THIS IS NOT A TRAP GAME - CALIFORNIA v ARIZONAWell, actually it is. Saturday's matchup in Tucson has all the elements of the classic trap: the favorite looking ahead; the underdog at home, with a confidence-boosting win under its belt. Fortunately for the Bears, intangibles are nice but matchups matter, too. Let's take a closer look:
When Cal has the ball... the Bears will face one of the conference's most active defenses. Mike Stoops and brother Mark call their scheme "violent" and that's exactly how the Cats play. Arizona has forced ten fumbles on the year, which ties them for 3rd in the conference. Junior MLB Spencer Larsen has forced two of those fumbles, to go along with 65 tackles and 2 sacks.
Larsen is the Cats' best run stopper, but he has lots of company. Arizona is yielding only 105.8 rushing yards per game, which ties them for 4th in the Pac-10. This will be a difficult team to run on, and they represent a major test for Cal's O-line.
Arizona doesn't get a lot of pass rush out of its front four. They have 15 sacks through 9 games, and 8.5 from their front four. Four of those sacks come from Juco DE Louis Holmes, who is huge and fast and may be as big a challenge as Davis & Hickman were last week. Look for lots of blitzes as the Stoops brothers roll the dice and try to generate turnovers.
Arizona's secondary looks a lot like Cal's, actually. Like Cal, the Cats are led by a seasoned corner who is a semi-finalist for the Thorpe in Antoine Cason. The rest of the secondary is somewhat young, and they allow a high completion percentage (64.5%) - though for only 203.6 yards per game. Unlike the Golden Bears, Arizona has struggled to generate takeaways - their 5 interceptions are last in the conference.
When Arizona has the ball... They will try to score their first points against Cal since 2003. Arizona had not suffered back-to-back shutouts against an opponent since WWII before Cal skunked them 28-0 last year in Berkeley.
That game last year was pre-Willie, as in Tuitama, the Cats' dynamic sophomore QB. He's been slowed by two concussions this year, and has missed significant time. It shows: Arizona is completing only 55% of its passes and has a terrible takeaway ratio of 12 picks to 5 passing touchdowns. Tuitama is a threat to run and can create big plays against teams who lack discipline in their outside contain.
Receivers are OK - the best of the bunch is Syndric Steptoe, who is very fast albeit small (5'9"). Mr. Steptoe, meet Mr. Hughes.
Last month Stoops effectively replaced OC Mike Canales, who favored a wide-open attack, in favor of TE Coach Dana Dimel, who now calls most of the offensive plays. Arizona has become quite conservative, throwing only 17 passes against Washington State. I can't imagine they'll be that conservative against a high-scoring Cal team, but it's a safe bet that they will test our rush D in the first half.
Chris Henry has emerged as the Cats' go-to back, rushing for 94 yards and two scores in the upset of Washington State. He's a big but unspectacular back, but that's what I wrote about Chris Markey last week. We need to wrap him up, as he generates lots of YAC.
Arizona's OL has been a major concern all year - they've surrendered 24 sacks, 2nd worst in the conference, and last week represented their best effort by far in the run game. This is a game that Brandon Mebane can control, and I look for him to step up.
Special Teams...It's so nice not to have a gag reflex when I write that. Cal's cruising along, though I wish Tedford would eschew the 50-yard FG tries and be more aggressive on 4th downs. Arizona is dangerous, too, in the punt return game - Steptoe has 14 returns for 196 yards and a touchdown. Look for lots of fair catches from Larson. Arizona's FG kicker is mediocre (11-16).
Intangibles...are all breaking in Arizona's direction. Cal's got SC next week, which can't help but be a distraction no matter what JT does. Arizona can go to a bowl if they win out. They've got the sting of two straight shutout losses against the Bears as further motivation. Most important, their offensive line is finally playing with a little confidence after last week's upset win.
Prediction...Despite the intangibles, Arizona just doesn't match up that well with Cal. To win this game, they would need to establish the run for four quarters; get to Longshore consistently; and generate +3 or +4 in the turnover margin. That's a tall order even for an inspired, athletic bunch of Cats.
California 31 Arizona 10