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Behind Enemy Lines - Q&A With Cal Golden Bears Writer

Aaron Fischman |
October 12, 2011 | 1:34 p.m. PDT

Staff Writer

 Avinash Kunnath and Juan Michael Pavliga via Creative Commons)
Avinash Kunnath and Juan Michael Pavliga via Creative Commons)
Twelve days after USC defeated the Arizona Wildcats 48-41, it will take on the California Golden Bears in a nationally televised game Thursday night.

In two consecutive weeks, Cal’s defense has struggled on the road.

Most recently, the Bears surrendered more than 350 rushing yards to the Oregon Ducks. In a game in which the Bears led 15-14 at the half, the Ducks shut them out in the second half to earn a 43-15 win.

In the Trojans’ last contest, Matt Barkley set a school-record for passing yards with 468. For his part, receiver Robert Woods nabbed 14 catches for 255 yards and two touchdowns.

Unfortunately for USC, it would need every bit of those 48 points, because its secondary was atrocious, allowing Nick Foles to throw for 425 passing yards and four touchdowns.

In last year’s meeting at the Coliseum, the Trojans jumped out to a 42-0 halftime lead. Barkley dazzled with a 352-yard, five-touchdown performance en route to the 48-14 victory.

What will happen this year? Thankfully, John Breech is on hand to help us preview the game. John covers Cal football for CBSSports.com.

1. Keenan Allen is already badly burning Pac-12 opponents. For those who haven’t seen the sophomore receiver play, how explosive is he? How good can the guy be?

Keenan Allen is a stud. By his own admission, he's not as fast as Robert Woods, but he runs great routes and he has no problem going across the middle, which is unusual for a finesse receiver. Allen (left) is tearing it up this year, but some of the credit for that has to go to senior wide receiver Marvin Jones -- who has at least five catches in all five games this season. Defenses can't really afford to double-cover Allen because Jones will just go crazy and light them up for 120 yards and two touchdowns like he did against Fresno State.  

Allen will almost definitely be a Heisman candidate next year. If the NFL draft was tomorrow and Allen was eligible, he would be a second round pick. Give him another season and a half of college football and there's no doubt in my mind he'll be a first round pick once he's eligible in 2013. So yes, in case you're wondering, I think he'll leave after his junior year.
2. More than half of Zach Maynard’s passing yards are from catches by his half-brother, Allen. What kind of a relationship do the guys seem to have, on and off the football field?

Zach and Keenan are tight, and when I say tight, we're talking to the point where they give you a dirty look when you refer to them as half-brothers. They grew up in the same household and they've made it clear they're "brothers."

Zach's first and fifth look are almost always Keenan. This pretty much means Zach looks at Keenan first, scans his next four reads and if he can't find anything, he'll go back to his brother. Maynard's got a sixth sense for where Keenan's going to be. If there was a “brothers” Heisman, these two guys would win it.

Off the field, Maynard is much more laid back, he's not as brash as Allen and he's definitely a little more shy. The advantage here is that Keenan isn't going to yell at the QB for not throwing him the ball (something star wide receivers are famous for). Allen has too much respect for Zach (below right, No. 15) to get in his face.

3. We all know that the Oregon Ducks are very good, but Cal was leading the Ducks 15-14 at halftime of last week’s meeting. From the Golden Bears’ perspective, what went wrong in the second half? In other words, how can we explain the Ducks’ 29 unanswered second half points?

Offensively, everything went wrong in the second half. After Oregon scored two quick touchdowns, it seemed like head coach Jeff Tedford panicked, burnt his game plan and went straight to the pass game even though Cal only trailed 29-15. The Bears called 14 plays in the third quarter, 10 of which were passes. Of the 42 total plays they called in the second half, 35 were passes. The reason Cal was so successful in the first half was because the run game was successful. Isi Sofele averaged 9.9 yards per carry. The running

Zach Maynard (John Martinez Pavliga via Creative Commons)
Zach Maynard (John Martinez Pavliga via Creative Commons)
game clicking meant the offense was on the field longer, which meant Oregon's high-scoring offense was on the bench. A two-touchdown deficit in the third quarter isn't insurmountable, but Tedford called plays like it was. The media kind of thought it was over after Oregon's third touchdown in the third quarter.

Defensively, the team just seemed kind of worn out. The D played a phenomenal first half. They got no scoring support from the offense in the second half, though, and that seemed to deflate them. Plus, you can only take so much LaMichael James before you just want to rip his elbow off... or at least dislocate it.

4. Washington’s Keith Price burned Cal through the air, whereas the Oregon Ducks recorded more than 350 rushing yards against the Golden Bears last Thursday. Which segment of the defense is the bigger concern, heading into Thursday’s game against the Trojans?

What Price's passing stats and Oregon's rushing stats don't say is that Cal's defense is very susceptible to the big play. Price threw for 292 yards, 110 of which came on three plays. Oregon ran for a gaudy 365 yards, but 198 of those came on four plays. The point here is that teams are having trouble putting together long drives against the Bear defense. If USC wants to win Thursday, they're going to need to run at least five or six plays that go for over 25 yards.

Oh and to actually answer your question, the passing defense is by far the bigger concern. Starting corner Marc Anthony will be a game day decision -- he separated his shoulder against Oregon -- if he can't go, then true freshman Stefan McClure will get the start. Even if Robert Woods had a gun shot wound to his ankle, I would still like his chances against a true freshman.

5. With Shane Vereen moving on to the NFL (he was drafted by the New England Patriots in the second round), Sofele has gotten a chance to truly show what he can do. What makes the 5-foot-8-inch back so tough to tackle?

One of Sofele's biggest problems at the beginning of the season was that he would go down when defensive guys looked at him weird. He left at least 20-30 yards on the field in each of Cal's first two games (Fresno State; Colorado). However, now that he's got five games under his belt, Sofele (left) looks like a true veteran. Against Oregon last Thursday, he played like he was the love child of Barry Sanders, Usain Bolt and a cannon ball. He averaged 9.9 yards per carry against a fast Oregon defense. His height obviously makes him tough to tackle (FYI: I'm 5-foot-6, Sofele is lucky if he's three centimeters taller than me), but he's also built like a rock. He's also gotten better at making guys miss.

6. Last week, the Golden Bears gained 465 total yards, but only scored 15 points, largely because of their inability to convert red zone opportunities into touchdowns. What can the Bears do to improve in that regard?

It seems like they can't do anything to improve.  

Cal's red zone woes have been a combination of everything: play calling, bad decision making, nerves. Maynard struggles with his accuracy and it really shows in the red zone (go find the final play from the Cal-Washington game for proof). Because there's less field to work with, there's less room for error in the red zone. If Maynard starts hitting the mid range and short passes in the RZ, Cal suddenly becomes unstoppable.  

Although Cal's red zone offense has struggled, they still score touchdowns 61 percent of the time, which is seventh in the Pac-12 and ahead of USC's 55 percent.
7. Cal has faced its last three FBS opponents on the road, but now returns to its 2011 home, AT&T Park, for four of its next five games. How important is that for this team?

Let me give you a Tedford quote from today (Tuesday), "When you think about going back to AT&T, you think, 'OK, you're going back to somewhere that's suppose to be familiar, but it’s really not, we've only been there once."

Cal's only played at AT&T once more than USC has this season. They haven't played or practiced there in 25 days. Not to mention, the team's first five games were played in five different stadiums. It’s gotten to the point where I don't even think these guys know where their home stadium is. This means, I don't think home field will be a huge advantage against USC -- I actually think playing on ESPN is more motivating for these guys. It’s only Cal's fourth Thursday night game since 1990.

The first home game, against Presbyterian, was kind of dead -- the crowd wasn't into it. So no one really knows what kind of advantage the crowd will be Thursday.
8. From Cal’s perspective what are the keys to defending their home field against the Trojans on Thursday night?

The key to the Oregon game was "stop LaMichael James." Instead, Cal's defense did the opposite of that and let the guy run wild for over 200 yards. This time around, they need to not let Woods beat them. The Bears also need to keep Maynard from getting hit too often. Maynard suffered a quad contusion early in the game against Oregon and became horribly ineffective after that. If the equipment manager doesn't have to wash Maynard's jersey after the game, then the O-line did their job and that would probably mean a Cal win.

Oh, and another key to the game is to not let Matt Barkley throw five touchdown passes in the first half because that could be trouble. It didn't work out too well for the Bears last year.
9. What’s your prediction for the game?

This game is HUGE for Cal. The team, the fans and Tedford all need a win here. Bear fans might start jumping off the Golden Gate Bridge if Cal loses. I don't want to see that, so I'll take the Bears 34-31.

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