks to be found, but some solid dudes nonetheless. Opponents garnered 22 sacks over the course of the year and Tedford will ask his QB to take a deep drop and count four Mississippi from time to time to free one of their receivers downfield. That has to be punished with hits, pressures, and sacks. They're mostly human sized (6-4, 299 on average) and they get after it pretty well in the running game with energy and movement. They're all juniors and seniors so fire zone blitzes aren't exactly foreign to them. RG Justin Cheadle and 1st Team All Pac 12 LT Mitchell Schwartz (6-6 320) are their best two OL in my very limited viewing. Their squatty center strikes me as exploitable if Dorsey/Randall want to bring it.

Overall

I think our D acquits itself well, but the offense has to do something or it won't really matter. That preview, coming soon.