Turtle Soup
Bears Maul Terps

 

September 9, 2009

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 many questions.

 

Quarterbacks

 

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 procedural issues.

 

Overall Grade: B

 

Running Backs

 

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 yardage back.

 

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 well.

 

Overall Grade: A

 

Receivers

 

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 endzone).

 

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.

 

Grade: B+

 

Offensive Line and Tight Ends

 

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 line.

 

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-

 

Defensive line

 

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 likely exists.

 

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.

 

Grade: A-

 

Linebackers

 

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).

 

Grade: B

 

Defensive Backs

 

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.  

 

Grade: B

 

Special Teams

 

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 largely untested.

 

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 outing.

 

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.

 

Grade: C

 

EWU Prediction

 

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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