“Unbelievable. Absolutely unbelievable.”
These words nearly became a chant as I watched the entire Arizona State game on Saturday, and they reached nearly religious levels in the last five minutes of the game.
Cal escaped from Tempe in a heart-stopping 23-21 win. The more jaded fans and more cynical media pundits are going to look at the game and gripe about all the things the Bears did wrong to put themselves in a jam after jumping out to an early 14-0. And these are certainly some valid points as there were plenty of mistakes to go around in an overall sloppy game.
But man, how can you not let out a victory yell after that game? The Bears, while giving up their lead, had their most impressive and critical drive of the season, marching down the field to kick the game-winning field goal. We’ll talk about that particular goal line play and clock management in a second.
I’m perhaps most euphoric about the win, because we Cal fans have suffered the bitter opposite result in these types of games far too often. We’ve blown too many half time leads to have our hearts ripped out in the final quarter. We’ve seen the team unable to pull out close road wins, and instead have them pack it up or have such attempts at game winning drives end in turnovers or incompletions. We simply haven’t had the type of intestinal fortitude to consistently pull out these types of wins.
Until Saturday. Save Washington 06, and Oregon 07, the Bears have been without moments in which they came out on top on such tough, close games. As a fan, I’m loving it. Ecstatic really. I’ve lost at least two years off my life tonight, but for once, it’s because we pulled it out.
That Second Down Play
Okay, let’s get the details out of the way. With the Bears down 21-20 at ASU’s 5 yard line with 34 seconds left in the game, Cal ran a direct snap to RB Shane Vereen in the wildcat formation. Vereen began running towards the middle, before pulling back to lob a pass over the middle to tight end Anthony Miller. The pass was then broken up and bobbled before eventually falling incomplete in the back of the end zone.
I think ABC commentator David Norrie stated it perfectly when he said, “I have now seen it all.”
First, the call itself is fine. The Bears had been setting up it all game, with Best faking a pass a few times from the wildcat formation throughout the game. It was WHEN they decided to use it that absolutely killed me. A few reasons why the call was ridiculous:
I could probably rattle off a few others, but you get the idea. The Bears are incredibly lucky to have still had a shot after the play call.
With that said, I kind of hope the Bears use that play again in the future. Hopefully, it won’t ever be under those circumstances though.
Offense Up and Down Performance
Cal’s offense looked very, very good in the first quarter. I was particularly impressed with their second drive in which they methodically marched down the field for 67 yards, capping it off with a perfect strike to Marvin Jones in the end zone. Not only was the offense polished, but I was really impressed with the diversity in play calling. The drive included a designed QB draw, a reverse to Ross, a screen to Vereen, motioning the strong side tight end for a HB toss to the weakside, etc. Really good stuff.
The rest of the quarters? Not so much until that fantastic final drive. Penalties, dropped passes, and struggling pass protection prevented the Bears from putting the Sun Devils away.
Onto a few specifics.
Riley Grows Up
You can’t really discuss the offense’s performance without talking about QB Kevin Riley. Riley put on one of the gutsiest QB performance I’ve seen in a while. Riley started off sharp with an 8-10, 117 yard, 2 TD performance in the first quarter. It appeared he might really start to slip though after his series of turnovers in the first half.
But Riley responded and stood strong in the pocket despite constant pressure and delivered the ball right on the money on most of his throws. Riley would finish 27-44 for 351 yards, 2 TDs, and 0 INTs. He showed incredible pocket presence (outside of the turnovers) to keep a number of plays alive. Those shovel passes to Best also demonstrated such great moxie and poise.
And what can be said about that final drive? I had read all week about how the Bears had been practicing their two minute drills, and on Saturday, you could see exactly why. With 3:16 left in the game, and down 21-20, the Cal offense took on an entirely new look. The entire team just gave off an attitude of urgency and confidence. After a Jahvid Best run of 4 yards, Riley would go 5-6 for 86 yards, completing passes to Miller, Tucker, Jones, Lagemann, and back to Tucker to set up Cal’s game winning FG.
As much as Riley has had his struggles in his time as the Cal starter, I don’t think the effects of such a performance can be overstated. These are the types of performances that really grow a player (a QB specifically) and a team. Riley’s going to continue to develop and come into his own as a QB, but he showed today why he’s the leader for this team this season.
A quick note though: as sharp as Riley was passing the ball, he really dug his team into a hole with his inability to secure the football early on. Riley fumbled three times, losing two of them, with the one deep in Cal territory setting up an easy ASU score. That particular fumble was frustrating because you knew he felt the pocket collapsing, but he felt the need to try and keep the play alive with his receivers covered. You just can’t do that. Your clock has to run and you have to get rid of the ball.
As inconsistent as the wide receivers can be, like Riley, I thought they all grew up a little bit today on that last drive. Nearly every wide receiver got in on the action and contributed to the win today.
Marvin Jones continues to be the Bears’ best receiver, hauling in a TD pass for the third straight game. Verran Tucker responded from a huge drop and a number of quiet games to come up with a few critical grabs on that last drive. Despite the inexplicable drop on third down, Jeremy Ross has really stepped up as a deep threat and versatile playmaker for the Bears. Alex Lagemann will have to fight for playing time, but might be the Bears’ best possession receiver as his hands might be comparable to Jones. Nyan Boateng may not haul in too many passes, but you could really see the benefits of his downfield blocking throughout the past several games.
Oh, and I think tight end Anthony Miller’s performance this season is worth mentioning. The guy is just a sophomore and is farther along in his blocking and in his receiving game than I thought he would be in his first season as a starter. He still needs to be a bit more physical at the line of scrimmage, but he might already be a more consistent blocker than Cameron Morrah was last year.
Again, Riley and the receivers will continue to grow together, this season and next. But for all their struggles, they stepped up when it counted the most. And in a sloppy game like Saturday’s, you can’t ask for that much more.
Running Game Quieted
I didn’t expect Cal to have a huge game on the ground. Not with ASU’s front seven. I did NOT expect ASU to rush more yards than the Bears however. The Bears were held to just 57 rushing yards, with Jahvid Best managing just 67 yards on 18 attempts.
While I most certainly would have loved to have seen Cal have greater success on the ground, you’ve got to be happy when your passing game is capable of stepping up and going for 351 yards if the running lanes aren’t there.
Defense Played Pretty Well
The defense looked pretty solid, but much of it had to do with ASU’s offensive mediocrity. The Sun Devils managed just 17 yards in the first quarter, and were without a single first down. The Bears would hold the Sun Devils to 329 yards. Not a fantastic number, but they did manage to end Cal’s streak of 4 straight games of allowing opposing offenses to go for 400+ yards. We will take small victories. Yay!
In sum, ASU’s offense made Cal’s defense look a lot better than they had in recent weeks, but this is the first time in a while we haven’t made offensive doormats look like juggernauts. Again, small victories!
Secondary Steps Up
Before we launch into this, let’s talk about Kyle William’s 80 yard TD reception over Marcus Ezeff. Playing zone coverage, Ezeff obviously saw his DB pass off Williams to the safety up top, but Ezeff still gave him far too much space in the middle of the field. Moreover, he took a bad angle on the pursuit allowing Williams a clear lane into the endzone. Ok bad play. Moving on.
Take out that pass, and Danny Sullivan was 16-29 for 167 yards, 1 TD, and 2 interceptions. I know you can’t ignore certain plays, but I do it here to highlight that I thought Cal’s secondary did a decent job by and large of defending the pass. While a few ASU receivers still had a bit too much space to get open, there were a lot more plays on the ball this week, as opposed to previous outings of “let’s keep my receiver in front and make the play after he’s caught the ball.”
It was also good to see Syd’Quan Thompson notch his first interception of the season off of Sullivan’s overthrow, and follow it up with an even better return. It reminded me a little bit of his punt return against Colorado State last season and he busted out of some arm tackles. Thompson hasn’t had as much of a chance to shine this year as opposing quarterbacks have really shied away from his side of the field, but Thompson will continue to be a playmaker if opposing QBs try to continue to test him.
I was also really happy with how safety Sean Cattouse did after stepping into the starting role over the aforementioned Ezeff. Cattouse had a few nice pass breakups, including a really nice hit to jar the ball loose for an incompletion. Cattouse is still maturing physically, but he can already bring the lumber a bit like former Cal safety Thomas DeCoud, and is already a better pass defender than DeCoud ever was at the college level.
And while I’m not completely sold on DB Josh Hill just yet (I mean give him a break, this is his first season of meaningful playing time), I thought he did an admirable job today and stepped up after being picked on previous weeks by opposing QBs. His play on the ball to set up Eddie Young’s incompletion will go a long way to building his confidence, as will his five tackles and forced fumble on the day.
Front Seven Day
Sullivan saw most of his success when Cal dropped back and didn’t bring the pressure. His 16 yard completion to Chris McGaha was successful when Cal only rushed 3, and Syd’Quan Thompson was caught too deep in the middle part of the field. It was a bit maddening to see this, as it was apparent last week against Stanford that Sullivan is about as an erratic of a passer as you can get when you bring the heat, but Cal appeared to be content with challenging Sullivan with their zone schemes. It worked okay, but I do think the game wouldn’t have been nearly as close with a more aggressive pass rush.
The defensive line was also really challenged heavily by ASU’s RB Cameron Marshall. The Bears have typically done well against bigger pounding backs, but I think they were hurt by Derrick Hill’s absence as Marshall managed 71 yards on just 16 carries. It appears to be more of an anomaly so I’ll let it go, but it was a bit surprising to see.
Oh and throw it up for LB Mike Mohammed who had a great day, again recording double digit tackles. The conference’s leading tackler had 12 total tackles on the day. I’m not sure Mohammed will ever move into the status of an elite linebacker, but he does all things pretty well and is a solid leader for this young linebacking corps.
The story of the game with this unit is going to be kicker Giorgio Tavecchio. Tavecchio was 2-4 on the day, missing easy kicks of a 34 and 39, and nailing a 25, 51, and the game winning 24 yarder.
Both his misses were tough because they both missed out on opportunities to move the Bears into comfortable leads. Instead, after both misses, ASU would go back to march down the field to even or turn the momentum.
Yet, for all his struggles, Tavecchio got it down on his final try when the game was on the line. I don’t care how far out you are. That kind of pressure can be overwhelming, especially after you just missed your last kick. But Tavecchio was poised and took care of business.
Oh, and that 51 yard field goal in the third quarter to put the Bears up 20-14 was just about the most impressive field goal I’ve seen since Tom Schneider was kicking for the Bears. Tavecchio has got the skills, but that consistency will continue to be the question. At least he can say he’s been through the fire at least once, and these types of experiences will only help him further develop as a kicker.
-Bryan Anger had an incredible day punting the ball, averaging 53 yards per punt including one that that bounced out at ASU’s ½ yard line. That’s the Anger we know and love.
-Tavecchio also had a solid day kicking the ball off, and appears to be increasingly consistent in getting the ball inside the 10. He averaged 60.4 yards per kickoff, which is dragged down a bit with Tavecchio’s 55 yard kickoff after the roughing-the-kicker penalty. You take that out and Tavecchio actually averaged 62.5 yards on four kickoffs. That means the Sun Devils were getting the ball at around the 7 or 8 yard line on average! Victory!
-Kickoff coverage though? Meh.
Say what you want. Ugly win. Painful to watch. Bah.
I’ll take it. Lord knows I’ll take it. The Bears have now won three straight, and are sitting at 3-2 in the conference and 6-2 overall. The Bears are also bowl eligible for the seventh straight year.
And get this: after going 1-4 last year on the road, the Bears are 3-1 traveling this year, with wins at Minnesota, the Rose Bowl, and now Tempe.
While I do think ASU will be the easiest opponent the Bears will have the rest of the way (depends on how Washington shapes out), you’ve got to learn to be happy with the good. Does Cal have issues? Absolutely. In fact, I think today affirmed that the Bears are capable of being pretty good, but aren’t really going to be close to being an elite team this year. But a lot of things have gone wrong for this team this season, and it’s fun to savor it when it goes right.
Even if it means nearly passing out before your team hits the game winning field goal with 20 seconds left to play.
Saturday, October 31, 2009
(AP Photo/Paul Connors)
Posted by Bear with Fangs at 9:29 PM