("Lawd have mercy.")
Here. We. Go.
It’s another year of college football but it’s not just another year. Saturday officially kicks off the Sonny Dykes era, as well as the debut of the much anticipated #BearRaid offense. Until then, Cal fans wait with eager anticipation and cautious optimism.
Unfortunately, the Bears don’t appear to have the luxury of a cupcake to work out the kinks early on. Instead, they open their season against a 22nd ranked Northwestern team that is coming off a 10-win season and their first bowl game win since Truman was president.
While Vegas predicts a 6 point victory for the Wildcats, the Bears have more than a fair shot of pulling off the upset. Let’s preview the team and break down what needs to be done.
Northwestern features one of the few successful two-QB rotations in college football. Kain Colter is the more elusive and speedy of the two QBs, while Trevor Siemian has the stronger arm, often coming in on obvious passing situations.
Here are their passing stats from last season:
Though Siemian had more passing attempts last season, Colter is likely to see slightly more snaps, simply because of how much of a threat he is as a runner. In fact, Colter was NU’s second leading rusher last season with a whopping 170 carries for 894 yards and 12 TDs.
As an added twist, Colter also will split out wide at wide receiver, where he actually caught 16 passes for 169 yards last season.
The best player on offense though might be senior runningback Venric Mark. He’s a small back at just 5’8, 175 pounds but he still rushed for 1,366 yards last season with 12 TDs. He’s also one of the most dynamic return men in the game, holding NU’s records for single-game, single-season and career kickoff return yards as well as the single-game punt return yards record.
Senior Mike Trumpy provides a bit more size at 6’1 and 210 pounds, but he’s battled injuries for most of his collegiate career.
The Bears will also need to watch out for Dan Vitale who was a surprise last year in the “superback” role which is a bit of a hybrid fullback/H-back type of position. Vitale caught 28 passes for 288 yards and 2 TDs, but 16 of those receptions came in the final 3 games. Look for Vitale to line up in your standard TE position, and motion to the center of the line after the snap to catch shovel passes.
Northwestern’s returning receivers Christian Jones, Tony Jones, and Rashard Lawrence are sure-handed though not particularly frightening matchups. Northwestern’s receivers averaged just a combined 9.9 yards per catch last year, one of the worst numbers in the country. Still, all three have good size at over 6 feet tall, and combined for 98 catches and 1068 yards last season.
Interesting note: former USC receiver Kyle Prater, who was a 5-star recruit and widely considered the best high school receiver in the country back in 2010 is buried in the depth chart after transferring to Northwestern after USC’s sanctions. Prater had just 10 catches for 54 yards last season. Knowing Cal’s luck he’ll quadruple that number against us in the first quarter.
The offensive line should be a mixed bag as Northwestern comes off one of their best blocking performances as a unit in years. Their only returning starter though is RS junior center Brandon Vitabile who’s got 26 career starts under his belt and a bunch of preseason accolades. Other than that, the Wildcats are introducing 4 new starters on the line, though like the Bears, a number of their young players have played a bit last year.
You've got to like Cal's chances in the trenches here, and it will be up the Bear's new defensive line to shake off what was a massively disappointing season a year ago. The Bears appear to have the edge in talent and experience here, and are going to pivotal in maintaining gap integrity and preventing push off the line.
On to the Wildcats' defense. The most important returning defensive player for the Wildcats is without question, MLB Damien Proby. Northwestern’s returning leading tackler boasts 112 tackles from last season, and reflects his ability as a solid, consistent tackler. He isn’t a huge playmaker but finds a way to consistently get to the ball and make stops.
Northwestern’s best unit as a whole though is their defensive line. It all starts the DE Tyler Scott. The high motor player plays with solid technique is a flat out playmaker, notching 42 tackles, 9.5 sacks, and 12.5 TFLs last season. The battle between Scott and Cal’s RT Steven Moore will be a critical matchup.
On the other side, expect to see a rotations of DEs Dean Lowry, Deonte Gibson and Ideadi Odenigbo. This d-line has the chance to give slowfooted offensive linemen fits, and has an ability to get into the backfield, but doesn’t quite feature as daunting of a pass rush as one might assume. If Cal’s offensive linemen can keep Northwestern’s line from slicing into the backfield, then they should see success both through the air and punching the ball up the middle on the ground.
Northwestern’s biggest liability on defense is their questionable secondary. The Wildcats were dead last in the Big-10 the previous season in yards allowed, though they did notch 13 interceptions. Given the Big-10’s lack of passing prowess, it’s more accurate to look at the team’s passing defense statistics nationally, where NU was ranked 86th in passing yards allowed, but did only give up 6.6 yards per passing attempt which isn’t actually all that bad.
Still, Northwestern fans still blame their secondary for giving up big plays late in the game, and will need to count on their veteran players like junior safety Ibraheim Campbell and sophomore Nic VanHoose.
In all, the Bears have a formidable task in defending a mobile and shifty backfield of Colter and Mark. We all know that Northwestern’s rushing attack is prolific, with the Wildcats gaining nearly 3,000 yards on the ground last year. The Bears are obviously going to have to focus on defending their option running game, but their ability to defend Northwestern’s passing game may be the more important aspect of defending their offense.
Knowing that opposing defenses often key on their running game, Northwestern typically utilizes multiple receiver sets in an attempt to try to “flood” opposing defenses. Just to recap, I’ve written before that cover 2 and 3 defenses are attacked when, “vertical routes are run to stretch the coverage, causing indecision among the safeties. Similarly, zones can be “flooded” when multiple routes are run in hopes of pressuring the backers, typically the middle linebackers.”
The Wildcats will likely try and do so on the Bears, so the pressure will be on Cal’s nickelbacks and linebackers to quickly read and react to NU’s slot receivers. If the Bears can take away Northwestern’s passing game, it effectively increases their chances of slowing down the run. The game should be pretty telling as to the progress of Cal's defense from last year.
Honestly though, the main source of my optimism in this game resides in my belief that Northwestern’s defense can be more than had. Northwestern’s questionable secondary will face a stiff challenge in squaring off against the talent and depth the Bears have at the receiver position. When you also throw in the backfield’s pass-catching capabilities, the #BearRaid will challenge and stretch Northwestern’s defense.
If the Bears can keep the game competitive in the first half I have a feeling you could see the Bears begin to pull away in the latter part of the game.
I’ll be shocked (and elated) if the Bears’ nerves don’t cause them some stalled drives and mistakes in the beginning. But here’s what it boils down to: if Cal can avoid shooting themselves in the foot enough early on to keep it competitive, they’ve got a real shot. They face an experienced and disciplined team, but they have the talent and the athleticism to notch the win.
Monday, August 26, 2013
Posted by Bear with Fangs at 11:02 PM