Sunday, October 19, 2008

Haven't Turned the Corner Yet



I think a lot of people expected Cal to exorcise some demons this season. While there is no question this game presented an opportunity to shed some baggage and some bad labels, the reason I predicted this game as a loss was precisely because unlike many, I did not (and do not) think this team was (or is) ready to take that next step.

This is not a criticism of the coaches or players. It is simply a recognition that the team, coaches, injuries, opponents and schedule, as currently configured, do not add up to Cal going down to the Tuscon and all of sudden breaking trends and defying logic. In fact, I think the team is playing a bit better than I expected in certain respects, but is generally performing about like they should given that "configuration." That said, this loss still stings because it feels like more of the same.

Before getting to some thoughts on the game, consider the following facts:

1. The o-line started the season with only 2 starters with meaningful starting experience.
2. No WR ever had meaningful playing time prior to this season, let alone starting a game.
3. Our NT and one DE are sophomores and are first year full-time starters - Arizona was DE's second start.
4. Arizona was the FS's second start.
5. Arizona was RG's second start.
6. One CB is a first year starter.
7. Our backup CB and backup FS (rotating in on 3rd down) are a soph and a RS freshman.
8. We are breaking in a new defense, a new offensive coordinator, a new DB coach, and a new WR coach.
9. The QB position is not settled.

Setting aside the schedule and matchups vs other teams, when you consider those facts, it is not difficult to imagine this team struggling a bit on the road and having some growing pains. Just some perspective.

Now onto the game.


GOOD THINGS I SAW

1. Great catches.
Tucker and Morrah hauled in some fantastic catches for TDs, and Nate put the ball the only place he could. Boateng made some nice grabs too. All three of these receivers are going to continue to get better and have the makings of a great receiver corps.

2. Nice play calls to take advantage of Cal's height at WR.
Cignetti clearly went after Arizona's young, smallish corners with high passes, and early on it worked very well. Good call I thought. This is a nice piece to add to the offense. Now they just need more consistency.

3. Cal has become a good blitzing defense.
For the first time I can remember under Gregory, the Cal defense is consistently disruptive when blitzing. Williams and Follett made some great plays behind the LOS. Along with continued corner blitzing by Syd, I see this being a great weapon on defense the rest of the season.

4. I hope Morrah stays for his senior year.
Yes he dropped some balls, but he was a matchup problem for Arizona all night, and his TD catch was ridiculous. Hope he doesn't leave after his junior year - I doubt it because his blocking still needs work, but he has NFL talent.

NOT SO GOOD THINGS I SAW

1. 27 points (even with a pick 6) should be enough to beat Arizona.
People seem to want to pin this loss on Longshore, the offense and the play-calling. While there is no question the offense struggled in the second half, the offense and Brian Anger's stellar punting gave the defense all it needed to win this game. Cal went into the locker room up 24-14. 8 minutes into the 3rd quarter, Cal was down 28-27. Longshore had not even thrown the INT yet, and already you could feel the momentum had completely shifted. Arizona took it after that second TD and they never relinquished it. That is on the defense, period.

2. Ironically, it was gambling on defense that led to some of the big plays.
The knock on Gregory is that he plays too conservative. But where Cal got burned more than a few times was man to man with no one safety deep. Personally, I'll take Syd on Mike Thomas in a best of 5 matchup. But Syd got beat a couple times, and because we weren't in the soft zone people complain so much about, those plays were back breakers. Same goes for some of the runs. Once the RB beat our LBs on a couple plays, there were huge holes in the secondary.

3. That said, you have to blitz to beat the Tech offense, but you also have to disguise the blitz.
Much like the 2004 Holiday Bowl, Gregory had success with the blitz when he used it, but he did not use it enough. Arizona showed blitz, faked blitz, and zone blitzed all night, and they definitely disrupted some things. Williams and Follett are better blitzers than any LB on Arizona's roster. I was disappointed Gregory did not make better use of their skills.

4. Cal continues to struggle covering post routes through the middle of the field.
I predicted this was a matchup Arizona would exploit, after MSU and Arizona State had success with it. Cal needs to figure this out, or Sanchez and USC are going to light the secondary up like a Christmas tree.

5. Cal's run game continues to struggle against crashing linebackers and/or an extra DB in the box.
Maryland gave everyone the blueprint (actually Tennessee 2006 did), and Arizona ran it to perfection. Longshore made them pay a bit in the first half, but the reality is, you have to be able to put a helmet on linebackers in the run game. Too often, Cal's backs are getting hit right at the LOS by linebackers, even weakside or only with 7 in the box. That simply should not happen. Even with 8 in the box, you have to be able to run the ball occasionally.

After the Wazzu game I expressed concerns about Cal being able to sit down at the table and simply feed itself "meat and potatoes" on offense, rather than just slamming TDs in the vein when they needed them. This game was a perfect example. Best's TD run was spectacular, but you're not going to get those more than once or twice a game. You need the 3 and 4 yard carries too, especially on the road when the other team is jacked up. Unfortunately, with this group of linemen, I don't see this improving this season.

6. Coulda, woulda, shoulda, but turn a few of those drops into catches and Cal probably wins (though it would still have been close).
The great catches make the drops hurt worse. I think this will get better with time, but it's too bad some of those weren't catches, because they would have made a difference.

7. Poor tackling, pursuit angles and shed-and-fills.
This definitely accounted for a lot of Arizona's success on the ground. Just like versus Maryland, the defense just had mental lapses in terms of tackling, pursuit, and shedding. On one huge run up the middle, Williams buried his head into the lead blocker with reckless abandon, despite having no real help behind him, and the runner blew right by him. That type of carelessness definitely contributed to the loss last night.

8. Cal continues to come out flatter than their opponent on the road when ranked and/or favored.
Not much to say here, just that it continues to be a trend. Fixing this is not as simple as recognizing that you are going to get your opponent's best game, or believing in yourself and wishing to erase the bad loss there two years ago. That's the first step, and this team seems to have that (which not every team does). But fixing this requires more - the kind of laser-like focus, desire, and plain old nastiness we saw versus Tennessee and Oregon last year, versus USC in 2003 and 2004. It's easier said than done, but that's what it's going to take for Cal to walk into places like Pasadena and Tuscon and beat a team that gives them their best game.

FINAL THOUGHTS

The sky is not falling and folks need to check their expectations. This is a young team with a lot working against it - youth, injuries, new coaches, etc. I said at the beginning of the season I thought this looked like an 8-4 team, maybe 9-3. I still think that. I also have said for two years that I think 2009 could end up being Tedford's most talented team ever, so there is a lot to look forward to with this young group. They are going to get better every game. Guys like Best, Vereen, Jordan, Hill, Schwartz, Hagan and Anger are all supremely talented underclassmen and have a lot of good football left to play at Cal. Guys like Boateng, Thompson, Alualu and Morrah still have one more season too. Plus the season's only half over and anything can happen in the Pac 10. So relax and enjoy the ride.

7 comments:

Anonymous said...

Count me as one of the complainers about the play-calling. Arizona's defense got its ticket punched on the ground by Stanford--286 yards' worth. I doubt Stanford's offensive line is any better than Cal's, and I'm reasonably sure the Wildcat's didn't first think of putting a strong safety in the box this week. The problem is that the Bears' "downhill" between-the- tackles rushing attack is missing in action under Cignetti. Instead, we have this cutesy wide stuff that, as often as not, puts us in 2nd and 12. You might as well be telling these linemen, including our putative All-American center, "we don't think you can move a mediocre defensive line off the ball." Until Cal believes it has a legitmate power running game and calls plays accordingly, it will not have one, and the offense will continue to struggle.

Gauchobear

SDGoldenBear said...

Fair point Gaucho. I do think our run plays are too slow developing and they give linebackers too much time to flow to the ball. I am not sure why we do that, but I have noticed it becoming more and more of a trend. Part of that is the zone blocking aspect, requiring the RB to read and pick a gap. But there is no reason why we can't mix in some more straight ahead power runs.

Anonymous said...

probably your worst post that i can remember. it's the kind that will probably get or lose you readers.

you give a laundry list of reasons we should be forgivably mediocre, starting with the oline only returning two starters with "meaningful" starting experience.

As you well know, you're trying to pull the wool over people's eyes. Those two starters have INCREDIBLE starting experience for college linemen. 3+ years each at the same spots on the line and one of them was rated the best oline in the conference at maybe the most important spot. In addition to that Teofilo had started last year and so did Tepper who we lost (a 3rd senior starter but injuries are part of the game). Entering the season the line looked like one of the more experienced units on the team and in the conference and the most inexperienced guy on it (schwarz) is probably the second best player, so I don't know that inexperience so much as development and desire is our problem.

You imply that we're young on the offensive line. Well, we'll be LESS experienced next year, since by your standards we'll have ZERO starters coming back with 'meaningful' experience. And the 2.5 starters that do return (Schwarz, Teofilo, Guarnero/Boskovich) will have a year or less each. There's no reason to assume that Teofilo will ever be a solid pac10 olineman the way he misses blocks and there's no way that Shwarz for all his talent will be as good as this year's Mack.

Then you talk about the inexperienced defense without noting that the DE you're talking about is the BACKUP--we had a senior starter there and we weren't much better with him. The sophomore NT is starting over a two year starting senior. We had a senior starting FS. I don't understand having it both ways--it's like you're talking about the team and season as a whole but then if we have an injury like any other team you build your argument around how young the backup free safety is. How do your arguments about inexperience apply to Arizona's dline or their running back, or their first year starting corner, all of whom had their way with equally or more experienced players. Why do you suppose that happened? Certainly not because of Cal's inexperience.

Bernard Hicks and Mika Kane and Matt Laird are the upperclassmen. Who's been developing those guys while Arizona went from a team that we shut out two years in a row to this one?

The worst take imo is about the offensive coordinator's need to settle in. If this is true and it's contributing to us losing games then Tedford is really to blame. 4 oc's in 4 years is a mighty bad thing. The word from the coaching staff is all about seamless transition and like philosophies and improvement due to the new OC. Do you think they're just liars?

I just don't get how convincing arguments about why a team is playing below its potential are because they have a "sophomore" backup cornerback and a rs backup free safety. This is college football. You only get four years. If you can't backup as a sophomore you probably suck.

And it wasn't gambling that led to big plays. It's Gregory's way of coaching d that did it. usc and oregon state both can blitz very effectively while leaving a safety home. It's Gregory that can't send 5-6 guys and still have someone over the top.

In the end our coaches are smashmouth guys--they want to out-tough the other team, not out-think them or out-motivate them. Gregory can have a good D if he has a defensive end that can simply overmatch the LT and when he has corners that can dominate receivers. If he doesn't his defenses will give up plenty of points. Only one year did he have a Ryan Riddle on the edge.

it's just funny that you saw the drops as a bad thing but the wide open guy streaking for a td and a 14-0 lead of the qbs (both of them) throwing balls into the turf with no pressure, both looking over their shoulder, both completely confused and out of sync all the time, didn't make your list. Our qb'ing is awful and has been since Aaron Rodgers despite the best receivers in the history of the program. If last year's receivers couldn't produce you may want to look at the qbs and qb coaching before blaming inexperience for these ones.
Just some perspective.

So just relax and enjoy the ride.

oldblue said...

My "big picture" analysis is that we are not a second half team, even in the games we win. We needed to find a way to answer Arizona's touchdown drive that put them ahead by one point. We had about 6 minutes top play in the third quarter, there was plenty of time left in the game and we threw an INT and were instantly down by 8points. Still, there was about 6 minutes left in the third quarter and we were down by 8 points, so the game was not out of reach, but we didn't respond. We didn't respond for the entire second half. In the second half against MSU we let them hang around and didn't put them away. In the second half and particularly the fourth quarter against Colorado State all we needed was to hang onto the ball and get a couple of first downs to eat up some clock and we couldn't do that. This may be the hallmark of a young, inexperienced team, but I think it is more the product of coaching at some level. Whether it's putting a stick up someone's butt on the sidelines or adjusting some play calls to enable players to produce, we need to come up with something. The game isn't over until it's over. When we're ahead, we need to realize the other team can still score. When we're behind, we need to realize we NEED to score.

We're 4-2. What four teams are we going to beat to go 8-4? UCLA and Washington are probable wins, but at this point, OSU and USC seem doubtful and Stanford is anyone's guess, as usual.

SDGoldenBear said...

There is no question we have fallen off as a second half team. We used to be one in 2003, 2004, 2005. And you are right some of it has to be on the coaches.

I really think a lot of that is the o-line talent we have. We had a dominant o-line in 2004 and 2005, and that allowed us to chew up clock and run the ball in the second half. Since then, we've had a patchwork o-line with the only sure-fire NFL-type talent being Mack. Until Schwartz this year, the o-line has consisted of guys who have maxed their ability through excellent coaching and extremely hard work. But even at their best are barely honorable mention all Pac 10 type players.

The mere fact Schwartz (a RS Freshman) is not only starting but is being praised by the coaches as the best lineman after Mack speaks volumes about the relative talent level of the rest of the unit.

It is hard to dominate a second half, especially on the road, without dominant offensive linemen.

That said, you are right it's still a coaching issue - if you know your o-line has trouble, you have to make adjustments all over the place in the second half. They have not done a good job of that.

Anonymous said...

Hey SD,

I keep seeing this "27 points should be enough to win" bullcrap. Sometimes defenses don't play well. When that happens, you would think that our 5th year senior QB would be able to rally the offense 1 game a year to pick them up. The defense played amazing when the offense was off for the ASU game. Arizona is the highest scoring team in the Pac-10. You would think we would need to outscore them if we are going to win.

The problem is, Nate just isn't the guy who is going to get it done when we need him the most (big games). Go ahead and site the Oregon '07 game and Tennessee. I watched that Oregon game and Nate was not spectacular in the 4th Quarter. It was the defense that won that game in the 4th, not Nate. Tennessee was won by Special teams and again the defense (WW return and DJ return are the difference in that game).

Nate should be reserved to the bench. It's time for Riley or Mansion. JT needs to let Riley do his thing and stop trying to make him into Nate. Give Riley back his game JT.

SD, you and all the other Longshorians stop making excuses. Nate had a couple of good throws and that's it. He sucked the rest of the game. Everyone in the bar that I was with was requesting Riley half way through the 2nd qtr. What has Nate done to justify replacing Riley as the starter. Riley 3-1, Nate 1-1. Riley 2 and Nate 4 interceptions.

Go Riley, Go Bears, bench Nate or look forward to the Vegas Bowl.

Anonymous said...

At this point, I would love for Tedford just to stick Riley into the game so he can fall flat on his face just to shut up all the armchair QBs that are on Kevin's jock. I'm more than positive that when Riley stinks it up, the same people will be making up excuses for him and that it will be better next year. Better to lose now if it means winning down the line. That attitude is a complete JOKE. You're putting all your chips on the table and risking throwing away a season on a QB that might NEVER develop into anything more than an inconsistent pocket passer who can focus for only parts of the game.

There's more to a QB than just looking at the amount of TDs and INTs he's thrown, which is pretty much the evaluation tool that sadly, most Cal fans use.

Outscoring the other team will definitely win you games. But when you're asking an offense to score 35+ points to beat another team, that's asking a lot. That's why you need defense. I seem to recall USC being #1 in scoring offense and #1 in scoring defense in 2004. Arizona is #2 in scoring defense and scoring offense this year. NO chance in hell we come close to beating USC in 2004 with that defense of theirs and if our D stunk. Same thing applies to UA this year.

I am a huge Riley fan (moreso than Nate) but I was greatly discouraged by his inconsistent performances and inability to move the ball. Even now there are grumblings coming from the inside that Mansion might surpass Riley.

Blog Post Archive