Monday, September 15, 2008
The catalyst? Watching Jahvid Best puke on the field after that nasty hit he took in the second quarter. And to clarify, after watching the replay, that was definitely not green Gatorade coming out of the Jet’s mouth. That was knocked-the-F-out juice.
Strangely enough though, that play single-handedly exemplified what was likely going through most Cal fans’ minds: a gut check of reality.
Many of Cal’s deficiencies were exposed in the loss and a few more popped their ugly heads out as well. For a team that had touted a rout over a conference opponent on the road (albeit a bad one), and a solid win over a BCS conference team, it was knock in the gut to see Cal sputter, and sputter badly, in a team widely regarded to be inferior to them.
So as Cal fans begin to pick themselves up off the proverbial field, with pools of green vomit still fresh in our mouths, we take a look at reasons why the Bears lost a game they should not have, and more importantly, what it means for them for the rest of the season.
“It’s so damn hot!”
It was evident that the Bears were not ready for their game against Maryland. The extent to which the early start time affected the Bears can be debated (although the Bears were obviously clicking more on both sides of the ball in the second half than in the first), the heat and humidity were also large factors as to why the team was so sluggish in the game as a whole. It was simply something they had not experienced before.
Also, it’s important to recognize that Maryland wasn’t quite as bad as many thought they would be. The talent was always there, it was just a question of whether they could put it all together and execute. The Terrapins came in to the game with a chip on their shoulder, and had a lot to prove to the fans, a nationwide audience, and to themselves. In many ways, Maryland was much more ready both mentally and physically than the Bears were on Saturday, and it showed.
Cal Lost the Battle in the Trenches
Maryland was more physical than Cal on Saturday. Plain and simple. Cal was beaten in the trenches on both sides of the ball.
The Cal offensive line also gave up 5 sacks in the game, the most in nearly 3 years. While a number of those were on Riley holding on to the ball a bit too long, there were still several instances in which Cal either was simply beat on the line.
Even more scary than the sacks though, was the O-line’s inability to open up any holes for our backs. Shane Vereen and Jahvid Best combined for only 48 yards on the ground after coming into the game averaging over 200. Best’s 25 yards on 10 carries is particularly worrisome. It was arguably the worst rushing performance by a Cal squad in years. While Best and Vereen are never going to be move-the-pile backs, the O-line will have to improve if they expect to see a consistent level of success against more aggressive run defenses in order to get their explosive backs out into the second level where they are most dangerous.
The defensive unit struggled as well. After two solid weeks of run defense, the Bears allowed 168 yards on the ground to Maryland. Not only were the Bears late in getting to the ball, the Cal defense was also pushed back on a number of occasions, allowing backs to get extra yards after initial contact. Terps running back Da’Rel Scott ran for 89 yards on 19 carries before a shoulder injury sidelined him for the rest of the game. His backup Davin Meggett however, rushed 13 times for 82 yards. Dah.
While Cal's run defense wasn’t atrocious, it certainly was impressive. What was atrocious however was…
Cal’s 3rd Down Defense
Again, Cal’s zone coverage on 3rd down was absolutely wretched. If there was any aspect of yesterday’s game that reminded me of last year’s version of the Cal squad during the 1-6 slide, it was Cal’s 3rd down defense. I may not be astute enough to understand defense to the extent that Bob Gregory does, but I know enough that when your defense is unable to get off the field because they are constantly allowing the opposing team to convert on 3rd and 16, then something isn’t quite right.
I’m not sure if it’s an issue of execution or game planning. My guess is that it’s a little bit of both. I haven’t been a fan of the soft zone coverage on 3rd downs for a while, and there was definitely a little hitch in the defense’s getup as they were very late on closing in on the ball and left too many receivers (particular at TE) open on critical conversions. I don’t believe they forced a three-an-out until midway through the second quarter.
Kevin Riley and Red Zone Blues
Much has been debated on QB Kevin Riley’s performance in the game. While the stat sheet is going to show impressive fairly numbers (33-58, 423 yds, 3 TDs, 1 INT), it’s fair to remember that more than half of those numbers came in the 4th quarter alone in Maryland’s prevent zone coverage.
The most glaring issues were Riley and the offense’s struggles in the first half, specifically in the red zone. The Bears had three opportunities to even things up early in the game, as Riley looked sharp marching the team down the field each time to put themselves in good scoring position. Both times though, the Riley and the Bears sputtered in the red zone, having to settle for three field goal attempts, with David Seawright’s last attempt clanking off the left upright.
Riley showed a lot of moxie to avoid the pass rush, scrambling to make plays happen. He did get lucky on a number of passes however, as a few of those throws ill-advised and nearly picked off. Riley will have to learn to rein it in a bit to avoid any crucial turnovers later in the season. Also, while Riley showed a lot of savvy in being able to buy time to make a few critical passes, a number of the sacks were on Riley, as he held on to the ball a bit too long. He will have to better develop that internal clock that lets him know that if nothing is there, it’s better to get rid of the ball than to push his team back another 6 or 7 yards.
As inconsistent as Riley was in certain spots of the game, you could still see what makes Riley so special. It’s almost as if he works best in those high-pressure, rally-the-team back type of situations. He appears to be a bit off the mark on some of his throws when he has the time to do a simple 5 step drop rhythm pattern with his receivers, but will show his incredible ability to often pull something out of nothing on critical downs.
Riley is going through his growing pains, as is the rest of the team, and despite uneven parts of his performance, overall, you had to like what you saw in his ability to lead the team back into striking distance late in the game.
And the wide receivers?
This was one of the few bright spots of the game. While the receivers may have struggled to get open early on in man coverage, it was good to see the receivers really make the most of their opportunity of the 58 passes thrown their way, especially in the second half. All of our wide receivers (with the exception of Jeremy Ross who had a carry for 13 yards) caught at least one pass, with a few of the receivers catching the first of their careers (Marvin Jones, Verran Tucker, and TE Tad Smith).
LaReylle Cunningham had a monster day catching everything thrown his way, and Michael Calvin showed a glimpse of why he just might end up being the best receiver for the Bears this year. While you would have liked to have seen the receivers be more productive earlier in the game, it was good to see them get experience pulling down critical passes in late game, 2 minute rally situations.
Where dost we go from here?
The biggest question at this point is how the team responds to the loss. It’s been pretty easy for us to forget just how young the team is. With the proper leadership and motivation, the loss could prove to be a blessing in disguise for the Bears. While the bye week will undoubtedly leave a sour taste in their mouths, the Bears will hopefully go into the rest of their games better prepared and more cognizant of the issues they need to shore up to be successful in the Pac-10, where it counts.
It’s also important for Cal fans to carefully assess their expectations for the remainder of the season. Very few Cal fans, if any, were expecting a National Championship this year. Even an at-large BCS bid seemed to be a stretch for a team that had so many questions coming into the season. I still maintain that an 8-4 season would be successful one for the Bears, and a 9-3 one would make me ecstatic. These goals are very much possible, as well as a solid finish in the conference, as long as the Bears rebound from this loss, something they could not do last year.
In terms of takeaways, no one should be hitting the panic mode just yet. Worry a little bit, sure, but don’t lose any sleep over it (as I have the last few nights). In the end, it was a bad game on the road in tough conditions to a team better than most had expected. Learn from it, get hungry, and move on. There’s a lot of football left to be played.
Posted by Bear with Fangs at 11:36 AM