So, it seems that we at Bears Necessity have been a little dumbstruck by the loss to OSU. Now that my five-day hangover has finally subsided, I’m in a mood to skip right ahead to this week’s Big Game. Earlier this week CGB invited readers to share their fondest Big Game stories. Mine begins way back in 1996, when I was but a freshman.
The bonfire rally was memorable because I convinced my football-loathing crush from the dorms to go with me — with sexy results. And the game was memorable because it was my first taste of the kind of soul-crushing disappointment that would dominate my Novembers for years to come. But most memorable was the aftermath of the game. That was the year the Stanfurd Tree tried to march across the field, the Tree became engulfed in a sea of Blue and Gold, and the Tree became no more.
For many years, pieces of the 1996 Tree adorned the guitar amp in my dorm room, in my room at the now-defunct Le Chateau co-op, and in various New York apartments. Each year we lost to Stanfurd. Each year we rushed the field — with sexy results. But I always had those “pieces of Tree” to remind me of a time when justice had been served in a ruthless and pointless fashion.
And then a miracle happened! The Holmoecaust ended before my eyes on a sunny Thanksgiving weekend day in New Brunswick, New Jersey and we got a new coach. And that new coach actually won the 2002 Big Game. And all was finally, for once and for all, right with the world. Still, whenever I looked upon the foam and felt pieces of costumery that adorned my guitar amp, my thoughts would wonder to that poor nameless, faceless douche who had made the mistake of trying to march across our field while wrapped in foam cushion.
New York is a funny place. It’s obviously huge and filled with millions of strangers. But you still run into people you know all the time. And it seems that everyone you meet has a mutual friend from college or grad school or work or whatever. Thus in 2003 I found myself seated at dinner next to the boyfriend of my girlfriend’s new roomate (hereafter, “BOMGNR”). This chap was a Stanfurdite. And since I generally have nothing to say to Stanfurdites other than trash talking, I immediately told BOMGNR of the time when I and a couple thousand of my closest friends rushed the Stanfurd Tree, tore it to shreds, sent its inhabitant to the hospital, and eventually delivered pieces of it onto my guitar amp.
While I was gleefully relating this story, BOMGNR leaned in and said something that stopped me in my tracks. “It’s funny you should say that, because you’re going to meet the guy who was in that costume tonight.” WHAT!?! COMO, OTRA VEZ POR FAVOR!?! Well, as it turned out, this BOMGNR was in a NYC-based comedy troupe (obviously, right?) with not one, but two former Stanfurd Trees — one of whom was the very tree we demolished in 1996.
True to his word, at a house party later that night BOMGNR introduced me to my (our) erstwhile victim by saying “this is Tony, he has a piece of your tree in his room.” Of course, the Tree had no idea what BOMGNR was talking about (he at first assumed BOMGNR was referring to the tree that grew in their Brooklyn backyard). Details were filled in, and it slowly dawned on the Tree that I was one of his tormenters from seven years prior. He was a good sport about the whole thing, but I felt pretty bad (at least I pretended to feel bad while actually being totally geeked by the coincidence).
As it turned out, I went on to see the Tree at many social events and, truth be told, he was a totally rad guy. Their comedy troupe was actually pretty hilarious (and nothing like the “comedy” gold offered up by Stanfurd halftime shows). Ultimately, I genuinely got the sense that these Stanfurd lameasses pretty much understood their inherent inferiority to Berkeleyans. And on that common ground, I forged a friendship with someone who had, at one time, been only a faceless repository of my rage and angst.
Of course more years passed. I broke up with my girlfriend. The comedy troupe parted ways. And the Tree moved back to California. Cal went on to win many more Big Games. And I never parted with those pieces of tree that, to this day, remind me of what Cal football is really about: hating Stanfurd!
Now let’s GO BEARS AND BEAT THE FREAKING CARDINAL!!!!!!
Quarterback: 11-25 for 117 yards isn’t good. But then again, Riley was getting battered around like a pinball for much of the final three quarters. Getting rushed not only from the edges, but in between the tackles, at the gaps, from the sidelines, whatever. Nevertheless, other than the early Tucker touchdown, Riley only had flashes of competence, overthrowing receivers yet again. This pattern is just as wearisome as Longshore throwing 4th quarter interceptions. Just once can someone throw the ball well for four quarters straight?
It’s going to be very difficult to evaluate this season properly for Riley, who’s been jerked around all season. On the other hand, when he does get ample protection his passes appear to sail. Don’t know. To be continued.
Running back: Jahvid Best’s most spectacular game of the season, giving us a glimpse of what we hopefully can see behind a healthy offensive line next year. He singlehandedly kept the Bears from getting blown apart with one kickoff return, one beautiful sailing run, and some nice cuts up the middle. So I’ll cut him some slack for dropping that ball. He needed more help and the receievers just couldn’t make the big plays.
*That Washington State game doesn’t count, since the Cougs this season aren’t qualified to suit up against most Division III schools.
Run blocking: There was one terrible call on Ta’ufo’ou that erased one promising start to a drive. But all in all it was a solid performance in executing the gaps and getting Best into open space on the big running plays. When a makeshift line does the basics right, I have to give them high marks.
Pass protection: Sigh.
Receivers: It’s a sad state of affairs when a well-executed wide receiver touchdown pass just barely puts these guys above passing grade. These guys need mondo trabajo this offseason with footwork and running routes; this isn’t the first season we’ve dealt with slippery hands and forgetful minds. Verran Tucker and Nyan Boateng will be the leaders going into next season, but both aren’t close to being prototypical. At least we know Jeremy Ross has a nice arm.
Run defense: One more victim for the midget. And we get to deal with him for a few more years. Thrilling. Surprisingly, the team’s overall performance eroded even more quickly in the second half. Oregon State’s offensive line lived up to its billing this year as the most physical in the Pac-10, as they’ve now dominated both USC and Cal at the point of contact.
It’s worth noting that the linebackers (a supposed strength of this team) had huge trouble sealing off the edges. One Rodgers brother went in, the other went to the angles. This is one talented Beaver squad.
Pass rush: Strong pass rush again early, but the defense was just on the field too much to sustain the attack. After two quarters, Oregon State put the ball in the hands of the running backs and ground up the front seven for the rest of the game. Good night.
Pass defense: The linebackers must not be as good at coverage as I thought they were if they can’t properly play zone on 2nd and 30. That down absolutely maddened me. Just like Chris Turner at Maryland, Lyle Movaeo hung in early and finally got into a rhythm that lengthened drives and provided scoring cushion. Syd’Quan and Hagan turned in their usual yeoman starts, but this was just a case of a quarterback and his receivers outmanuevering the secondary.
Special teams: This was bound to cost us sometime this season, wasn’t it? Two huge returns put the Bears ahead to stay. Tevecchio directionally kicked properly and it was returned to the house; another punt return. Bryan Anger’s leg seems to be suffering from frosh fatigue, as his kicks have gotten shorter and shorter. Only Best’s spectacular early run keeps this from being outright fail.
Coaching: All in all it wasn’t a terrible gameplan outlined by Cignetti. The Bears did lessen their tries for the home run ball with Riley under center (consider the USC second half, where all the throws were going for 20 or more yards), but again the execution just wasn’t there. Gregory looks like he might be earning a nice extension for services rendered, although I still think his revamped defense has plenty to work on this offseason.
As for special teams…
(Even Lou Holtz mentioned the meltdown. I’m not sure Lou Holtz knows where Berkeley is.)
Overall: Let’s be frank, there were some awful, awful penalties in this game, many of which went against the Bears. This was not like the USC game, which was incompetent both ways; there was a homefield advantage.
Did it tilt the game favorably toward Oregon State? Perhaps. But road teams should know that officials (especially in the college ranks) will be affected. You’ve got to play through the tough calls and execute properly. For much of the final three quarter, the Beavers played like the better team. Scarily, they might be the better team next year too. We shall see.
(Scoring offense is points scored by the team, scoring defense refers to points given up, just to avoid any confusion. This is not a competition between how many touchdowns Jahvid Best or Syd’Quan Thompson would score, although that would be sick.)
WOOOOOOOOO! Graphs baby graphs!
There are some immediate trends you can notice. The powerful USC offense might’ve declined in relevance, but the USC defense has become freakishly dominant the past five seasons. Everyone else’s defense has kind of vacillated in the middle, which is probably why they end up bowling before New Year’s Day.
Surprising to note: Not only is Arizona’s offense high octane this season (1st in the Pac-10), their defense is actually better scoring wise at keeping points off the board than Cal’s (even though all the yardage stats goes to the Bears). This is what happens when you give up 28 points in a quarter Bears!
For the basic gist of the next segment, you want blue line above red line. Otherwise your team probably is spending winter break Christmas shopping at Target rather than getting free goodies.
A few isolated trends that bear mentioning:
The Washington Schools
Oh the horror.
Oh my goodness. The state of Washington football is like Brundlefly, totally emaciated and ready to burst forth into a sickly gangly creature of the night. The devolution has been spectacular, with fans probably vomiting acid everywhere and violently controlling it. There are sadists in Seattle and Pullman savoring every moment of this. These people also voted for Lyndon Larouche.
Washington State’s complete breakdown is even more startling than Washington–the Huskies have at least had seasons in the past where they’ve proven to be totally outclassed. Then again there isn’t much consolation for one school to be losing games by an average of 37 points, only for the other to get battered around for their average 27 point defeat. Even the 1-11 ‘Furd in 2006 lost their games by only an average of three touchdowns. It seems the wheels have come off both these programs, and the only thing these teams can try and do in these final few games is cover their unprecedented 30-40 point spreads.
(Oh wait, Washington is only a touchdown underdog to UCLA? God. Damn. It.)
Second Level of Terrible (ASU and UCLA)
Arizona State’s collapse and speaks volumes about how an eight game home schedule–2007–can earn one a ten win season. How the hell does that work anyway? When was the last time Cal played eight home games in one season? And has Rudy Carpenter finally been battered into irrelevance? What fun that UCLA-Arizona State game will be in the post-Thanksgiving glow.
Rick Neuheisel could get outscored by double digits next season and Bruins fans would start building a shrine. Of course, this team will probably win seven games next season though and beat Cal in the Rose Bowl like they always do. Typical Bruins football.
On the uptick (the ‘Furd)
After recoaching them from reprehensible to mere substandard, Harbaugh has the Cardinal (dare I say it) looking mildly respectable. They’ve come a few ticks away from beating Oregon and UCLA on the road and battled Notre Dame to a standstill, so this is a team on the rise. Keep an eye out on them. They have a decent shot at being the third best team in the Pac-10 next year.
Senior quarterback always helps (Arizona)
It’s going to be fun to see what that ex-Texas Tech offensive coordinator does with Elway’s son. If he’s like his old man the results might not be pretty (Elway was many things, but he was no spread offense pocket passer). Still, sitting at 6-3 with a powerful offense and an underrated defense, plenty of upside in Arizona’s future. Probability of this being a one hit wonder with Mike Stoops: 7000%.
Nick Allotti Needs to Rot in Hell (Oregon)
Perhaps the most surprising graph of all. The Duck offense insofar is averaging more points and only giving up slightly less than last year’s nearly Rose Bowl bound team. Masoli and the Blount/Johnson combo aren’t exactly lighting the world on fire, but there’s no evidence to suggest that they’ve been worse. And even Allotti comes out okay here, even if his secondary is easily roasted.
Back to the Typical (California)
After a team regression to the mean last season, everything is back on course for the Golden Bears. Although the offense has declined back to a solid level and no longer can be considered spectacular, we all have to remember that 2004 team didn’t look spectacular on paper either. Next two seasons will be very interesting.
Never Underestimate Mike Riley (Oregon State)
Since they’re losing to Arizona in a week, we’ll have to discount their BCS chances, but Oregon State is well set up for next season and 2010. Their OOC schedule? at UNLV, home dates with Cincy and Portland State. 2010 has home dates with Louisville and Boise State. Since they’re retaining the core of their offensive talent and will only have a more improved defense with a brilliant DC, Corvallis is here to stay.
I Hate Them. So Much. (USC)
Oregon State hiccup aside, the Trojans have given up a total of 23 points since that game. Not per game, TOTAL. Even if two of those teams were doormats, with only two gimmees against the ‘Furd and UCLA left (and a home beatdown of Notre Dame), only the Trojans can stop themselves now.
Examining point differential, you can see how wide the gap appears to be between first and worst (hell, between anyone and the Washington schools will suffice). And one little infuriating fact–Cal was a little bit better at dominating their opponents in 2004 than the Trojans. This stuff will keep you awake at night.
To view all the Pac-10 scoring numbers and see Division I rankings for that particular season, click here to view the spreadsheet and examine the data for yourself! You can also publish the graphs on your own site by clicking on “chart” on each graph and selecting the “publish chart” option, where you’ll receive the embed code.
If you have any additional data leave it in the comments.
Nate Longshore: Another strange performance. It wasn’t like Nate was bad, even though he had those two interceptions called back on bizarro penalties. Interestingly enough he seemingly replicated his 2006 USC performance with three nice rollouts. But the offense moved like it was playing in a mudstorm (three timeouts had to be called to avoid delay of game penalties), and Nate has to take some blame for that. Although his statsheet looked nice (11 of 15 for 79 yards, including 3-5 on 3rd down), Tedford probably assumed he’d gotten the most out of Nate and decided to go to Kevin to try and get the offense into the end zone.
Kevin Riley: Went 3 for 5 on his first drive, should have had the tying touchdown, then threw the interception into the end zone (great tip before then). After that, he threw seven incompletions in a row, not helped much by a few dropped balls and an occasionally bad receiver route. His accuracy was good at first, but then he started overthrowing his receivers. I still don’t know what to make of him. Obviously he’s in an awkward situation, but he hasn’t begun to prove he can sustain drives. If the Oregon State game can’t get him fired up–he should be the starter now that Cal’s Rose Bowl chances are kaput–then I don’t know what will.
Running backs: Jahvid Best did not look 100 percent. There was no explosiveness out of the box after the first drive. He doesn’t look quite set into his motions, often just running into a pile and kind of moving at 80-85% most of the game. He had a few good runs with runblocking, but in the open field he didn’t have quite the jets that he had earlier on. Shane Vereen wasn’t much better, although he did find the open seam to give the Bears what appeared to be a touchdown. The most impressive back was surprisingly Ta’ufo’ou. Sadly Cal’s offensive schemes predicate the fullback to block more than run, so we didn’t see more of that. It’d have been an interesting experiment though.
Receivers: Boateng and Tucker seemed to establish themselves as the two big receivers for the stretch run and going into next season, especially with their amazing catches to start Riley’s drive. There was a total brainfart on the crucial Vereen swing play, although he did have a nice “ooooh” leap play. There were drops of course, but they played at around the mean.
Run blocking: Tony asked where our run game went in his post-game column, and it really didn’t have anything to do with the running backs; the problem started up front. Alex Mack picked a terrible time to have his worst game of the season. A few penalties here and there, some iffy blocking, and the Trojan D-line just looked faster at the point of contact. The rest of the unit had a few flashpans, but they just weren’t on the same level as USC. Our offensive line was cobbled together and showed its greenness with penalties, penalties, penalties. Everytime Cal took one step forward they took two steps backward. Just that type of game. Against the Trojans it was too much to overcome on offense.
And as much as I love our linebackers, USC’s are just sick. It’s not even fair. Every year we provide a great unit somewhere on defense, the Trojans always seem to one up us.
Pass protection: See run blocking.
Rushing defense: Although the Trojans had some huge gains and generally dominated at the line of scrimmage, they were held to only 4.8 yards per carry and could not gain much penetration otherwise. The 3-4 for the most part held up, not relinquishing any huge yardage plays like in last year’s game and giving the Bears offense plenty of opportunities to tie the game. Follett’s huge forced fumble on Joe McKnightstalled one drive. The platoon of C.J. Gable, Stafon Johnson and McKnight only had 93 yards on the ground through their first seven drives, well below their average. Sadly, Cal’s offense sputtered and the run defense eventually caved.
Pass rush: Highly impressive. The 3-4 didn’t let up until the 4th quarter. Sanchez was hurried and pressured much of the time he went to pass, and even though there were occasions the blitzes were picked up, for the most part it was effective in stalling the Trojan offense from breaking through early on.
Pass defense: I was wrong about Mark Sanchez. He looks like a decided improvement over John David Booty, and is progressing nicely into Carson Palmer range in the resume of Pete Carroll era quarterbacks. If he can kick himself into Matt Leinart gear for next week’s game he’s going to be a terror to play against the next two seasons.
Gregory did the right thing and tried to get the pass rush on him while letting the secondary play conservatively. Hagan had a few nice plays, but otherwise we didn’t see the Bears take too many chances on Sanchez’s throws. Considering the Trojans weren’t trying to make any mistakes and kept their passes on the short side, this was effective strategy and kept USC out of the end zone. Well, except for that TD incompletion.
Special teams: I’ve always thought it was appropriate that our walk-on field goal kicker became Cal’s answer for kickoffs and field goals. This might sum up the Pete Alamar era in a nutshell when it comes to kicking. Anger did his thing, Syd’Quan had one solid return, and for the most part there were no huge returns given up. Yay, nothing to be said here!
Coaching: I’ve been frustrated with Cignetti at times, but it appears he called a solid game against the Trojans like he did in 2005. Gregory seems to have reestablished his groove. Alamar is Dr. Jekyl and Mr. Hyde. Unfortunately, the mental errors abounded. Tedford’s stoic nature might have come back to bite him in this game; the green offense probably needed some raw emotion to charge them up for a huge “Rose Bowl on the line” game in the Coliseum. Riley’s insertion provided it for a bit. But the offense just looked slooooow getting into their progressions and the mistakes piled up.
Overall: Execution, execution, execution. If the Bears’s offense could have executed most of their plays correctly this is probably a tied game and then who knows what happens late. But once the drops and penalties accumulated the opportunity for upset grew dimmer and finally turned off by the fourth quarter. Cal’s offense again could not step up when the defense did their job, and while the result was close again, it was still a defeat.
Against any other team, a defensive performance like the one the Bears put up probably has them heading into the showers with a victory. Unfortunately, they were playing the Condoms.
Grade Cal’s performance in the poll sidebar.
1. My first thought is SCREW YOU ‘SC. I’m really tired of this program and its fanbase treating “knocking players out of the game” as its animating principal. For an example, see Conquest Chronical’s Q&A with CGB the other day. If you need another example, try having a conversation with a U$C fan without them making some reference to the hit Desean Jackson took against them in 2006. All euphamisms aside, these people are talking about deliberately injuring opposing players. It’s weak, it’s classless, and it’s bad karma. And they were bringing it again tonight with their helmet-to-helmet crap and late hits on the quarterback and what have you. I pray that Pete Carroll is duly punished in the afterlife (by which I mean as head coach of the 49ers).
2. As I expected, this game proved to be a bit of a replay of 2006 and 2007. Cal stays with the Trojans until U$C puts the game out of reach in the final minutes. It’s getting pretty old, isn’t it? This one was a little different because Cal was absolutely dominated in the stats, but stayed in the game due to (1) U$C penalties; and (2) fortuitous defensive stops at just the right time. This game was winnable, and that’s the best you can hope for against the Trojans. The Bears let it slip away, again.
3. Did anyone else notice that, for once, we didn’t take a big dump in the third quarter? Both teams were scoreless on the quarter, but that was when Cal was continually driving in ‘SC territory (before coming up empty, of course).
4. Our QB controversy is alive and well. There is no doubt that Riley brought a special electricity to the game when he came in to start the second half. And that drive featuring the called-back Vereen touchdown and Riley’s pick was otherwise a thing of beauty. But he continues to sail balls over open receivers, and he continues to have too much faith in his ability to escape the pass rush. Longshore lacks that electricity, but he hit his receivers and he evaded the blitz. I’m still torn and, I guess, just happy to have both of them.
5. Where was our running game? Many have noted that our running game was extinguished to a large degree by all the penalties that put us in long yardage situations. I would add that U$C was clearly keyed in on the run, and we needed a more consistent passing game to open it up. In fact, if memory serves, the only stretch of the game where we had some successful running plays was the aforementioned third quarter drive. That was the only time the U$C defense looked to be playing scared.
6. It finally time to engage in premature outlandish Cal Rose Bowl scenarios. Yes, there are several avenues whereby Cal could still go to the Rose Bowl. The first would be if Cal wins out and U$C loses two conference games. Of course the chances of U$C losing it’s only two remaining conference games (Stanfurd and UCLA) is basically zero. The second scenario would be if Cal and U$C both win out and U$C manages to move into the BCS top two. However, for Cal to receive an at-large invite to the Rose Bowl, it would have to be in the BCS top 14. That didn’t work in 2006 and it won’t work this year either.
So here’s the most likely scenario whereby Cal could still go to the Rose Bowl: Cal wins out, U$C splits against UCLA and Stanfurd, OSU loses to Cal but wins out thereafter, and Arizona loses its three remaining games (OSU, Oregon and ASU). It’s complicated, but not crazy. Under that scenario, Cal, U$C and OSU would be three-way-tied in the Pac-10 standings with no head-to-head tiebreaker. Under the Rose Bowl selection rules, such a tie is broken by comparing “each remaining tied team’s record against the team occupying the highest position in the final regular season standings… with the procedure continuing down through the standings until one team gains an advantage.”
If Cal, OSU and U$C are tied and Arizona ends up in the standings below whichever Stanfurd or UCLA team beat U$C, then U$C will be eliminated first from the tie. That would leave Cal and OSU, with Cal winning the two-team tie-breaker through head-to-head competition. However, we need Arizona to lose out because if Arizona finishes tied with the Stanfurd or UCLA team that beat U$C, then the Rose Bowl will move to its next tie-breaker: final BCS ranking. U$C definitely takes that one.
There are a couple other ways this scenario could work out (e.g. if UCLA is the team that beats U$C and UCLA craps out against ASU or Washington), but the above is what I think would be most likely.
Of course all of this depends on Cal winning out. Go Bears, let’s beat the Beavs.
For more reasoned analysis concerning USC, check out The Bear Will Not Quit (who also warns you about that damned Havili wheel play ARRRGH). Information on watching Cal-USC online or at meetups is here.
To be honest, most Cal fans already won this week (we’ll leave it unnamed because I don’t want to get political on you yet). That’s probably what’s causing all this unbridled optimism that we can go into the Coliseum and take down the mighty Trojans. A loss at USC will make people angry and disappointed for a little bit, but it would all disappear if we got right back up and won our last three games. It’s perfectly normal to feel the ups and downs, especially against our feared and hated rival, but we’ll regain our perspective pretty quickly and realize that where we are is still a drastic improvement over where we’ve been.
Bears fans will probably vacillate too often between the extremes, but I think this season we’ve only been thinking of the message board types and blog commenters who expect too much and live and breathe Cal football in their being. On the whole, most reasonable Cal fans have been deeply embedded in the culture of Tedford football for so long that they just desperately want to see us break through. They want the Rose Bowl so badly that they’ll look past the statistics and hope for possibilities of perfection. Which doesn’t seem wrong at all. I’ve seen much worse fan reaction in my lifetime.
Honestly, Cal fans are pretty light compared to other fanbases. USC fans criticize Carroll for not going undefeated every season. Auburn fans have had a sustained run at excellence including a 13-0 season and now they want to fire Tuberville. Tennessee fans came a few errant Ainge throws from winning the SEC title last season, and now Fulmer is gone.
Tedford and Longshore have had it fairly easy compared to the gripings of other college football fans. Most of us just shrug it off and go back to enjoying the rest of our lives. There are a few firebrands, but they’re caught in the moment and usually settle down as time moves along. And look toward next year.
So yeah, it’s easy to be optimistic after the events of the past week. And perhaps we’ll lose and the fans will overreact. But that always happens.
Hydrotech brings up some sobering stats, but he did miss a few concerning Cal.
Obviously the defensive matchups look like a standstill, so it comes down to which offense will break through, make the big plays and the least mistakes. The Trojans have the advantage being at home…but I think their odds of winning are slightly inflated. Perception does not match reality.
And even then, college football isn’t like the NFL; statistics usually don’t tell the entire story at the end of the day. It’s characterized by massive mood swings, emotional vacillations, of 18-24 year olds having to step up on a weekly basis and provide the same effort they give to the field. On paper USC should beat Cal probably 85 times out of 100. But they don’t play games on paper.
You also have to factor in how badly Cal’s veterans want this. Longshore, Follett, Mack, Syd’Quan, they haven’t seen Cal beat USC. These are grizzled college veterans who were here in 2006 and 2007 when they played Trojan teams of comparably the same value and just came up short when it mattered. Now they’re given a third chance at redemption, at battling all out for the crown. You don’t usually get three chances at anything in college football. Don’t the odds suggest that we’re due?
So yeah, it’s easy to be optimistic after the events of the past week. I have a special feeling about tomorrow, just like when we played in Oregon in 2006 and Tennessee in 2007. Anything is possible.
Continuing where Tony left off, it’s not hard to envision a scenario where USC goes down, and it starts on the defensive end. For all the complaints about Bob Gregory that have been voiced, there’s no doubt the defense has been the strongest part of the 2008 California Golden Bears. Currently the Bears defense are allowing 2.88 rushing yards per carry (9th in the country), an astounding 92.61 passer efficiency (3rd in the country), and are only allowing opponents to complete less than half of their passes (49.1%, second best in the country). Whether you chalk it up to lousy Pac-10 quarterback play or the switch to a 3-4 defense is up to you.
Bears With Fangs points out that the defense will have to be world beaters again, and I have to concur. Stafon Johnson, C.J. Gable and Joe McKnight aren’t as strong as the Masoli-Johnson combo we faced this week in terms of pure yardage, but they can keep drives alive and shorten down and distance. Although he’s had his hiccups, Mark Sanchez has played much better than John David Booty, and is progressing quite nicely. It is noteworthy that he struggled against Arizona and Oregon State for much of those games though. (And for God’s sake, watch out for the half back pass to Stanley Havilli swinging out of the backfield. Ohio State, Oregon, Oregon State and Arizona have all missed it; let’s not be #5 on the list.)
If you’re a historical trend kind of guy (I’m not), you can turn off the TV if the Trojans hit 24 points, since they’re almost certainly going to win this game. They’ve only needed 23 on two occasions and 24 on the other. Cal’s defense has performed admirably in the big USC games, but it’s been the offense that’s let us down.
Dr. Saturday has a nice little breakdown of all the play-action Cal’s offense ran in the Joe Roth game last year, and while we will need that part of our game to run effectively, we might need more, much more. We can’t rely on Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen bouncing for 70 yard scampers, since those only happen in the Coliseum when the uniforms are red. The offensive line is still very much beat up and we can look for USC to make a concentrated effort to stop the run and turn Cal into a one dimensional team. Whoever starts at quarterback is going to have their hands full, but if they put 20 points on the board it would probably exceed expectations.
In the last four meetups, the Bears have scored 17, 10, 9, and 17 points, and one of those was the famous Aaron Rodgers game at the Coliseum. Every year the Bears play the Trojans, it turns into a defensive slopfest, where each game is decided by the barest of margins. And while the defense does its part, the offense chokes the bone.
2004: The Bears double up the Trojans in first downs (28 to 12), double up in total yardage (424 to 205), but turn over the ball three times in the first half (twice on 4th and 1s), leading to 13 USC points. On the biggest plays, Cal came up short. It never should’ve come down to 1st and goal at the 7.
2005: The defense played pretty well, holding the slot machines (PAY OUT TROJANS SCORE 50 ON EVERYONE LOL!) to 35 points. The passing offense did nothing. Less said about this game, the better.
2006: Nate Longshore has a string of three good passes that set up Cal’s only touchdown; the rest of the game was a series of missed opportunities. Longshore threw two interceptions in USC territory (albiet one on the meaningless last play of the game), but the remaining drives in USC territory? Punt, INT, punt, fumble, punt, field goal miss, INT. Cal was also awful in short yardage situations, going 2 for 7 on downs of 3 yards or shorter.
2007: This game could have swung either way. But Cal’s defensive injuries finally caught up to them, Chanucey Washington gashed us and Booty played an error-free game. Cal’s offense stagnated at too many turns and three second half turnovers doomed us (stalling two 4th quarter drives and giving USC a crucial field goal).
So again it’ll come down to the California offense making plays at the right time. Nothing from the past eight games indicates that the Bears are up to the task yet. We’ve seen about half a dozen disjointed efforts from our offense this season, and you could argue the best they’ve played as a unit all year was opening day! Even with Malele returning and Rulon Davis back on defense, it’s hard to put Cal’s chances at winning at any less than 3:1.
Then again, I’ve seen stranger stuff happen in college football. Pete Carroll and LA raising hell about the BCS, USC off another drubbing of a Washington school, Will Ferrell saving people or something. It’s been a weird week, you know?
No liveblog, but I might be on the Golden Blogs open threads tomorrow. Liveblogging this could leave me 200% more depressed 95% of the time, and even if we do win it’ll feel horribly incomplete. “Watching the game instructions” to appear tomorrow morning.
In a week where the political sphere saw a decisive underdog perform exactly like an underdog, allow me to caution that these are reasons why Cal might beat U$C, not a declaration that Cal will beat U$C. In truth I only restrain myself for fear of jinxing the team. Since way back in 1996, I’ve consistently believed Cal would beat U$C every season. But let the official record before the Football Gods show that I am technically being humble this year. No whammies.
1. Cal is improving as the season goes on.
The Oregon game, while far from perfect, shows steady improvement in several key areas — most notably in areas central to the passing game: (1) improved pass protection; and (2) fewer receiver drops. If Cal can bring a balanced offensive attack to the game, we’ll have a chance at taking it.
2. Cal 2008 is better than the Cal team that played U$C tight for most of last year’s game
Whether the 2008 Cal edition has the raw talent or depth of 2007 is debatable at best. But the 2008 edition is undoubtedly coallescing and performing better. We now have more conference wins than we had all last season, and our 6-2 overall record is better than the 5-3 record we sported at this point last year. Moreover, our losses have come exclusively on the road to good teams with winning records (can’t say that about 2007) and our out-of-conference win over Michigan State probably trumps our win over Tennessee last year.
3. U$C 2008 is not markedly improved over 2007
I remain unconvinced that this year’s U$C team is any better than last year’s. Granted U$C 2007 had two losses at this point, but those losses came against a Stanfurd team that snuck up on them to win by the narrowest of margins, and a 7-point loss to a healthy Oregon team capable of winning a national title. By contrast, this year’s road loss to Oregon State was a game in which U$C spotted the Beavers a several touchdown lead and failed to mount a legitimate comeback.
4. U$C has less experience winning gritty games
Almost every U$C-Cal matchup since 2002 has been a gritty contest that wasn’t decided until late in the game. For better or worse, Cal has played those gritty games all this season — and has won nearly all of them. U$C has arguably played in two such contests this year — at Oregon State and Arizona — and split them. All the rest of U$C’s wins have been routs. Obviously that’s because U$C is pretty damn good. But the point here is Cal has more experience winning the tight ones than U$C.
5. It’s hard to gameplan against Cal
U$C always wins the big games big. When U$C loses, it always loses to some team they didn’t see coming. I think that’s because Carroll’s greatest strength as a coach is his tremendous gameplanning ability. The upside of being a volatile team with an ongoing QB controversy is that U$C can’t know exactly which Cal it’s going to face on Saturday.
6. If you lack faith, just remember 2003
If Cal 2003 could beat U$C 2003 at home, then it’s within the realm of possibility that Cal 2008 can beat U$C 2008 on the road.
7. In recent years, homefield advantage has been muted in this rivalry.
As noted above, this rivalry has in recent years produced mostly tight contests that aren’t decided until late in the game. The one exception to that trend was 2005, when Cal was dominated at home. 2002, 2004 and 2006 were all gritty contests played in the Coliseum.
8. U$C sports a first-year starter under center
Cal beat U$C in Matt Leinart’s first year as a starter. During John David Booty’s first year as a starter, Cal played right with U$C until the final minutes of the game. Perhaps Cal can deliver enough harassment to Sanchez to make him play more like a first year starter than a national-champion-to-be.
9. U$C is a program in decline
I’ve said it before, and I mostly say it just to get a rise from U$C fans. But it is obvious that the U$C program peaked in 2004 and has been in gradual decline ever since. Now, it’s certainly possible that 2008 is an inflection point in the program’s development and U$C is on its way back up (I know the media always assumes U$C is on its way back up). Having watched the loss to Oregon State however, this year doesn’t feel to me like U$C’s return to dominance.
Now let’s Go Bears and Beat the Trojans. It is time.
- Why is Okie State over Oklahoma? I dunno, but their win over Missouri on the road seems more impressive than Oklahoma’s beatdowns of TCU and Kansas. Their loss to Texas looks better by the week.
- Before you shoot up Tech to #2 over Penn State, take a look at the other teams they’ve beaten. The struggles with Nebraska and A&M are a telling sign that they aren’t quite there, and that OOC schedule is a joke. If they hold off the Oklahoma schools though…
- Texas Tech, Texas, Oklahoma St., Oklahoma looks right for now, althought in terms of projections, it’ll probably end up Texas, Okie State, Oklahoma, Texas Tech by the end.
- USC drops down. Their signature win of the season is Ohio State. Their second biggest win involves penetration of a sterile Oregon secondary. Their third biggest win was a slopfest in the desert with Arizona. Although their aggregate victories will add up as the season goes along (a rout over Cal would go a long way), they have a long way to go before resubmitting their name in the BCS title race.
- Probably could have shifted Florida and Okie State considering their huge performance in the Cocktail Party, but it’s looking more and more like Georgia took advantage of a down year in the SEC.
- Good night Tulsa. That leaves Boise State (best win: Oregon), TCU (best win: BYU), Utah (best win: Oregon State), Ball State (best win: Navy) to bust up the BCS. Good good good. Ball State-Florida in the Sugar Bowl is just too good to comprehend. Let the bowls BURN.
- The bottom half of this poll is just a list of teams that suck too little. Bowl season is going to be fun to bet on.
- Cal at 19 seems right. In the end they’re probably the second/third best team in the Pac-10, depending on how Oregon State and the ‘Furd finish the season. The Beavers belong in because despite three defeats, two of their losses are to top 10 teams (and Utah should’ve been a win barring a drastic collapse). The 5% chance that Cal-Oregon State could be the Pac-10 title next week is a little too bizarre to picture.