Buckeyes Can't Look Past Rebuilding Cal
By Patrick Murphy
COLUMBUS, Ohio — The 2012 Ohio State Buckeyes accomplished something only six other teams in school history have – they finished the year undefeated and untied, the perfect season.
The 2013 incarnation is not only looking to do the same, but is expected to do so by almost everyone in college football. If the Buckeyes are not at least in Pasadena for the National Championship game, it will be considered a disappointing campaign by some.
Though OSU will likely be favored in every game they play, there is always a chance for a slip up. The two games seen as posing the biggest challenge to Ohio State are at Northwestern and at the Big House against that team up north.
These are both potential challenges for the Buckeyes, but the California Golden Bears may provide a stiff test as well.
Ohio State fans will remember last year’s meeting with the Golden Bears, where the Buckeyes needed a 75-yard touchdown with just over four minutes remaining to secure a win at home. They will also likely remember the three missed field goals by Cal, which if made, would have earned them a big win at the Horseshoe.
It is true that the Scarlet and Gray drastically improved by the season’s end and are expected to be improved this year, but it must be noted that the eventual 3-9 Golden Bears put a scare into Urban Meyer’s team and they will not want to let another win slip away in their second meeting.
Cal only returns 10 starters from last year’s team – four on offense and six on defense – but this likely benefits them. Despite big numbers offensively, the 2012 Golden Bears struggled for much of the season. Because of this, they have replaced head coach Jeff Tedford with Louisiana Tech’s Sonny Dykes.
Dykes may not have the big name in college football, but he only had the top scoring offense in the country last season and is considered one of the brightest offensive minds in the game. He and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin have had their work cut out for them in finding a quarterback and getting their side of the ball ready for the season, but that is what the spring is for.
On defense, Cal is transitioning from a 3-4 to a 4-3 scheme under new defensive coordinator Andy Buh and are looking to find that rush end that will make this effective. Their defense was poor last year, giving up 412 yards to OSU, so Buh will hope this transition, along with more experience, will help give them a significant boost.
With all this change and coming off a poor season last year, why could this team give the Buckeyes a scare?
First, Big Ten teams are generally poor when traveling out west. This is not news to anyone who follows the conference. Is Ohio State, who should be the class of the Big Ten, immune to that? It did not seem so when they traveled to Los Angeles and got smacked 35-3 by USC. Granted, Cal is no USC, but travel, time change, and some weird Big Ten curse may cause issues.
There was the Buckeyes’ 2007 win over the University of Washington, but even in that game OSU trailed at halftime before scoring 24 straight points to win 33-14. There’s just something about playing out west.
Second, while this Cal offense will be transitioning – they don't have a quarterback who has thrown a collegiate pass, they will still be playing Dykes’ high-octane, fast-paced offense; the type that has caused Ohio State issues in the past. The Golden Bears will have had two home games before the Buckeyes come to town – one against Northwestern – to get things sorted out with this new philosophy and should have things rolling.
Running back Brendan Bigelow missed spring practice but is expected to return for the fall. He is someone who could be dangerous for Cal and could cause Ohio State issues. Last year, he had four carries for 160 yards and two touchdowns in Ohio Stadium, so needless to say, OSU should be concerned. He will likely see significantly more handoffs in this game, but will look to burn Ohio State just the same.
Defensively, the Buckeyes should be able to move the ball as they did last year, but Cal does return some experience on that side of the ball. They lost both starting cornerbacks from last season, yet there is potential talent there. Kameron Jackson played in all 12 games for the Golden Bears last year, so he will be expected to be the leader. Up front, if they can figure out the 4-3 scheme quickly, they may be able to get pressure on Braxton Miller.
This is a California team that is looking to impress under a new coaching staff and bounce back from a disappointing season. There is little remaining from a year ago and a sense of optimism has emerged in Berkley. Starting off the season with two potential wins over Big Ten teams would be huge for them.
While hardly anyone will expect the Buckeyes to return from their lone road trip in the first five games without a W, it would not be surprising if Cal gives Ohio State all they can handle, just as they did last year.
Of course, everyone saw what happened after that scare: better focus, better execution, 12-0.