Wednesday, September 15, 2010

PWtW Week 3 Preview

If human history has taught us anything, it's that when one group of people encounters another group of people very different from them in some way, they probably won't like what they see and will almost inevitably come to blows with each other. This is especially true when the two groups in question are from vastly different ways of life and hail from far-flung corners of the Earth.

When this occurs between two football teams, the results aren't all that different -- for this week, just swap out full-scale wars and the deaths of countless innocents with standard-issue hippie and prostitute jokes. With that in mind, allow me to serve as your Richard Attenborough guide on the "Planet Earth" documentary that is...the California preview (British accent not necessary, but preferred for a touch of class).

California Golden Bears

In spite of being only four hours apart as a typical drive on Interstate 80 goes, Cal and Nevada might as well be on different continents half a world away from each other. As I pointed out when the series was first announced, these two programs have played each other once in the last 60+ years. That's like two families moving into a new neighborhood at the same time and down the street from each other not bothering to exchange housewarming gifts until after all of their kids grow up and move out.

As a brief aside, Cal's reinvigorated defense is coached by former NFL coordinator Clancy Pendergast. The man's a fine coach by all accounts, but has without a doubt the most unfortunate name of any opposing coach we've ever seen here (I'll reveal the worst player name I've ever heard next week). A football coach named "Clancy" has all the initial intimidation of a hurricane named "Andrew." The only things missing are a Roman numeral after the last name, an "Esquire" title and membership at an east coast yachting club.

Cal boasts the nation's best statistical defense and Nevada the best statistical offense, but making those claims at this time is like throwing a military parade after conquering Guam. Where this game will be decided can be better guessed by looking at where both teams have struggled, even if that's fairly relative at this point as well.

Considering how little trouble they've had scoring, the Bears have had some difficulty converting third downs (12 of 26 for 46.2%). QB Kevin Riley has been efficient, but is also responsible for failing to convert many of those opportunities. Even so, "relative" is still the word and 46% only looks truly inadequate when compared to Nevada's much more robust 67.9% (19 of 28). Neither team has failed to score once they've moved inside the 20, either. So not much in the way of "struggling" there.

The biggest reason why Cal's offense has been so successful to date is less because of the play-making ability of some of their players (although that shouldn't be scoffed at, either) and more because they've had so many short fields to work with. Their three longest scoring drives against Colorado were 82, 72 and 64 yards (two of which were in the second half when the game had long been decided), and were accompanied by 31, 19 and 7 yard drives thanks in no small part to 5 turnovers and 9 penalties from the Buffaloes. Cal led Colorado 31-0 at halftime on just 151 yards of offense. For comparison's sake, Oklahoma needed 412 yards of offense to lead Florida State 34-7 after two quarters (thanks to The Ralphie Report for those observations). In short, it certainly isn't a bad offense, but it has often been a very thankful beneficiary of the Bears' play on defense and special teams.

When one college football site called Nevada "the most interesting team in America" before the season started, we Pack fans all nodded in agreement knowing exactly why they earned that distinction: the team has had offenses whose praises are worth singing from rooftops coupled with defenses that will compel you to leap off of said rooftops. Andy Buh's defense, by contrast, seems to actually fit the personnel he inherited and -- for now, against admittedly weak competition -- has mostly limited the big plays that constantly killed Nevada's chances of winning big games in the past. Tackling was poor in Week 1, but seemed to improve the following week, and the turnover margin is already markedly better than it was after 2009's first two games.

All of these observations lead us to the three most important questions heading into Friday night:
  1. Who will win the field position battles?
  2. Is Cal's offense consistent enough to do its share of the work load?
  3. Has Nevada's defense finally improved enough to be a truly game-changing unit?
Best-Case Scenario

Everything finally comes together on the big stage. Nevada's offense succeeds more often than not in finding the end zone and its defense makes enough stops to put everyone at ease. Kick and punt returns put the offense in great position to work its magic. Turnovers are nonexistent, if not greatly minimized. Cal is not allowed to get back into the game on a count of stupid penalties being limited. The final score doesn't quite reach "shoot-out" proportions, but reflects a hard-fought and close contest nonetheless.

Worst-Case Scenario

Deja-freaking-vu all over again. The offense makes infuriating mistakes at the worst possible times, giving Cal's offense the short fields it craves. That same offense also burns Coach Buh's defense up, down, sideways and inside-out for numerous big plays. Cal wins the field position battles, and ultimately wins the day as a result. When Cal does screw up, they're bailed out with penalties. Cal covers the spread comfortably, Nevada gets yet another "moral victory" and everyone wonders if they'll ever be able to win the big one.

No profound conclusions or other parting words here. Just come out early, raise hell and make history.

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