Can Jeff Tedford Keep Cal Football’s Window Open?

Posted by: Avinash on Wednesday, October 22nd, 2008

We are halfway through what’s shaping like another modest California football season–decent rewards with moderate fulfillment. Naturally, only in college football would a 4-2 start get fans groaning. Coming off a head-scratching loss to an offensively potent but inconsistent Arizona Wildcats team, the murmurs of discontent grow louder than ever.

The loss, by the measuring stick of losses in the Tedford era, wasn’t excruciating, although it did provide a horrifying third quarter defensive meltdown the likes of the Rocky Top debacle. Three plays went for over 30 yards, and two of those accumulated fifty yards or more, all leading to the three offensive touchdowns that put Arizona ahead to stay. The Cal defense, which had looked so good during the first half of the season, missed tackles, blew coverage assignments, and gave up high volume plays that doomed them to defeat. They played pretty well otherwise, but those breakdowns torpedoed the game right into the hands of the Wildcats, who ran away in the desert with a share of the Pac-10 lead.

Despite the Nate Longshore pick-six interception, Cal’s immediate problem has been their offensive line. Injuries to Chris Guarnero and Mike Tepper have left the offense handicapped all season, forcing the o-line coach Jim Michalczik to mix and match most of the season. After solid starts, the usually reliable run blocking seems to fade, as Shane Vereen and Jahvid Best have been stuck at the line of scrimmage, lacking the space or gaps to break out for daylight. Pass protection also has broken down in recent weeks, with Riley and Longshore constantly getting flushed out of position and forced into throwaways or high risk passing plays. And the receivers continue to struggle to fit in.

Although we entered the season with moderate expectations, deeming an 8-4 season satisfactory, it isn’t likely that the conclusion to this season will leave a happy aftertaste in the mouths of Bears fans. Sitting at 4-2, we seem right on pace for that goal, but many of us hunger for more. It’s the nature of the beast, and I’m sure Tedford understands it as much as anyone.

Tedford came in at just the right time in 2002. Washington State was peaking as a program under Bill Doba and beginning a tumble to the bottom. Oregon was in rebuilding mode.  Dennis Erickson was about to leave the Beavers adrift. The Dorrell era was on the horizon in UCLA.  The familiar Keith Gilbertson would soon turn Washington’s glorious Rose Bowl campaign into a seasonal exercise in futility.  The ‘Furd was beginning a downward slide to the bottom of the conference under Buddy Teevens and Walt Harris.  John Mackovic and an inexperienced Mike Stoops would spend years losing football games in Tuscon.  Dirk Koetter would spend most of his time getting wrecked by top 25 teams.

Not to take away anything from Tedford’s first three years at Cal, which were glorious, but he was accumulating winning seasons in a Pac-10 conference rife with turmoil and transition. Back then he was playing with house money. He wouldn’t be questioned, he could be innovative, he could take more risks. Anything was better than the Holmoe drudge.

But as the years have passed, things have settled down and our worldview of Tedford has grown more realistic.  The Mike Dunbar spread offense, despite its hiccups, kept Pac-10 defenses on their heels for much of 2006 and was set to become a cornerstone of Cal football, but there was no secret that Tedford never agreed with him about the spread’s role. Now at Minnesota, he has helped the Golden Gophers stand at 6-1 and bowl-eligible.

Since then, his coaching decisions have been at best questionable. He tried to install a power offensive system with some spread elements in 2007, but lacked the type of personnel (smaller receivers, smaller backs) to go to this type of system as the season wore on. The quarterback debate loomed large over everything, as Tedford trotted out Nate Longshore week after week when his ineffectiveness in late games wasn’t just dreaded but assumed. All this imploded into a collapse none of us want to remember anytime soon.

The grumbling at another Rose-less season is coming, even though to expect to achieve such a goal this year would probably have been unfair. And although some of the shortcomings are inevitable due to player diffusion and inexperience, some of it is merited. The quarterbacking corps has never looked worse, as Frank Cignetti seems to be doing to Nate Longshore and Kevin Riley what he did to Alex Smith–turning them into ineffective quarterbacks with predictable play-calling.

In short, Cal’s window near the top of the conference could be running out. The rest of the Pac-10 is starting to rise.

For the third time in fourth years, the conference is fielding plenty of competitive (if not talented) squads. Although USC is clearly the favorite to win the conference, seven other teams are in the hunt to go bowling. And it’s uncertain where the Golden Bears will end up, and whether it’ll be good enough for the coaches, the players, the fans.

With Rick Neuheisel in UCLA and Jim Harbaugh at the ‘Furd slowly building up blue-chip recruiting lists, with spoiler Mike Riley established in Oregon State and Mike Bellotti continuously fielding competitive squads at Oregon, with the Arizona schools likely to remain competitive for years to come, AND we haven’t even mentioned the monolith in Los Angeles, who’s to know how long this will last?

While Tedford has done much good, he is not beyond criticism. He has done a lot in the past six years to earn his lofty status among the coaches of California Golden Bear lore (if you are one of these people, please go play in traffic). But his decision-making the past several years merits reasonable questioning. How far are we going to go before everyone starts pulling the window shut behind us, leaving the Bears a notch down from their once prized status?

These next few weeks will go a long way toward telling us this.

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