Although it's hard to say that Ohio State and Cal are traditional rivalries or that there is any sort of long-standing grudge between the two schools, there is something special about the Buckeyes' trip to Memorial Stadium this weekend. It harkens to a time before BCS polls and profit-driven conference realignment to an era when only one post-season game mattered and that game was called the Rose Bowl.
Both Ohio State and Cal were undefeated when they met in 1921 in the first Rose Bowl appearance for both schools. It was the first time that the Buckeyes played on the west half of the country, and Cal sent them limping back home with a 28-0 loss. It was also the last time that Cal would beat the Buckeyes.
Since that New Year's Day more than 90 years ago, the Buckeyes have beaten Cal six times including another Rose Bowl appearance in 1954 and in five regular season games. In two of those games, Cal dutifully played the role of stepping stone in two of Ohio State's ten undefeated seasons (1954 and 2012). They will get the chance to do so again this Saturday.
That said, Cal football has an important role to play. Sure, the Golden Bears haven't had much to brag about since the mid-20th century, but Ohio State still needs them in a world filled with SEC bias and discussions of one-loss SEC teams in the national championship game. For two weeks straight, the Buckeye have found themselves slipping in the polls even though they beat their opponents by a combined 55 points. The Buckeyes need to beat a good Cal team to boost the quality of their schedule and in turn climb back up the rankings.
So far Cal has started out well by making Northwestern look good. Granted, with a combined 1,000-plus offensive yards, I question whether either team fielded a defense. You think Northwestern's backup quarterback was tough? Just wait until you see who you'll meet if Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller doesn't return from his injury.
And while newly appointed coach Sonny Dykes was whining about fake injuries, the Golden Bears were moving Northwestern up the rankings and providing some much needed respect for the Big Ten and the Ohio State schedule.
But it doesn't stop there. Once Cal has faced the high-powered offense it is about to meet in Ohio State, Oregon will look slow. Sure, Oregon talks a good show but as we discovered when the Buckeyes last met the Ducks in the Rose Bowl, they've got about as much hot air as their failed mascots. The Buckeyes need Cal to shut down the Oregon not because they might pose a threat to our national championship hopes but because a win over the Ducks will make our win this Saturday look all that much better.
Good showings against Washington and Stanford down the road won't hurt either. (You'll notice that I left out USC.)
But that is jumping ahead. Cal has much bigger issues this week. Last week the Bears let an FBS school put up more than 800 yards and with the better half of the defensive line on the DL, it's not going to get any better. Ohio State has some serious depth coming out of the backfield. The problem for Cal is along with putting points on the board, Jordan Hall, Devin Smith, Dontre Wilson and a few others are still competing for a chance to carry the ball. They need solidify their position before Carlos Hyde returns in Week 4. Give them the opportunity and they will take it.
Throw in quarterback Braxton Miller's (or backup QB Kenny Guiton's) ability to connect on the long ball and Cal could be in for a very long afternoon.
So that leaves the Cal offense. Quarterback Jared Goff said earlier this week that the offense could match up with any defense in the country. Forgive him. He's a freshmen. He'll learn. Yes, the Buckeyes struggled during their first game to find a healthy defensemen, and yes they are young but they now are back to full strength. Expect to see them continue to build upon the stifling defense we saw against San Diego State last weekend. I know, not a good comparison but I'm sure that Goff will get a chance to meet Ryan Shazier, C.J. Barnett and other members of the Ohio State defense and possibly even shake their hands as they bend down to help him up somewhere around 10 yards behind the line of scrimmage.
Don't expect much out of the Cal running game. They've run less than 230 yards in the past two games. Ohio State's Jordan Hall has topped those numbers himself. Cal will be a one-dimensional team. This means that if Cal has any hope of scoring on the Buckeyes, they will need to rely on their fast pass, spread offense.
And while it is quite possible that Cal will put up some impressive passing numbers, they sure have in the last two weeks, scoring will be a problem. Remember also that Goff threw four interceptions last week against a team that really shouldn't have been a threat. He threw two pick-six interceptions against Northwestern. This may be one of the biggest dangers for the Golden Bears. Cal will need to rely on the passing game and under the pressure of the Ohio State defense, the interceptions will come. When they do, against the Ohio State defense the pick-six is always a threat. If the defense doesn't score on the turnovers, I refer you to my comments about the offense above.
Finally, don't expect any benefit from a home-field advantage. Although I'm sure there are Big 12 teams that travel well, there aren't many teams who travel better than Ohio State. Just ask Phoenix why they like bringing Ohio State to the Fiesta Bowl. There is an entire population of Buckeye expats living on the West Coast and it has been a long time since they have been able to see their beloved team play in their own backyard. Ohio State fans will be there in force and if the Buckeyes get rolling, it may feel more like a game in the Shoe than Memorial Stadium.
There are four Big Ten/Pac-12 games this Saturday and they will have a big impact on 2013 season. Bring it on, I say. Hopefully we will see many more weekends like this in the years to come.