“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.
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Saturday, October 31, 2009
Thursday, October 29, 2009
Even with more than half the season finished, most Cal fans don’t really seem to know what to make of the Bears. The overlying theme appears to be that we don’t do very well against elite opponents, but do a decent job of kicking inferior opponents’ asses. Kind of like an amateur MMA fighter duking it out with high school skateboarders. Can dish out some major ownage but might get knocked around stepping into the big leagues.
But Saturday’s contest might go a long way into revealing more information as the Bears take on a team I fully expect to be a middle of the road conference team this year in the 6th or 7th standing range. The Sun Devils are solid on defense, and just mediocre on offense, which should be interesting for a Bears squad that can be explosive on offense, and suspect on defense.
Plus, take into account a road conference game, and a Bears squad that will have to organize their mental toughness after beating up on two Pac-10 teams expected to finish 9th and 10th in the conference this year (as of now), and you really don’t know what you’re going to get. Let’s take a look to try and figure it out.
Clarifying ASU’s Defense…Just a Little
Before I provide any counter arguments, let me lay this on the table: ASU has got a solid and stout defense. In the few times I’ve had a chance to watch some of their games, I’ve been impressed with the pressure they’ve been able to put on opposing QBs and how quickly they get to the ball and close on rushers. They are not to be taken lightly and are one of the best defenses the Bears will have faced thus far.
With that said, their defensive stats are slightly misleading when it comes to their “dominant rush defense.”
Arizona State is currently ranked 6th in the country in rushing the defense, giving up just 83.43 yards per game. Prior to giving up 237 rushing yards to Stanford last week, the Sun Devils had previously been ranked 2nd in nation in this category.
While that sounds downright scary, you do have to step back with a “Well…” when you look at their opponents. Sure, a schedule including Georgia and Oregon State might sound impressive at first glance, but a closer look at those rushing offenses, and you start to wonder a bit.
Their first opponent, Idaho State is a FCS school that averages a pathetic 32.4 yards per game on the ground.
Louisiana-Monroe is surprisingly one of the better rushing attacks the Sun Devils faced, as the Warhawks ranked 31st in the country, averaging 182 yards per game, but mostly against Sun Belt conference defenses. ULM still managed 136 rushing yards against ASU, averaging 4.1 rushing yards per attempt.
Georgia is ranked 103rd nationally running the ball and Oregon State, despite having Jacquizz Rodgers, is ranked just 73rd in the country in rushing offense. WSU is currently 116th, Washington 96th, and again, we all saw what happened when they faced off against the 15th best rushing offense in the country with Stanford.
Long story short, their dominance is a bit overstated and inflate as a result of facing some poor rushing offenses.
But again, this is more an attempt at consolation than anything else. ASU is still ranked 3rd in the country in interceptions, 31st in total sacks, 11th in total defense, and 25th in scoring defense. Let me reiterate, this is a pretty good defensive squad.
So what do you do against such a defense?
Patience Bears, Patience
Well, a lot of things, but patience is key. The Bears are going to have to do what they haven’t been able to do much of consistently this season, which is to grind it out against a defense. They can not expect to exploit this defense on obvious mismatches often, and bust out for big plays. ASU’s outside linebackers and defensive ends have too much speed to try and consistently bounce it off to the outside. Their middle linebackers and linemen are physical and quick enough that one seam might not be enough for Best or Vereen to turn their usual 5 yard gain into a possible 60 yard score.
It doesn’t happen too often against these guys. The fact is, they’re likely to get pressure, pick up a few sacks, and rack up a number of tackles in the backfield.
But the key is for the Bears to be patient against that. A lot of this, fair or not, will fall on Riley. It might be one of his most mentally draining games as a QB this season, because he’ll have to settle for the fact that it might not be the prettiest of performances in a game of offensive attrition. It could very easily come down to a battle between him and Danny Sullivan to see which QB hangs in there long enough to put the game away in the closing moments. Riley can’t afford to let incompletions or even a turnover rattle him, and keep his poise through all four quarters.
I would hope and expect patience to reverberate through every aspect of the Bears offense on Saturday. Look for mismatches when you can get them, but stick to the game plan of wearing out the defense and testing their patience. For example, the Sun Devils are likely to stack the box early and often, so the Bears can’t try and throw all three downs consistently. If they can suck in the run long enough, it will ultimately yield results later in the game. Stick to the gameplan, and stay patient.
Pressure Danny Sullivan
The most obvious defensive concern is how the Bears will fare against the Sun Devils passing attack. I say that because while ASU seems to have developed somewhat of a running game this year, averaging a modest 141.57 ypg on the ground, Cal’s stout rush defense (yielding 112.7 ypg) will force the Sun Devils to count on their passing game for any offensive success.
Now, ASU QB Danny Sullivan has been subject to some heat from the ASU fanbase for his inconsistent play, and much of ASU’s offensive woes fall on their passing game. But concurrently, the Bears have proven that when their secondary isn’t executing, it doesn’t matter who’s chucking the ball on the other side of the line. (See: four consecutive weeks of giving up +300 yards passing).
But from what I observed in ASU’s game against Stanford, Sullivan is most prone into turnovers and errant passes when he feels pressured in the pocket. He simply doesn’t have enough game experience yet to both perfect his internal QB clock as to when he to let the ball go, or to keep his throwing mechanics consistent when pressured.
On many occasions, I saw him release the ball a bit early when he felt pressure coming, or sail the pass long or high when he feels the rush.
Also, Sullivan still has difficulty recognizing blitzes at the line of scrimmage, as he didn’t demonstrate an ability to detect pressure from a particular side when it was fairly obvious there was an oncoming blitz, and would again be forced into an incompletion.
The answer is hopefully a more aggressive defensive scheme, (similar to what we saw against WSU), with better execution. It may not necessarily be bringing more guys, but again, bringing variation in the types of blitzes. Twists, delayed blitzes, corner blitzes, and the 3-4 package in general, might really help in pressuring a QB who is still coming to find his own level of comfort.
And on the execution end, what can you really say other than that you hope it will be there. Because again, we’ve given many struggling QBs career days this year.
So as not to appear like I am contradicting myself, I am not expecting that Cal goes for the big offensive home run plays right away. But in both of Cal’s losses this year, Cal found themselves down in a big hole early on. Down 25-3 against Oregon and 20-0 against USC at each respective half.
The Bears haven’t shown the capacity this year to rally back from such a lead, and the game might again be over at halftime if the score is remotely close to the ones above. Added attention and focus early in the game on the defensive side of the ball, as well as with Special Teams might give the Bears the additional spark they need to keep the game level going into half time.
Besides, big plays from either of those units (a turnover, a big punt return) always go a long way into taking out the crowd.
Prediction of things to come
This is a big game for the Bears. It will either determine whether the Bears can truly set themselves up for a solid run in the conference and re-enter the national rankings picture, or relegate themselves to a mid-tier bowl.
Hell, if the Bears drop this, with upcoming games against Oregon State, Arizona, Stanford, and Washington, the Bears would be hard pressed to even become bowl eligible.
I expect a close game, but perhaps a few more points than most people expected. Hopefully, Cal shows the toughness they demonstrated against UCLA and Minnesota to close it out.
Cal 31 ASU 20
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Wednesday, October 28, 2009
Your favorite Jet sat down with ESPN this week to answer some questions online.
You can check out the transcript here.
Nothing to stop the presses, but it was still fun to hear from Jahvid and the media exposure is always good. Unfortunately, the most interesting responses regarded his favorite places to eat in Berkeley (kudos on the La Burrita shoutout Jahvid) and this bit:
Jinsoo (Seoul, Korea)
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Sunday, October 25, 2009
(Riley has a 11-2 TD to INT ratio this season. Ben Margot.AP)
It’s been some time, three years in fact, since I’ve missed out on a chance to watch an entire Cal game on t.v. or in person. Yet, there I was on Saturday evening listening to Joe Starkey call the game on KGO Radio, while following ESPN’s game tracker on my girlfriend’s iTouch, and trying desperately to picture the romping that was unfolding at Memorial Stadium.
And as much as I enjoyed each touchdown after the other (I AM might fond of Cal touchdowns afterall), the condition of playing a 1-5 team really forces you to be critical of each team error more so than if Cal had played a team that might provide a stiffer challenge. I became disgusted with every call of a Washington State third down conversion, and simply bit my tongue after listening to WSU’s Johnny Forzani haul in a 68 yard touchdown reception over backup CB Bryant Nnabuife. Blech.
The fact is that the reality of circumstances of such games try mightily to prevent you from enjoying blowout wins. If you win by 32, you wonder why you didn’t win by 39. If your team scores 28 points in the first quarter, you wonder why they were unable to score 7 in each subsequent quarter. If your star runningback runs for 159 yards on just 12 carries, you wonder why he was unable to match last year’s 200 yard total. It’s unfortunate and silly.
Despite that, there’s much to be giddy about, and some to be genuinely concerned about, with less than half the season to go. Let’s take a look at some of the things the Washington State game told us.
I’m really loving the diversity of playcalling that I’ve been seeing (and listening to) for the season as a whole. Yes, I wasn’t particularly thrilled with the Oregon gameplan, but other than that, I really consider the playcalling to be some of the best I’ve seen in the last few seasons.
Cal’s occasional use of the wildcat, fly sweeps, and various ways of getting their speedsters like Vereen and Best in one-on-one matchups have been fun to watch. They’ve really adapted their offense to suit with the talents and skills of this particular group. Even their zone running schemes have attempted to mask this particular offensive line’s apparent inability to move quickly laterally, and has instead shown more inside zone run blocking.
In essence, that’s what you want out of your coordinators and coaching staff. Mold your plans around what your team does best, and try your darndest to cover up the things they don’t do so well. When Cal’s clicking, you see their results, as they currently lead the conference in scoring at 35.1 points per game.
It’s about as official as it can be: Cal’s pass defense is struggling right now. Cal’s secondary was again lit up for major yardage on Saturday, this time from true freshman Jeff Tuel. Tuel had a career day, going 28-42 for 354 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions. As some comparison, check out Tuel’s numbers in previous outings:
Against ASU: 11-22, 175 yards, and 2 TDs, 2 INTs
Against USC: 14-22, 130 yards, 1 INT
Yes. Cal allowed Tuel to rack up more than double the yardage of his ASU performance. Perhaps Tuel suddenly clicked as a quarterback. Perhaps. However, it’s far more likely that he faced off against a secondary that has some major issues, as this isn’t the first time this season.
Last week, UCLA frosh QB Kevin Prince also had a career day, completing 21 of 41 for 311 yards. His previous performances had included a 13-25 for 81 yard (1 INT) game against Arizona, and a 11-23, 101 yard (1 TD) game against Tennessee.
Two weeks prior to that game, USC true frosh Matt Barkley went 20-35 for 283 yards, also his highest yardage total of the season.
In the week before that, Oregon’s Jeremiah Masoli who had just completed 45.3% of his passes for just 379 yards went ballistic on the Bears, going 21-15 for 253 yards and 3 TDs.
The list goes on: Minnesota’s Adam Weber going 21-32 for 226 yards, EWU Matt Nichol’s efficient 23-31 for 195 yards and 1 TD game, etc.
As it stands now, the Bears are ranked 9th in the conference, just ahead of WSU, in passing yards allowed per game, with 271. That’s a whole heck of a lot of yards.
Now, to be fair, opposing teams throw on the Bears…a lot. Cal has the second highest number of passes thrown at them a game, so it’s expected that teams might rack up the yards in the air. But I think it might be more indicative of opposing teams' knowledge of our vulnerablity in our secondary right now.
We’ll talk about the pass rush in a second, but it became apparent that the yardage allowed on Saturday was more on the secondary than anything else. From what I’ve been seeing over the past few weeks and from what I gathered from the broadcast, defenders missed tackles, and weren’t closing on the ball quickly enough. There are also several plays in which there was miscommunication in zone coverage, allowing receivers to get open up top. And in some instances, like the TD over Nnabuife, some players just got straight up beat in their attempt to go up and make a play on the ball.
No one will dispute Cal's secondary struggled on Saturday. Both Bob Gregory and Coach Tedford admitted as much. But you can’t dispute the numbers anymore. Allow 354 passing yards to the worst offense in the conference is bad. Allowing 300+ yards in back to back games to the conference's two worst passing offenses is ever worse. And allowing 250+ yards through the air in the last four games is enough to make you sweat. And while I do think much of it was effort and focus, the results over the season thus far suggest that Cal’s secondary is the obvious weak spot of the entire defense, and perhaps the entire team. (Thank you Captain Obvious!)
Now with Cal’s offense ability to score a great deal, and the fact that we’ve played one-dimensional offenses the past few weeks, Cal’s secondary hasn’t been enough to cost the Bears any games. But unless the issues in the secondary and defensive schemes are addressed in the next few weeks, Cal is going to be unable to keep up with some of the better offenses they will see in Arizona, Oregon State, Stanford, and Washington (if Locker gets going).
Anyone else see Sean Canfield against the Trojans on Saturday night? Scary.
Pass Rush TBD
I had suggested last week that Cal’s issue in its pass defense started first and foremost in the pass rush. And in a way, we saw this validated a bit on Saturday. Cal managed just one sack in the first half, meanwhile allowing Tuel to go 15-22 for 232 yards and 2 TDs. Coincidentally, after the Bears switched to having 4 down linemen for much of the second half, the Bears racked up four additional sacks, meanwhile limited Tuel to just 122 yards on 13-20 passing.
I don’t think the players suddenly decided to try harder. Perhaps it was a renewed focus after the defensive letdown in the second quarter, but I do think that this defense may have to dial up more aggressive packages if they’re going to hold more legitimate offense to less than 20 points in upcoming games.
Kudos to the Bears’ D-Line, which has thus far been the rock of this defense this season. They’re going to continue to get additional support from their linebackers, when it comes to the pass rush though.
Special Teams Spotlight
Like every Cal Special Teams outing, there’s always good and bad. Fortunately, there was much more good than bad this time, but let’s hit them up.
The Bad: Cal’s return coverage units still appear to be undisciplined in protecting the runback lanes, as again they allowed a big return this week, this time on Washington State’s first kickoff. Oh, and I don’t really know what was up with that blocked field goal. Meh.
The Average: Bryan Anger wasn’t able to finish up his spectacular outing last week, but did manage to average about 39.2 yards per punt. You’d like to see that in the 40s, and a few downed inside the 20, but he did a fantastic job of extending the hangtime on his punts so that WSU was unable to set up a big return. I’ll take it.
The Good: Giorgio Tavecchio might be about as good as we’re going to get on kickoffs, and I think I can handle that. Tavecchio still booted a few kickoffs in the 15 yard area, but more consistently booted a number inside the 10. He was also perfect on extra points.
And let’s not forget about Jeremy Ross’ special day. In addition to his 61 yard reception, Ross started the game with a 54 yard kickoff return and returned the first team punt in over a year with his fantastic 76 yard return. It wasn’t until I watched the highlights that I realized how impressive the punt was. It might have been the best Cal punt return since D-Jax’s return against Tennessee in 2007.
The team has got a lot of speed, and with Vereen and Ross returning kickoffs, and Ross or Thompson and the punt return spot, I think we’ll be alright. I’m also excited to get Sofele back there once he’s a bit more acclimated.
Riley Keeps Chugging Along
Kevin Riley continued his comeback campaign, going 12-18 for 229 yards, 3 touchdowns and one interception. Riley seems to be playing with the same level of confidence he exhibited in the early part of the season. Naturally, part of it is the increased time he had in the pocket, as the Bears o-line didn’t give up a single sack to an outmanned Cougars defensive line.
Yet, Riley again demonstrated his now signature deep balls, and showed his command of the offense, distributing the ball to receivers, backs, and tight ends. Riley is still a bit errant with passes when he feels flushed in the pocket, and can continue to work on his ability to scan the entire field and check down his options, but he’s playing relatively mistake free, smart football. When Riley’s click, this offense clicks.
Bears Ground Game Rumbles
The Bears continue to put up big numbers on the ground, recording 309 yards for the day. And why not? There appears to be little drop off every time a new back carries the ball, each back who got a touch averaged at least 5 yards a carry (except for FB Brian Holley).
I also like the way they continue to utilize Riley’s legs, as they mix just enough designed runs, or allow Riley to take off when he options are covered.
While Cal’s run blocking has struggled at times this season, one hopes that their recent success is more of an indication of finding the running schemes best suited for this offensive line, as well as an improved chemistry, rather than simply dominating outmatched defensive lines.
On to Next Week
Again, as a fan, you've got to enjoy these games. Those frustrated with 32 points wins on beautiful Saturday afternoons that also benefit in allowing reserves to get key playing time, really need to reevaluate their reasons for watching college football.
If we're going to be realistic about about the rest of the season though, Cal's issues in the secondary and on special teams might have us tempering our expectations for our remaining games. I'm honestly not sure we'll be favored in every one. And quite frankly, I'm a bit scurred about facing Arizona and Oregon State. Stanford doesn't deserve my fear.
While the offense has shown its penchant for performing based on execution and focus, I can't quite say the same about the defense at this point. I remained committed in my belief that they can, but some major work will have to be done.
Again, sit back and enjoy the 49-17 wins now, because I'd be hard pressed to find another game this season where we'll get exactly similar results.
Found this over at CGB, but thought everyone would appreciate it since the game wasn't televised. Will try and have my recap up later tonight.
Thanks to TouchedtheAxe!
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
As expected, the Bears are still not ranked this week but appear to be knocking on the door, coming in at 28th and 29th in AP and Coaches Polls respectively.
The most interesting aspect of the polls is trying to evaluate the worthiness of the teams ranked ahead of Cal at this point. I could really try and break down each ranked team's strength of schedule, but none of that really matters unless one looks at Cal's. Let's be real here: Cal has looked pretty good against inferior opponents and have looked terrible against both "good" opponents the Bears have faced this year.
The Bears have beaten just one team with a winning record this year, being 5-3 FCS (Div I-AA) Eastern Washington. All the others (Maryland, Minnesota, UCLA, and Washington State) aren't quite the quality opponents to really impress voters.
Yes, both losses have been against the #4 and #10 teams respectively, but a combined score of 6-72 against those teams don't give us quite the resume either.
I think the Bears crack the Top 25 if they're able to pull of a win over Arizona State this Saturday. It's be hard (but not impossible) to keep out a 6-2 squad from breaking into the rankings. Otherwise, the Bears might not see the rankings again for the rest of the year.
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Thursday, October 22, 2009
In a game that in which the outcome attempts jumps out as a foregone conclusion as a “W” for the Bears, I think it’s only fair to really stop and think about the 2009 version of the Washington State Cougars.
Let’s not kid ourselves. The Cougs were embarrassingly bad in 2008. In fact, I’d go so far to say that I thought they were more pitiful than Washington, and the Huskies didn’t even win a game. Some of the shellackings put up on WSU were nearly criminal. Let’s also not forget which team began the group beatdowns, as Cal rolled WSU 66-3 for the Cougars’ worst margin of loss at Pullman in well…ever I think.
Make no mistake about it though,:the Cougars are much better this year. Their record may not indicate it, and they might still be a bad football team, but I expect them to put up a far better fight than last year. In fact, I think given Cal’s unpredictability and questions on defense, I would be surprised to see this game played pretty closely for the first half.
The Bears can and absolutely should win this game however, assuming they take care of business in a couple of areas. Let’s break it down.
More Pass Pressure
So there’s good news and bad news for Cal’s pass rush this Saturday. The good news is that the Bears may not need to try all that much facing off against a Washington State offensive line that has given up a conference high 30 sacks on the year (averaging 5 a game). The bad news is that the offensive line should see the return of several players including B.J. Guerra, Zack Williams, and Steven Ayers as well as one of the best centers in the conference in Kenny Alfred.
In general, I’m not really of the type to be screaming bloody murder at my television if the Bears aren’t getting pass pressure every down of every game. Quite frankly, there’s a time and place for bringing the heat, and if the quarterback has a bit more time to throw back there, some times it isn’t such a bad thing.
With that said, I think the Bears really have struggled a bit in pressuring the quarterback in the past several weeks, especially considering they were playing against freshmen quarterbacks for USC and UCLA, who most certainly could have been forced into errors with enough heat. Yet, the Bears managed just one on Matt Barkley, and three on Kevin Price, with two of those coming in the last few minutes of the game.
For the most part, given that Cal typically only uses three linemen on defense, I feel like the defensive line has done their job for the most part. Tyson Alualu still might be the best defensive end in the conference, and Derrick Hill has quietly had a solid season. Cameron Jordan has been a bit more unexpectedly quiet, but can still be seen active in each play.
The bigger issue lies in the lack of a consistent pass rush from the linebackers. Many times, defensive coordinator Bob Gregory appears to be content rushing only three to four linemen each play, but he appears to be getting lackluster results even when he does decide to send an extra man or two to pressure the quarterback. The linebackers simply aren’t getting enough penetration fast enough (not quite a “that’s what she said” moment).
I really agreed with what HydroTech over at the California Golden Blogs wrote about in his UCLA recap in regards to seeing more twisting and delayed blitzes.
"Naturally, the next step to counter good pass blocking and a QB that steps up into the pocket is to delay blitz, and twist the defensive ends in. Gregory finally got around to using the delayed blitz late in the game and it led to a nice Eddie Young sack which stopped a UCLA drive on a critical 3rd down. But we never quite saw the defensive ends twisting in. By that, I mean, the defensive ends would take a step up the field as if on their normal pass rush, then cut back inside behind the inside pass rushers. Well, since Cal uses the 3-4, the twisting would probably be done by one of the DEs and an outside linebacker rather than both of the DEs. By twisting, the outside pass rushers are relocated to the inside and right into the area where the opposing QB will be stepping up into the pocket."
The Washington State game could a prime opportunity to try out more pass rush plays involving twisting and delayed blitzes. With an offense predicated on quick strikes and a near obsolete running game, Cal’s ability to create pressure and chaos in the backfield will be the key between the Cougars scoring 13 and 26.
Cal’s pass rush has stumbled enough in recent games that I would become far more concerned if we were unable to consistently do so. I’m not going to lie here. I’m expecting at least five sacks and two interceptions here, and would be disappointed with anything less than three and one respectively. Just keeping it real. It comes down to a “if not now, then when” type of thing.
Convert in the Red Zone
I’m really looking at the numbers on WSU’s season pretty thoroughly, and the one stat that really jumps out to me is their strength on red zone defense. The Cougars currently lead the conference in this category, allowing just 67.86 percent on 28 attempts. Granted, 16 of their 19 scores resulted in touchdowns, but it’s still something to watch out for given how many times opponents have been the WSU’s red zone.
We all know that Cal’s offense is certainly capable of putting up points. The Bears currently lead the conference in scoring at 32.8 points per game. We also the Cal offense is also incapable of finding the endzone. No need to go back to the 6 combined points against Oregon and USC. Ok, I just did.
Unfortunately for the Bears, they haven’t consistently scored touchdowns in the endzone, currently ranked 7th in the conference in scoring 17 of 20 tries there, with just 13 touchdowns. Again, Washington’s best hopes in keeping the game close with the Bears lie in their effort to keep the Bears’ offense to field goals in a lower scoring affair.
However, if the execution matches clever playcalling and focus inside the 20 yard line, and the Bears can put on 6 points on each trip, rather than 3, the game might be decided by the second quarter.
Special Teams Needs a Turnaround
Usually when teams lose to inferior opponents, you can really look at a number of silly areas that cost the favored team…silly penalties, poor individual decisions, a lack of effort that result in turnovers, and sloppy special teams.
Now I don’t think any one unit would really cost the Bears the game on Saturday. I think it would require a complete systematic meltdown ala the Autzen Atrocity (again, copyright BearswithFangs). And I bring up this point not so much as a concern with what WSU does well on Special Teams, but what we do poorly.
The Bears currently rank dead last in opponent punt return yardage, allowing 14.1 yards per return and a score. The Bears also rank 6th in kickoff return yardage.
I hate to beat a dead horse here, but I should continue to bring it up as long as it continues to be an issue. Give the Cougars field position and they just might make something happen.
Looking Ahead…but not too far ahead
I’m trying not to disrespect the Cougars that much here. I sincerely believe they a far better team than they were last year, and will be out to earn some respect, even if they can’t get the win. But Cal plays too well at home and is far too deep to bet against the Bears. Just don’t be too surprised if it’s a bit more uncomfortable for some fans’ liking early on.
Cal 41 WSU 13
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Monday, October 19, 2009
I saw this brought up in the message boards, and reader Oliver pointed this out in the comments section of my UCLA recap, but I thought this was worth its own post.
In a revolutionary new defensive scheme, the coaching staff decided to test its new 3-2-3 defense, jogging on just 10 defensive players in the waning moments of their game against UCLA.
You can clearly see just 10 Bears on the field at the 0:02 mark, and again at the 0:35 mark.
With about 5:23 remaining, the Bears rushed 3 linemen and one middle linebacker, while Tyson Alualu dropped back into coverage along with the remaining 5 players in the secondary. OLB Mychal Kendricks was able to bring pressure on UCLA QB Kevin Price. Price was still managed to zip his pass to his receiver who was eventually pounded by safety Marcus Ezeff for an incompletion.
On the following play, the Bears played man coverage on a critical third down, with every Bruin receiver tightly covered, except for their tight end who was wide open over the middle. Normally, the Bears' 11th defender would have had him covered, but defensive coordinatory Bob Gregory and Mychal Kendricks had other ideas, as Kendricks would hide behind the line and snatch Price's low pass out of the air for the game sealing pick six.
Revolutionary? Possibly. Brilliant? Absolutely.
All joking aside though, I thought it was one of the most bizarre things I've seen in a while.
Having 10 players on the field isn't unusual in college football. You see it penalized all the time.
[Edit: I guess you don't get penalized for only have 10 players. Only if you have 12.] What is so unusual is that NO ONE caught it. Not the Bears players or coaches, nor anyone on the entire Bruins squad. None of the refs, none of the sideline judges, not even the guys in the replay booth.
And it was on two plays! At a critical point in the game! We scored on that last one!
In essence, people are paid to check for these things!
Unbelievable. It's enough to make you think it might have been intentional.
Tedford: Bob, have you thought about only throwing ten guys out there?
Gregory: What you talking about Willis?
Tedford: You know, have one down where we play zone to fool them into thinking we'll drop back again on 3rd down. Then, on the next play, only have 10 again in MAN defense this time, so that the QB THINKS that his tight end is wide open in the middle.
Gregory: Uh Huh,,,
Tedford: And we'll have our linebacker hide and straight up Dwight Howard the pass after it's released. It'll be perfect!
Gregory: You're crazy man. I like you, but...you're crazy.
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Sunday, October 18, 2009
(AP Photo/Reed Saxon)
Let’s not fully kid ourselves. Saturday’s win over UCLA has confirmed that this team still has a number of issues preventing it from being an elite team. And it’s clear we still have overestimated talent to a certain extent and have underestimated a number of key deficiencies. And it most certainly doesn’t cover up the fact that this team really for the lack of a better word, faceplanted in their two losses against USC and Oregon.
But today’s win sure does feel good. For a myriad of reasons really.
The first reason easily being the breaking of Tedford’s LA curse. After beating Oregon in Autzen back in 2007, the team was finally able to get a win in So. Cal after 8 trips there in Tedford’s tenure. Finally, after years of finding ways of losing to inferior UCLA squads in the Rose Bowl, the Bears finally posted a solid win in LA. What’s not to celebrate?
I don’t know if it was Gatorade bath appropriate, but hey, it was pretty hot in LA from what I hear.
But in what could be the more important implication was the way in which the team responded after the level of criticism and scrutiny it dealt with in the two long weeks with the bye. While Tedford’s teams have usually been well prepped in bye weeks during which there haven’t been the meatiest of expectations, you knew the entire team was feeling the weight of the world on their shoulders on their long bus ride down.
The team needed a win, and it needed it desperately. Not only to avoid falling into a 0-3 conference start, but also to throw off any rumblings of another “collapse.” This team needed and wanted to prove the naysayers wrong, to reaffirm their own confidence that could have also tailspinned with three consecutive losses, and they responded with a 45-26 romp over the Bruins.
Let’s get to some thoughts.
Cal got back into their offensive ways on Saturday…sorta.
I was ecstatic to see the Bears score 35 points in the first half. I was honestly doubtful that the Bears would be able to score half of that the entire game. I expected UCLA’s defense to be too athletic to really let the game bust open, but I was proved wrong after watching Cal take advantage of some fantastic mismatches.
First off, hats off to Kevin Riley and the receiving corps. Cal’s well documented passing woes disappeared as Riley finally connected with a wide receiver for a passing score—something that hadn’t been done since the season opener.
Riley looked poised and in control, and returned to his confident self against the Bruins. While he still has a tendency to sail the ball a bit by releasing the ball a bit too high, he gave his receivers more chances to go up and actually make a play on the ball. He also showed fantastic footwork in the pocket, some of the best I’ve seen from a Cal QB in years really. Rolling out, sidestepping, stepping up and into his throws…there was a lot to like.
Oh, and I thought Riley’s running ability was used perfectly on Saturday. Just the right number of designed runs on the appropriate downs, and Riley made the right decisions to tuck it and take off. Very good decision making in this category.
Marvin Jones also reminded fans while they might be looking at the future, as Jones had one of the better WR performances in nearly two seasons. His ability to bring down tough balls is as good as any Cal WR I’ve seen in a while, and I’m excited to see if he can keep this going in another game. Cal’s receivers have had a tendency to fall off the map a bit after a big performance like Jones.
Running Backs Roll
Best and Vereen rolled up 289 yards on the ground against a typically stout UCLA run defense. Two real different stories in regards to both backs.
First, hats off to Vereen. It was easily his best overall performance as a Bear, as Vereen’s career day of 158 yards on 17 carries (1 TD), and 2 catches for 20 yards showed why the coaches are so confident to give him as many carries as they do. While Vereen may not make as many people miss as Best does, I continue to be a fan of his low-to-the-ground, fall forward, positive yardage, solid running style. Say that 10 times fast.
Now Best’s day was a bit of a head scratcher. Yes he did remind us of why he’s an absolute freak and a perpetual playmaker. His 50 yard TD reception just shows his discrepancy of speed when given a matchup with a linebacker, and that 93 yard TD run was just about the most ridiculous TD run I’ve seen from Best. That’s saying a lot when you look at his highlight reel.
But Best has for the most part been a bit of a feast or famine type of back. His numbers are always inflated by his huge runs (duh), but he’s not as reliable to fighting out tough yards in between the tackles. Best averaged just 9 yards on his other 17 carries. Keep in mind, he had a 22 yard scamper in the second quarter. So we’re actually talking about 16 carries for -13 yards.
Give credit where credit is due. UCLA’s Brian Price is a beast and fought through double teams all day to fart in Cal’s backfield. And Jahvid Best apparently has asthma, and was battling dehydration. But Vereen clearly outshined him in the category of toughing out 3-4 yard gains, as Best appeared to hesitate a bit too much on some of his cutbacks and appeared unable to break through some arm and ankle wraps.
You can’t scoff at 38 points. Cal really won this game on a number of fantastic big play, which are a bit of a double edged sword. Yes, I would have liked to have seen Cal take control a bit more and show some more sustained drives (much like their first one). One the other hand, it’s that explosiveness that is so typical Cal’s potential and offensive personnel that makes them so fun to watch.
Like Best, it’s a bit of feast or famine. It is what it is.
Mixed Bag Defense
While the defense was a mixed bag on Saturday, there was slightly more to be critical of. Darian Hagan summed it up after the game stating, "Seeing some of the things they were able to do (against us) shows us how much work we still have to do.”
This is a Cal defense that has the potential to do great things and hold opposing offenses to less than 20 points a game, assuming it has nearly flawless execution. At the same time, on Saturday, we saw what can happen when that execution isn’t there, and has some questionable defensive playcalling to go with it.
It can be stated as simply as this: UCLA does not have a good offense. Going into the game, it ranked 101st in scoring offense, 104th in total offense, 96th in rushing offense, and 103rd in passing efficiency.
Yet, Cal surrendered 448 yards to a Bruins offense that had previously only averaged 283 yards per game. They also allowed the Bruins to score the most points since their opening season win over SDSU. Yes. San Diego State.
The Bears also gave another opposing QB their season high on passing yardage, allowing Kevin Prince to go 21-41 for 311 yards. Granted, the that’s a little over 50% completion and allowed no passing TDs, but the ways in which Prince were picking up his yardage was still concerning.
Many plays on defense on Saturday were focused on limiting the number of pass rushers and dropping back anywhere from 6 to 8 defenders in coverage, hoping to take away the long ball and force Prince to dink and dunk underneath. Dink and dunk he would, but nine of Prince’s passes went for more than 15 yards. Cal’s coverage was getting hit on both the top and bottom.
As it stands the Bears currently rank 98th in the country in passing yardage allowed, giving up about 250 yards per game. Much of their struggle defending the pass is Cal’s inability to get pressure on opposing quarterbacks. Prince had far too much time to throw on Saturday, which is distressing given how young and inexperienced UCLA’s offensive line is. Now granted, Part of this lack of pass rush is by design (again, only rushing 3 to 4 linemen) but part of it is Cal’s linebackers inability to get into the backfield as well. Cal really doesn’t have the pass rush threat off the edge, and other than the occasional play, we don’t appear to have the linebacker (yet) who will constantly win one-one battles with a tight end of slow-footed offensive tackle.
What also doesn’t help though, are Cal’s struggles in the secondary. While I won’t quite say that the players have regressed, they haven’t shown nearly the level of consistent play as last year. Darian Hagan’s inconsistencies made way for Josh Hill, who for all his promise, has also been exposed in one on one matchups for the past several weeks. It will be interesting to see if Hagan’s 5 tackle, 3 pass breakup performance will move him back into the starting lineup next week against Washington State.
Oh, and Syd’Quan Thompson left the game on Saturday with a hip pointer. The extent of the injury is unknown. Me no likey.
Now on the flip side, there was a lot to like about Cal’s defensive performance. Some of it pure context. Let’s break it down by the scores.
Keep in mind that’s Cal’s ongoing Special Teams struggles gave UCLA some very manageable field position, including Terrance Austin’s 50 yard return that gave UCLA starting field position at the Bears’ 39 yard line. That in itself makes the Bruins’ first touch down much more excusable.
UCLA’s second touchdown was a result of 1) a terrific move back to the inside by RB Jonathan Franklin and 2) some overpursuit and brain lapse by Cal’s defense. It’s certainly not something to be excited about, but given that it doesn’t happen too often, I see it as a bit more of a pure gaffe than something indicative of Cal’s usually stout run defense. Franklin did only manage 28 yards on his other 10 carries for the game, much more in line with Cal usually allows to most backs.
The Bruins wouldn’t see the endzone again for the rest of the game after that TD in the second quarter. And as uneasy it is to see that yardage total at the end of the day, you’ve got to impressed with the Bears clamping down in the red zone, forcing four field goals. And I can almost assure you that very few other kickers in the conference other than Kai Forbath would have been able to nail all of those.
So while I will continue to be concerned about the continuing lack of a pass rush and the subsequent passing yardage allowed, I’m still confident in the other areas of the defensive side of the ball. I also think that the pass pressure will improve with added experience from Cal’s LBs, and that Cal can go back to playing better shut down pass defense if the secondary is trusted and allowed to do so schematically.
Special Teams Still an Issue
Ok, let’s get the good out of the way: Bryan Anger was back to his usual form after struggling against Oregon and USC with a terrific punting performance. Anger averaged 50 yards per punt including an outstanding 72 yarder, his best distance punt since his boomer in the Big Game last year. Anger really saved the Bears in a lot of field position battles on Saturday.
Also encouraging to see was Giorgio Tavecchio’s kickoffs in the second half after D’Amato was sidelined with a shoulder injury in the second quarter. One can see why Tedford has committed to sticking to Tavecchio a bit longer than most liked earlier this season when seeing Tavecchio knocking two kicks inside the 3 yard line. I would love to see that continue moving forward.
Now let’s get to the obviously bad. Cal’s return coverage really struggled on Saturday. The struggles were more visible on kickoff returns, with Terrance Austin’s 50 yard return setting up UCLA’s first TD on a 39 yard field to work with. UCLA averaged more than 30 yards per return, and with Cal’s kickoffs in the first half still falling around the 15 yard mark, the Bruins had great field position for chunks of the game.
On punt returns, I was amazed at how far off our gunners were from getting to the return man. I understand that Anger boomed his a bit more than usual today, which makes it difficult for even the speediest gunners to crowd the return man, but on one occasion I noticed Brian Holley as the first one to get there. No offense to Holley, but really? Our fullback is the first to break through UCLA’s punt protection?
Special Teams Overall
While it wasn’t the most atrocious special teams performance, I’m amazed at the continual and persistent special teams breakdowns. It seems as if nearly every game consists of at least one big busted play on special teams. Anger’s big day and Tavecchio’s solid substitution will likely mask what was otherwise a rougher special teams day, but it really shouldn’t.
Again, Cal is still 4-2 (1-2) and still out of the Rose Bowl hunt (for the most part). They still might be favored the rest of the way in their remaining 6 games.
But all that aside, it was a fun game, and a relief to watch. It really depends on how you look at it, the game changed nothing or could have changed everything.
It could mark the turning of the tide, and spark Cal’s amazing 7-0 run, placing them in the conversation of a BCS at large.
It could also be a short two game blip before losing another (possibly two) conference games and finding themselves in the Emerald Bowl….again.
The team remains a bit of a mystery to me, but I’ve resigned myself to simply relishing wins such as the one on Saturday. Cal doesn’t control its destiny for the conference race, and I most certainly don’t. But they showed that they’re hell bent on winning each game they’ve got the chance to compete in, and I should be just as determined to enjoy them.
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Saturday, October 17, 2009
Just to try this out: you can follow my thoughts throughout the game on twitter: www.twitter.com/bearswithfangs.com.
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Friday, October 16, 2009
The two long weeks since Cal’s last game are nearly over and the Cal Bears hope to turn around their season in their contest against the UCLA Bruins this Saturday.
After two of some of the worst losses (combined loss of 72-6) under Jeff Tedford’s tenure, it will be interesting to see how the Bears respond. With hopes for a conference championship all but gone, or at the very least out of their control, the Bears recognize they have a chance to start their season anew, with different goals in mind.
Unfortunately for the Bears, Cal must do so in a situation that hasn’t been favorable for them in recent years: playing UCLA at the Rose Bowl, where Tedford has yet to win in his time leading the Golden Bears.
In fact, looking even deeper into the history books reveal that games at the Rose Bowl haven’t proven to be favorable to the Bears not only in terms of the final score, but season implications as well. In 2005, the Bears were 5-0 before eventually falling to the Bruins 47-40. Cal would go on to lose 3 of their next 4. Two years later in 2007, the Bears would come off a bye week with a 5-1 record, and lose to begin a 1-5 finish in a disastrous season.
While I’m not one to look too deeply into historical trends, it goes to elucidate the possible repercussions of another loss at the Rose Bowl at this point in the season. The game will be intensified by UCLA’s added drive, also looking to salvage their season with an identical 3-2 record and two conference losses.
Shut Down Coverage
Defensively, the Bears will look to make the game one-sided. Despite giving up yards on the ground in the past few games against two of the better rushing offenses in the conference (USC and Oregon), the Bears’ run defense has expectedly stout thus far. This should provide plenty of confidence as they face off against the conference’s 9th worst rushing offense in the Bruins, who average just 112 yards on the ground per game.
The defensive concern for the Bears is their recent struggles against opponents’ passing games.
While UCLA doesn’t enter the game with the most impressive passing stats (averaging just 170.2 yards per game and a conference low 3 passing TDs), they will still likely attack the Bears in the same way that USC and Oregon have done in the last two games. Against both teams, the Bears have been susceptible to quick passes to WRs and TEs slipping out into the flats, as well as wide receiver screens. Particularly, the Bears have given up chunks of yardage to tight ends and slot receivers over the middle in softer zone coverage.
Prince won’t be required to stretch the field vertically to be successful against Cal’s secondary unless the Bears plan on tightening coverage or moving into more man coverage. It hasn’t been so much of an issue of getting pressure on the QB, as opposed to the Bears simply allowing for enough space for quick slants and hook routes to do the damage.
At this point, the onus falls more on Cal’s linebackers to tighten up their coverage and be more disciplined in their assignments on passing downs. I’ve seen the LBs bite a bit too hard on playfakes leaving far too much space for opposing TEs and WRs to slip through. Cal will need to be more disciplined in this regard, as you can be sure that the Bruins will key in on utilizing space given to them in the first ten yards.
Pass to Run
The true question marks for the Bears lie on the offensive side of the ball. The Bears have the arduous task of attempting to reestablish their running game against a UCLA defense that gives up just 3.32 ypc and 123.6 yards per game. It appears that might be the task ahead though, as Cal will have their work cut out for them in trying to throw the ball against UCLA’s talented secondary which currently leads the conference in lowest passing yards per game, and ranks second in interceptions.
However, it has become fairly obvious in the past few weeks that Cal’s struggles running the ball are directly the result of their inability to establish a consistent passing game. Oregon and USC dared the Bears to throw, willing to stack the box against Best and Vereen, confident not only in their defensive speed, but in Cal’s inability to hit receivers in one-on-one matchups.
UCLA also features an athletic and speedy defensive front seven and will likely choose to challenge the Bears in this fashion by pulling in their safeties. I actually really liked the offensive gameplan against USC (not so much against Oregon) and believe a similar one will provide greater success against the Bruinsas Cal’s struggles against USC were more on the execution end.
If Riley and crew can get their connection going early on with similar playcalling, ie. quick passes to TEs, slot receivers, rolling the pocket to get Riley to throw on the run, while mixing in reverses and the occasional wildcat formation, I think the Bears can get the desired matchups for UCLA to remove a man or two out of the box by the second half of the game.
It really might be the only way to give our backs a lane to do some damage.
I bring this up simply because there hasn’t been much attention given to what has been the most consistently disappointing unit on the team. Cal has struggled with nearly every aspect of special teams from the kickoffs to return coverage. Even the reliable Bryan Anger has shanked a few punts in recent games, and Syd’Quan's fumble on his punt return in the closing minute of the USC game reminds Bear fans that this team has a myriad of issues to shore up with their special teams.
Just as a quick projection, Cal’s opponents have been fielding the Bears’ kickoffs on average at the 15 yard line. UCLA’s Terrance Austin has been averaging 24.8 yards per kickoff return. That’s an average projected starting field position of the 40 yard line. UCLA also features the conference’s best field goal kicker in Kai Forbath. Essentially, UCLA would only need to drive 30 yards or so to get into field goal range—critical in what is projected to be a low scoring affair.
Cal also has the dishonor of having the conference’s worst punt return coverage unit, giving up 16.33 average yards per return and one score. That’s nearly 6 yards worse than the second worst team in this regard, ASU. Again, given Cal’s offensive struggles and Terrance Austin’s punt return ability (3rd in the conference this year in this category), Cal could be in a hole in terms of field position all game.
Who knows, perhaps I’m just a bit sensitive to special teams when it comes to playing UCLA. Maurice Jones-Drew in 2005 says “hello.”
I don’t expect this to be a very high scoring affair. In fact, this could be an Auburn Mississippi State type of game.
Ok, not that bad. But for a UCLA team that is currently ranked 114th nationally in total offense, and a Cal team that has scored just 6 combined points in the past two games, I expect both teams to rely on their defensive strengths to turn the tide in one direction or another.
Penalties, turnovers, any of these could swing the game in one direction for a game with such a low spread. I’ve already harped on season repercussions before, so I won’t go into that here.
Cal 17 UCLA 13
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Tuesday, October 6, 2009
I continue my USC recap by looking at the potential effects of Cal's second conference loss, and some thoughts to consider as we enter into the first bye week of the season.
What does it mean?
The effects of Cal’s loss to USC are potentially long lasting. It’s not anything any player, coach, or fan wants to hear, but this loss really hurts on a number of levels.
First of all, for all intents and purposes, the Bears’ Rose Bowl dreams are all but lost for this year. That much is obvious. By no means would I expect or hope the Bears fold it up and call it a season. But the Bears aren’t even close to controlling anyone’s destiny at this point, let alone their own, and that can be deflating enough with more than half the season to play.
Also, Cal’s fanbase and national perception may have been irreparably damaged. I honestly get the sense that Cal may have really lost the benefit of the doubt in too many people’s mind. Yes, the loss was that bad. Getting drubbed 72-6 in back to back weeks with so much on the line on a national scale will do that to you.
Then again, if the 2007 season has taught us anything, then we know that most Cal fans have a ridiculous pain tolerance. Hell, just look back at the last 51 years.
And usually I would consider this a minor issue, but given the game was host to arguably the biggest and critical recruiting weekend in the program’s history, a 30-3 loss makes the Bears look like a less attractive contender for their football services for just about…anyone. Both for potential recruits and those who have already committed. It will be very interesting to see the potential fallout and aftermath of such a weekend.
The Bad News Bears
The bottom line is that the Bears find themselves in one heck of a hole. Back to back embarrassing losses that have knocked the Bears out of the conference title picture may have also set the program back a few years.
And while Cal could dig themselves out and finish with a respectable record (a ten win season is still feasible), nothing about the team in recent weeks has shown that they’re anywhere near being able to accomplish such a feat. The Bears have more issues than they can count, and I’m not sure if just hard work is going to fix it.
I would like to believe that Cal simply had freak performances in back to back weeks and that execution is all that is necessary to right the ship. And while the Bears have certainly fallen off the wagon in that category, I really don’t think the Bears’ issues have to do with effort. Their talent may have been grossly overvalued and that Cal’s gameplanning hasn’t even been close to what’s necessary to make their last few games competitive.
The Golden Good News?
The first piece of good news is that Bears have made it through the most difficult part of the schedule. Make no mistake about it, I can see the Bears easily losing five more games based on their recent performances. Yet, none appear to be as tough on paper (yet) as what the Bears faced in the past few weeks.
The Bears also escaped the game without any major injuries. Given where the Bears were last year in this category, we should be pretty fortunate that we’re just out two tight ends, a receiver, and an OG at this point.
The biggest piece of good news though is that the bye weekend couldn’t have come soon enough. The Bears are going to have to take a good hard look at their team in nearly every facet and evaluate where they need to shake things up. I am not calling for any one player or coach’s head. I am hoping though that this staff looks at their team and themselves honestly to evaluate what clearly has and has not been working and try something—anything different.
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Monday, October 5, 2009
(Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
I apologize for the delay in getting this out, but I’ve actually committed my last few days to non-college football related tasks for my own health and mental acuity, which has actually served me pretty well. I woke up Sunday morning and despite a few dreams that things went well for the Bears (including a fantasy Syd’Quan endzone interception), had a pleasant day resting and considering things outside of the Bears. Try it some time guys, it will serve you well.
As for the game itself, what can really be said? Quite a lot actually, but first things first: When you lose 72-6 in back to back weeks, something is very wrong. Whatever is going on right now, is not working. At all.
As it stands right now, it's hard to imagine that Cal was once ranked sixth nationally, despite that being just two weeks ago. Shoot, I'll be honest. We look like the worst team in the conference right now. It isn't even close.
But it became apparent watching Cal’s embarrassment in front of a sold out memorial stadium in their 30-3 lopsided loss to USC, that a lot of assumptions had been made about the Bears this year.
It was assumed that Cal had the quality, depth, and experience on the team to make a serious run not only for the long overdue Rosebowl run, but also potentially have the makings of a darkhorse national championship campaign.
And why not? The Bears had the ingredients for a great team, and would go on to roll their competition by a combined score of 146-41 in their first three games while picking up a gritty road win over Minnesota and padding Jahvid Best’s Heisman portfolio.
Yet more dangerously, it was assumed by many that all the reasons the Bears were supposed to break out this year would easily mask the Bears’ deficiencies in all other potential pitfalls.
Well you know what they say happens when you assume: you make an ass out of u and me.
A few assumptions:
Many assumed that Cal’s offensive line would be just fine after losing first round draft pick Alex Mack, All-Pac-10 honor OG Noris Malele and offensive line coach Jim Michalczik. While I do think the line is still deeper and more experienced than it was last year, I don’t quite see the overall performance or quality matching last year’s squad. The Bears have struggled heavily in pass protection, giving up 13 sacks already on the season, and constantly pressured enough to force Riley into inaccurate throws.
They’ve also stumbled in their run blocking going for just 216 rushing yards in the past two games. Granted, the Bears have faced the conference’s two best rush defenses, but it’s still disconcerting to see the results when pushed to the metal.
We also assumed that Riley and the receiving corps would step up this season, making last year’s passing inefficiencies a mere distant memory. And a number of efficient outings against overmatched secondaries early in the season would lead us to believe so. But Cal’s passing game has been at its absolute weakest in the last few years. We are bordering on Joe Ayoob versus the Trojans in ’05 level. And that is saying something.
Riley has completed just 27 of 71 passes (38%) for just 329 yards in the past two games. More eye-popping, the Bears have been held without a passing touchdown since the second quarter of the Eastern Washington game. That is more than 14 quarters without a passing touchdown.
And get this: Cal hasn’t thrown a TD pass to a wide receiver since the third quarter of the season opener. That is 4 consecutive games without a WR TD. Out of control.
Let’s be clear. It’s not all on Riley. The pass protection has been spotty, the receivers have struggled and had their share of drops. But Riley has really struggled with his mechanics and accuracy the past few games. He began the year incredibly poised and in absolute control of where he wanted to be at all times. And while he has still kept his confidence without forcing too many turnovers, he’s simply unable to complete some of the most basic passes in recent quarters. Balls are flying above and to the side of receivers an some critical downs. This was most evident in his inexplicable overthrow of Best on the critical 4th and 2 rollout. Tough, especially when it was just a few weeks ago that he hit Ross on that beautiful pass to convert the key 3rd down.
And speaking of the passing game, I think we all assumed that the receiving corps would be vastly improved with an entire season of experience of their belt. But with the exception of a few flashes of brilliance, I continue to be overwhelmed by the current receiving corps.
They continue to make critical drops and are showing difficulty in creating a lot of separation from their defenders. I’ve come to accept that our current receiving unit simply isn’t that great right now. They might be. But the numbers haven’t shown me anything to make me believe otherwise.
In defending the passing game, we all assumed that Cal’s highly touted secondary would somehow be able to match last year’s success in passing efficiency and interception totals (tied for 3rd). Yet the Bears’ secondary which returned all its starters, are sitting at just four, with two coming from linebacker Mike Mohammed. The Bears are also giving up 238 yards per game through the air, good for just 8th in the conference in this category.
Cal’s secondary, and its linebackers might I add, continue to struggle in zone coverage and are continually hurt by its tendency to leave the middle of the field open for athletic tight ends to really hurt the Bears. They give up way too much space to receivers and have been hurt continually by big yardage on third down passing situations, an area they excelled at last year.
I think we all assumed too that Cal’s running game would flourish because, well…we’re really fast and athletic. Right? But watching Best’s struggles in the back to back losses not so much on the ground (that’s to be expected against Oregon and USC’s rush defense) but in blitz pickups has pointed out more of his shortcomings than his absolute brilliance in nearly every other phase of his game. An NFL scout might have seriously walked away from watching the USC game, and consider Best a second round back on that quality alone. Scary, considering Best was receiving Heisman accolades and “Top 10” pick talk just a few weeks ago.
I think speak for nearly everyone when I state that I hoped that our special teams would have just been better. All around. I assumed that somewhere, somehow over the course of the past eight months, since the season ended that we might find a kicker who could kick the ball consistently inside the five on kickoffs. That our All-American punter wouldn't somehow regress his sophomore season to shank punts in back to back weeks. That our punt and kickoff coverage teams wouldn't again give up big yardage in the biggest of stages. I again assumed incorrectly.
I could go on...the rotating door that has been the offensive coordinator position, a number of whiffs on FB blocks, the overall lack of pass pressure by our outside linebackers,...but when it boils down to it, the Bears simply aren't as good as we thought they would be.
I don't mean to be disparaging, I just think it's important that we set realistic expectations moving forward. The Bears were beaten by better teams, quite soundly in these last two games.
Now, could the Bears have won these games? Maybe. But the results the past few weeks have been so atrociously dismal, I don't know how much I can believe it. It's important to keep in mind however, that again, the season is far from over. There's much football left to be played, and much time to right the ship. The Bears can still finish the season strong. It's just important that we see it for what it is, and keep any remaining assumptions out of the picture.
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Sunday, October 4, 2009
Nothing really newsworthy here, but for consistency sake, the Bears have fallen out of the Top 25 poll after Saturday's 30-3 loss to USC.
The Trojans stayed put at #7, while the Ducks moved up to #13 after the drubbing of Washington State.
Stanford is at 29th with 50 votes, while Arizona also received 2 votes.
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>
Thursday, October 1, 2009
[I am forgoing my usual keys to the game, and replacing it with more or less my thought process this week regarding the absolute significance of this week’s game against USC. Feel free to leave your thoughts. My usual prediction is still included in the conclusion.]
A blowout loss like the Autzen Atrocity (copyright BearswithFangs) can do funny things to a Cal fan. More or less, it leaves one and their flimsy understanding of their team’s quality shaken and even broken.
So it was with great mystification that I tried to make sense of last weekend’s debacle. It wasn’t so much why we lost, which has been discussed and rehashed to no end, but rather what the loss means for our team.
We know that it certainly puts a huge dent in our conference title aspirations and places any small notions of a possible national championship run on life support. That we know.
Yet, what does such a blowout loss mean for a team expected by many to seriously challenge for the conference crown and establish themselves as BCS contenders? After much head scratching, it really boils down to two different questions: Have the Bears been exposed as overrated pretenders, or are they indeed an elite team who just happened to have a complete freak mishap of a game?
The truth might be “a little of both” or quite possibly “neither.”
I raise these questions simply to provide the context under which my absolute uncertainty heading into this game resides. I have never felt, with the exception of 2005, that any of our games against USC were ever really out of grasp. Despite their typical advantage in talent, we have matched up pretty well against the Trojans, and have played them pretty tough. However, being able to beat USC and actually beating them are two different stories, as the latter requires near perfect execution on all fronts. This has unfortunately rarely been the case, as the Trojans have notched Ws over the Bears in all but one instance during the Jeff Tedford era.
This year can be different though, for slightly different reasons. Much has been made of this being a battle of desperation, and despite my attempts to refute such extreme notions after just the opening conference game, I can’t find any way to do so. I have come to face the facts.
Saturday’s game is an absolute must win for the Bears.
Of course we can argue the definition of “must win,” as the term is thrown around loosely in all sports. But if we are to accept anything less than a conference championship as being a disappointment, which is a fair assessment of the team’s and fans’ goals, then there are very few ways to convince me that a loss on Saturday doesn’t all but knock the Bears out of the Rose Bowl picture.
A loss would mean a 0-2 conference start and a likely insurmountable deficit in the Pac-10 standings. Oregon would essentially have a 3 game lead (two + the tie breaker) while USC would have 2 (again 1 + the tie breaker). While I fully expect the eventual Pac-10 champion to have at least one loss, possibly two, the Bears are unlikely to be in that conversation with their two losses coming to two of the strongest contenders for that crown.
And even beyond just the standings and conference goals, the Bears must take advantage of their best opportunity to beat the Trojans since 2004 (possibly 2006, although even I had strong questions about the talented 06 squad beating USC at the Coliseum). We’ve heard, “If not now, then when?” And while I don’t buy into the overdramatic tone, these types of wins over favored conference champions can be ones that not only change a season, but a program. Make no mistake about it: a lot is riding on this win both in terms of this season’s goals, but future ones as well.
Do not get me wrong. A loss on Saturday would not be the end of the world. All hope would not be lost, and I would be no less deterred in my utmost belief that it is only a matter of time that Cal wins the conference outright. And while this season could quite possibly be shot with a loss, the program would for the most part, be fine.
Yet, while I know I enter this discussion with an incredibly hyperventilating tone, I can’t help but reiterate the significance of this win. A win may not guarantee success this season, but it sure would do a lot in ensuring that the team’s goals are even a realistic possibility, with more than half the season left to go.
And because all these reasons are incredibly obvious, we can always fall back on the fact that it’s USC game week. Any self-respecting Cal fan implicitly understands the significance.
So your prediction?
I do have the pesky matter of having to make a prediction. Really, from as objective of a standpoint as I can possibly have, I believe the Trojans are about touchdown favorites for good reason.
Their defense is still one of the nation’s elite, ranking 5th and 6th in the country in scoring defense and total defense respectively. They still continue to repudiate opponents’ attempts to score on them in bunches. Opponents average just 1.7 ypc against the Trojans run defense. USC leads the nation with 18 total sacks.
Also, offensively dormant or not, USC still has a plethora of future NFL players lining up on that side of the ball. They feature arguably one of the most physically dominant and experienced offensive lines in all of the country which has helped the Trojans carve up over 216 yards per game on the ground. They’ve also given up just 5 sacks on the year. Cal’s offensive line gave up that many last week to Oregon alone. And freshman QB or not, Matt Barkley has shown that he refuses to be rattled by big game atmospheres (see Ohio State game) Oh, and they’re still coached by Pete Carroll.
Frankly put: the Trojans statistically dominate the Bears in nearly every category.
Still, I am somehow confident that the Bears can absolutely win this game. USC looks the most vulnerable it has in years, and despite its history of dropping an early conference loss or struggling in the conference in September or October, there is something about the Trojans this year that make me believe they really could see 3-4 losses. They just don’t look all that impressive.
And perhaps my own maddening longing for a win has seeped into my ability to look at this game from a pragmatic perspective. Yet I still think the Bears can, and…dammit, will win this game.
In all honesty, I can’t justify how I got this score, but I swear I had a dream this past week that the final score read: Cal 26 USC 21. Yes, that’s right, either we’ll somehow get a safety or D’Amato will go crazy with 4 field goals. It’s not practical, I know.
However, if the final score is anywhere near that (in favor of the Bears of course), I will continue to dangerously believe that this season might still be special for the Bears. If Cal gets blown out though, then hell, I’ll just have to remind myself from now on not to eat gummi bears before I sleep.
Cal: 26 USC 21.
Read the rest of the post and comments here >>