There are now well under
100 hours remaining until Cal kicks off a potentially monumental 2009 season
against the visiting Maryland Terrapins Ė hours filled with excitement and
anxiety, yet also with an eerily confident calm.
The pre-game prediction
here was Cal 41, Maryland 17. Right winner, correct on the blowout, but not
enough respect for Calís suddenly explosive passing game.
There were several areas of
concern for the Bears heading into the season opener against the Terrapins.
Would Kevin Riley be able to get the ball to open receivers? Would receivers
be able to get open in the first place? Would the new linebacking corps play
well enough to keep Calís defense playing at a high level? How would true
freshman placekicker Vince DíAmato fare in his first collegiate action? How
would senior fullback Brian Holley do in his first meaningful playing time
of his career? Would new offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig return excitement
and high level productivity to Calís offense? Would Calís kickoff team not
cause Bear blood pressure to spike every time it saw the field?
For the most part, the
answers to all but the last question were very positive. Below are
observations and grades for each unit, including those which came in without
Kevin Riley got off to a
very slow start. Cal was up 14-0 early despite Riley, who to that point was
1/5 passing and the one completion came on a great catch of a ball thrown
late, high, and behind Marvin Jones.
Riley was consistently off
for over a quarter. He underthrew Jahvid Best after Best, having lined up
out wide, had a step and a half on his man and was separating further. This
caused Best to have to slow down for the ball, allowed the defender to catch
up, and made the catch difficult for Best (who was unable to haul it in).
That was the first blown td pass. The second was much worse, as Riley
woefully underthrew receiver Verran Tucker. Tucker, who had gotten behind
the defense, had to stop and come back for the ball, got interfered with,
and made a spectacular catch that went down as a long completion for Riley.
On a handful of other plays Riley simply threw the ball too high and/or too
late, with too late being a very common occurrence. Short timing passes were
batted down as receivers had already reached their spot before Riley
released, and he likely shouldíve released as they made their break so that
the receivers would arrive to the spot at the same time the ball arrived
instead of standing there waiting and allowing their defenders to catch up.
But eventually Riley heated
up. Kevin hit a wide open Nyan Boateng (who had put a move on his defender
that left the defender lying on the Memorial Stadium turf) in stride for a
39 yard touchdown. Riley then made a beautiful pass, probably the pass of
the night, to Marvin Jones. Jones had a half step on the Maryland defender
and Riley put the ball in the perfect spot (and Jones made a great catch
which having his shoulder yanked by the defender) for a 42 yard touchdown.
Rileyís best play resulted
in Calís 3rd touchdown. Cal had 1st and goal at the Maryland 3 and Riley
took the snap and rolled right a bit (by design it appeared) only to find a
Maryland defender coming in unopposed. Sometimes the offensive play call is
a terrible match for the defensive play call. Riley made a ball fake and
ducked under the attempted tackle, quickly reset his feet, and found tight
end Skylar Curran open in the endzone for a Golden Bear touchdown.
Overall Riley was pretty
good. He ran the offense well, with no procedural penalties to be found.
Players were lined up properly, time outs were not burned, and the play
clock was not an issue. After about a quarter and a half, Riley got going
and put a lot of points and yards on the board. He also didnít turn the ball
over. His receivers had to bail him out at times but on the whole Riley had
a very nice game to build on.
Brock Mansion came in for
much of the 4th quarter but didnít have a chance to do much. He was only
allowed to throw one pass, an incompletion. He played with second and third
stringers and was ordered to hand off nearly every play. He also had no
Overall Grade: B
Jahvid Best was his
spectacular self, getting the season under way with a 73 yard touchdown run
on his second touch. Best finished with 137 yards and 2 touchdowns on only
10 carries (he sat much of the second half) and two catches (one a ho-hum
running 1 hander) for 23 yards. Best got the Bears started with his early
touchdowns and was also partially responsible for the aforementioned Jones
touchdown, as the defense bit on a play fake to Best allowing Jones to get
behind the secondary. Jahvid did have a little trouble in pass protection,
whiffing on blitz pickup on one or two occasions.
Shane Vereen added a pair
of touchdowns, 54 rushing yards, and 46 receiving yards on 10 carries and 3
catches. Covaughn DeBoskie Johnson added 54 yards in garbage time.
The real story for diehard
Cal fans was starting fullback Brian Holley. The senior spent his career as
a backup and was finally thrust into a meaningful role. He got his first
touch on a fullback dive in Calís first 3rd and short situation, an area the
Bears have struggled in the last couple years. Holley appeared to be stuffed
at the line of scrimmage but made a fantastic second effort, churned his
legs, and carried a defensive lineman 5 yards up field for a Cal first down.
The sample size is obviously way too small, but we may have a new short
His blocking is hard to
gauge without watching film. The noticeable plays were two Best runs. On one
Holley made a nice cut block of a blitzing defender, but the defender was
able to get up and make the play (and then left the game and watched with
the second half with the aide of crutches). The second play saw Jahvid gang
tackled 5 yards past the line of scrimmage with Holley running several yards
in front looking for someone to block. Obviously he missed 2 or 3 guys he
could have, and probably should have, blocked to try giving Best the sliver
of daylight Best needs to break a long run. Overall, Holley seemed to do
Overall Grade: A
Last year Cal broke in a
new set of receivers with poor results. None managed to catch thirty passes
on the season. Redshirt freshman Michael Calvin, touted as the best of the
bunch in camp, hurt his toe and then blew out his knee. True freshman Marvin
Jones suffered a season ending injury after making only 1 catch. Transfers
Nyan Boateng and Verran Tucker eventually displaced inexperienced seniors
LaRaylle Cunningham and Sean Young but failed to provide consistent
production, as did redshirt sophomore Jeremy Ross. Running backs Jahvid Best
and Shane Vereen tied for second on the team in receptions with 27 apiece.
The early returns this
season were much more promising. Though no one receiver had a dominant
presence like Geoff McArthur did in 2003 and 2004, several receivers showed
significant improvement and made plays in the passing game. While no
receiver had more than three catches, five wideouts did make at least one
reception and all five averaged 16.7 yards per reception (and four of the
five averaged at least 22 yards per reception). This is indicative of
receivers getting open and making plays down the field. Two receivers,
Tucker and Jones, made spectacular catches to bail out Riley.
The receivers also
generally did a nice job of blocking down field. On Bestís 73 yard touchdown
run, Jahvid slowed near the Maryland 20 to allow Tucker to come in and take
out the lone remaining Terp defender. The play may not have been a touchdown
had Tucker not stayed with the play (it was the defensive back who began the
play covering Tucker that eventually tried to impede Bestís path to the
The one noticeable blocking
miscue came on a second long run by Best on Calís first play of the second
half. Best broke a long run deep into Maryland territory and had blockers
with him. Unfortunately Jones completely whiffed on the last remaining
Maryland defender with a chance to stop the play and Best was knocked out of
bounds at the Maryland 14.
The caveat to the
receiversí performance is Marylandís blitz lust. This left the Bears facing
a lot of single coverage. Future games will show how well the Bears
receiving corps does against double coverage (unlikely to happen too often
as this clears the way for Best and the running game) and exotic zones.
Offensive Line and Tight
This unit came in with a
lot of unknowns. Last yearís star lineman, center Alex Mack, is now on the
Cleveland Browns. Of the five linemen who ended an injury plagued 2008
season as the starters, only Mitchell Schwartz was in the starting five for
the opener, and he switched from left tackle to right tackle. Taking over at
left tackle was the most experienced of the Bear linemen, sixth year senior
Mike Tepper, who missed started a few games in 2006 and all of 2007 before
missing 2008 with a pectoral injury. Chris Guarnero, who had 3 career starts
and none at center, had the formidable task of filling Mackís shoes. Justin
Cheadle and Matt Summers Gavin were the new guards.
To add to the intrigue,
last yearís starting tight end, Cameron Morrah, left early for the NFL. Last
yearís backup tight end, Tad Smith, suffered a season ending injury in camp.
This left a very green tight end corps to go with a newly built offensive
Both the line and tight
ends did very well against a challenging defense. Maryland may not be the
most talented or well coached defense the Bears will face, but they do like
to bring a lot of blitzes and it takes coordination and teamwork to ensure
that there arenít defenders coming free into the backfield to take shots at
Best and Riley. With a couple exceptions, Riley was kept upright and had
time to find receivers downfield.
The run blocking was also
good, and seemed improved from last year. There was a consistent push on run
plays, leading to solid (or better) gains on runs up the middle and few
plays for negative yards. It was not uncommon to see a lineman several yards
down field laying out defenders. Off course it should be noted that Maryland
was not expected to have the best defensive line that the Bears will face.
The tight ends largely went
unnoticed, which is good in blocking and not so good in passing. Curran did
have a short touchdown catch. Ladner unfortunately suffered a knee injury,
possibly making a short bench even shorter at the tight end position.
Itís important to note
that, as far as I can recall, there were no penalties on the offensive line
and tight ends. No false starts, no holds, no chop blocks. Very promising
for such a green group.
Overall Grade: A-
Coming into the season
Calís defensive line was expected to be one of the better ones in the
country (though itís hard to compare with Cal running a 3-4 base defense and
only having 3 defensive linemen on the field most of the time). Still, this
unit managed some pleasant surprises during the opener.
The most notable surprise
was defensive end Ernest Owusu. A redshirt sophomore who didnít see much
playing time last season, Owusu was mainly known as a workout warrior,
putting up impressive numbers in weight room. Rotating in mainly on passing
downs against Maryland, Owusu had two sacks and a third tackle for a loss.
Owusu did his damage while displaying his quickness and athleticism and made
his claim for regular playing time. Calís starting linemen, all of whom
started last season, are unquestionably talented and very capable performers
but there were questions going into the season about their backups. The
performance of Owusu, amongst a few others, signaled that quality depth
The overall performance of
the line was very good. There were six sacks during the game, with five
coming in the first half before the game became a total blowout. Some of the
pass rush came from linebackers (by design in the 3-4 defense) but a lot of
it came from the linemen. Maryland did manage to move the ball through the
air at times but that largely came on quick timing routes.
The run defense was usually
stout. Derek Hill, the starting nose tackle, did a nice job occupying
blockers and clogging in the middle of the line. Tyson Alualu and Cameron
Jordan similarly kept Maryland from running effectively off tackle. The few
big gainers the Terps managed on the ground came on outside runs on which
the back seven, likely the linebackers, made mistakes.
The line was largely
untested in goal line and short yardage situations. They were also facing a
Maryland offensive line which started two former walk-ons and was extremely
light in experience.
Three of last yearís four
starting linebackers graduated (or at least ran out of eligibility) leaving
the Bears breaking in a green group in the middle of their defense. There
were some rookie mistakes, some displays of athleticism, but all in all the
unit help up fairly well.
The linebackers were at
times asked to bring pressure in the passing game. Devin Bishop showed a
surprising knack for this. Mike Mohamed and pass rush specialist Jarred
Price also showed some prowess at getting to the passer. While no Zack
Follett level mayhem maker emerged, on the whole the unit did a solid job of
bringing in the heat when asked. I didnít notice much one way or the other
with their pass coverage.
The Ďbackers didnít fare
quite as well in the run game. Like the defensive line, they werenít
challenged in goal line or short yardage situations. But they also generally
failed to penetrate on run plays early enough to get tackles in the
backfield. They also allowed a lot of Maryland players to fall forward while
being tackled, giving up what is sometimes crucial real estate. The
linebackers also found themselves out of position or failing to shed blocks
on a few outside runs, including Marylandís lone touchdown which came on a
39 yard DaíRel Scott run when Cal was up by 39.
Overall it was a pretty
good first game for the unit. Only one costly mistake (the aforementioned
touchdown) and even that came after the game had been blown open. The
linebackers made their share of tackles and helped with the pass rush. They
werenít dominant but they werenít a liability and showed the ability to be a
plus. Not bad considering that virtually every player was in a new role (and
in just about every case, a much more demanding role).
Defensive backs were
expected to be a major strength of the team with all the starters and key
performers returning along with some young depth rising up the ranks. For
the most part, this unit lived up to its billing.
The unquestioned star of
the defensive backfield is redshirt senior SydíQuan Thompson, a reigning
first team All PAC10 selection and a preseason All American. Thompson,
perhaps trying to emulate former teammate Dante Hughes (2006 PAC10 Defensive
Player of the Year) baited the Maryland quarterback on several occasions and
showed off his closing speed in route to batting down each pass he lured his
way (though in fairness to Hughes, Hughes baited quarterbacks into
interceptions rather than just knocking the ball away).
The breakout new player was
Josh Hill, a redshirt freshman who unexpectedly saw a lot of playing time
with starting corner Darian Hagan in and out of the game with cramps. Hill
covered well for a guy in his first game and made a highlight reel tackle to
prevent a long run (Hill managed to dive in and use his head to knock into
the side of Maryland running back Scottís knees to knock Scott down Ė not
too unlike a stick being jammed into the spokes of a moving bicycle wheel -
before he could turn the corner with lots of open room ahead). It was,
pardon the pun, a heads up play.
The defensive backs did
allow Maryland quarterback Chris ďNapoleon DynamiteĒ Turner to complete
timing passes which shouldíve been expected as they are Marylandís style and
are about the only thing Maryland could hope to consistently complete
considering the pass rush they were allowing. That pass rush made it hard to
gauge how well the defensive backs were covering deep down field (a great
problem to have) but Hagan did allow one somewhat long pass over his head on
which he never turned and looked for the ball. They also didnít make as much
of a visible impact in run support or the pass rush as usual, with the
entire defensive backfield combining for 0.5 tackles for a loss on the day.
Ah, finally we reach the
realm of every Cal fanís favorite assistant
coach. This game was not atypical for Pete Alamarís charges. There was
some good, some very good, some frustratingly awful.
Punt returns were a
non-story. Maryland appeared to fear SydíQuan Thompson, one of the better
return men in the country, and kicked it high and short every time which
left the sure-handed Thompson calling for a fair catch on each punt.
Calís punt team, led by
sophomore and potential All American punter Brian Anger, had a typical high
level showing. Anger didnít have any trademark jawdropping blasts but did
punt well directionally, leaving Maryland starting at their own 9 and their
own 18 on two of his three punts. Backup Ryan Theimer, who recently rejoined
the team, got off a 48 yard punt on his only attempt. Coverage teams were
Calís new kicker, true
freshman Vince DíAmato made all his extra points and his only field goal
attempt, a chip shot from 31 yards out. The kicks generally looked good.
None were under mental duress nor were there any attempts from difficult
lengths so it was tough to draw many conclusions from DíAmatoís first
Cal did a nice job on
kickoff returns with Best having one for a relatively pedestrian 18 yards
and Shane Vereen returning 3 for 76 yards, including a 39 yard return.
But the bane of the special
teams reared its ugly head yet again. Cal simply could not muster even a
mediocre kickoff, and coverage teams were spotty. Giorgio Tavecchio, who
purportedly has been kicking it into the endzone with some consistency in
practice, was largely unable to get it past the 10 yard line and at times
struggled to even get it that far. He was also asked to squib kick once,
near the end of the first half, and managed to kick it into one of the
Maryland up-men resulting in Maryland taking possession on the Cal 45.
The kickoff coverage unit
did force a fumble early in the game which the offense quickly turned into 7
points, but on the ensuing kickoff Tavecchio was only able to reach the
Maryland 14 and the coverage team yielded a 48 yard return leaving Maryland
with the ball well into Cal territory. Only a Maryland failure to line up
properly kept the Terps from scoring a touchdown to halve the Bear lead.
Considering how little I
know about the Eastern Washington Eagles it seems like a waste to write a
pre-game article. Here is the official OSFAN prediction for the game:
Cal 48, EWU 10
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