Just what are we watching on Saturday…?

Cal vs Arizona
Nathan Yan/File

In 15 seasons as the Fresno State head coach, Pat Hill has abided by the relatively simple mantra of “anytime, anywhere.”

A coach never afraid to schedule difficult non-conference opponents (insert the already-tired but still relevant Presbyterian joke here), Hill leads his notoriously tough Bulldogs into Candlestick to take on Cal in what, at least according to the ticket sales, may look like a Fresno State home game.

Last year was the first time since the turn of the millennium that the Bulldogs did not face a ranked non-conference opponent on the road, but they still defeated two BCS teams (Cincinnati and Illinois). So a short jaunt to Candlestick probably won’t faze Pat Hill, a man with a supremely intimidating mustache, or his usually unflappable squad.

So what is Cal, a far different squad than the one that took the field against Washington to end 2010, up against? The history may mean little, but the Bears are winless in two attempts against Fresno State, and the Bulldogs have won seven consecutive season openers.

But let’s also remember that in his ten years at the helm of the Cal program, Jeff Tedford has always started the season strongly. Excluding the 2006 fiasco at Neyland Stadium in Knoxville, Tennessee, (it involved a 35-0 halftime deficit and a whole lot of orange, but crazily enough that Bears’ squad was one sideline footprint away from a Rose Bowl berth) Cal has knocked off several formidable non-conference opponents since 2002.

So how are we supposed to evaluate a game where both quarterbacks are not the guys that were lining up last year and whose teams are athletic but inconsistent? I’m not sure. But we can look at some basics:

For starters, it’s always notable when a returning 1,000-yard rusher is lining up in the backfield. Robbie Rouse, who Tedford labeled “more of a scat back,” will likely beat you more on the toss sweep than he will on the blast. Well, when a guy has 4.43 speed and is 5-foot-7, you’d think that they would mostly toss him out and try and get him into track meets.

But if one has the strength, being the small target isn’t necessarily a bad thing. While he was probably physically stronger than Rouse, former Oregon State running back Jacquizz Rodgers caused fits for the Cal defense because of how well he hid behind his offensive line. The Bulldogs are debuting an almost entirely new offensive line, but we will see if Rouse tries to utilize his diminutive stature to carve through what should be a formidable three-man front.

So is Cal equipped to stop Rouse up the middle and on the sidelines? I think so. The Bears continue to reappear as a fifth-place prediction in the Pac-12 North, but it is easy to overlook what should be, at the very least, a formidable defense. Tedford mentioned in practice that he is comfortable with his depth at the defensive front as well he probably should be. The starting nose tackle is currently Aaron Tipoti, but it wouldn’t be shocking to see others like Kendrick Payne and even freshman Villami Moala to see reps at that position.

The defensive ends may be one of the strongest units on the team. Deandre Coleman showed last year that he can get into the backfield for some tackles for loss and Ernest Owusu has the physical tools to really get off the edge. Perhaps Fresno State will try and run at Dan Camporeale? I don’t know or necessarily think that they will but perhaps Hill and co. will try to run at a sure-tackling but not especially fast walk-on linebacker in his first college start. This is perhaps the most elementary of the guesses, but it would be fun to get an extended look at the walk-on from Lafayette in his first collegiate start.

So let’s take a (very) quick look at the offense. Jeff Tedford has complimented Zach Maynard’s ability to get out of the pocket without absorbing a big hit.

**Does anybody else remember at home against Oregon in 2008 (at home, sideways rain that exposed Memorial Stadium’s seemingly dire drainage issues. Huge puddles formed throughout the field. I (seriously) needed a new pair of clothes at halftime and my cell phone’s microphone was ruined, just ask my ex-girlfriend. Cal wins by 10 when it’s all said and done) when Kevin Riley tried to go heads up with defensive backs T.J. Ward and Patrick Chung and was knocked out of the game? That guy really did tough it out in all four seasons, but he also made us say “oof” a whole lot.**

Anyway, this means they’re going to want to get Maynard out of the pocket at least a little bit. Lots of people, including myself, are probably a bit skeptical of Isi Sofele lining up as the top running back, but now the Cal offense has four (Maynard, Sofele, Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen) big-play threats varying in dynamics. I’d think they’re going to want to get the ball in Allen’s hands just a little bit. Remember Allen in the opening weeks of the season last year? When another team does not know how he will be utilized, he seems to find a lot of the open field.

Don’t be surprised if others, Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson and C.J. Anderson, see some kind of action. In a (seemingly) perfect world, Maynard will be able to balance his mid-range passing (let’s say 7-18 yards, yes, I know that’s a bit arbitrary) and get out of the pocket, Cal’s offense should be able to open up a little bit.

But Fresno State may have the athletes to stop the Bears’ weapons even if things open up. Like I said before, it’s a tough one to prognosticate — but so are all football games in general. The first impression is always exciting. It should be at least. It’s game one. Tune in if you’re not tripping to the Stick.

That means a lot of you.

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