(AP Photo/Cathleen Allison)
(Kaepernick: "This is going to be so fun.")
"He asked me what I was doing," Riley said. "I said, 'Obviously I forced the damn ball.' "
I’m guessing that’s how a lot of Golden Bears, fans, coaches, and players included, are feeling still this morning after the Bears were steamrolled by Nevada on national television 52-31. While many had thought the game might be a tricky one, few thought that their worst fears might be realized in allowing the Wolfpack to blow the game open the way they did.
The Big Story
While there are a number of different issues that will be attributed to the reason for the loss, at the end of the day, the biggest story will the defense’s inability to stop or even slow down Nevada’s pistol offense. After the Bears entered the game as the top ranked defense in the nation, giving up just 160 yards per game, it became evident early on that they were not prepared for the pistol attack in the least. Nevada rolled up 52 points, 45 on offense, and 497 total yards on the day.
Nevada QB Colin Kaepernick singlehandedly accounted for 329 of those yards, passing for 181 yards and rolling up 149 on the ground to go along with his five total touchdowns.
The Wolfpack offense was firing on absolutely every cylinder, and the Bears’ defensive confusion was evident in nearly every series. I have to go back and watch the tape (if I can manage it) to try and get a real assessment of what Cal’s defensive strategy was for the game, but it appeared to me that the goal was to attack either the runningback and quarterback on each play. I wrote in my Keys to the Game that the Bears would likely have to commit a linebacker to spy on Kaepernick on each play and play disciplined gap-assignment defense. Yet it seemed like it was nearly all “read-and-react” with the Bears jamming the middle of the defense leaving the outside gaps FAR too open.
Is it that simple? Probably not. But the Bears sure made it look that way.
Let’s get into a few details.
Linebackers and Defensive Struggles
Again, for as much praise as Pendergast’s defense has received for being an attacking one, they also showed they were just as much ill-equipped to handle Nevada’s spread-option attack.
The first issue was the absence of inside linebacker Mike Mohamed. Mohamed had been kept out of practice all week with a sprained toe, but had been expected to play in Friday’s game. Turns out the injury was more serious than expected, so Mohamed was out and the Bears spent the rest of the game trying to find a suitable substitute with JP Hurrell, Robert Mullins, and Steven Fanua all taking turns getting burned on defense.
Would Mohamed have been the difference between winning and losing? Probably not, but I can tell you the game certainly could have been far different with Mohamed manning the middle. Mohamed is the quarterback on defense and his presence on the inside may have allowed the Bears to commit an extra player on the outside to shorten the edges. But again, the defensive strategy I saw may contend that it might not have that much of a difference.
With Mohamed gone though, DJ Holt had another strong performance, racking up 16 tackles. We’re going to want to have both back together manning the inside as soon as possible.
I’m not going to try and pile on any player, nor am I saying the loss is on any player by any means. But I will say OLB Keith Browner stuck out to me on too many plays. Browner appeared to make the wrong decision on every play, rushing the inside to take out the linebacker only to see Kaepernick spring past him to the outside for big yardage.
Also, if you watch a lot of the replays of the Nevada touchdowns, you can visibly see Browner along with a few other players such as Ernest Owusu, Josh Hill, and Bryant Nnabuife, frozen in place doing a head shake as they tried to figure out which player was blazing past them with the ball.
Granted Browner forced that fumble that led to the Bears TD, but I will say we were really hurt by our linebacking corps and coaches not having the answer to the zone-read.
Nevada Was On Fire
It’s always hard to assess how prolific an offense looks because of their own execution, and how much of it is what the defense gives them. And trust me, our defense gave the Nevada offense plenty of favors with the way we left the outside part of the field wide open on nearly every big gain.
But sometimes, teams are just on. In the same way Kobe Bryant makes impossible shots despite having a defender right in his face, the Wolfpack offense was simply on that night and would have put up points on any team. Kaepernick was throwing with precision and his receivers were making some amazing grabs in tight coverage. Nevada’s blockers were getting to blocks quickly and decisively, and Kaepernick was reading the defense perfectly. Even as a Cal fan, you had to appreciate how polished they looked on offense. It really is the result of a senior-laden team who has had the chance to play with each other for years.
The secondary was beat on Friday, but I’m a little less disappointed with this unit. While I do think they needed to have made more plays and blew a few assignments to allow for some wide open receivers on some big plays, I actually thought our defenders blanketed the Nevada receivers fairly well on a number of the receptions.
A number of terrific grabs by Nevada were just that: excellent catches. You could see Anthony or Hagan covering their receivers quite well, trying to make a play on the ball only to see a Wolfpack receiver come up with a big catch. There’s not that much you can do about those plays.
Still, the Bears secondary gave up some big yards on some critical third and long plays, and you simply can’t let that happen with this offense. Converting a 3rd and 20 was all you needed to see of how this game was going to pan out.
Scratch that, when you see Josh Hill blanket a Nevada receiver and Marc Anthony force a fumble only for it to be recovered in the endzone for a TD…yeah that’s all you need to know about how this game.
The Offense as a Whole
Was it pretty? Not really, but you know, the offense moved the ball fairly well. They actually outgained Nevada in total yardage, racking up 502 yards of total offense and 31 points.
The most brutal part though was turnovers (aka interceptions) and the inability to convert in the redzone. All three of Riley’s interceptions came in Nevada territory, with one being returned for a TD.
But the struggles in the redzone was the real killer in my mind.
The Bears failed to convert from 1st and goal at the seven yard line and had to settle for a field goal.
The Bears also had a 1st and 10 at the Nevada 12 yard line late in the game, but came up with no points after the Bears gave up a critical false start and Riley’s fourth down pass was helplessly swatted down.
When playing against a high profile offense like Nevada, you’ve got to take every point you can get. And despite showing the ability to move the chains, the Bears simply couldn’t keep up by finishing with enough points.
The Life of Riley
You could make a move about Kevin Riley’s career, and the chapter on last night’s game could be its own spinoff, though spectacularly predictable in some ways.
Let’s get the good out of the way. Riley completed 62% of his passes for 277 yards and a touchdown.
Riley also had a couple of great clutch throws on third down, all to Marvin Jones, to keep the drives alive. His passes on rollouts were also pretty sharp, and led to some big gains.
Ok, now let’s get to the bad. Let’s start this conversation by talking about his three interceptions.
Despite what David Norrie may have said on TV, the interception is not on Riley. Yes the ball was a tad high and not perfectly in front of Keenan Allen, but that needed to have been caught. It was a mistake by Allen plain and simple, and the defense capitalized.
Prior to Riley’s second interception, the Bears had closed the gap on Nevada after a spectacular opening drive in the second half made the score 24-21. The Bears were marching down the field after a rare defensive stop and looked like they were swinging the momentum back in their favor. Then, as the clock was winding down, Riley locked on and tried to quickly get the pass out to Alex Lagemann when a Nevada defender jumped the route and returned it for a TD.
It was the very definition of a backbreaker. Head scratching, face smacking, back breaking. It simply killed all momentum, and the Bears would never recover. No one will argue that it was simply a terrible play, one that shouldn’t really ever happen by a senior quarterback.
As for the third interception, it was in garbage time, when Riley just locked on a direction and threw to no one, with the Nevada secondary gladly accepting the gift.
Riley also had a number of other painful misthrows, specifically overthrowing and open Keenan Allen on a critical third down, and missing a wide open Isi Sofele in the endzone. Painful.
Was the loss on Riley? No. Not by any means. When your defense gives up 45 points, you can never pin it solely on the quarterback. However, I will say the pick six was the defining moment when you really knew the Bears had little chance of digging themselves out of it.
The season is still early, but after all the games, it’s pretty evident that the story with Riley isn’t going to be radically different this year from what we’ve seen. He’s going to put up some good numbers, and will make a few spectacular plays. He will take care of the ball for the most part, and is the best option to lead this offense. But Riley simply isn’t going to be a very accurate quarterback, and will have his share of head scratching throws. Let’s accept it, and move on.
You know, I thought the offensive line actually played pretty well. While they didn’t look like they were really dominating the line of scrimmage, I thought it was actually one of their better performances of the season (which isn’t saying too much I know). They opened up some decent lanes that Shane Vereen was finally able to exploit, and gave Riley some pretty decent time in the pocket.
As for that offensive series in the first quarter (you know which one I’m talking about) that was pure ugliness. Seriously. Just about the worst series I’ve seen in years. The sacks weren’t on the offensive line however. Vereen had a rare whiff on his block for the first sack, and tight end Anthony Miller got beat on the outside for the second. After that, the Bears did decently well in pass protection.
Marvin Jones is a Beast
We all know it, but I’m saying it. The guy is a stud, and the unquestioned number one pass catching option. The guy catches nearly everything thrown his way, and makes big plays when the Bears need it. There really isn’t a need to make comparisons, but I really do see shades of Geoff MacArthur when I see Jones play, which is saying a lot because MacArthur is just about my favorite Cal receiver of all time.
When Jones managed to drag his right foot before on the 39 yard sideline fade, I simply thought, “NFL material.”
You had to feel for Jones towards the end of the game. There was one particular play near the end of the game on an overthrow in his direction, where you could see how worn out he was. And could you blame him? He more than carried his weight that night, catching 12 passes for 161 yards, personal bests for him. The guy left it all out on the field that night.
Vereen Has a Record Night
While we’re continuing to feel good about individual offensive performances, let’s celebrate the welcome back party for Shane Vereen. After two quiet performances, Vereen absolutely exploded Friday night, running 19 times for 198 yards and two TD scores. His first TD run was one of his most impressive ever.
One of things I continue to love about Vereen is the way he fights for positive yardage even when he’s at or behind the line of scrimmage. He isn’t quite a pile mover, but he’s creative in the ways he crawls, spins, tumbles, and jukes forward for positive yardage. He really almost singlehandedly keeps many Cal drives alive.
You have to think the Bears would have liked to have given him the ball more, but he also looked pretty gassed as he continues to get back into football shape recovering from his hamstring injury that kept him out of most of fall camp.
Anthony Miller is Back As Well
Aside from a few rare whiffed blocks, one which led to the second sack on Riley, Miller emerged again as a pass catching threat. After recording just one catch for 5 yards this season, Miller caught three balls for 57 yards. We’re going to continue to utilize Miller, as the guy is a solid threat to keep drives moving.
Much of it is based on what opposing defenses give us, but you have to think that the Bears need to continue to balance the passing attack a bit more than they have.
Other Offensive Issues
You know, I really continue to root for Michael Calvin, but prior to his 18 yard catch, I was thinking, “Man, I can’t remember the last time Calvin caught a pass. What has it been, since like, 2008?”
It had been. And I’m surprised the Bears continue to have as much confidence in him as they do, even throwing that endzone pass to him which he really should have come down with.
Eric Stevens continues to show he has the physicality and athleticism to play fullback, but his inexperience shows. He’s had a number of whiffed blocks the past few games, which I suppose is a little less worrisome than if he just continued to be manhandled physically. The guy needs to continue to grow though, asap.
Isi Sofele can be a great change of pace gap, but there is a noticeable drop off when he comes in the game. He hasn’t developed the ability to fight forward for positive yardage as well as Vereen has, and drives have the propensity to stall quite a bit unless he’s given a fairly clean running lane.
There wasn’t much to dislike with the unit, although I think it’s telling of the type of night the Bears are going to have when Bryan Anger shanks a punt. Thinking about it now, I can’t remember the time I’ve ever seen him do that. It was stunning really.
Other than that, everything else was fairly solid with the unit. How refreshing is it to not have to continually gripe about the special teams in each of my recaps?
I must say, I can’t believe how much more poised Giorgio Tavecchio looks this year. Just seeing his face before the opening kickoff, I remember thinking, “This guy looks like he knows exactly what he’s doing and wants to knock this pigskin out of the park.” Sure enough, the guy nearly knocks it through the uprights on the opening kickoff for a rare touchback. Yeah, the altitude sure helped, but a year ago, I don’t think he would have gotten close to endzone even with that help.
My one gripe is that I wish the Bears could show a bit more explosiveness on kickoff returns. The Bears have showed very little in this area, and you’d think with the playmakers Cal has, that they might be able to get the ball past the thirty yard line at least once.
But hey, given our struggles with Special Teams the past few years, the fact that this is my biggest gripe is a victory for everyone involved.
It was an ugly loss, and you know team and fans have very little to puff their chests out about at this point. How the Bears respond at this point will be the biggest issue.
At this point, the question is, “Who Knows?”
Who knows how the Bears will regroup and handle a number of Pac-10 offenses that are likely to be as dangerous and just as varied in schemes?
Who knows how this offense will continue to progress, especially in terms of maintaining consistency in run blocking?
Who knows how the Bears will come out against an Arizona team that I think will contend for the Pac-10 title? Who knows if they will come out refocused, angry, and ready to take it out on a team? For what it’s worth, I think that will be a lost, but then again, who knows?
Who knows how this loss will look at the end of the season if the Bears manage to regroup and rally off seven more wins, especially if Nevada somehow manages to go 12-0 this season? By the way, I definitely think the latter has a chance of happening.
Who knows? Few have answers at this point. Fortunately, with it having been a Friday game, the Bears have one more day to try and figure out.