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By Matt Kawahara
The Cal football team has already proved this season that it can shut down a running back that wants to lower his shoulder and plow right through it. Tomorrow, the Bears face an entirely different challenge in the less physical, more lateral running game of tailback Dwight Tardy and Washington State. Consider it just another test for a revamped defense. "We're still going to play physical," linebacker Anthony Felder said. "They might not be coming directly at us, but our attitude is always going to be physical. We're going to change our scheme to match what they do, but the mentality is the same."
What the Cougars (0-1) do-and what Cal (1-0) will be faced with starting tomorrow at 3:30 p.m. in Martin Stadium-is an up-tempo, no-huddle offense that frequently shuttles personnel groups on and off of the field and is led by quarterback Gary Rogers. Bears coach Jeff Tedford said that Rogers looks like Drew Bledsoe throwing the football, but that the 6-foot-7 senior is more mobile and can make plays with his legs as well as his arm. Combine that with tailbacks Tardy and Christopher Ivory-who ran for over 1,000 yards between them in 2007-and WSU presents a whole new look for Cal in the Bears' earliest Pac-10 opener since 1993.
"(Tardy) is not the same type of runner as (Michigan State tailback Javon) Ringer was," Felder said. "He's more of a slasher, he's going to look for cutbacks, he's going to press upfield."
Although Tedford said that defending the Cougars' spread offense will be "about the same" as lining up against the Spartans, defensive end Rulon Davis thinks that Washington State's east-to-west running game might play more to the strengths of Cal's speedy 3-4. Davis added that shutting down the run is a priority for the Bears. "You want to get teams into passing situations," he said. "That means they're trying to catch up." That applies especially well to the Cougars. They were a pass-first team last season, averaging 319.7 passing yards per game, but quarterback Alex Brink and wideout Michael Bumpus were lost to graduation.
Returning receiver Brandon Gibson went for over 1,000 yards in 2007, but with Bumpus gone and no proven wideout to take his place, teams can focus on Gibson. In their season opener against Oklahoma State, the Cougars threw for just 82 yards and Gibson was held to 53 yards on six catches. Cal will still have to deal with Washington State's hurry-up offense, but nose tackle Derrick Hill said that the 3-4 has an edge in that battle, too. "In the 3-4, we have the ability to play run defense and pass defense without having to change our personnel," Hill said. "We can create penetration with our linemen as well as with blitzes."
While the defense has stayed busy chasing quarterback Beau Sweeney-the scout team version of Rogers-around in drills, starting quarterback Kevin Riley has been preparing for the first consecutive start of his college career. Riley appears to have the starting job locked up. Who he will be throwing to on Saturday is a little less certain. Receivers accounted for only five of the Bears' catches against Michigan State. But wideout LaReyelle Cunningham had the game of his career against the Cougars in 2005, Nyan Boateng has been solid this week in practice, and Michael Calvin-who played Saturday but didn't have a ball thrown to him-is progressing in recovery from a toe injury. "We've just got to go out there, put some points on the board, keep putting points on the board and not let them back in the game," Riley said. "You could see that a little bit last year. We'd get a lead and wouldn't separate. We need to get a lead and keep on tacking on."