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Cal in desperation mode -- again

The SportsXchange

Cal will be in desperation mode again when it plays at Utah on Oct. 27, and the Bears performed well with that mindset before.

Cal was sliding into oblivion with a 1-4 record when it produced its best game of the season in a 43-17 victory over UCLA on Oct. 6. That seemed to lift the Bears out of the doldrums and led to a two-game winning streak.

The 21-3 loss Stanford on Oct. 20 was not altogether surprising, but it sent the Bears back to the brink. They are 3-5 overall and 2-3 in the conference and must beat the Utes to have any reasonable shot at a bowl berth.

Utah is a team Cal can beat, even on the road. The Utes have lost four in a row, and they have quarterback issues. Freshman Travis Wilson is the third starting quarterback Utah has used this season.

If the Bears have the same sense of desperation they showed against UCLA, they can win.

However, there are a few differences between this desperation game and the one against the Bruins in Berkeley.

For one thing, this game is on the road. Cal has played fairly well away from home this season, but it's always easier to turn things around at home. A team fighting confidence issues is more likely to crumble on the road.

Also, Cal has personnel concerns at linebacker. Jalen Jefferson (concussion), Brennan Scarlett (hand) and Chris McCain (ankle) are all starters and are all questionable for the game against Utah.

Finally, Utah's defense is better than the one Cal faced against UCLA, and after the way Stanford completely shut down Cal's running game, it may be difficult to resurrect the ground game against a Utah defense that is good against the run. Cal had just three yards rushing against Stanford, and anything remotely close to that against the Utes will result in a Cal loss.

Utah is strong on the defensive line, while Cal's offensive line has been inconsistent. That is not a favorable combination for Cal, which desperately needs to regain the success on the ground it had in the two games prior to Stanford.

NOTES, QUOTES

Third-down problems loomed large in loss to Stanford

--Third down and first down were the situations that ruined Cal against Stanford, and the Bears must improve in both categories against Utah. The Bears totaled 34 yards on 20 first-down plays against Stanford, putting them in difficult situations nearly every possession. The Bears were unable to get themselves out of trouble on third down, converting only 1-of-14 third-down situations.

--The issue of Jeff Tedford's job security was off the table -- or at least out of the media discussion -- after Cal won two straight games in impressive fashion. But losing to Cal's archrival decisively and failing to score a touchdown in the process brought it back. If the Bears lose to a Utah team that has lost four in a row, the heat on Tedford will rise considerably.

--Beating Utah is virtually a necessity for Cal to have a shot at a bowl and winning season. Cal has a winnable home game against Washington on Friday, Nov. 2, then finishes with a home game against Oregon and a road game against Oregon State. It's hard to imagine Cal winning those final two games against teams currently ranked in the top seven of the BCS standings. A loss to Utah would set Cal up to finish 3-9 or 4-8, and either one would be the Bears' worst record since Tedford became coach prior to the 2002 season.

--Cal will continue to try to find ways to get TB Brendan Bigelow the ball. He and Keenan Allen are the team's big-play threats, and Bigelow produced Cal's two longest plays -- a 40-yard kickoff return and a 31-yard pass reception -- against Stanford. Those were two of his eight touches against Stanford, with four coming on kickoff returns. He is averaging 11.1 yards per rushing attempt and 15.4 yards per reception, so it's obvious why Cal wants to get him the ball.

SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads 5-3-0 (last meeting 2011, Cal 34-10).

SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cal's offense had been productive in the two games prior to the Stanford game, but had its worst performance of the season against the Cardinal's outstanding defense. Cal ran the ball effectively against UCLA and Washington State with its three-tailback rotation of C.J. Anderson, Isi Sofele and Brendan Bigelow, but those three combined for 18 yards on 19 carries against Stanford. The running game is the key to providing time for Zach Maynard to throw. Cal has yielded 33 sacks, most in the country. Maynard has completed 61.7 percent of his passes with 10 touchdowns and eight interceptions. The Bears are decent -- neither great nor awful -- in virtually all phases. WR Keenan Allen and Bigelow are their big-play threats.

SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: Cal ranks ninth in the Pac-12 in total defense, but it has not been too bad in recent games. Its cornerbacks -- Steve Williams, Marc Anthony and Kameron Jackson -- have played pretty well at a position that was a weakness the previous two seasons. The Bears had depth and talent at linebacker, but injuries have created some problems, as three of their biggest playmakers -- OLBs Brennan Scarlett (hand) and Chris McCain (ankle) and ILB Jalen Jefferson (concussion) -- are questionable for the Utah game with injuries. The Bears are about average against both the run and the pass -- neither great nor awful.

QUOTE TO NOTE: "You have to make sure you learn from bad outings like that. It was a bad performance offensively." -- Cal coach Jeff Tedford, on addressing his team's poor offensive showing against Stanford.

STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL

THIS WEEK'S GAME: Cal at Utah, Oct. 27 -- Cal is coming off a 21-3 loss to Stanford to fall to 3-5 overall and 2-3 in the conference. Utah played well in its Oct. 20 game against Oregon State but lost 21-7, its fourth straight loss to drop the Utes to 2-5 overall and 0-4 in the Pac-12. The Bears handled Utah 34-10 last season in their first-ever conference game against the Utes. Utah beat Cal 37-27 in the 2009 Poinsettia Bowl.

KEYS TO THE GAME: Cal must run the ball somewhat effectively, which may not be easy against Utah, to create some offensive rhythm. Cal needs to get a big play from either Brendan Bigelow or Keenan Allen, or both. That could come on a kickoff or punt return. Cal must prevent Utah DT Star Lotulelei from making the big plays he's capable of making. Defensively, Cal needs to apply a pass rush to freshman Utah QB Travis Wilson. He is starting to feel more comfortable after making his first two career starts. Cal can't let him feel any more comfortable, especially early in the game.

PLAYERS TO WATCH:

WR Keenan Allen -- Always QB Zach Maynard's No. 1 target, Allen had just 43 receiving yards against Stanford, but he may be more valuable as a punt returner.

RB C.J. Anderson -- Anderson had just five yards on seven carries against Stanford after posting consecutive 100-yard rushing games. A shoulder injury has slowed him, and he needs to be healthy and effective against Utah.

QB Zach Maynard -- He had outstanding games against Ohio State and UCLA, and it's no coincidence those were Cal's best games overall. He added a running dimension against Washington State, rushing for a career-high 78 yards. That threat could be critical against Utah.

RB Brendan Bigelow -- Somehow, some way, Cal needs the speedy Bigelow to produce a big play -- as a receiver, runner or returner.

ROSTER REPORT:

--LB Jalen Jefferson is questionable for the Utah game after sustaining a concussion against Washington State.

--OLB Chris McCain is questionable for the Utah game because of an ankle injury.

--OLB Brennan Scarlett will wear a cast to protect a broken hand, but it's unclear how much he'll play against Utah, if at all.

--G Dominic Galas played for the first time this season against Stanford after being out with a torn pectoral muscle, and he may be in the starting lineup against Utah.
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