Friday, December 26, 2008

It will be strength vs. weakness when Cal runs against Miami

As they prepared for Saturday night’s Emerald Bowl at AT&T Park against Miami, the Cal Bears made sure to let us know how fast, athletic and talented the Hurricanes are. Hey, that’s Football 101. You always praise your opponent in public.

But I wonder what the Bears are saying to each other when they’re away from the television cameras, digital recorders and notepads. My guess? I bet they can’t stop talking about how much fun it’s going to be run the ball against Miami.

College football is all about matchups, about finding an edge then exploiting it. And this matchup, Cal’s running game vs. Miami’s run defense, clearly favors the Bears.

Just consider some of the numbers.

In its next-to-last regular-season game, Miami gave up 472 rushing yards, the second most in school history, in a 41-23 loss to Georgia Tech. Nine days later, North Carolina State rushed for 219 yards in a 38-28 victory over the Hurricanes. That’s 691 rushing yards allowed in two games.

In its final two regular-season games against Stanford and Washington, Cal ran for 718 yards. Jahvid Best rushed for 201 yards against Stanford then a team-record 311 against Washington. Best has rushed for 1,459 yards this season and is averaging 8.0 yards per carry. Backup Shane Vereen has added 679 yards, gaining 5.1 yards a pop.

“We’re going to really have to run to the ball,” Miami middle linebacker Glenn Cook said Tuesday during a press conference at AT&T. “If you don’t, they take it to the house. They have a lot of speed.”

Miami has allowed an average of 184 rushing yards per game. The Hurricanes may be fast, but their defense is undersized and young. They do have a pair of 300-pound tackles, but no other starter weighs more than 266 pounds. Cal’s starting offense line averages 307 pounds. Three freshmen and two sophomores start on defense for Miami.

Cal’s defense, which has intercepted 23 passes, could have a matchup of its own to exploit, facing quarterback Jacory Harris, a true freshman.

Harris saw plenty of action as Robert Marve’s backup during the regular-season in a two-quarterback system. But Marve was suspended for the Emerald Bowl for missing too many classes, which means Harris will start and, most likely, play the entire game. Ironically, Harris’ only other start this season came in Miami’s season-opener against Charleston Southern when Marve was suspended for an incident off the field.

Harris’ numbers aren’t bad. He completed 93 of 153 passes (60.8 percent) with 10 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He ran 40 times for 198 yards.

“He can run the ball and he can throw the ball,” Cal linebacker Zack Follett said. “He’s trying to prove that he’s a passer. Since he’s young, my job is to try to get pressure. So we’ll see if we can get that done.”

At 6-foot-4 and just 185 pounds, Harris looks every bit the freshman. But he actually enrolled at Miami last January and took part in spring practice.

“I’m past the freshman stage,” Harris said. “We consider ourselves, the ones that came early, we consider ourselves sophomores now. Because starting in January, we’ll officially be sophomores anyway. The freshman phase, I think that passed me after the Duke game. I really felt like I could go into a game and take over and control this team.”

Harris threw four touchdown passes and ran for a score in Miami’s 49-31 comeback win over Duke on Oct. 18.

In Miami’s 52-7 victory against overmatched Charleston Southern, Harris passed for 190 and a touchdown and ran for a touchdown.

“Charleston Southern wasn’t a bad opponent,” Harris said. “It’s just that you wouldn’t put them in the same category as Cal. At the same time, playing against Cal is going to be a whole different level because of the speed, the talent, the coaching. Everything is going to be different, just because of those three factors there. That’s going to be the difference.”

Harris said he’s not the same quarterback he was in that Aug. 28 opener.

“My game has changed. I’ve gotten smarter, faster on my reads,” he said. “I’m more of a team player. I learned to love my teammates, and they love me back. So it’s a mutual bond between us. So we can go out there and have fun.”

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