FRESNO – When Cal comes to town Saturday to face Fresno State’s Bulldogs, both teams will likely lean heavily on their defensive game in what’s shaping up to be a battle of whose offense will make the least mistakes.
Both teams have a strong defense, both have been erratic on offense and both have solid special teams.
“We’re strong and weak in the same areas, it doesn’t create a lot of great matchups,” said team spokesman Steve Weakland.
Both have a promising but inexperienced quarterback, each of whom will hang tough in the pocket. Both can field talented running backs behind a banged-up offensive line.
“Right now, from a point production, they’re a lot like us,” Bulldogs coach Pat Hill said of the Golden Bears. “They’re a team that has a lot of new players and they’re starting to get it together just like we are.”
The one thing the Bears have that Fresno State (0-2) doesn’t is a victory. Cal (1-1) defeated Utah 24-21 in its opener before suffering a narrow 17-15 loss at No.19 Illinois on Saturday.
Punter Nick Harris is the reason the Golden Bears stayed close to Illinois. But it doesn’t bode well for a team when the punter is one of the best players.
Harris was named Pacific 10 Conference special-teams player of the week after 10 of his 12 punts resulted in Illinois beginning a drive inside its 15, dragging down the Illini offense.
“Since we have an offense that has struggled, Nick is really important,” coach Tom Holmoe said. ”(Defensive end) Andre Carter is our best player, but Nick is our second best.”
Harris has punted 15 times in two games this season. Twelve have ended up inside the opponent’s 20-yard line. Five have ended up inside the 5. None has resulted in a touchback. Nine of Harris’ 12 kicks against Illinois stopped inside the 15.
Fresno’s Hill said running back Derrick Ward, who underwent arthroscopic surgery Friday to repair torn meniscus cartilage in his knee, was limping in practice Sunday and may not be ready to play.
But center Rodney Michael’s sprained ankle is coming around, offensive tackle Kevin Jordan is back at practice after injuring his hand in the Sept. 9 loss to UCLA, and running back Josh Levi is finally 100 percent after a lengthy bout with an ankle sprain.
“I think we’re in good shape for this game, probably the best shape we’ve been in physically for a game this year,” Hill said.
Cal may not be as lucky, particularly along the offensive line. Center Reed Diehl didn’t play against Illinois after suffering a knee injury against Utah, while left guard Brandon Ludwig is expected to miss several weeks with a high ankle sprain suffered against the Illini.