Sunday, October 27, 2013

Washington Recap


(AP Photo/Elaine Thompson)

So the Bears lost. Again. This time to the tune of a 41-17 beatdown to the Washington Huskies, who in my mind will prove to be just a middle-upper middle Pac-12 team by the end of the season.

I could honestly repost last week's post on our previous loss, replacing Oregon State with Washington State, and chances are that over 90% of my thoughts would still be true. That's how repetitive this has become.

This won't be the longest post, but here are my most pressing thoughts.

Outclassed
Here's the most troubling issue: the Bears were simply outmatched last night, both on the field and on the sidelines. There were plenty of times that Cal defenders were actually in position to make plays. We simply don't have the speed or strength at key positions to defend the perimeter. There were a number of occasions when players like Dan Camporeale or Hardy Nickerson read the play properly, only to be simply beat to the edge due to their lack of speed. I can't count the number of times when our linebackers or defensive ends were chasing ball carriers from behind.

When our linebackers were actually able to diagnose run plays and take the right angles, they were simply getting blown up by pulling guards.

On top of that, because Washington was rolling the Bears with rushes to the perimeter all night, Cal's safeties had to respect the run, forcing them to have to creep up. Linebackers had to stay inside the box instead of bumping slot receivers at the line of scrimmage. That often led to single coverage on Washington's wide receivers who simply made our defensive backs look silly on a number of big passing play.

Plain and simple, Saturday's loss was not for a lack of effort. The Bears were simply outclassed physically and athletically by a upper-middle class Pac-12 team. I don't know if that's more frustrating or depressing.

Questionable Coaching Decisions
The Ugly:I was furious with the decision to pretty much wave the white flag at the end of the third quarter. Faced with a third and long, the Bears decided to run a draw play to Darren Ervin, to set up a field goal to cut into Washington's lead 38-10.

Just...why? What good does that do you? It doesn't inject any confidence into your offense. It doesn't make the game any less out of reach. It's pretty much a head coach admitting that the game is done. Now obviously the game was indeed out of reach, but I never want my head coach acknowledging it in the 3rd quarter. It's just a bad way to instill the "never say quit" attitude in a team.

The Bad:Previous to that, the staff went for an odd field goal fake play that involved WR/Holder Jackson Bouza throwing the ball out in the flat, four yards short of the first down marker. I'm not against the fake, but it was a terrible call. Dykes admitted as much in the press conference.

The Good:And on a slightly different note, I was not in an outrage with the decision to play Austin Hinder late in the game. The guy's earned it with his work ethic and team first attitude throughout the season. I don't buy into the "Kline is in the doghouse" move. There's nothing to indicate that Kline has done anything wrong. It was just the right moment to get Hinder his first collegiate snaps ever. This decision I'm okay with.

Goff Plays Ok
After winning back the starting job, Goff bounced back...a little. It was far from the sharp form he displayed at the beginning of the season, but he was leaps and bounds ahead of his previous road performances.

Goff was 32-54, for 336 yards and 1 TD. Most importantly, he had no turnovers. He made some absolutely sharp throws that show why the coaching staff continues to have so much confidence in him. Some really nice passes thrown on a frozen rope. He's still slightly jittery in the pocket however, which led him to rush through his progressions. He missed some wide open receivers at times, and was forced to check down on some critical third downs. The Bears were a miserable 7-22 on third downs, and Goff's indecision had a lot to do with it.

Ultimately, I don't think Goff played all that poorly. Still, the Bears were still sputtering on offense, managing just 7 points when the game was still in question. Like I said before, I'm not convinced Kline is the better option. But with your 1-7 team struggling to make something happen on the field offensively, why not see what he can do for you?

Worst Cal Season Ever?
As if this couldn't get more depressing, the Bears are on track to having one of the worst seasons for ever. For as outmatched as Cal has looked talent wise, no one could have convinced me that we'd be on pace for having this type of season. The Bears are looking at a winless season with the average point differential being at 21.1 points. If you take out Cal's 7 point win over FCS Portland State, the Bears have lost by an average of 25.1 points per game. The Bears haven't lost by within 2 touchdowns since their opener to Northwestern.

In addition to having the longest losing streak to FBS teams in the country (going back to last season), the Bears are looking like they're probably going to go winless in the conference. On top of that, throw in the worst statistically ranking defense in the country and an offense that's quickly sinking to those lows despite the presence of the much heralded offensive-minded duo of Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin.

Moving Forward
A few weeks ago I got a little heat for proclaiming that Cal's program had reached its nadir following a home thrashing to Washington State. Many people point to the Holmoe era. Well it's looking like Cal could again be looking at a one win season, with all the aforementioned to boot. The biggest difference in my mind was that everyone and their mother knew that Holmoe was on his way out, which was reason enough for hope. We've JUST started the Sonny Dykes era. The only hope is that things get better next year or the year after, because we're certainly not seeing any progress this year.

I went on record in predicting that the Bears would be bowl eligible this season. Obviously, that was foolish. But few could have predicted the level of injuries and the lack of prowess by this coaching staff to prepare this team to play at the Pac-12 level. Injuries and youth only get you so far in explaining what we have. Ultimately, there's a certain level of indictment on the coaching staff in churning out one of the worst teams in FBS football.

Still cheering for these Bears though. Still looking for progress.

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Monday, October 21, 2013

Oregon State Recap


(AP Photo/Tony Avelar)

This Cal season has languished to the point where the outcome of the game is rarely ever in question. The Bears have not only been predicted to lose all but one game this season, but have been projected to lose by quite a bit. And in this regard, the Bears haven’t surprised anyone with their 1-6 record.

What has been surprising however, has been the seemingly stagnant, and in some aspects, regressed state of football play. Everyone knew the Bears would struggle this year, playing arguably the toughest schedule in the country, as well as a debilitating number of injuries to an already young football squad.

However, fans hoped for competitive play in their games. Fans pointed to Sonny Dykes’ Louisiana Tech squad that was competitive in every game last season. Moreover, they looked for progress throughout the season. This was my biggest hope I had heading into this season. And once it became clear the Bears weren’t going to surprise anyone early in the season, I really just hoped for the Bears to get better and hopefully be entertaining in the process.

And despite hearing reports that the team had its best week of practice, Saturday was again more of the same thing. The game was not entertaining, nor did I see any real signs of progress. The only silver lining was that it never really appeared that the team stopped battling. They hustled, grinded, and competed on every snap. Of course, what’s troubling about that is that they showed that despite their best efforts, they’re simply not very good right now.

Sigh.

With all that said, here are my thoughts on the game and a general state of affairs.

Offense Line in a Disarray
If you had told me at the beginning of the season that Cal’s offense would be markedly worse midseason than it was at the beginning of the season, I would have scoffed. I think everyone from the coaches to the players envisioned a bit of a rocky start for this offense, but ultimately hoping that the cogs would start clicking and churning as the season wore on.

But instead this season has taken multiple steps backwards.

Obviously, a big part of it is the set of injuries to the offensive line. Losing both starting center Chris Adcock and guard Matt Cochran has stunted the progress and improvement of the offensive line. One can’t understate the importance of developing continuity with the same players on an offensive line.

However, you had regular starters making mistakes over and over again. Players losing one-on-one matchups, or making stupid penalties like late hits, hands to the face, or holding calls.

I was on record of saying that despite giving up more sacks than any other team in the conference, that the offensive line wasn’t actually playing as poorly as some people might believe. However, Saturday’s performance was easily one of their worst performances of the season. And that’s saying something.

Quarterback Indecision
Aaaannndd…here we go: our first potential quarterback controversy of the Dykes tenure at Cal.

A few games ago, the idea that a change at quarterback might even be considered was absolutely absurd. However, Goff has had a tough stretch of games since starting conference play. After getting battered around in the pocket, he’s taken a step back in terms of his pocket awareness, and his happy feet has affected his decision making and accuracy.

And as prolific of a passer as Goff has been, he still hasn’t learned to throw to a spot on the field. He’s still waiting for his receivers to get open which is causing some indecision and explains his constant short-hopping the ball.

But what’s been most troubling has been Jared Goff’s ball security. Goff had three turnovers again last night, all in Cal’s territory. The first was an interception in which he again didn’t see the defender underneath, and the second was a sack that led to another stripped fumble. The third was again a ball that simply slipped out of Goff’s hand, this time with no defender or monsoon in sight.

Enter redshirt freshman Zach Kline with the game already out of hand and an offense looking for something. Kline immediately led the Bears to their first TD on easily the best looking offensive drive in weeks.

Kline demonstrated some good and some bad, though overall, it was more of the former. Kline provided an instant spark to the offense, throwing some zip on his passes, as well as some pretty impressive pocket mobility. He wasn't afraid to tuck it and run it, gaining 28 yards on 7 rushes.

I’ve stated earlier that Kline isn’t nearly as effective as Goff at reading the field and going through his progressions. He also is at times too confident in his arm which leads to some impressive passes into microscopic windows, but can also lead to grimace-inducing interceptions.

What I walked away most impressed with about Kline though, was his decisiveness. There was little hesitation on any of his plays. He either was going to rip the ball, and if it wasn't there, he was quick about eluding pressure in the pocket or trying to pick up yards on the ground.

So the question remains: who starts against Washington? I totally understand why the coaches want to stick with Goff. They've invested in him, and I completely trust every account that says that Goff is easily the more consistent quarterback in practice. He's also done pretty well as a true freshman, and to yank him at this point might stunt his progress.

Yet, let's not forget that the biggest reason the coaches went with Goff was because of his accuracy, ability to lead the offense to points and to protect the ball. Over the past few games, he's struggled in all of these categories.

At this point, my thought is, "Why the hell not?" Goff isn't doing what he had done as well at the beginning of the season, and though Kline hasn't been markedly better in spot duty, he's shown enough that it's worth exploring. It's not like the Bears are going to lose Pac-12 championship as a result.

I'm not saying starting Kline is going to turn the ship around. The Bears have far too many holes. But at this point, why not see what he can do with meaningful snaps? And if there's even a chance that it's going to make the team better, why wouldn't you take a shot?

Defense On Pace to Set Records
The biggest question for the defense heading into the game was going to surround the secondary's ability to handle Oregon State's prolific passing attack, namely defending arguably the nation's best receiver in Brandin Cooks.

We got our answer loud and clear, and the answer was, "not well."

It was a frustrating exercise in bad scheme and poor technique. The two scheme issues were that Andy Buh elected to (1) assign single coverage on Brandin Cooks and (2) be incredibly frugal in sending pressure. I understand that the Bears were wary of OSU's use of screens (which ultimately ended up killing the Bears anyway), but they still gave Mannion far too much time to sit in the pocket and carve up the Bears' secondary.

The biggest technique issue was that the secondary just had a poor time reading receivers' eyes. A lot of times, the DBs were actually in pretty decent position on most catches. It's not like we were constantly seeing defensive backs in really poor spots or not filling the right zones. However, there too many plays where they just a touch late, and on top of that they simply weren't looking up to locate the ball. Nearly every catch involved a decently well positioned DB with the back of their helmet to the ball, hopeless flailing their arms in hopes of breaking up the pass. And more often than not, they did not.

What's truly the shame is that I think despite giving up nearly 500 yards for three weeks straight, I do actually think the secondary is playing better than they did at the beginning of the season. They're not playing well by any means, but they actually are playing better. The problem is that the progress has been greatly stunted by a scheme that allows opposing quarterbacks all the time in the world to pass and having to play way too many snaps with the offense really struggling at this point.

Moving Forward
At this point I could honestly copy and paste what I've been writing the last few weeks for this section.

It's a "Groundhog's Day" type of feel of having to relive the same ass kicking week in and week out. What's frustrating is that I do believe certain units do actually show up and display some progress. What's rough is this occurs while other units take multiple steps backwards.

What has become clear is that I actually do think that despite the numerous injuries, I think there's enough talent on this team to be a lot better than they are. It really is the case of some players really showing their inexperience and being unable to keep up at the conference level at this point in their careers. On the other side, we've got some players that are just flat out underperforming. The common theme in both situations is that this falls on the coaches.

I'm going to reserve full judgment until the end of the season, but it's becoming clear that some of the assistant coaches on this staff are far more ready to coach at the Pac-12 level than others. You don't have to read in between my lines to know who they are. The results are on the field.

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Sunday, October 13, 2013

UCLA Recap


(AP Photo/Mark J. Terrill)


It says a lot about the season the Bears are having when Cal’s defense happens to play its best performance of the year in the same game that Cal’s offense has its absolute worst. Scratch that—the most telling statement is that Cal’s best defensive performance of the year is one that had them still giving up 37 points in a 37-10 defeat to the Bruins in Pasadena.

Defense Not All That Terrible
Let me clarify something to start. I am by no means saying that the defense played great on Saturday night. All it takes is one look at the stat line to get that part.

UCLA’s Brett Hundley threw for over 410 yards and 3 TDs, and the defense failed force a turnover. They again showed difficulty defending the swing pass, and their struggles with open field tackling were again evident on Devin Fuller’s 18 yard score.

I will say this though: the defense played well enough to keep the Bears in the ballgame. And honestly, that’s a lot more than can be said about this unit all year. I’ll take it a step further—there were times when Cal’s defense showed some real grit.

You have to consider that the Bears’ D was facing poor field position all night and having to dig deep with the offense’s inability to sustain anything really. Of UCLA’s twelve drives, they scored TDs on just 4 of them, and held the Bruins to 3 field goals. Again, are the fantastic numbers? Absolutely not. But any time you can force punts and get red zone stops to force field goals instead of touchdowns, you are leaps and bounds better than what we’ve been used to seeing from this defense all year.

I’ve always said that statistics might lie to you, but your eyes won’t. One look at this defense, and you know that they played with better cohesion, displayed better gang tackling, and absolutely took away UCLA’s rushing attack. The Bruins were limited to just 78 yards on 34 carries for just a 2.3 ypc.

Tackles for loss? Penetration in the trenches? Goal line stands? BLOWING UP BUBBLE SCREENS?! Please sir, can I have some more?

There were of course still plenty of issues, and a lot of it still has to do with the youth and inexperience of this injury-laden team that is clearly still learning. But if I’m the defense, I’m bitter about the loss but have to think there’s quite a bit to take away from this game.

Offense Hits Lowpoint
While the defense was by no means impressive, they did do enough to keep the Bears in the ballgame. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Cal’s offense. The Bears continued their steady regression and hit a lowpoint in managing just 320 yards of total offense 10 points against the Bruins defense.

Cal was forced to punt on their first 5 drives to start the first half, four of which were three and outs. The rest of the game was was more or less the same issues that have plagued their offense all season: redzone struggles, anemic rushing game and turnovers.

The Bears continued to struggle in the redzone, scoring on just one of their three trips inside the 20. That’s 14 points left on the board.

Cal’s lack of a rushing attack and ability to make gains in short yardage situations was evident as they resorted to using WR Richard Rodgers as their short yardage back.

Playcalling Inside the Redzone
I’ve been a big Tony Franklin fan this season, but he hasn’t been without his mistakes. What was most troubling however was his playcalling inside the redzone on Saturday. After Rodgers had picked up the first down to put Cal inside UCLA’s 3 yard line, they stubbornly kept running Rodgers in the same formation which resulted in a total net of zero yards. To cap it off, Franklin than ran a QB draw for 185 pound Goff on fourth down.

It was just a perplexing series of calls. My only possible explanation was that Franklin was trying to drive a point home and give this running game some confidence, but I’m shocked that there wasn’t any attempt to get the ball in the endzone through the air.

Running Woes This Week on the Runningbacks
Cal’s running game this season has been a mess, and the blame is on both the runningback and offensive line units.

However, this week the blame rests more on the shoulders of the runningbacks than the offensive line. This is not to say that the offensive line blew dominated in the trenches. Far from it. However, looking at replay after replay, there were plenty of opportunities from runningbacks to be more productive than they were.

There were certainly running lanes and open holes. Not gaping holes, but they were there. Cal’s backs simply struggled to locate the running lanes quickly enough. The runningback vision simply wasn’t there.

Daniel Lasco was looking like Cal’s best back until he looked like he dislocated his shoulder. And that’s Cal for you.

Penalties Sink Bears
Cal has been a mistake-free team this season, but their sloppiness on Saturday really cost the Bears some opportunities from really competing in the game.

The Bears were flagged nine times for 87 yards. And they were dumb penalties too. Late hits, roughing the passer, just the type of stuff you can’t do. Especially when you’re behind enough as it is.

Special Teams Holds Steady
Other than the Oregon debacle, Cal’s special teams is playing like the most composed, focused and disciplined unit by far.

It makes you truly wonder how much of Cal’s negative play with the other units is a reflection of the coaching from those groups.

Vincenzo D’Amato has been an absolute revelation for the Bears. We’ve seen the lightbulb go off for senior kickers before, but D’Amato is having himself a very special season. D’Amato nailed a 51 yard field goal to bring his total to 12 of 13 field goals made this season. His 12 FGs put him right up there at 3rd in the nation, and his 92.3% FG percentage is 14th best.

Punter Cole Leininger is also averaging 42.62 yards per punt right now, after averaging 43.4 yards on seven punts Saturday night. He hasn’t shown quite the leg as Bryan Anger, but his punts have had plenty of boom and he’s been arguably the most consistent punter the Bears have had in years.

Cal’s coverage teams also continued to play well holding the Bruins to just a 5.7 yard average on punt returns and no big returns in the kickoff return game.

The only consistent drawback on special teams this year has been the lack of any return game, particularly on punt returns. Cal has been getting close to nothing on these returns. For as athletic as Bryce Treggs is, he’s strangely really hesitant on punt returns. He’s averaging just 3.38 yards per return on the season. For a team that’s struggling to get things going, a spark from special teams could be huge.

However, this is still a minor gripe for a special teams unit that has by and large played pretty well this season. My general theory about special teams is this: You don’t have to win the games, but for the love of all that is good, don’t lose the game for the team. And so far, Tommerdahl’s led special teams is doing that.

Goff Struggles
I thought Goff actually had his worst performance in his young career for the Bears. I know, I know, worse than Oregon? Worse than Oregon. I almost can’t count the Oregon game because of how weird the game was and how little he actually played in it.

But it simply wasn’t what we’ve been used to seeing from Goff this season. He felt pressured even when there was more space and time in the pocket than he probably thought. This led to some hurried and inaccurate throws.

On top of that, his interception was flat out bad. He simply didn’t see safety Randall Goforth hiding behind the line and threw what should have been a pick six had it not been some hustle from RB Daniel Lasco.

Goff has been solid so far this season, but he needs to show that he can stay more poised than he has been on the road this season. His next shot? At 20th ranked Washington.

Moving Forward
Despite losing by 27 points, Cal showed some progress in some areas. For the first time all season, Cal’s defense was typically in position to make plays, even if they had the occasional gaffe and gave up the big play every now and then.

Cal’s special teams has returned to being solid and has kept games from becoming even more nightmarish than they could be.

Cal’s offense has been in a bit of a headscratching regression the past few weeks, but here’s hoping that they don’t give up on trying to develop a rushing attack because that will likely be the key to becoming more efficient in the redzone.

The Bears are pretty much playing for next season. I’m not trying to take on a defeatist approach. I’m simply stating that bowl eligibility is all but out of the picture, and many of Cal’s projected starters are probably not going to see the field this year. This time will likely be spent really coaching up some players who probably haven’t ever played a whole lot before.

Don’t get me wrong. It sucked watching the Bears get walloped by the Bruins. But it at least gave me pause enough to get back to remembering that this season is all likely about making sure that this team is better at the end of the season than they were in week one.

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Sunday, October 6, 2013

Washington State Recap



There’s no other way to really sugarcoat it.

This team is a mess right now. And while a lot of our issues are self-inflicted, you have to recognize that a lot of our issues are the result of some majorly bad luck.

But in any case, the result is still a bad football team. Cal has dropped nine straight games to FBS opponents going back to last season, which is the longest streak in the nation. Though many of those opponents were quality opponents, you know the program has reached its nadir when it gets blown out by Washington State at home 44-22.

It’s not difficult to understand how this Cal team lost the game. A young team devastated by injuries. 5 turnovers and 11 penalties. Missed tackles. Red zone struggles. It’s been the same story for most of the season.

But actually watching it happen was brutal.

There are a few big (but painful) stories here, so let’s get to them.

Injuries
So this is worth addressing. I hate the excuse game of complaining that injuries are the reason a team is struggling.

But the sheer number of injuries sustained by this team is unbelievable.

Cal lost both Jalen Jefferson, Stefan McClure, Joel Willis on Saturday to go along with Chris Adcock who’s out for the season from an ACL injury sustained on Wednesday.

We’re at a point where 8 of the 11 projected starters from the Spring are out, and most of them are likely out for the season. Simply incredible.

It’s hard to really get into full out rant mode when you’re having to play with 8 new starters. Even beyond that, a lot of key reserves are out as well. Our starting secondary is down to our 3rd string CB, a walk on, a true freshman playing a new position, and a junior.

So while I don’t try to wallow in the whole, “Woe is me” injury talk, how much can you really be rip into players and coaches when you’re dealing with players who are simply haven’t played or are physically outmatched out there? We seriously are at a point where you can’t even yell out, “Why is he still in the game?” because the answer sadly is, “Because there’s no one left.”

Turnovers Sink Bears
The Bears coughed the ball over five times compared to WSU’s lone interception, but the most painful ones were clearly the first two.

The Bears fumbled on twice inside their own five yard line, the first of which was a Daniel Lasco fumble on an awkward exchange, and the second was Brendan Bigelow’s fumble after he failed to punch it in on three straight attempts from a yard out of the endzone.

Dykes couldn’t have said it any better than he did during his press conference, you can’t win many ball games doing that.

Red Zone Woes/Running Game
But beyond just the turnovers, Cal continues to be awful inside the redzone, and a lot of it has to do with Cal’s anemic running game. At this point it’s an identity for the Bears—they simply are not a good running football team.

Playcalling in the red zone is difficult as it is, but it becomes twice as difficult when you can’t run the ball. I’ve already examined the issues before, and it’s no surprise that the problems begin with the o-line, and continue with the inability by any of Cal’s backs at this point to be a consistent running threat. They’re struggling to find running lanes, but more frustratingly, are having a difficult time finishing runs. They’re not running around or through defenders. And given what we’ve seen from Cal’s backs the past decade, we’re in a ridiculously unfamiliar place.

A quick word on Brendan Bigelow. It doesn’t take a sports therapist to know that this guy is emotionally battered right now. He’s nowhere close to the back that we’ve seen in bursts from him last year, and his fumble problems right now are just compounding the woes. Bigelow wears his emotions on his sleeves, and all it takes is one look at him to know that he isn’t right.

It’s tough because the only thing that can help him is continued encouragement and more touches, but it’s tough to play a back that can’t hold onto the ball.

Makeshift Offensive Line Struggles
Cal’s offensive line had one of their rougher performances during the season. The Bears are already down two starters in Chris Adcock and Matt Cochran, but Cal’s most glaring problems were when WSU sent just three pass rushers. These perplexing gaffes have come up quite often this season.

One the first sack, Freddie Tagaloa and Steven Moore barely got a hand on their respective defensive ends. On the second, Alejandro Crosthwaite couldn’t pull in time to block out his defender.

The offensive line as a whole was under duress given the heat that WSU was sending at Goff. Throw in a few penalties that negated a few big plays, and that about sums up the afternoon for the Bears line in a nutshell.

Secondary Struggles
Cal’s secondary is a battered patchwork unit of players desperately looking for answers. Cal allowed a one-hipped Connor Halliday to throw for a whopping 521 yards, 3 TDs and just 1 pick. We know that Cal had their hands full against WSU’s air raid, but very few in their worst nightmares could have envisioned Halliday going for over half a thousand yards.

At the safety positions, I thought both Cameron Walker and Michael Lowe had some pretty good games. Walker made some nice plays on the ball and with the exception of a play when he didn’t wrap up on the receiver, allowing the WSU receiver to run untouched afterwards for a long TD. Lowe also notched the first Cal interception in forever, but then followed it up with an inexplicable decision to flip into the endzone, despite his knee clearly touching the field on the return. But I feel slightly better about these positions than I do at the cornerback spots.

First off, Cal had to play with a gimpy Kam Jackson who didn’t make it through the game, and Stefan McClure looks like he might be out for a little while after getting up gimpy. On top of all that, Joel Willis had to be carted off the field after a kickoff return in which the returnman never actually returned the ball. Just process that for a second.

Then there was Isaac Lapite. Poor, poor Isaac Lapite.

I’m not even mad. It became clear that the walk on DB was busting his tail off, but he just looked way over his head out there. Lapite was getting burned for long TDs, drawing all sorts of pass interference penalties, and capped off his torturous afternoon by getting simply thrown down by a Coug receiver for a TD. I very rarely, if ever rip on players in posts, and it’d be ridiculous to start now. It’s really the instance of a player trying his best but looking simply outmatched against Pac-12 receivers. You can’t knock a guy for that, but just hope there’re some other defenders ready to step up.

Speaking of which, I thought Adrian Lee looked okay in his most significant minutes in his time as a Bear. There were clearly a few technical issues here and there, but he showed nice grit, making two key plays with two breakups in Cal’s territory to limit the Cougars to just a FG.

The only silver lining here is that Cal’s secondary will at least be pretty seasoned by the time the season ends. They may continue to get torched, but at least we’ll head into next season with nearly every cornerback on the team having started at least one game.

Perplexed by Lack of Pressure
I said in my keys to the game that Cal had to send pressure at Connor Halliday. He’s a completely different passer when he gets a hand in his face and feels pressure in the pocket. But yesterday, you could count the number of blitzes on one hand. And the very first blitz of the game led to an interception directly into the hands of Michael Lowe.

I understand given the speed at which the ball gets out on top of the number of receivers in Leach’s offense that you can’t afford to send the house, but the lack of pressure was truly perplexing and frustrating. Cal had their hands full as it was, but dug their own hole by giving Halliday free time and space to shred up Cal’s battered defense.

Special Teams Returns
Special Teams returned to being the most solid unit on the field for the Bears. D’Amato continues to play like one of the best kickers in the nation, while Cole Leininger also continues his very solid sophomore campaign.

In addition, the Bears limited Washington State to a 16.3 average on kickoff returns and just 5.3 yards on their punt returns.

It’s still early, but I’m still hoping that last week’s special teams performance against Oregon was more of an anomaly than a sign of more breakdowns to come.

Final Bright Spots
Really it was just Jared Goff and Chris Harper on Offense. I actually don’t think it was Jared Goff’s best game this season, but it was a nice bounceback after the debacle at Oregon. Goff broke Pat Barnes’ single game record by throwing for 504 yards, 2 TDs and an interception. The good feelings around the record is nullified a bit by Cal’s poor running attack and lack of points, but it’s still amazing that a true freshman has become the first player in Cal history to throw for over 400 yards three times in a game.

Goff still throws the ball up for grabs a bit when pressured. Goff launched another ball into double coverage for the third interception of this type this season. Again, Goff is the least of our worries right now, but a quarterback can’t continually make the same mistakes, so that’s a little concerning.

Finally, you can’t say enough about Chris Harper’s performance yesterday. Harper hauled in 14 passes for 216 yards and a score. We all knew Chris Harper was good, but yesterday was the first time I thought, “This guy could be really, REALLY good.” It’s been exciting to watch.

Moving Forward
I know it sounds like I’m venting, but a lot of my frustration is that I really believed that each week, the team was buying in little by little. That regardless of the outcomes of the games, the team was slowly making progress into becoming a better team. I was willing to accept the idea that this season would be a rebuilding one if it meant that the team that played in Week 13 would be markedly better than the team that played during Week 1.

Right now, that looks like very difficult scenario to imagine. In all but a few categories, it looks like the team is not only getting unhealthier but also regressing in many regards.

I don’t know what else to say. With the injuries and lack of confidence right now, I don’t see it getting much better any time soon. I’m absolutely going to keep supporting this team, and continue to believe that the team is depositing money into their proverbial bank. Admittedly, it’s a tough proposition, but hey we’re Bears fans. We’ve seen worse.

I think.
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Friday, October 4, 2013

Washington State Keys to the Game



Heading into the season, many Cal fans including yours truly penciled this game as a win for the Bears. Four brutal games into the season, and now the Bears find themselves as slight home underdogs against Mike Leach's WSU Cougars.

Words don't describe how big of a game this is for the Bears. Beyond just needing to get back into the win column, the Bears need something good for them in the worst possible way. A win over the Cougars isn't going to make their season, but it's not difficult to see a loss breaking it. For the first time in weeks, the Bears face off a manageable opponent, albeit an improved team in the Cougs, and a loss would all but crush the team's already bruised confidence.

The Bears need some validation that the work they've been putting in and the tough lessons learned during blowout losses to highly ranked teams were not all for naught.

Again, Cal needs this win, and they need it bad.

Let's get to a couple of quick keys to the game.

Pass Rush Needs to Come Alive
Cal's lack of pass rushing has been supremely disappointing this season. Through four games, the Bears have netted just 4 sacks, and just one in the past two games.

Part of it has been the inability by Cal's pass rushers to get in the backfield, but part of it has also been scheme. Cal's gameplanned for mobile quarterbacks in all of their games this season, and for the first time they face a WSU QB in Connor Halliday who isn't going to be used a designed runner.

That's going to allow the Bears to get a bit more aggressive and creative in their pass rushing schemes, and if there were ever a week to being implementing those wrinkles in Cal's defense, this is it.

Not be forewarned, WSU doesn't give up a boat load of sacks. Their offense, much like Dykes and Franklin's offense is designed to get the ball out quickly, and opposing pass rushers rarely have the time to get to the quarterback before the pass is already out.

Instead of looking for sacks, Cal needs to be looking for disruption. I've been watching Connor Halliday for seemingly forever, and while he's a strong-armed gunslinger, he can be pressured into making more mistakes than almost any other QB in the conference. While Halliday is second in the conference in passing yards, he's ranked last in interceptions with 9 on the season. He's the type who can give your 4 TDs and 4 INTs in the same game.

When opposing defenses bring pressure, and he finds a pass rusher bearing down on him, Halliday has a tendency to throw mechanics to the wayside, often throwing errant passes off of his back foot. The Bears need to bank on Halliday's penchant for brainfarts by bringing the heat. It doesn't always have to be in the form of blitzes, but Cal's got to begin getting creative in the ways they bring the heat, by disguising their pressure, whether it's in the form of delays, stunts or twists. This is not the time to send four straight on. We've seen that, and it hasn't worked then, and it's not going to work now.

Stretch the Field Vertically
At first glance, Washington State's pass defense has been hugely impressive statistically. The Cougars are ranked 11th in the nation, giving up just 159 yards per game. Those are fantastic numbers.

Then you look at the passing offenses they've faced, and suddenly things don't look that impressive anymore. Check out these passing offense rankings: Auburn (92nd), USC (100th), Souther Utah (FCS), Idaho (69th), Stanford (79th). In other words, the Cougars have benefited statistically from facing some of the worst passing offenses in the country, and when they played against a mediocre passing offense in Stanford, they were torched for 322 passing yards.

Stats may lie, but your eyes don't. After watching the WSU Stanford game, WSU's biggest vulnerability in their secondary is their ability to give up big plays. Their safeties can be overly aggressive, which leads to their cornerbacks often being left alone on an island. That presents an issue when those corners are matched up against speedy wide receivers.

That sounds like a juicy matchup if Cal can utilize Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler at the outside receiver positions, and Chris Harper getting some nice matchups against nickelbacks and linebackers at his new inside receiver position. Cal's got the speed to do some work against the Cougs' D. They just need to take advantage of it.

Defense Has to Shed Blocks Quicker
The Air Raid offense is designed to space out defenders and get the ball out into space quickly. Philosophically, it's very much like what Cal's offense is designed to do. One of the biggest difference is that instead of running the ball equally, Leach prefers to get the ball out to his receivers quickly to his backs and receivers swing passes.

And like we saw last week, if Cal's defenders can't shed blocks on those quick swings, the Cougars are going to eat Cal's secondary alive. Dykes has been saying that Cal's secondary has been getting better and better each day of practice this week, with a lot of it having to do with finally being able to play the same players consistently throughout the entire week of practice. Let's hope so, because Cal needs its secondary to be physical and technically sound in getting to the ball.

Outlook
I'll say it again: the Bears desperately need this win. You gotta think that they know this all too well. I see Jared Goff getting back into a rhythm, and though Cal's D will give up some big plays, I think they play with a bit more aggression and confidence this week, forcing enough WSU mistakes to squeak out an ugly win.

If Cal loses this one, expect the wheels to being really falling off. Let's hope desperation does some big things.

Prediction:
Cal 27
WSU 24

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