Monday, December 29, 2008

A Fitting End

While the story of the game was Jahvid Best being unstoppable and the Bears' defense making game changing plays like it has all season, Nate Longshore throwing the winning TD in crunch time in a tight game, in his last play as a Golden Bear QB, made for a poignant end to the season.

Maligned for a poor career fourth quarter TD-INT ratio, especially when Cal has needed a score, Longshore broke tendencies in his final act as a Bear, scoring the only TD of the fourth quarter, with the game tied, with under three minutes left. Make no mistake, he did not have a great game - less than 50% completion rate and about 50 yards passing outside of Tucker's 74 yard catch and run. But he didn't take a sack, he didn't turn it over, and he made a play when the team needed it most. Fitting punctuation on a career that has certainly not gone the way the young man had hoped.

But the workhorses of this game were the legs of Jahvid Best and the relentlessness of the Cal defense. A non-conference game against a team full of athletes like Miami really highlights what a bona fide game changer Best is. Everyone knew he was getting the ball and he still got 186 yards. Plus, he only played part of the fourth quarter.

And the defense, though falling back into bend-don't-break a bit, held its own. You can't complain too much when you only give up 17 points. Had Gregory let the dogs loose a bit more on Harris, I think Miami would not have scored two TDs. But they made Miami dink and dunk their way up the field, and mostly shut down the run, forcing Miami to go to the pass. Other than the play action roll-out pass (all ten of them) and the one deep ball, the defense held Miami to most short gains all night. And of course, when it counted, they came up with big plays, be it the fumble, pressuring the QB, or breaking up passes.


1. Zone running plays. I said in my preview that Miami's aggressive, athletic defense would probably stuff Cal's power run plays but that Cal would be able to counter that with its improving zone scheme. That most definitely proved true Saturday night (though Cal also had success with power on a few plays). Best seems to have gotten much better at making his reads, choosing his creases and timing his cuts. And the line definitely showed improvement blocking out in space rather than whiffing on linebackers like earlier in the season. As I said after the Washington game, if they can execute zone the way it is intended, with Best back there there is no reason they cannot dominate in the run game next season.

2. Corners making plays on the ball. Not that Cal hasn't done this well all season, but I was particularly impressed Saturday night given Miami's obvious belief they could exploit Cal's corners 1-on-1. Other than Hagan getting beat on an odd fade pass thrown behind the receiver (he had good position for a normal fade route), and Conte getting beat on a well thrown quick slant for the second TD, Cal's corners flirted with shut-down status in man coverage much of the game (zone coverage was a mixed bag). Conte and Syd both had a couple great pass break-ups, and Hagan made a couple good plays as well. Assuming Syd stays, this bodes very well for next season.

3. Very few mistakes. Penalties, drops, and sloppiness that have plagued this team at times did not rear their heads for the most part Saturday night. Johnson's running into the kicker penalty was excusable, leaving only a personal foul (offset by Miami's) and one false start. There weren't a lot of blatantly missed blocks in protection or run plays. And other than Vereen's fumble and Tavecchio's miss, Cal didn't really give Miami any freebies. This aspect of the team has been improving slowly, which also bodes well for next season.


1. Receiver play. As much as both QBs clearly struggled at times, there is no question there is something not quite right about this receiving corps. The fact that both Longshore and Riley had games this season where they threw for very low yardage and never got the passing game going confirms that the receivers are having problems. 10-21, 121 yards is neither typical of Longshore nor of the Tedford offense. Riley had plenty of stat lines like that as well.

For example, on at least one play, it appeared Tucker ran the wrong route, breaking inside while Longshore threw outside on a play where outside certainly seemed to make more sense. And on the first play of the game, Ross should probably have caught that ball. Obviously, Longshore missed on a few throws too. And Miami's coverage was pretty tight. But this offense should generate more open receivers. Not sure if it is the routes or the WR techniques, but something needs to change before next season.

2. Putting teams away. Once again, Cal had chances to slam the door and didn't do it. On a number of occasions, they got big plays and failed to capitalize on them. They sputtered in the red zone twice. And as usual, they let a team come out of the locker room and have their way on offense in the third quarter. This has got to stop. Cal either has to blow the game open when it has the ball, or lock the other team's offense down in the third quarter. Cal did neither and as a result needed a prayer QB fumble and a clutch TD pass by its un-clutch QB to win it.

Overall, this was another good bowl win for the program. It is well known that winning your bowl game, no matter how minor of a bowl, gives you a great boost in the offseason. Guys are more jacked up in spring and summer ball. It's a chance to win a game during the high season of recruiting, where players are getting close to deciding.

And you could tell the players and coaches really wanted this game, judging by the level of excitement as they rushed the field after the game. All they'd heard was how fast Miami was, and how they hadn't seen speed like that out west. Follett said Miami was talking trash all game and didn't respect them. It may have only been the Emerald Bowl, but it clearly meant a lot for the players, especially the seniors. Good for them.

Some write-ups on the game

Associated Press (If I didn't know any better, I'd say a Miami homer wrote this, with the repeated references to Cal's home field advantage, and barely a mention of Best dominating the game. The AP is easily the worst culprit in the anti-Pac 10 media bias.)

Miami Herald (They seem to think Cal should have blown Miami out - probably right.)

SF Comical (Your typical Comical passive criticism piece, finding Cal's and Longshore's success ironic because, well, whenever a good thing happens, the self-loathing Comical finds it ironic.)


Recruit letter of intent signing day is coming up. Plus Cal has yet to announce Michalczik's replacement. I'll be discussing these issues, reviewing the season, looking ahead, and doing some other things to provide some reading and analysis over the next couple weeks. So check back regularly.


Oldblue said...

We pressured the QB early with some success, but then decided to be more cautious, probably to avoid letting them have any big plays. This allowed Miami to pass effectively for short yardage, especially when they had the QB rolling out. However, we gambled more on defense late in the game, going after Harris, and it paid off.

Nate played a good game, though not a great game, but it was good enough to win. I was glad to see him come through on that last TD. I think he saw the receiver and intended to throw to #80 (Miller?), though some say it wasn't clear who his target was. Nate was in control the entire game and obviously was the leader on the field. I'm glad he and the rest of the Bears went out as winners.

Anonymous said...

good write up, and good site. I agree with your comments about Nate and our WR. Nate had a poor overall game, but he didn't make mistakes. I think Tedford directed him to not take chances.

But our WR are not getting separation often enough, and they just aren't making plays. Plenty of times this season they were given opportunities to make plays on the ball, but couldn't.

The other sign that you're right about our WRs is that our leading receiver is a TE. That is probably because he can beat his man, and when he does our QBs seem to get him the ball.

On the other hand, we have all new receivers this year, so maybe it's our expectations that were out of line. We'll see how much they improve next year, and we will have some other receivers available. I think only Young and Cunningham graduate.

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