Monday, June 22, 2009

Early Pac 10 Predictions

Before I walk through my early predictions (I reserve the right to tweak these based on Fall camp injuries and eligibility outcomes) keep in mind the biases I have in evaluating college football teams:

1.) Historical performance most importantly the previous season. Filter that with injuries, turnover margin and schedule to project the coming year
2.) Returning talent - a combination of experience and talent based on previous AllP10 honors and recruiting rankings
3.) Big emphasis on the two lines - The biggest correlation to winning at the BCS level in college football is control of the LOS on both sides of the ball
4.) Schedule - Home field advantage especially in big games can be a difference maker
5.) Depth - Competition results in players pushing themselves and injuries are a part of the game
6.) Coaching - This is a constant and creates the tone and culture of a program. Bad coaches never win, average coaches only win on occasion, good coaches win more often than not and great coaches almost never have bad seasons.

This is an interesting year for the P10. USC isn't the obvious NC contender as they have been the past five years but they and Cal are clearly a notch above the rest of the conference. From 3rd to 9th in the conference, it's going to be a dog fight. Injuries could be critical as teams like UCLA, Stanford and Oregon State are talented but thin.

With that long preamble, here's how I see the season going:

1.) Cal - Let's start on defense, where the Bears return nine starters. I count Mohammed as a starter as he was the teams leading tackler from the LB position last year and arguably their best all around linebacker. The defense should be very salty in 2009 as a result of that returning experience. Especially as the strength of the group is up front with three studs in Alualu, Hill and Jordan. The secondary will be among the nations best and the talent level everywhere is at an all time high in Berkeley. Depth on the DL and LB are the only real concerns as the loss of Mohammed, Alualu or Jordan would be hard to overcome. Offensively, there is also reason for optimism although more guarded than on defense. The Bears passing game can only get better as the OL gets needed depth and lots of returning experience and Kevin Riley returns all of his key receivers from last years and adds some needed young talent. Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen are both home run threats who can catch and run equally well out of the backfield. Beyond the needed improvement in the passing game, replacing Cameron Morrah at TE will not be easy and the loss of blocking fullback Will Tafuo is a hit to the running game. The Bears need to prove that they can win in November against good teams and win road games against inferior opponents. The schedule is rougher than it looks at first glance. Back to back to back games early at Minnesota, vs. USC and at Oregon will not be easy nor will P10 tilts on the road against improved UCLA and Stanford squads.

2.) USC - Too much focus is being put on the inexperience at the quarterback position. Aaron Corp will be in his third season for the Trojans and will be taking snaps behind the nation's best offensive line, a good group of wideouts including a potential AA and arguably the deepest corps of running backs in America. While we may see more mistakes than normal and perhaps a late game breakdown on the road, this Trojan team is going to put up points, lots of them. Defensively, they will take a step back from last years record setting group, but the talent and depth are as good as ever. If the DL and LBs can stay healthy and get good production from some unproven DTs and ILBs, USC will give up points very grudgingly. The schedule is the Trojans biggest concern. Road tilts against Ohio State and Cal early in the year are going to be daunting. I actually see USC and Cal having identical P10 records with the edge to the Bears being a win in Berkeley in early October. Were the two teams to play in LA or later in the year, I'm not sure my prediction would have been the same.

There's a BIG drop off after the Trojans and Bears but the next five teams are all good enough to go bowling and any one of them could end up in 3rd place.

3.) Arizona: This is a solid Wildcat team, with more talent and depth than at any time in the Stoops era. They could easily finish as high as 3rd if they find a quarterback. There are plenty of playmakers on offense with two good tailbacks in Grigsby and Antolin and a solid corps of WRs return led by Dean and Turner. Arizona also boasts the nations top TE in Gronkowski and they appear to have the makings of a serviceable OL. There will be a new starter at QB and neither of the candidates has any real experience. That's a potential challenge given the pass happy offense favored by OC Sonny Dykes. However, Dykes had a good track record of breaking in new QBs at Texas Tech and is dealing with more highly touted recruits this time around. Defensively, this unit will not embarrass the defensive minded Stoops although it's not quite at the caliber of the elite P10 units. They return all four lineman but the group is undersized with no real standouts. The back seven are better with an athletic LB crew and a tough secondary led by Devin Ross and Cam Nelson.

4.) UCLA: I see the Bruins making a big jump this year. Their defense will be as good as any in the P10 and their offense will improve at least enough to avoid scoring points for the opposition as they did throughout last year. Their OL was atrocious last season as they started with concerns only to see the nations worst injury bug hit that position group. While the offense lacks playmakers, they have solid talent at WR, RB and TE. Their defense returns nine starters including arguably the conference's best DT in Brian Price and the best cover cornerback in Verner. Masking the Bruins melt down last year was their atrocious TO margin and loads of injuries. Their luck should change around injuries as TOs, leading to a bowl appearance this year.

5.) Stanford: The Cardinal are solid along both lines, return a stud running back and welcome a quarterback who I believe will be a multiple time AP10 performer. Andrew Luck was one of those kids whose HS film was off the charts. He played for a prep team that gave him no pass protection whatsoever and still he was able to put up big time numbers. His accuracy will remind you of former Cardinal and current Buffalo Bills starter, Trent Edwards, only Luck will have the benefit of playing behind an offensive line that is among the P10s best as well as Toby Gerhart's ability to force defenses to play the run first. Defensively, Stanford returns eight starters including three on the DL. Ekom Udofia is the star here and he is a load at NT. The linebacker group and secondary lack elite athletes but they are smart and will rely on their more talented DL to occupy blockers and harass QBs. Stanford's schedule is ideal with 7 home games and road games against weak Washington State and Wake Forest teams.

6.) Oregon: Despite a plethora of offensive skill position talent and a good secondary, the Ducks are not at the level that saw them earn 2nd in the P10 in 2008. They are rebuilding their offensive line and while the talent is there, it will take time for this group to master the zone blocking scheme required by Chip Kelly's offense. Their defensive line is in worse shape as they lack experience and have virtually no depth. As good as Masoli and Blount are and as prolific as Kelly's scheme has been, without up front blocking on offense and some ability to slow teams down on defense, it could be a rough first year for Coach Kelly. This will prove to be a bitter pill as the Ducks have real talent in their secondary with underrated FS TJ Ward and stud cornerback Walter Thurmond. But with no pass rush, this secondary will be hard pressed to slow down opposing offenses. The schedule looks attractive but the road opener at Boise State could get ugly early and home games in September against Utah and Cal may be occur before the OL comes together, muting the Autzen advantage. I believe 2010 will be the Ducks year as they will return almost the entire team and their last two recruiting classes have been strong.

7.) Oregon State: The Beavers face similar challenges to the Ducks along both offensive and defensive lines but have less talent behind them. That and the fact that the Civil War is in Eugene this year is all the separate the two Oregon teams. While Mike Riley is a superior coach and a tremendous talent evaluator, this year will be a rebuilding one for his strong program. The offensive line is a key and keeping that group healthy will be vital not only for opening up holes for returning P10 offensive MVP Jacquiz Rodgers but in finding time for two solid QBs in Moevao and Canfield. Defensively, OSU will take a step back. Stephen Paea is a future NFL player and he'll have adequate support on the DL with Ben Taylor and Kevin Frahm but this group lacks last years pass rushing skills and overall depth. The LB crew will be solid with Kristick and Pankey leading the way but losses in the secondary alongside a less effective pass rush will result in the Beavers having to win more shootouts than normal

8.) Arizona State: The Sun Devils are going to hope their defense can score a lot of points off turnovers this season as the cupboard is awfully bare on offense. Their OL is on paper, the conference's weakest, they have no proven quarterback or tailback and only one offensive player who qualifies as a threat, that being WR Chris McGaha. As many questions as their are on offense, that's how good their defense could be. Dexter Davis is a ferocious pass rusher and Lawrence Guy is a stout DT against the run. The LB crew is the best in the league and the secondary features two solid players in Bolden and Carr. The schedule doesn't help as they host the conference's two best teams, taking away what might have been easier wins against the rest of the conference. There is simply not enough offense for this team to finish higher.

9.) Washington - This prediction belies the tremendous improvement this team will have in 2009. The Huskies are going to be a vastly improved team but their murderous schedule will not allow them to adequately reflect it. Jack Locker is back and healthy and coming off a strong Spring showing. For all of the possible impact new HC Sarkisian can have, none is greater than with his talented QB. Sark is a proven QB coach and in Locker he has someone with all the tools. While Locker is not surrounded with much talent, there is plenty of experience. The OL should be better as will the play at RB and WR. Defensively, this team lack speed and depth although EJ Savannah and Mason Foster will scare some teams from their LB positions. Still, a schedule which includes LSU, Notre Dame not to mention road games against OSU and UCLA will be tough to overcome.

10.) WSU - The Cougars are at a two decade low in terms of talent and depth. While they return 15 starters and are likely to feel more comfortable in the second year of HC Paul Wulff's regime, the horses just aren't there. Their offense has some skill talent with running backs Tardy and Montgomery and WR Jeshua Anderson and the OL returns 4 starters but this is not a talented group. The QB situation is not clear with neither Lopina nor Lobbestael inspiring much confidence. The defense returns 7 starters including LBs Mattingly and Bland but not much else. Speed is real missing ingredient with this squad as is size as neither of their projected DTs goes more than 285lbs. If WSU can somehow avoid injuries and the offensive line unit can overachieve they may surprise a few folks. The middle of the P10 just feels too tough for them to make much progress.

Sunday, June 14, 2009

Interesting analysis based on Phil Steele talent scoring

For those of you who don't know Phil Steele, he provides the most in depth college football preview anywhere. Extremely thorough and highly analytic, he's also consistently the most accurate projector of an upcoming season.

This year, he has Cal finishing 2nd in the P10 and the #9 team overall (taking schedule aside), he also lists the Bears as a dark horse for the national championship.

One interesting part of what Steele does is to take all the rankings (he uses eight different experts) to score players across all the services to arrive at a # by position where they ranked coming out of HS or JC.

He then highlights those that score enough points to be called a highly touted recruit.

For the P10, here's a breakdown of projected starters who are highly touted recruits by team (I will also list star players for each team who were not HT). In descending order.

USC - All but 2 of their 24 starters (including K and P) were HT recruits - Incredible and sadly not surprising - The two who didn't make it? RG Alex Parsons and LT Charles Brown.

Cal - 15 players listed as HT including 8 on defense. Two that didn't make it on D were Tyson Alualu, a 2nd team AP10 selection and Cameron Jordan, a likely AP10 selection this year. Look for the Bears to be awfully tough to score on this year. Schwartz and Guarnero were the only HTs on the OL.

Arizona - 14 players are HT, not including Brooks Reed, 2nd team AP10 DE last year, Cam Nelson, an HM P10 safety and Nicholas Grigsby, an HM AP10 RB. Apparently, Mike Stoops is recruiting well.

Stanford - A surprising 13 HTs seen as starters this year. And that list doesn't include Chris Marinelli, a projected AP10 OL this year, and Clinton Snyder, another potential AP10 LB.

UCLA - 11 players are HTs which doesn't include Ryan Moya, 2nd team AP10 TE, Reggie Carter, 2nd team AP10 LB and Alterraun Verner, 1st team AP10 CB. Bruins should have a very good defense this year.

Arizona State - Ten HTs dot their starting depth chart, not including stud WR Chris McGaha, Dexter Davis, a two time AP10 DE and Omar Bolden, a potential AP10 CB.

Washington - Wow, color me shocked that the Huskies have 9 HTs among their starters. Depth is a HUGE issue for them but this team has some talent. Too bad their schedule is tougher than the Seahawks this year.

Oregon - Fewer big recruits than you might think with only 8 HTs among their projected starters although that misses Masoli at QB, Dickson at TE who was a 2nd team AP10 performer last year, TJ Ward, an HM AP10 safety and Walter Thurmond III, a projected AP10 player this coming season.

Oregon State - As usual, they have very few highly ranked recruits with only 3 HTs, that does not include Lyle Movaeo, their HM AP10 QB, Stephen Paea, an HM AP10 DT and Keaton Kristick, a 2nd team AP10 LB last season.

Washington State - Tied for last with OSU, WSU has only 3 HTs. Unfortunately, unlike the Beavers, the Cougars have no one else who should have been an HT.

This is not a good way to project the upcoming season as lots of recruits don't pan out and many that aren't highly rated become stars. Also, a good number of the ones listed here have very little playing experience and issues like depth, experience, coaching and schedule have to be considered as well. Look for my preseason prognostications later this week.

Still, interesting food for thought in the dog days of June.

Saturday, June 13, 2009

The Passing Game

The projections for next year's Cal football team seem to inevitably come back to one question - "Will Kevin Riley play well enough at QB for the Bears to win?" While no one is going to argue that the quarterback is a critical position and that last years performances by Riley and Longshore left much to be desired, the folks who are fixated on Cal's QB play would do well to keep Kurt Warner in mind.

Kurt Warner came into the NFL and promptly became the league's MVP in leading the St. Louis Rams to a Super Bowl win. His release and accuracy were picture perfect and the offense he ran could not be stopped. Fast forward three years and Warner was suddenly incapable of avoiding bad interceptions, was missing wide open WRs and was holding onto the ball too long. Eventually St. Louis let him go and he followed that with a miserable stint with the NY Giants followed by a couple of mediocre campaigns with the Cardinals.

At that point, it was easy to write off Warner as a flash in the pan, a guy for whom lightning struck but eventually came back to earth as an NFL journeyman. Only as quickly as you can say Trent Dilfer, it all changed again. In 2009, Warner was back to his 2001 form, leading Arizona to the Super Bowl. As if by magic, the quick fire release was back, the uncanny accuracy and the solid decision making returned and Warner was once again an elite NFL quarterback.

The truth is none of what happened to Warner is in the least surprising. American's obsession with quarterbacks has became so myopic as to make them forget that (gasp) football is actually a team game with all of the inter dependencies implied with 22 men running around at full speed in organized chaos. Warner was great early with the Rams because he played behind the league's best offensive line who afforded him all day to survey the field and find the league's best cadre of offensive weapons - Marshall Faulk, Issac Bruce, and Tory Holt. With the comfort and confidence that comes from being able to grab a beer and a brat before being hurried by a pass rusher and getting the ball to a bunch of Olympic track athletes, Warner became an MVP. The recipe was nearly identical this year as Arizona's offensive line became one of the league's best in protecting the passer while Bolden and Fitzgerald caught anything and everything thrown their way, allowing Warner to once again look like Dan Marino. And for those of you who think Warner is some kind of anomaly, how do you explain Tom Brady going from future hall of famer to truly awful in his last Super Bowl performance. The Patriots sieve like offensive line had him running for his life and even when he did have time his rhythm and confidence were shot.

Which leads us back to Cal. Last years passing game woes were a diabolical mixture of poor QB play, the worst pass protection (you need to look beyond sacks allowed to include hurries and flushes of which there were many) in the Tedford era and a group of receivers who couldn't get open much less catch the rare perfectly thrown passes they were thrown.

Playing quarterback is the most mentally and emotionally demanding position on the field. Finding a comfort zone and building confidence are critical. Even if you aren't being sacked every play, hurries are ever bit as daunting. Forcing balls in because your receivers have not gotten separation and then seeing them drop balls that are right in their hands impact the psyche of the quarterback. The bottom line is that the reasons the Bears passing game was stuck in neutral last season went far beyond Riley and Longshore's struggles.

So what does all this mean for the 2009 campaign? On the surface of it, good news abounds. Starting off up front, where the Bears return eight players who have started including their best past protector from 2007, LT Mike Tepper. Tepper's return is even bigger than his 335lb frame might suggest. Tepper will protect Riley's blindside providing Riley with a sense of comfort missing all last season and allowing Schwartz to move to RT where his still evolving pass blocking skills can be worked on with much less pressure. Even if the injury bug hits the OL as it did in 2008, Cal's combination of talent, experience and depth have never been better. It's hard to imagine the boys up front not providing significantly better protection this year than last.

As for the receiving corps, this news there is equally positive. All three starters from the Emerald Bowl return including Verran Tucker, who established himself as the Bears most consistent wideout. Experience is huge at WR at players get used to the speed of the game and fully understand the concentration required to succeed. Expect Boateng and Tucker to take big steps forward. Joining that duo are two youngsters who actually proved to be more impressive this spring than the incumbents. Sophomore's Marvin Jones and Alex Lagemann are poised to become Kevin Riley's security blankets with their combination of size and sure hands. Add in stud sophomore Michael Calvin, who the Bear coaches considered their best receiver going into 2008 and who missed almost all of last year with a knee injury and you suddenly have a WR group that goes at least six deep with a nice blend of experience and young talent.

Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen are both exceptional pass catchers out of both the backfield and the slot providing Riley with good check down options when his primary receivers are covered and giving him the ability to throw 5 yard passes that go the distance - always a favorite of quarterbacks everywhere.

No doubt Kevin Riley is going to have step up in all phases of his game. He has to hit the open receiver consistently something that he failed to do last year. He needs to get rid of the ball quicker and most importantly rediscover the swagger and playmaking moxie that marked his 2007 debut. Riley knows this offense cold and he has the line and playmakers around him to succeed. His biggest challenge may be ignoring the Bear fans and pundits who want to put all of the responsibility and weight of the upcoming year on his shoulders. If Kevin can close his ears and open his eyes to how his teammates are putting him in a position where he just needs to be average to get them to a BCS game, he will almost certainly relax and once again we will see the Kevin Riley who led Cal to the comeback win against Air Force in 2007.

Thursday, January 1, 2009

P10 Basketball Prediction

Many of the so called experts are deriding the Pac 10 as having a down year in 2008-9, especially when compared to last years tremendous showing. It's true that the conference has fewer elite teams than last year, but outside of Oregon State, there are nine teams in the conference capable of playing in the post season. By any measure other than last year, this is a very deep conference and one that will be as intriguing as any in recent memory to watch. As few as thirteen and perhaps twelve wins will earn the conference championship this season.

1.) UCLA: If the Bruins can go to the final four for the fourth straight season then people are going to soon forget John Wooden and start calling Ben Howland the true wizard of Westwood. UCLA welcomes back Darren Collison and Josh Shipp and introduces one of the most talented freshman in the country in Jrue Holiday. If that embarassment of back court riches weren't enough, Jerime Anderson, Malcolm Lee and veteran roll player Mike Roll are all capable players. Unfortunately, as full as the cup is in the backcourt, that's how empty the Bruins are up front. Alfred Aboya and James Keefe are the only returning frontcourt players with any meaningful experience and neither is going to make anyone forget Kevin Love or Richard M'Boute M'boute. A trio of youngsters show promise for the future in the blocks (Dragovic, Gordon and Morgan) but none are ready to contribute meaningfully today. Howland's savvy and his stellar backcourt give UCLA a slight nod as the favorite to win the conference but they are far from the dominating teams we've come to associate with the Bruins.

2.) Tie

Arizona State: Herb Sendek has turned around the Devils program in only two short seasons. The catalyst for this quick three sixty is sophomore wing player, James Harden. Harden is not huge, nor is he explosive athletically but instead is just simply really, really good. He can shoot it from deep or take it to the hole and is adept a rebounder, passer and defender as he is a scorer. Despite some talent around him as Harden goes so goes ASU. Jeff Pendergraph returns for his senior season in the post. He's capable of being dominant down low but lacks consistency. There are some decent role players to fill in around Harden and Pendergraph including sophomores Ty Abbot and Rihard Kuksiks and they along with Sendek's disciplined style should help him complete his rebuilding work by getting the Sun Devils to the tournament

USC: Tim Floyd has the most well rounded and talented squad in the conference. He returns the conferences best shot blocker in Taj Gibson alongside a heady point guard in Daniel Hackett and a solid shooting threat on the perimeter in Dwight Lewis. All three are vets of the P10 wars. Add to the mix is the most explosive athlete to come into the P10 in years. DeMar Derozan is a slasher extrordinaire with huge hops and blinding quickness on the wing. He's started to come into his own the last few games for the Trojans and as he gains consistency and finds some chemistry with his elder teammates, USC will become a force. Expect the Trojans to start slow and finish strong

4.) Tie

Arizona: Despite losing a coaching legend in Lute Olson, the Wildcats return two upperclassmen who will likely have long careers in the NBA. Chase Budinger is a wonderfully athletic wing who can shoot the lights out from deep. Jordan Hill is a big man who explodes off the floor and seems to have found his inner Rick Mahorn after playing way too softly his first two seasons in Tucson. Add in a very heady and mentally tough point guard in Nic Wise and you have a trio capable of leading this team to the top of the conference. A complete lack of depth and the upheaval of Lute's departure will lead to inconsistency and drop them a notch below the top teams in the Pac 10.

Cal: MIke Montgomery let it be known early and often that this years Cal team would struggle. Despite his expectation management, the cupboard is far from bare in Berkeley. Montgomery has five players in their third or fourth year in college including as strong a backcourt as you will find outside of Westwood. The light has gone on for point guard Jerome Randle and his one man fast breaks and deep shooting range will help him gain All Pac 10 status. Patrick Christopher is a big time wing scorer with shut down defensive potential and Theo Robertson is the steady jack of all trades who does whatever is needed for the Bears to win. A thin frontcourt is all that stands between Cal and the top teams in the conference. Montgomery has instantly made Cal a tougher mental and physical team and they should be right on the bubble come NCAA tourney time.

6.) Tie

Washington: Despite Lorenzo Romar's best efforts to the contrary, UW should find itself back in the postseason this year. Jon Brockman is the conference's best big man and is a lock for a double double whenever he steps on the floor. Underperforming prep stars Justin Dentmon and Quincy Poindexter finally have settled into being solid role players while incoming frosh point guard Isiah Thomas is a star in waiting. This team has the necessary depth, raw talent and experience to compete for the Pac 10 title. Romar's inability to develop players is the only thing holding the Huskies back.

Stanford: Johnny Dawkins has his Cardinal team exceeding expectations early on. Stanford enters the Pac 10 race undefeated despite the loss of Los Lopez. The team has shifted effortlessly from a slower tempo, inside dominated team to one that uses its shooting, perimeter pressure defense and experience to play consistently well. Anthony Goods is a superb deep shooter and an underrated defender. Lawrence Hill is a versatile baseline player who can defend and score in the post as well as stepping out and knocking down long jumpers. Mitch Johnson is yet another in a long line of supper savvy winning point guards at Stanford. Beyond those three, the depth is questionable and the Cardinal have almost no post players of consequence.

8th - Washington State: Tony Bennett's team lost a lot with Derrick Low and Kyle Weaver graduating. While he welcomes in a talented recruiting class, it will take some time for the newcomers to master the intricate defense and make no mistakes offense that Bennett favors. Former role players, Taylor Rochestie and Devin Harmeling are now being asked to be go to scorers and the transition has been far from smooth. Big man Aron Baynes is still a year away from counting himself among the conference's best players in the paint. The Cougars best players is freshman Klay Thompson, who seems destined to be a star but his and this teams best days are likely at least a year away.

9th - Oregon: Ernie Kent is a Lorenzo Romar clone. A fabulous recruiter who wins when his teams are filled with seniors and lose far more than they should when he lacks senior leadership, Kent has a very talented but even younger team this season. Tajeun Porter is an undersized shooting guard who can fill it up when left alone but struggles when teams focus on him. Joevan Catron is a "nice" but very undersized post player and Michael Dunigan, Garret Sims and Kamryon Brown are all talented youngsters but not yet ready for prime time. Expect Oregon to be competitive the second time around in conference play, but they will lose early and often the first half of the Pac 10 slate.

10th - Oregon State: Well at least his brother in law is President. New Beaver coach Craig Robinson is otherwise in for a very unmemorable season. This program has been in a constant state of rebuilding and while OSU has some talent, the team has forgotten what it's like to win games and unfortunately that problem is about to get worse. The Beavers will be lucky to steal a game this year in conference play.

Wednesday, September 10, 2008

A Turtle Trap

If I'm Jeff Tedford, I'm sweating extra hard this week. The Bears are in a no win position heading to Maryland. This is a game that will be far more difficult than folks realize.

- Maryland looked awful barely beating Delaware and even worse losing to MTSU. As a result, Cal is a 14 point favorite on the road against a BCS conference team that went to a bowl last year and returns most of its starters. If Cal wins big, everyone will shrug. If it's close, eyebrows will be raised and if the Bears lose, the sky will be falling. Not much upside here.
- Maryland has a ton of talent, at least on par with Michigan State. They have a future NFL running back, center and WR on offense and a defense that returns a ton of starters after finishing 2007 in the top 25 in total defense nationally
- Think of the Terps like Cal was in the Keith Gilbertson era. Talented and capable of beating anyone on a given day but poorly coached and wildly inconsistent. Moreover, they play down to the level of their competition.
- This is Maryland's marquee game of the year. The fan and player interest in Delaware and MTSU were close to zero. This is the game they've been thinking about all summer. It's on national TV, their pride is at stake and they know they're playing a ranked team with a lot of talent. They are going to bring it on Saturday.
- No Pac 10 team travels as far this season as California will for this game. The team flies basically all day on Friday and then has to be ready to play at 9am PST the next day.
- The Cal team is young and has to be feeling good about themselves after the first two games and a newly minted top 25 appearance. When they look at film of Maryland and their 1-1 record against bad competition, how can the Bears not feel a bit of overconfidence?

That's a whole lot of hand wringing given the evidence to the contrary. Despite all signs pointing towards a classic "trap" game, Cal has some big advantages. Maryland's passing offense is non-existent. Their O line has struggled to give their QB time and even with time, he's not been accurate. Their D line has yet to create any pass rush even against the less than formidable Hen and Blue Raider offensive lines. Moreover, Maryland looks sloppy and undisciplined. The Bears should have a chip on their shoulder after last years meltdown and no doubt they will be excited about the opportunity to play in front of a national TV audience.

So which is it? A blowout win for the Bears or a Turtle trap? I strongly suspect Cal will win but unless the Maryland players have given up completely on their coach and mail the game in, I believe it will be a lot more reminiscent of the Bears victory over Michigan State than the pummeling in the Palouse from last week.

Monday, September 8, 2008

Soups on after blowout in Pullman

It’s tough not to feel a bit of light headed giddiness coming off the 66-3 thrashing the Bears gave the Washington State Cougars on Saturday. Clearly, WSU is in the midst of a rebuilding process and are more than a few players shy of having an actual Pac 10 football program. At the same time, they weren’t materially less talented than the Stanford and UW teams that embarrassed Cal last year. And, it’s worth noting that Michigan State bounced back from their loss in Berkeley to steam roll Eastern Michigan by a score of 42-10. Still, the question of how good the 2008 Bears are at this point in the season is one where the answer is more minestrone than chicken broth.

Here are a few thoughts after the first two games:

• Kevin Riley is very talented but is still a work in progress. Riley looked a little bit out of sorts in his first real performance in front of a hostile crowd. He missed several wide open receivers and seemed to be holding onto the ball longer than necessary. That said, it was nice to see Nate Longshore bounce back after his MSU debacle and look confident and on target in mop up duty.
• Another positive in the passing game was the first career catch for Mike Calvin and the first catches in a Bear uniform by Nyan Boateng. Outside of Sean Young, the WR corps is still an unknown and the emergence of a big play threat is something Tedford is counting on as the season progresses.
• The offensive line looks like the best unit Cal has had under Jeff Tedford. While it’s easy to focus on all world center Alex Mack, the big surprises are the dominating performance of the guards. Both Norris Malele and undersized but very athletic Chris Guarnero have impressed. Redshirt freshman tackle Mitchell Schwartz looks like a future star and when Mike Tepper gets healthy, the depth across the entire line should be able to withstand any unexpected injuries.
• Jahvid Best has been the primary beneficiary of the blocking up front and he showed that once he has a seam, he’s gone baby gone.
• It’s worth noting that both WSU and MSU’s defensive lines were seen as the weakest elements of their defenses coming into the season. We’ll know more when Cal faces a very stout Arizona State front four.
• Cameron Morrah didn’t catch any passes against the Cougars but his blocking was impressive. If he make himself a consistently good blocker, watch out as he’s already the most dangerous pass catching TE in the Tedford era
• Play calling by Frank Cignetti has thus far felt very Tedford like
• How can you not be happy with our defense? Very stout against the run and we’re seeing breakout performances from Syd Quan Thompson and Tyson Alualu. Both are playing like future NFLers.
• The run defense in particular has stood out but again it’s hard to get too excited once you take into account the OLs the Bears have faced in the first two games. While Michigan State has a potent offense, its weak point looks to be its young offensive line. WSU? Let me put it this way, when Stanford’s OL walks by, the Cougars front five lower their eyes.
• I’ve heard criticism of the pass rush, but I think it’s premature. The front three defensive lineman have all gotten good push on passing downs and in particular Alualu and Davis have collapsed pockets even while facing double teams. The 3-4 means that most passing downs, Bob Gregory is going to blitz at least one linebacker. To my eye, the LBs are still getting used to being picked up by a tackle or guard rather than a TE or RB but given time, I think we’ll see this group get more comfortable and effective. Regardless, even when we choose to send only the three down lineman, we’re not giving as much time to opposing quarterbacks as we did last year when they had time to send out for lunch and still complete passes
• If there’s a concern on defense at this early stage, it’s the play of our safeties. Despite his interception and one highlight reel hit on Saturday, Bernard Hicks’ struggles against the Spartans continued in Pullman. Hicks seems to react a step slow to a thrown ball and his penchant to hit high and not wrap up continues to result in broken tackles. Hicks is plenty fast enough and has the experience you like at free safety but he needs to step up his game or he may be replaced by Brett Johnson. Marcus Ezeff played better on Saturday but has yet to get back to where he was prior to his injury last season
• Special teams continue to be “special”. While kickoffs were better, we’ve only gone from abysmal to plain bad. Let’s hope the progress continues. Bryan Anger was clearly impaired by his brace but more importantly needs to learn to catch the ball. His second drop in tow games doesn’t inspire confidence. David Seawright has been solid in his placekicking but to my eye, he needs to get the ball up in the air to avoid being blocked once he is forced to attempt a longer field goal
• One thing you have to like about a blowout is the opportunity to play the younger players. For example, DJ Holt, Robert Mullins and Mychal Kendricks all looked good in extended duty which speaks well to our future LB corps.

Tuesday, September 2, 2008

Observations from MSU game

Despite some sloppy play, particularly around special teams and dumb penalties, the debut performance for the 2008 Bears was a solid one.

In particular, we discovered that this year’s defense is going to be stout against the run and that many of the younger players whom Cal is counting on in 2008 are not only talented but ready to contribute.

Let’s break things down by position groups:

QBs: Kevin Riley played a solid game overall and most importantly made plays at crucial moments. Despite three drops by the Bears new WR corps, Riley’s numbers were a very respectable as he completed 70% of his passes with no interceptions. He looked poised and in command throughout the game. Nate Longshore came off the bench for two exciting series. At a time when Cal’s offense through the air was stuck in neutral, Longshore comes in and immediately hits Cameron Morrah with a 50 yard bomb that gets the Bears knocking on MSUs goal line. Reversing his success more quickly than John McCains selection of Sarah Palin, Nate went on to throw an interception that nearly went 100yds for a Spartans TD. Longshore made a quick read on a seam route and either there was a miscommunication with the receiver or Nate never saw the safety as it wasn’t even close to being caught by a Bear. The very next possession, on a very similar pass route, Nate throws a pick six to the same safety in an area where there were three white shirts and no gold ones. You have to feel for Longshore, whose confidence is clearly not high after the Riley selection as the starter followed by a dismal performance coming off the bench. But clearly, Tedford made the right call on his starter.

RBs: Jahvid Best is a spectacular football player. He’s improved his quickness and his decisiveness from last season and he simply looks like he plays at a different speed than the defense. He’s more elusive and physical than one normally sees in a speed back which allows him to be equally effective between the tackles as running outside. I do fear that 25+ touches a game may be too many for him. His running style is such that he will take some big hits and staying healthy is definitely a concern. Shane Vereen is not playing at 100% yet still out ran the entire MSU defense. His pass catching abilities are tremendous and when he does get healthy, his quicks and speed will rival Best. Will Taufouo may be the best all around FB Cal has had in many years. He’s not just a good blocker, he’s a great one. Outside of Alex Mack, Will may be the 2nd most important part of our running game, even ahead of our talented tailbacks.

WR/TE: Let’s start with the positives. Cameron Morrah is a big time weapon in Cignetti's passing offense. He can really run and is very fluid in getting in and out of his breaks. The one concern is his need to become a better blocker. If he fails to improve beyond what we saw against MSU, Cignetti will be tempted not to play him as often on running downs which will reduce his impact as it tips off the defense. Sean Young had a wonderful game. He is a crisp route runner and has the quickness to get behind coverage. He’s less a play maker (think Robert Jordan and not Hawkins or DJax) than might be ideal but clearly he will be an important part of the rotation. After those two, this may be the position group of most concern after the first game. Nyan Boateng displayed hands that would only impress Roberto Duran and Mike Calvin’s toe injury limited him to a handful of plays. Between Calvin, Ross and true freshman Marvin Jones, one of them needs to establish themselves as the Bears primary playmaker in the passing game. If Calvin can’t get healthy, it may very well be Jones, whose body control and size make him a real threat on jump balls.

OL: I thought the run blocking was better than the pass protection on Saturday, but Cal only gave up one sack so that aspect of things was far from a disaster. MSUs DE collapsed the pocket more often than we are used to seeing with a Jim Michalzik coached line resulting at times in Kevin Riley throwing before he wanted. Given Teofilo and Schwartz’s lack of experience at tackle, that isn’t surprising and their pass protection skills should improve as the season progresses. Norris Malele was a monster run blocking in what may have been his best game as a Bear. With Schwartz, Teofilo and Guarnero all basically newbies on the line and with Tepper likely to return in the next few weeks, I’d say the best is yet to come.

DL: I was very, very impressed with the starting three down lineman. Derrick Hill’s one tackle doesn’t jump out at you but he controlled the middle of the line all day long and was a huge part why the Cal LBs make a ton of tackles. Alualu was the star of the group this day as he practically lived in the Spartans backfield. Rulon Davis faced double teams for much of the day and still played well. Bob Gregory, the Bears defensive coordinator had Davis line up at NT in obvious pass rush situations, which seemed strange given his ability to collapse the pocket from the outside. Of the backups, I thought Kendrick Payne and Kevin Browner, in particular, acquitted themselves well.

LB: They looked awfully fast and basically eliminated Javon Ringer from having any big gains. Felder was a beast and is in my opinion, the Bears best all around LB. Anyone he touches goes down and he seemed to consistently be in the right place at the right time. His one weakness is in coverage and he did get beat by their TE a few times. Worrell Williams looks much more decisive as he was able to read and react faster than I’ve seen in the past. He over ran some plays and still misses some tackles so there’s clearly room for growth. Follett struggled as a pass rusher alongside the three man line. He was often matched up with MSUs tackle who engulfed him on a regular basis. However, his tackling was strong and he made a couple of nice reads resulting in tackles for losses. Eddie Young didn’t stand out other than not making a mistake which given his relative lack of experience is a good thing. Ditto for Devin Bishop.

CB: SQT looked like an all-Pac 10 player against MSU. He comes up and plays the run better than any Cal cornerback in memory and he was superb in pass coverage. He got beat only once that I saw in single coverage and by the end of the game had MSU looking the other way on almost every play. SQT needs to get better at playing the ball when we go to a two deep zone as he’s clearly more comfortable playing bump and run. Darian Hagan showed that he has star potential with his ability to play the ball in the air. He’s got great quickness and seems to have a knack to be exactly where the ball is being thrown. Hagan needs to spend some time with Boateng working on his hands as by my count he dropped three sure interceptions (not counting the one he did get but the refs gave to the Spartans). Hagan did struggle a bit with the bigger MSU receivers pushing off on him while running out routes but he will learn.

Safety: Along with WR, this was my other position area of concern. Marcus Ezeff racked up nine tackles and no doubt he is a sure tackler. He also looked decent when matched up in man coverage. The problem was his ability to find and then play the ball when it was in the air. The Bears had a rough day with their zone and most of it was their safeties not being in position to make plays on the ball. Bernard Hicks had the same problem and then also forget he has a pair of arms. His shoulder tackle cost the Bears a touchdown on Dell’s catch late in the game and he was lucky another shoulder to shoulder hit without wrapping up didn’t result in another six points for MSU. I suspect Ezeff will get better in this aspect of his game and that Brett Johnson will start to play more and more at the expense of Hicks.

Punter: Wow. Wooooow. Does this guy have a leg or what? Anger is a big time weapon for Cal. He needs to learn to get the ball of more quickly and let’s hope he’s taking lessons from Benji Molina on how he catches Todd Lincecum so he’s better prepared for one of Nick Sundberg’s fastballs. The biggest concern is his health as he sprained his knee on his final pouch attempt is questionable for the WSU game.

Kicking: David Seawright looked poised and solid on his one Field Goal try and the five extra points. Kickoffs? That’s a whole different ball of wax. The kicks were short, flat and easily returnable, which resulted in MSU having excellent field position all day long. This needs to get figured out and fast. If you assume Cal will kick off at least four times a game, we’re giving our opponents a 60+ yard advantage if they average starting at their own 35 instead of the twenty. I watched a lot of college football this past weekend and didn’t see a single team that couldn’t consistently get the ball to at least the ten yard line with a high ball that was easily covered.

Coaching: I could quibble here and there with new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti's playcalling (waited too long to stretch the field with deep passes and not enough stretch running plays to utilize Best’s speed) but I thought overall he did a nice job. On defense, Gregory game planned to shut down their running game and then blitz Hoyer into turning the ball over. We stuffed Ringer and the Spartans ground game and Hoyer’s PER of 103 was well below his average, but we failed to come up with interceptions when we had the chance. I also thought that we left our corners and safeties on an island far too often in obvious passing downs and I’d like to see us lose the three man rush save for when we have a 20+ point lead in the 4th quarter.

Conclusions: I believe MSU will go on to have a solid year and could win as many as nine games. Against that quality of an opponent for us to win the battle at the LOS on both sides of the ball as demonstrably as we did is quite impressive. The talent and depth on this Bears team are obvious. Riley and the defense as a whole showed they were ready to battle hard in a close game giving hope that our leadership issues are behind us. All that said, we have a young offensive squad with virtually no experience on special teams and while Washington State is not Michigan State this year, playing in the Palouse versus the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium will provide a stiff test for our untested newcomers.