Tuesday, November 17, 2009

Arizona Recap

Dear Coach Gregory,

I still haunt your dreams,
but you can sleep soundly for a while.

Mike Leach


Bob Gregory. Bob Gregory endured the coaching equivalent of passing a kidney stone last week, culminating in that final searing but cathartic release when his defense stopped Sonny Dykes' (read: Mike Leach's) offense on its last chance fourth down play. And they did it with a sack, something that offense is specifically designed to, and did all season, avoid like the plague (little known fact: for 10 years, until this season, Mike Leach had never had a starting QB miss a game due to injury, credited to his offensive system that virtually eliminates a QB being sacked).

That offense has been a Rubik's cube for Gregory for years (ignoring 2007 when Dykes was running it with an ill-suited QB and Stoops' fingerprints were still all over the offense). It is safe to say for at least one night, he solved it. Good for you coach. Good for you.

Particularly noteworthy were the defensive players' quotes after the game. Mohamed said they felt "unstoppable" against that offense. Cattouse said the offense had tendencies they thought they could take advantage of, and that they felt like they had a game plan that could take things away from Arizona. That is the talk of a well-prepared defense. Dare I say Bob Gregory outcoached Sonny Dykes last week?

Attitude. The defense finally came out and played like they expected to be in control. They didn't play scared. They didn't sit back and let Foles pick them apart. They didn't concede the short stuff. It almost burned them more than a few times, but in the end, the pressure and aggressiveness, combined with the well-executed run defense, paid off. I hope the players remember how that felt the next two weeks as they practice, because they'll need to bring that intense preparation all week if they want to play with that kind of confidence against the next two opponents.

I still think this group has some holes talent- and experience-wise, and those holes have held them back some. But this game was Exhibit A for the principle that even on defense, where talent is so critical, a solid game plan combined with a motivated, focused group of players can overcome some talent deficiencies.

Mohamed. I am very impressed at how he has grown from more of a speed guy to an ILB who can peel off defensive linemen, read run, and come up and fill gaps. A lot of guys with Mohamed's physical makeup end up running right past inside plays or guessing (and guessing wrong) because they are used to playing on the edge where they can see better. But the kid obviously has some instincts, which are more important for inside linebacker than just about any other position on the defense.

Combined with his coverage skills and lateral range, he is growing into the total package. The rest of the LBs still have big holes in their games, which is a concern the rest of the season and next season. But Mohamed is finally starting to look like the steady presence people hoped he'd be.

Thompson and Alualu. Expect a dropoff next year when these two are gone, because without their playmaking, I question whether Cal wins this game. They were everywhere, and they make critical plays (as they have all season).

Still having trouble covering the TE. Even without Gronkowski, Arizona managed to burn Cal with passes to the TE, joining Oregon, USC, UCLA, and OSU, all of whom made a living off of that concept against this defense. Had Mohamed not made an athletic recovery to break up an early deep ball to the TE (on what was probably a blown assignment by him to begin with), that would have made two TD catches by TEs for easily over 100 yards. And had Gronkowski been in this game, I think Cal might have been in trouble.

Given Cal's vulnerabilities in LB pass coverage, I will be surprised if Stanford doesn't try to hammer Cal with TE and FB passes out of play action all day long Saturday. Stanford has athletic TEs and FBs, they execute the play action very well. The Cal defense needs to prepare for this.


Offensive line. This group looked a lot more active. In run blocking, guys were getting off the ball more quickly and hitting people until the whistle blew. You could just see a difference from the week before in terms of their composure and attitude. In pass protection, they had some lapses, but they also picked up the stunts and blitzes decently well much of the game.

I am not ready to anoint Summers-Gavin as the savior of this unit and the difference between the run game production vs. OSU and vs. UofA, because the whole unit just seemed more lively and played better. But one thing I really like about this guy's game is how quickly he gets out of his stance when he pulls. It means Vereen can slow down just that much less as he waits for the hole to open, which keeps the run from developing too slowly, something that has been a problem from time to time with this offense.

RB pass blocking continues to be suspect. The lapses continue in this regard. Vereen got smoked on a blitz pickup right up the middle at least once that I recall, and generally, this group (including the FB) is not great in this area.

Vereen. As I have said many times, Vereen is a much more prototypical Gould tailback, in the Arrington and Forsett mold. With players like Lynch and Best, a coach has to be careful not to take away what makes them great, so you live with them doing things a bit differently than you might want as a coach, which both Best and Lynch do/did.

But with Vereen Saturday, you could see more of Gould's handiwork: the almost invisible extra 2 yards of crab walking and crawling after contact, the patience waiting for holes to open and then darting into them, and the avoidance of punishing direct hits. Even without the 60-yard run, Vereen was having a quiet, methodical 100-yard game.

I felt before the season that Vereen is the kind of tailback who could put up big rushing yards over a full season if he could stay healthy, simply because his abilities and coachability mesh so well with Gould's system.

The quick downfield pass. I had hoped before this game that Ludwig would use more quick, non-lateral passes to keep the defense honest, and I was glad to see more of this Saturday. These passes have turned into a good weapon for this offense, by taking the pressure off the running game and slowing the safeties and linebackers. While Riley struggles with lateral balls where he can't step into the throw, he seems to excel when he throws downfield. And it is now clear that Cal has the WRs who can catch these balls and take a hit.

Riley. Riley continued his enigmatic play. On the one hand, he again found a way to lead the team down the field for the go ahead score, as he has managed to do multiple times this season. You cannot ignore that he keeps finding a way to do that. As I've said, Cal really hasn't had that kind of player at QB since Rodgers. When you combine that with a defense that can find a way to get stops, it gives a team a lot of confidence in close games.

On the other hand, he still makes contrastingly remarkable mistakes. His two INTs were back breakers, and he was close to having a third. If he just avoids those two INTs, Cal probably gets at least one, maybe 2 FGs out of those drives.


1. Starting field position for Arizona after kickoffs: 35, 30, 33, 23, 38, 35 (45-10 penalty yards). Sad.
2. But for the kicker's leg whip tackle, Arizona likely scores on that kick return and we are talking about a totally different game. Notably, Tavecchio was actually credited with the tackle on the last two kickoffs. With a game that close, that is a stunning indicator of the ineptitude of the kickoff team.
3. Botched substitutions on at least one FG that almost ran down the play clock.
4. Missed extra point that would have sealed the game.

Bottom line, special teams almost gave this game away. Again.


A closing thought, to store away for next fall. Now is a good time for fans to take stock of how good they think this team really is, register that thought, file it away, and then revisit it when setting expectations for next season. Don't wait until after the bowl game, or after reading glowing reports about spring ball, or reading about fall camp, or reading the preseason rankings and prognostications, or watching the highlight vids during the slow summer months.

All that can be factored in as well, but now is a good time to take stock because some of the more unsavory things are still fresh in the mind as well: the 3 and outs, the poor run blocking and pass protection, the pliable pass defense (flanker screen, anyone?), and maddening special teams play. And think about the impact of losing guys like Alualu and Thompson and ask yourself how the team will play without them on the field. All of that, the good and bad, should go into the analysis.

Right about now, most fans now have about as honest and unaffected a sense of this team as they are going to have. Last week, a lot of folks were down, and for good reason. The week prior to that, folks were way up, but the sample size probably wasn't big enough. Now, the team won over a pretty good team, but it was ugly and left no one with delusions of grandeur.

Yes, there are still two more games, so the analysis can continue over that time period. But once the season ends, many fans lose perspective almost immediately. So start now. In fact, look at next season's schedule now and try to pick the games (link here). Then review your picks on Monday before the first game of the year, and see if you feel differently.

All in all, another gutty win. Now let's wipe that smile off Harbaugh's face and pee in Stanford's cheerios this week (a loss could knock them down to as low as 6th place if Cal wins out and AZ goes 2-1).


Ken Crawford said...

Senior day is my "official" taking stock for next year day. As each one walks out the tunnel, my mouth is cheering but in my head, when I hear a name like Alualu I'm thinking "Ooooo... that's going to hurt next year."

I was surprised how many names hit me that way, so I'm not real optimistic that we'll make any significant progress next year, but the two names that hurt the most, as you said, are without question Alualu and Syd.

SD said...


Great idea about using Senior Day. Never thought of it like that. I totally agree - it is going to be hard to expect significant improvement on defense with those two guys gone. And even though Johnson isn't an all conference player, he's got more experience than any backup safety by a considerable margin.

Maxer said...

I think that's the beauty of college football though. New guys show up, and they become the guys that we can't live without. We don't know who they are yet, but they're there, and I for one choose to think of the potential of that.

Anonymous said...

SD, will there be a Stanford preview this week?

SD said...

I will try.

Anonymous said...

Missed your comments on the Defense for the OSU game.... Gregory's unit came up big for UA but still wanted to see where the lapses were against Oregon St..
thanks for your insightful analysis as usual...

Anonymous said...

As always SD, thank you for your great insights and analyses.
I'm hoping we will play with alot of emotion this weekend and that a true leader (which we don't have right now) will emerge from this game;someone who will lead us again next year. And to those players reading this: Play loose, but hard and you'll win. And always remember--THE BEAR WILL NOT QUIT!!

Jim said...


Always look forward to your commentary -- too bad you must have a day job too!! It's been an interesting season, full of ups and downs. In dealing with the lows, I've really had to sit back and remember that these aren't professionals. These are 18-21 year olds and they are going to be prone to vascillating performances. Plus, it's Cal -- it's not Florida or Tennessee (thank goodness for that). So, in taking your advice, I'm trying to look into next year and get a sense as to what to expect. Here are some of my thoughts.

Even years have been good to us ('04, '06, '08 -- to a lesser extent) during the Tedford era. We get 7 home games (5 in the PAC 10). While Reser, the Coliseum and Tucson haven't been kind to us in the recent past, I like hosting Oregon, Arizona State, UCLA, Washington and Stanford. Our history at home against those schools is good. But, intangibles notwithstanding, let's get to out personnel.

Offense: We've seen what we're going to see in Riley. I just don't see where he's going to get much better. His physical mechanics were better this year but I fear his mental approach to the game won't improve greatly. He'll still be inconsistent. I think our RBs will be above average and am not convinced Best goes pro. I'd hope for an upgrade at FB but doubt there's anyone waiting in the immediate wings. The OL is what will make or break next year's team. I think Summers-Gavin and Schwarz are solid. I'd like to see Galas at center (I just think he'd be more physical -- he has that wrestling background that Mack had). I don't think Cheadle is the answer at RG. I don't see the explosiveness or the 'mean streak'. Maybe Schwenke develops into that position? The tackle opposite Schwarz will be the other question. Again, Tepper was adequate but I think that position can stand an upgrade. The question is who? DeMartinis? Edwards? That's going to be an area to watch. I like Miller at TE -- he's going to get better and is already pretty solid. Jones will improve. I like Lagemann as a possession type -- he runs great routes and you can already see Riley 'trusts' him. Ross is too inconsistent for my liking. We need someone here -- hopefully a newcomer can break into the 2 deep.

Defense: You've commented that it takes 3 years for someone on the DL to really develop here. Hopefully that will be the tonic for Uwusu, Guyton and Payne. If Jordan can be more consistent, I think we'll be ok here. LB is another story. Mohammed is a good weakside ILB, I agree. I think Holt should stay inside with his bulk but does he have it? Will Kendricks take the next step. Will Price or Ryan Davis emerge? Will someone like Fanua, who is redshirting, add some value? Again, more uncertainty. Our secondary has a solid safety in Cattouse and he looks eager to take on a leadership role. Conte should be moved to a safety position. Will Hagan make a 'comeback' next year? Hill, Nbauife (sp?), Anthony or Steve Williams need to grow up fast.

Outside of Alamar, I'd like to see continuity in the coaching staff. With the teams' youth, this is vital for development. But, the special teams need VAST improvement and a re-dedication of focus and attention.

I'm hoping that Stanford's head is a little big -- I think the Bears will do well in the underdog role. How well remains to be seen. I like our chances in Seattle after a bye and then we go bowling. 8-4 (and then, hopefully 9-4) while not optimal, is still pretty successful -- successful enough to secure a decent recruiting class.

I'll be very much looking forward to your 'preview' of the '10 season when the time is right. Thanks for all of your work on your blog this season!

Richard Hourula said...

SD, Finally I find something to disagree with you about. I don't think using Senior Day is a valid way to determine how you'll do the next season. The exception being when graduation is decimating an entire unit or you've got a lot of great talent leaving. Neither usually applies and certainly not to this year's Bear team. It's impossible to tell which, if any, redshirting players are going to produce and which younger back ups are going to emerge and which are merely going to be squad players. These are young men who are between the ages of 18-22 who are developing and changing as athletes and human beings at vastly different rates. Add to that true freshman who contribute and JC transfers who step right in and you can't possibly tell that by losing two players one entire side of the football will be significantly weaker. Nor, for that matter, can you say with certainty that a unit will be stronger just because certain players are returning. As outstanding as Tyson and Syd Quan are, I can't see that their departure alone is enough to significantly weaken our defense. Our losses to graduation are actually relatively light this year (and my goodness if you've got a good enough program you're always going to lose some really good players). Only the secondary as a significant number of graduations and considering what a disappointment Ezeff has been and the improvement in Catthouse we should be okay.
I don't think senior day is a good time to predict how the team will do at all. And if I'm wrong and it is a good time we should be at least as good a team next season. Hell, we'll be a lot better if we hire a special teams coach worth his salt.
All that said I appreciate your analysis and your are 99% spot on. I wish Tedford had your track record.
Lastly, this Big Game will be just like 1991's when we had an excellent and red hot team that thought it could get the axe back just by showing up. The same fate will befall St*nf*rd this year.
Go Bears!

Ska-T said...

I love watching a good, imaginative offense move the ball, and I'm greatly optimistic for the entertainment value of next year's Cal team.

At the skill positions Riley will show a marked improvement in consistency and decision making. At his age and with his skill set the difference between his junior and senior year will be significant if he works hard, and I think he will. I also think Best will return and continue the 1-2 punch with Vereen. Best needs to show the pros that he can complete a season without missing games, and he needs to prove he can run inside or, perhaps better for him in the long run, play flanker. Hell, we know he has great hands. Further, Ross is going to have an outstanding senior year. He will gain consistency when he plays more, and have an opportunity to break off more big plays.

The gaps the Bears will have at fullback and the line can be filled with JC transfers if not from the present squad. The only fly in the ointment is that the Pac 10 has become one competitive conference. Should be a lot of fun.

Anonymous said...

So here is my recruiting wish list:

Go hard after the most talented defensive players Cal can, and recruit the meanest, nastiest offensive lineman out there. With that as your foundation, Tedford, Gould and Ludwig are creative enough to get the best out of offensive skill positions (QB, WR, RB) that might not be 4 or 5-star talent. I also think the offense Cal runs is a good draw for good offensive talent, so go hard after defense and OL.

It's about attitude and confidence, and that all starts with OL and a defense that can make plays. The real killer in the losses to Oregon, USC and OSU is that once the offense crapped the bed, the defense couldn't do it alone.

Cal's offense has always been more finesse as opposed to "smashmouth" between the tackles running, short and intermediate passes over the middle. It to easy to knock a finesse team off their game, which seemed to happen in those 3 games. I see Cal being able to adapt a more nasty edge to their defense then to their offense - with the exception of the OL, hopefully.

Ever the optomist, I'm looking forward to the next 3 wins to end the season on a high note.

And thanks again SD for your excellent work on this blog

nickle said...

That last section was very interesting. But it's too hard to not get hyped up about the season each year. We're in the top 15 for 8 months of every year. Shouldn't we get some award for that?

Thanks for the post as always, your stuff is always great.

Anonymous said...

I hope I'm wrong, but I think Big Game is going to put the Bears in the "have not" category in the Pac 10. On the good side are the wins in close games against the Arizona schools, but in the losses Cal has just been bitch-slapped. Unless the offense can do some early scoring, I think we'll be down 21 by the third quarter, and the defense will throw in the towel. Again.

Tony said...

I confess to being "Anonymous" on 11-20-09. It sure is nice to be dead f-ing wrong from time to time.

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