Cal's game against Oregon State on Nov. 12 at San Francisco's AT&T Park may not be the biggest game in the Bay Area that day, but it is awfully big for the Golden Bears.
About 30 minutes south, Stanford will be hosting Oregon in a game with national championship implications. Cal has its own postseason goals, and the pressure on the Bears to get to a bowl is just as intense as it is on Stanford.
The Bears are 5-4, one win shy of being bowl-eligible, and they desperately need to get that win against the Beavers. The final two games are against Stanford and Arizona State, both on the road. Cal has not played well on the road, and both those foes have been ranked much of this season (although ASU fell out of the rankings after losing to UCLA on Nov. 5).
But Oregon State is 2-7 after its loss to Stanford on Nov. 5, and the Bears have played infinitely better at home than on the road -- especially on the defensive side.
Quite simply, the Cal defense has been outstanding at AT&T Park, in direct contrast to its struggles on the road.
The Beavers are clearly improving as the season goes along, which is a trademark of Mike Riley-coached teams, so winning may not be as easy as it might seem for Cal.
Oregon State's redshirt freshman quarterback, Sean Mannion, is improving every game, and he gave Stanford trouble in the Beavers' previous game. It will be up to the Bears' defense to put pressure on Mannion, and that may be more difficult with the Bears banged up at the linebacker spot. The fact that Oregon State has almost no running game will help the Bears, however.
More important is the play of QB Zach Maynard. There is no question about his starting status this week like there was heading into the Washington State game, because he played an efficient, if unspectacular, game against the Cougars.
He did not turn the ball over against Washington State, and if he does not throw any interceptions against Oregon State, the Bears have a good shot at qualifying for a bowl by beating the Beavers.
--The fact that Washington State coach Paul Wulff called Cal the best-looking football team he's seen in the conference continues to echo as a significant statement, given that Washington State has played Stanford and Oregon this season. Here's what Wulff said after his team's 30-7 loss to Cal on Nov. 5: "They are the best-looking football team that I have seen in the conference, period. They probably have the best talent, top to bottom."
It's hard to know whether that is a compliment, because it suggests the Golden Bears, who are 2-4 in the Pac-12, are underachieving. That does not look good for Jeff Tedford and his coaches. On the other hand, it might just be Wulff reacting to the Bears' best game of the season, which was not representative of their season as a whole, especially on the road.
--Cal's defense is puzzling to say the least, a fact reinforced by limiting Washington State to seven points, its lowest total of the season, on Nov. 5 at home, seven days after yielding 31 points to UCLA on the road. In the 11 home games Cal has played since Clancy Pendergast became defensive coordinator, Cal foes are averaging just 11.0 points a game, but in the nine road games, opponents are averaging 32.8 points. That's an amazing disparity. This season, Cal is limiting opponents to 14.75 points at home but allowing 34.5 points on the road. Fitting the model perfectly is the fact that in their one neutral-site game, the Bears yielded 21 points -- 10 points more than their home average and 13.5 points less than their road average. Not surprisingly, Cal is 7-4 in those home games, and 2-7 on the road.
--If Cal beats Oregon State to become bowl eligible, it's unclear which bowl Cal would play in, but it would probably be one of following three -- the New Mexico Bowl, the Las Vegas Bowl or the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl. Playing in the Kraft Fight Hunger Bowl seems the most likely at the moment, and that would put Cal in a game in its 2011 home stadium -- AT&T Park. Its opponent there could be any of a number of teams, from Army to a Western Athletic Conference team to an ACC team. In the Las Vegas Bowl, Cal might play TCU. In the New Mexico Bowl, Cal would play the Mountain West fifth-place team, which could be Air Force.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads 33-30-0 (Last meeting, 2010, 35-7 Oregon State).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Like virtually every offense, Cal's productivity relies on the performance of its quarterback, and Zach Maynard has been good in some games and not so good in others. His completion percentage is low (53.7 percent), and he has thrown 10 interceptions. But seven of those picks came in two games, so his interceptions come in bunches. When he rolls out to his left, Maynard is far more accurate. The Bears' offensive line probably had its best game against Washington State, and so did TB Isi Sofele, who has 839 rushing yards for the season. WR Keenan Allen remains the big-play weapon, and Cal will try to get him the ball any way possible.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Golden Bears' defense had its best two games in its most recent two home games -- against Utah on Oct. 22 and Washington State on Nov. 5. The Bears' defense has been outstanding in all but one of its home games this season, and a large part of that has been the play of its linebackers. However, injuries could sideline OLBs Chris McCain and David Wilkerson this week, which would hurt. The secondary played well against Washington State's strong pass offense. The Bears lead the Pac-12 in pass defense, partly because it applies a strong pass rush, and partly because its coverage has been good. Cal's defense has every chance to be successful against Oregon State, whose offense is not very good.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It was pretty awesome. We've had some bad games this year where we haven't done our job. Obviously, if we're not doing our job, we're not going to get the run called. We just don't want to get too high or too low. After the Utah win, we maybe got a little too high." -- OT Mitchell Schwartz, after Call rolled up a season-high 288 rushing yards against Washington State
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Oregon State at Cal (at AT&T Park in San Francisco), Nov. 12 -- Cal is 5-4 overall and 2-4 in the Pac-12, while Oregon State is 2-7 overall and 2-4 in the Pac-12. The teams are tied for fourth in the Pac-12 North, and Oregon State has won five of the past six games between the two teams.
KEYS TO THE GAME: If Cal QB Zach Maynard does not throw any interceptions and TB Isi Sofele does not fumble, the Golden Bears have an excellent chance to win. Sofele should be able to run the ball effectively against the Beavers' suspect run defense, but his ball security has been an issue lately. If the Bears' defense plays the way it usually does at home, it should be able to control Oregon State's offense, which is improving but still is not very potent. The Beavers have virtually no running game, which should allow Cal to focus on Oregon State redshirt QB Sean Mannion, who is vulnerable to a pass rush and prone to interceptions. If the Bears can apply pressure, they could come up with some game-changing interceptions.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Keenan Allen -- Allen is sixth nationally in receiving yardage and seventh in receptions, with 75. Zach Maynard always looks to get the ball to Allen, his half-brother, and that's not a bad idea. Expect Cal to give the ball to Allen on an end-around at least once, and you could see Allen taking a direct snap.
TB Isi Sofele -- Sofele had a career-best 138 yards against Washington State, and he has shown a penchant for long runs lately. He could break off a few big gainers against Oregon State, which does not have a very good run defense.
CBs Steve Williams and Marc Anthony -- Both played well against Washington State, and they will be responsible for controlling the Beavers' two biggest offensive weapons -- receivers James Rodgers and Markus Wheatley.
TE Anthony Miller -- He has only 17 catches, but three are for touchdowns, and Zach Maynard has been more prone to look for Miller lately.
--OLB Chris McCain sustained a concussion in the Washington State game, and with the caution being taken with concussions these days, it seems unlikely he would play against Oregon State, although he has not been ruled out.
--OLB David Wilkerson injured his knee against Washington State. He is doubtful for the game against Oregon State and may be out longer than that.
--OT Brian Schwenke missed the Washington State game with an illness that landed him the hospital last week. The exact nature of the illness was not disclosed, but apparently it was more than just the flu. He is back on campus and is practicing, but it's uncertain whether he'll be able to play against the Beavers.
--QB Zach Maynard took a blow to the head that put him out of the Washington State game, but that was more a precaution than anything else. He is fine and will play against Oregon State.