Sunday, October 4, 2009

Some Initial Thoughts

I have been saying all season that I am withholding judgment on how good this team is until after UCLA, and I am sticking with that. I said I thought before the season Cal would lose up at Oregon. I thought before the season that the SC game was a toss-up. I am not dumbfounded by Cal's record right now - I always thought this was a 10-2 team that could go 11-1 if Riley had a Jerome Randle-like metamorphosis, or could go 8-4 if he played like last year. More on him in a minute, but for now, the latter is certainly looking more likely.

And the defense is playing about how I thought they would. I figured they'd take a step back at linebacker and as a result, Gregory would have them more heavily keyed on the run to overcompensate for lack of experience, leaving them vulnerable to short passing and TE routes. Check. I am maybe a tad surprised at how occasionally ill-prepared they have seemed against certain offensive looks, but with the exception of the Oregon game (which by season's end will I think look more and more out of character), they have made the kind of mistakes I expected.

What I totally whiffed on was Riley's mental game. I had him pegged as kind of a loose player who could shake off bad plays, fire himself up and make a good one the next play. But what I've seen from him the past two weeks is that he takes bad plays HARD. Riley never recovered mentally from that interception he threw to Mays. He missed almost every pass he threw the rest of the night, hitting only a couple. He was just never the same guy. And versus Oregon, it just seemed like once he started missing on passes, it just kept happening again and again.

The QB position, in terms of comparing one high level college athlete to another, almost exclusively mental. They can all throw. They can all hand off and sell fakes. Where they diverge is between the ears - how well they master the offense, how well they read defenses, how well they understand game plans, and perhaps most importantly, how well they play under duress - mental, physical, self-imposed, and externally-imposed duress. Can they still put the throw on the numbers when they've had a terrible day, there's a DE bearing down on them, it's third and long, and the team is behind? When they see a man wide open, do they think, "I am going to rip the defense's heart out with this one." or do they think, "Holy crap he's open, I cannot miss this or we're screwed."

I have no idea what goes through Riley's head, but twice now, we've seen Riley's quality of play drop off dramatically from where it has been at other times. In both instances, the drop off occurred after he struggled with wide open passes and pressure early in the game.

This tells me something: he has trouble shaking off mistakes. I am not criticizing him. It's hard enough to be a Pac 10 starting QB, but to have to suck up mistakes and frustration in the middle of a game against a defense like SC is just plain hard. Most people couldn't do it.

But that's the job of a college quarterback, and the fact is, Riley looks like he's struggling with it. He looks like a guy who gets into a funk and can't get himself out. I am very curious to see how he does against UCLA. If he rights the ship, and can keep his wits the rest of the season, this team can run the table the rest of the way (yes, I think they are a decent QB away on offense from doing that from here on out). If he continues to struggle mentally, I fear things could get ugly.

It's not all on Riley, but the fact is, quarterback play is the missing link for every other team in the Pac 10 trying to take down USC. It's not a mystery. The only other Pac 10 teams who legitimately looked like they might win the conference in the last 7 years were Cal 04 and Ore 07. And what is the first thing you think of when you think of those two teams? Rodgers and Dixon leading great offenses. USC has had the best QB in the conference every year but those two years. If Cal wants to get there, it needs better QB play, plain and simple.

I'll have many more thoughts on the game later, but I will say this much for now: for all the bitching about Cal's coaching and play calling, Cal had Pete Carroll's defense fooled repeatedly Saturday night in the passing game, more than I've ever seen. There were plays to be made all over that field. And if those passes were completed (and they absolutely should have been), the Cal coaches look like geniuses, Carroll looks like he's rebuilding, Best probably goes for 100 yards, and Riley is the toast of the town. I am livid at the unforced errors - nothing irks me more watching football than that. But mark my words, whenever Cal can find players who can make these plays, SC is going down.


abraham said...

I have spent a lot of time reading ESPN and other blogs on the Pac10 and on Cal football but I must say you are simply the best. I am speechless about how detailed and really objective and methodical your analysis is. It not only allows the reader to really understand what happened but also learn a great deal about the game of football which is invaluable to someone like me who never played football. All I can say THANK YOU VERY MUCH and keep it coming. BTW I have one burning question which I really hope you will find the time to discuss: Yes like your analysis says Riley seems flustered by his mistakes and that seems to led to further drop in his level of play but my question is, do you think that is a true nature of Riley or has Tedford's mishandling of the QB position taken a toll on him by making him weary, and put a lot of pressure on himself? I like to think it is more the latter than the former, because the Riley from '07 seemed a gutsy, bold, aggressive kind of player, i.e. pretty much the opposite of the one at present. I am dying to hear your thoughts on this.

SD said...


You are welcome. It's good to have readers who appreciate breaking down the finer points of football. Onto your question, and it's a good one.

With the caveat that I don't think we'll ever know for sure without being present at every exchange between Tedford and Riley, I tend to believe that for the most part, the ability to shake off mistakes is hardware not software. Yes, a good coach can instill some confidence and make a QB feel comfortable. And similarly, a bad coach can certainly damage a QB's confidence by being a complete ass to him (Tedford not in this category, and not really applicable here). But for the most part, a player is either mentally tough or he's not. And very few are. That's why there are so few great NFL QBs, and why the good ones stay good even into old age - it's a mental position, not a physical position.

And I don't think Tedford makes his QBs into head cases. He's very careful with them. He stuck with Longshore in 07 precisely because of this. And he's not criticizing Riley this year precisely because of this.

As for last year, all he did was open it up for competition, after he gave both QBs plenty of chances. An open QB competition is most assuredly not "mishandling" a QB situation. If that's too much pressure for a kid, he's too mentally weak for the position.

But to me, the more salient point is that if you have a really talented QB, he won't make a ton of mistakes, so you never get to this question of mishandling QBs. By being so error prone, it's Tedford's past three QBs who have raised the issue with their poor play, not the other way around. The next time Cal signs a QB who is USC's first choice, or who ends up being a first/second round pick, you will see how many of these questions disappear.

As for Riley regressing, I think another point is in order, which I'll talk more about later. Riley's best games have been when he's had more than a week to prepare (AFA, Mich St., MD 09), or when the offense is in hurry-up mode, the defense is in prevent, and there is very little for him to think about (OSU 07, MD second half 08). That's less than 10% of what a QB does in college.

90% of college quarterbacking is week-to-week game planning, with pressing defenses, which is much more challenging mentally. Riley has struggled in that setting (08-WSU, MD, CSU, 09-Ore, USC). That is for more telling as to what type of starting QB he is than his AFA and OSU games from 07. It's much different being a reliever than a starter. And it's much different preparing for opening day or a bowl game, than preparing week to week. The good news is he has two weeks to prepare for UCLA at least.

abraham said...

Thanks Scott I wanted to thank you much earlier but there was something wrong with the system. Look forward to learn more about football and Cal football from you in the future.

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