Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Brief Washington and Bowl Game Thoughts

After a short hiatus, some very brief thoughts on the Washington loss and the bowl game. Apologies for the sparse posting lately.

1. A good wake-up call. I know a lot of folks have buried the Washington loss away in a dark corner, or tossed it in their psychological garbage disposal. But as convenient as it might be to cut this game out of your memory like an appendix dangling off the end of this year's schedule, I'll say this: I think this group needed to get their butts whipped like that by a team that had no business whipping them.

As much as you never like to see a team learn a lesson the hard way in college football, given how few games there are in a season, sometimes the hard way is the only thing that will get through to a team. Nothing motivates you to put in extra hours in the spring and summer, and prepare yourself mentally each and every day of the next season, than the sting of a humiliating loss the year before.

This group needed to see how well they could play when they were focused, but they also needed to see how badly they could lose when they weren't. Having both things happen so close together in the season will be a good teaching tool. Having it happen at the end of the season will ensure it stays fresh in their minds.

2. Lack of leadership. As tightly knit a group as this team has appeared to be all season, losses like this all but confirm this team lacks effective leaders. Games like this, where it is so easy to lose focus, are the ones where leadership is needed most at the college level (along with non-conference road games).

After an elating Big Game win, you could just feel the team exhale. You could see it in their post-game interviews. Plus, it's final exam time. Throw in the Thanksgiving holiday during the bye week, home with family and friends, fattening up, reading press clippings, and getting pats on the back from everyone back home, and the cherry on top: Washington has 4 wins and Cal smoked them last year. Talk about falling off the motivational cliff leading up to a game. This one had trap written all over it.

That is where leaders make their mark on a team. They help the team keep its collective edge, all week long, every day. They push guys in practice. They call guys during the week and make sure they're focused. They ride guys who need extra motivation all week.

From the first two series, you could see the team didn't have that edge. Yes, they had some injuries, and yes, there were some rocky big plays that turned the game on its head early. But they were unmistakably flat. A well-led team doesn't do that.

I know a lot of people want to blame the coaches for not getting the team fired up about this game. And to a point, that is a fair criticism. Good coaches motivate players. But coaches can't make the kids want it badly deep down all by themselves. It has to come from within, but it also has to come from teammates. Guys respond differently to their teammates than their coaches. They will play hard for a coach. But they will only play inspired for something bigger than themselves - things like their teammates, their program, their hometown.

Leaders bring that out in the team. And a well-led team would not have performed the way Cal did against Washington. This is a critical missing ingredient for this team if it wants to get over the hump next season. It will be interesting to see who emerges this offseason.

3. Bad corner play + stagnant run game = Molotov cocktail.
I can think of only one other game under Tedford where the combination of poor corner play due to lack of depth, and a stagnant run game due to weak offensive line play, combined to put the game out of reach so strikingly: Tennessee 2006. The games weren't identical, but they were similar enough to merit a comparison.

In both games, the opponent was determined to smother the run aggressively, forcing 3 and outs early against an over-matched offensive line. In both games, Cal couldn't stay on the field and slow the game down long enough to get the run game going. On the other side of the ball, the Cal defense took away any opportunity the offense had to get the run game back on track by young corners giving up big plays on the edge and putting the team in a hole. Cal had to go to the pass way too early to have a chance. Bad combination, especially on the road.

The corners and offensive line in both games were simply too young and/or not quite talented enough to hit the ground ready to play fast and keep it close, and failing that, right the ship and dig out of the hole after they woke up. There were other things wrong with both games, but when you have to fight for every yard in the run game as it is, and then you dig yourself into deficit on big pass plays, you're pretty much doomed.

4. Scheduling. I am never a fan of blaming the schedule, because for every permutation of how that game might have played out differently had it been scheduled in a different slot, there are an equal number of plausible alternate outcomes for every other game on the schedule as well.

That said, it is generally accepted that in college football, any game played in December, after your rivalry game, is a trap unless it is a conference championship. That is why, with a few exceptions, rivalry games are played last. You leave all on the field the last game of the season. Plus, once you're into December, it's final exams time. There are just a lot of distractions and it's easy to come out flat. The classic example is UCLA, having won the conference and riding an undefeated season, having to fly to Miami in December to play a rescheduled game due to an earlier hurricane, and promptly getting blown out.

When I saw this game on the schedule before the season, I circled it as a probable loss based almost entirely on the date. It is tough to get the kids up for a game like this, and UW is not the place you want to go when you're flat, especially with a QB like Locker. I hear coaches talk a lot about putting the players in a position to be successful. I am just not sure moving this game to two weeks after the Big Game did that.

5. Riley. Yes he was under pressure at times. And yes the run game was struggling. But like the USC and OSU games, when opportunities presented themselves, he failed to capitalize. It's a tough thing to do, and Riley's done a lot of good things this year. But if you want to win the conference, you need a QB who can fire a dagger whenever the defense gives him an opening, no matter how briefly or how seldom the openings occur.

I keep saying it, but it is not a coincidence that Cal hasn't had an all conference QB since 2004. Even in 2006, Longshore only received honorable mention, and that was largely on the strength of his early season games. Until Cal gets all-conference type play from its QB, it can forget about winning this conference. The defenses are too good, and the offenses score too much, to rely solely on a powerful run game. You have to be able to beat teams through the air. If a defense can shut you down simply by selling out against the run, you are behind the curve at QB in the Pac 10. Right now, that is where Cal is. With the young QB talent on other teams in this conference, that is not good enough.

6. Bowl game. I am not going to spend a lot of time on this because there really isn't that much to say. It comes down to Cal's focus and motivation. If Cal comes out with laser like focus, they will win. It is that simple. However, as we saw with BYU last night, if you don't come to play against a top-25 team (even a WAC or MWC team), you can get embarrassed. These lower tier bowls are dangerous for Pac 10 teams because they usually come on the heels of a disappointing season or a late loss, whereas the MWC team is usually jacked to be there and may be riding some momentum. If Cal is even the slightest bit flat, they are in trouble because this is a very good Utah team.

Aside from lack of focus, on the field, Cal's two biggest vulnerabilities are at corner (especially with Syd out), and offensive line (with MSG out). As I said above, if you can't contain the big play on defense, and can't get the run game going up front, you're usually in for a long day.

Defensively, I think Cal is going to have some difficulty at corner. With Syd likely out, it's Nnabuife and Hagan, with probably Hill (if healthy) and Conte rotating. Not exactly a shut down group. Expect huge, huge cushions to the WRs, which will be met with a steady diet of bubble screens and quick outs. In terms of over the top, the vulnerability at corner will be mitigated somewhat by the fact that Utah's QB is not at the level of a Jake Locker or a Sean Canfield. But I do think it is going to be difficult for Gregory to dial up too much pressure with that much exposure at corner.

Aside from the lateral screen game, I also think Cal is going to get a heavy dose of short passes to fullbacks, TEs, and slots, and will struggle a bit with defending it. That is what Utah likes to do, and especially against a physical run-stopping front 7 like Cal's, they will want to get some run-pass rhythm going to take the pressure off the QB. Cal seems to have gotten a little better at defending this, but I think Utah is going to have some success yardage-wise, at least early. My guess is we'll see a lot of bending early, and then Cal will try to suck it up and not break on 3rd down and in the red zone, gambling that Utah's QB will not be able to make plays when it counts.

Offensively, I expect Ludwig to show a lot of looks to try and spread Utah out and test their ability to cover the whole field. I anticipate a lot of short balls, screens, sweeps, and deep balls, with multiple sets and motions early, to try and keep the defense off balance and get them to show their hand a bit. I do think he'll try to establish the run, but I don't have a lot of confidence in the run game right now, especially knowing Utah is going to be selling out against it.

Ultimately on offense, Cal's success will depend on Riley's ability to take advantage of the defense. Everyone knows that to beat this team, you have to force Riley to throw. Utah is well coached, and you can be sure that is what they will do. If Riley can exploit the middle of the field and some matchups that Utah will inevitably give him by loading up on the run, Cal should be able to move the ball and eat clock. If he can't, it's going to be a long day.

I am not big on predictions, but I must say, with the injuries to Best, Syd, and Summers-Gavin, and the natural let-down feel to this game, I think Cal is facing an uphill battle here. I think the odds are good they will not hit the field with a razor sharp edge. If that happens, I think it will be hard to flip the switch against a team as good as Utah. I am not saying it can't happen, but I'll be surprised if they play this game with the intensity level that we saw vs. Stanford.


Richard Hourula said...

Yikes! I took the MSG injury as a very bad omen, add SydQuan probably being out....Oh well, there's always hope. Anyway, we have the axe!

SR said...

Man we missed you. You called the Utah game exactly. The Bears really have looked like WSU the last two games of the season. Can they ever win with Riley?
If not, will Tedford change it up next year?

Anonymous said...

Utah has a freshman qb, a bunch of one and two star recruits, not much publicity outside of Utah, no glamour. But they have great coaching. No doubt about it. I think Tedford's OK, but i don't have any faith in the assistants to get players to play up to their potential. Only way to win is to get a good/great QB. Riley and Mansion are definitely not the answer. Give Sweeney and Bradford a chance.

Anonymous said...

Excellent column once again. Went to Utah game and had a good time despite the result. Boy, did you call it! Cal weak play from OL, CB's, Ute screens and short passes with an occasional bomb. Riley needed help and didn't get much from his receivers.

Anonymous said...

How about a year end review.... You are so experienced and thorough I'd love to see a recap of the season...thanks for all you have done this year to fill us in with the straight poop...

SD said...

I'll get around to it soon.

Anonymous said...

I'm hoping Cal can lure Michalczhek (sp?) back. It can't be very much fun in oakland.

Cal's O-lines have been the foundation of the tedford era.

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