After a 2-0 start, the Buckeyes face their first AQ conference school in California. I stepped across enemy lines this week to chat with Nick Kranz of California Golden Blogs to get his insiders take on this matchup. Here is what he had to say...
1) What do Ohio State fans need to know about Cal's season so far?
That it's been a pretty big let down. Cal fans have been waiting for this season for years. Memorial Stadium had needed a major earthquake retrofit and general upgrade for decades, and various legal issues had delayed it for years. Last year Cal fans slogged through a painful year at AT&T Park in San Francisco - a pretty venue, but generally inadequate for football. Cal's home debut in 2012 had been circled on the calendar for years.
And then the Bears lost to a Mountain West team. The fact that this loss came after years of mediocre play under Jeff Tedford has only added to the angst. The majority of Cal fans truly like and respect Tedford for reviving and cleaning up a thoroughly moribund and dirty program in 2002, and he's had a long leash as a result. But fans are expecting more after a multi-million dollar investment in a new facility and a new stadium.
Suffice to say, the natives are restless. Or at least, as restless as they get in the Bay Area.
2) What (if any) improvements did you see after the week one loss to Nevada this last week?
I thought Cal's defense performed significantly better in week two, but that's likely just because of a decrease in the quality of the opposition. Southern Utah probably has a pretty solid offense by FCS standards, but it's not Nevada's pistol either. It's just so tough to separate performance from the strength of the opposing team.
On the other hand, all fans really wanted to see from the offense was basic execution - can we run our standard plays without committing bad penalties or turning the ball over? The answer, at least for the first half, was a resounding NO. Penalties and turnovers consistently killed drives even while the Cal offense was moving the ball. An optimist might wonder what the offense is capable of if they eliminated the silly mistakes. A pessimist might argue that if the Bears can't play mistake free football against Southern Utah, they won't do it against anybody else.
Obviously, if Cal's defensive line can consistently penetrate into the backfield to disrupt running plays and apply pressure on passing plays that would go a long way. But likely the most pressure will be on Cal's young linebackers to stay disciplined.
The Bears have faced a number of teams that play a variety of spread offenses with a running quarterback - Nevada, UCLA and Oregon most prominently. And the team has seen wildly different levels of success against those team. Colin Kaepernick famously dominated, but Cal has had some surprisingly effective performances against Chip Kelly's zone read.
If Cal's linebackers can contain the running threat of Braxton Miller without selling out and leaving things open in the secondary, they should have a puncher's chance to escape Columbus with a win. If they don't, things could get very ugly.
4) What names on the defense should Buckeye fans keep an eye on?
That's tough to say. Cal has a couple of solid, veteran cornerbacks in Marc Anthony and Steve Williams, but neither of them are game-changing, lock down players. Josh Hill is a veteran safety/cornerback who has a solid nose for the ball.
The defensive line is notable for depth of talent rather than having one or two standout individuals. DeAndre Coleman is probably the most disruptive lineman and the most likely to impact the game.
Because Cal runs a 3-4 formation, the linebackers are critically important, which is why Cal fans are concerned about the inexperience of that unit. We lost both starting inside linebackers and it's not clear who will step up to fill that void. Chris McCain has been solid as an outside linebacker, but he was injured against Southern Utah and there's a chance he'll be unavailable on Saturday.
5) Offensively, what will the Golden Bear offense come out and look to establish?
Since day one of the Tedford era, the goal has always been balance between the run and the pass. Depending on any particular game plan, that might mean run to set up the pass or pass to set up the run. But the bottom line is that Cal needs to do both to be successful. The offensive line needs to open up space for Isi Sofele, and Zach Maynard needs to get the ball to his receivers in a position to make plays.
6) Any matchups that you think look favorably for the Cal offense?
I think Keenan Allen is a good enough wide receiver that he's a favorable matchup for Cal in basically any game. In reading a few reports on the Buckeyes, I've gotten the sense that Ohio St. fans aren't 100% confident in their secondary so far this season, and Allen is certainly the guy to exploit any space he's given. He seems to have a near psychic connection with his quarterback brother, and Tedford does everything he can to get him the ball in position to make plays. That means screens, reverses and punt returns amongst various other Allen-designed plays.
Beyond Allen, true freshmen Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper have looked very good as the #2 and #3 receivers. Cal fans will be watching to see if they can keep producing against players with significantly more pedigree than Nevada or Southern Utah.
7) What worries you most about Saturday?
Oh man, I have so many worries. I'm worried that Cal's inexperienced, patch-work offensive line will get pushed around by the best line the Bears have faced so far this year. I'm worried that Cal's inability to execute on offense will be exacerbated by the Shoe. I'm worried that Zach Maynard's yips (recently seen against USC, Oregon and UCLA) will make an appearance. I'm worried that Cal's defense will again get shredded by a running quarterback. I'm worried that a road blowout will signal that the entire 2012 season will be a lame-duck funeral death march.
On the other hand, pessimism and Cal football fandom go hand-in-hand. It's what happens when you don't win your conference for 50+ years.
8) Do you think there will be any side effects from traveling across the country for this game?
I guess it depends on which aspect. I absolutely think that travelling a long way is a detriment to the road team - just ask Nebraska, Illinois and Wisconsin this week. Pac-12 teams have long had plenty of success at home against Big-10 and SEC teams and have struggled on the road when they go east of the Mississippi.
On the other hand, people out west like worrying about the early start time, which annoys me. If Ohio St. kicks our ass, I'll be really annoyed if any Cal fans use the 9:00 am pacific start time as an excuse*. Actually, somebody pointed out that Cal is something like 5-1 in 9:00 am start times under Tedford, with one loss to Maryland which probably had more to do with incredibly hot, muggy weather if anything.
*In reality, if we get crushed all blame goes to Tedford. Just the truth of the matter these days.
9) Thoughts on playing in the Shoe? Is there lots of chatter about it "being quiet" as George O'Leary mentioned this last week?
I hadn't heard anything of the sort. Cal fans just assume that it'll be plenty noisy (is it even possible for 100,000 fans to be quiet?!?) although I'm not sure how worried we are about how that will impact the offense. The simple reality is that over the first two games, Cal hasn't needed the excuse of extreme crowd noise to commit plenty of procedure penalties.