(Snatching victory from the jaws of de-ah hell nevermind.)
"It took a career day by a backup running back, a fluke tackle by a kicker and an odd penalty that thwarted a potential go-ahead drive for California to pull out a victory without star tailback Jahvid Best."
Eh? I'll be the first to admit that the game certainly had its fair share of fluky moments, but anyone who actually watched the game knew that these were hardly limited to the Bears. Terrific field position off of a nice JRoss punt return and two turnovers in Arizona territory squandered by interceptions or being limited to field goals, penalties, etc... Watching the game, I was in disbelief at the number of blown opportunities by the Bears, knowing full well that these would surely have been the reasons the Bears would have lost a game that was very well within their grasp.
Yet the Bears didn't blow the game. They hung in tight and fought a hard game against a solid Pac-10 team. It was their first win after trailing at the half this season, and an inspired and desperately needed win for their conference standings, fan base, and confidence. Quite simply: it was the Bears' best win of the season.
Meet your Cal workhorse: Shane Vereen
Cal fans got a preview of what is likely to be the 2010 offense. With Best sidelined by his concussion, Cal took the field with runningback Shane Vereen transitioning from reliable backup into the spotlight in the backfield. Vereen’s performance was nothing short of dependable as he brought his low-to-the-ground shifty style in a grinding and productive night for the Bears.
Vereen followed his offensive line to wear down the Wildcats front seven, carrying the ball 30 times for 159 yards and a touchdown. It was particularly impressive to see how many of his yards were made after initial contact. Vereen was stopped at or behind the line of scrimmage on a number of occasions before fighting forward for another two or three yards.
Easily the best individual offensive performance of the night.
Speaking of the offensive line, it's no secret that the Bears o-line has struggled this year. They've looked decent against mediocre defensive fronts, and poor against some of the more talented.
Yet, facing off against one of the conference's top rush defenses, the Bears managed 176 rushing yards. I am still concerned by the lack of push that the offensive line gets off the snap on running plays, but you could visibly see the line really wear down Arizona's front seven, especially late in the game. If there was any aspect of the Bears offense that won the game, it was their ability to be physical down the stretch. The Bears marched down the field for 72 yards, while eating up nearly 8 minutes in the fourth quarter before kicking a field goal to give themselves the lead. They also opened up a huge hole for Vereen to essentially seal the game on his explosive 61 yard TD score.
Their performance doesn't take anything away from the fact that they've struggled to be as physical or as aggressive in the trenches against opponents throughout most of this season. This was especially evident in that they still can be beaten and even manhandled by quicker and stronger linemen. But like their ability to step up and protect Riley in the waning moments of ASU, I was impressed with their ability to grind down Arizona late in the game. It was a refreshing change of pace.
Defense Steps Up Big
The Bears defense played its most complete game of the season. In all honesty, it was a surprising and inspiring effort given defense’s disappointing season thus far. The Bears held the Arizona, the conference’s top offense, which had previously averaged 449 yards per game to just 273 total yards.
Despite Arizona’s strong running game which had been previously averaging 201 yards a game, I anticipated the Bears’ stout defense would do a fair enough of a job. And they did just that holding Zona to just 79 net yards on the ground. It was another impressive performance against the run, after holding Jacquizz Rodgers to just 67 yards on 25 carries the week prior. As much as Cal’s pass defense has struggled this year, Cal’s run defense has been as good as last season’s save for a few lapses against USC and Oregon.
I was more impressed and surprised really, with Cal’s job against Nick Foles and the Arizona passing attack. The Wildcats had been tearing up opposing defenses for 247 yards per game to just 201 total yards. Again, shocking considering the Bears had previously been shredded by up by a number of passing attacks this season.
What was the difference? It was a healthy balance of more aggressive blitzing packages and much better man coverage from the secondary. The Bears were hurt by a number of pass interference penalties, but those are the types of penalties I can live with as it’s usually an indication tighter coverage. There were far more actual plays on the ball rather than simply trying to keep receivers in front of defenders.
And more than just the blitzing packages, Cal’s defensive line really stepped up its game, and dominated the line of scrimmage, especially down in the late stretch of the game. The Bears put some nice pressure on Foles late in the game, batting down a couple of key passes, and forcing three sacks. That last stat is particularly impressive given that Arizona had allowed just 4 sacks on the season. Cameron Jordan recorded two sacks moving him into a tie for third in the conference. Tyson Alualu continued to show why he might be the most important player on the defense, and possibly the most consistent defensive line player of the Jeff Tedford era.
What can you really say about Riley's performance? Not really the best game by any stretch of the imagination. Riley was 13-22 for 181 yards, 1 TD and two picks.
Riley has been pretty smart with the football this year, although you could argue he's gotten away on numerous occasions with defenders dropping some sure-fire picks. He wasn't so lucky this time however. Riley's first pick came after severely underthrowing an open Nyan Boateng in the endzone. His second one was a bit more difficult to digest, after he failed to see the safety when trying to throw the ball away in the endzone.
Eh. What are you going to do? Bad plays, and we can only be grateful that those two plays didn't cost the Bears when they easily could have been the difference. In a way, it was a bit of a relief that for once this season the defense played so strong a game that Riley didn't need to have a strong game or even try to carry the team on his shoulders.
Tavecchio and Special Teams
Pac-10 Players of the week are out, and a Cal player not named Bryan Anger has finally won it. Tavecchio was named the Conference Special Teams player of the week after he put on the best performance from a Cal kicker in a couple of seasons, nailing 4 of 5 field goals, including two 46 yarders. And believe me, in a game as whacky and close as this one was, that's really the difference right there.
Like most of his predecessors, Tavecchio will go through his fair share of growing pains before developing any real consistency, and we might just be seeing it start to happen. While he's been up and down this year, kickoffs have improved much more so than earlier in the year, although kickoff coverage has somehow found a way to regress. Tavecchio has also made a number of key tackles on blown kickoff coverage to save some drives. Forza Italia! Or Italy! Or Milan!
In one night, the Bears came close to matching a lot of the preseason hype, at least on the defensive side of the ball. The game did little to squelch a lot of the nagging criticisms or fears about this team, but again, I can't reiterate the importance of this win, and what it means after the Oregon State loss and the devastating injury to Best.
Of course, a lot of these fuzzy feelings might go swirling down the drain with a tough (or even worse, blowout) loss to the Cardinal this Saturday. But like I've written for most of this season, if you can't allow yourself to enjoy games like the one on Saturday, what are you really watching college football for? There are far too many heartbreaks in a season to not allow yourself to fully enjoy the last senior homegame, and an upset win over a ranked team.
Cal continues to show they can rough it out. Give them a chance, and if they keep it close, they just might pull one out on you.