This past Saturday the
California Golden Bears faced their first major test of the year Ė a road
game at the Minnesota Golden Gophers. The game was full of factors that had
been stumbling blocks for the Bears in recent seasons. Cal had not played
well on the road, winning only one of its last 9 road games. Cal had failed
to show up in the first 3 quarters of its past two road games against major
conference teams, Tennessee in 2006 and Maryland in 2008. Cal had also
struggled to win while ranked last season and while ranked highly in the
last few seasons. They took all of this into a 9 AM PST (11 AM Minnesota
time) kickoff in a sold out TCF Bank Stadium, a brand new facility hosting
its second ever Golden Gopher game.
The Golden Bears came out
of the gate looking focused and ready to show they were a more mature and
simply better team than they had been the last few years. Cal marched down
the field with ease in the first quarter and scored touchdowns on its first
two possessions, staking the Bears to a 14-0 lead. The defense, meanwhile,
did not allow Minnesota to get a first down. It looked like Cal was going to
run away with another blowout win.
Yet things are never that
simple for the Golden Bears on the road. Once again Pete Alamarís atrocity
of a special teams unit did its best to keep the opponent in the game.
It began with the opening
kickoff and continued through much of the game. Calís first two drives, both
of which eventually ended in touchdowns, began at the Cal 20 and the Cal 14.
Minnesotaís first two drives, both coming after Cal kickoffs that followed
the aforementioned touchdowns, began on the Cal 47 and the Minnesota 38.
The horrible special teams
play and abysmal surrender of field position and points kept going. Calís
next possession began at the Golden Bear 26. Minnesotaís subsequent
possession began at the Golden Gopher 46. The rest of Calís possessions for
the half began at the Cal 26, the Cal 7, and the Cal 11, with the latter
being the incredible result of a kickoff return. Mixed in was a Cal missed
With under 4 minutes
remaining in the first half, the Golden Bears appeared to take command of
the game again, taking a 21-7 lead. But the Cal special teams struck with
frightening quickness and fury. The ensuing kickoff went out of bounds (and
did so at the Minnesota 25, which made it not only a very poorly directed
kick but a pathetically weak one as well) giving Minnesota the ball at their
own 40. After the Cal defense held and the Cal offense failed to move the
ball, the Cal special teams was asked to punt. Normally this is not a
problem, thanks to the leg of All America candidate punter Bryan Anger. This
time even Anger failed and his kick, along with a penalty on freshman gunner
Isi Sofele, gave Minnesota the ball at the Cal 29. The Gophers capitalized
and went into the locker room down only a touchdown despite being out-gained
by nearly 200 yards.
The second half began with
promise for the Bears and their special teams. Kickoff man Giorgio Tavecchio
was pulled in favor of freshman Vince DíAmato and the new kicker did
something no Bear had managed in the short season. Yes, the Bears finally
had produced a touchback. In the stands at least one Cal fan enjoyed an
overly exuberant celebration. Yet even that moment of productivity was short
lived. The Cal defense held yet again and forced a punt, but the punt return
team failed to get out of the way of a short kick and allowed the ball to
bounce off a Bear blocker. A Gopher fell on the ball and Cal had its first
turnover of the season.
By the fourth quarter the
game was tied at 21 and not looking promising for Cal. Calís offense hadnít
managed a first down all half and the referees appeared to have begun making
calls for the home team. Cal had just had a promising drive killed by a
bogus holding penalty (left tackle Mike Tepper had pancaked a defender while
springing Jahvid Best for a long gain on a screen pass and was called for a
phantom hold) and was now watching Minnesota dig their way out of the shadow
of their own endzone with the help of the second questionable at best pass
interference penalty of the half called against the Bears. The crowd was
sensing the upset and the Gophers smelled blood. The situation seemed bleak.
But then the game turned.
Calís defense dug in, overcame all the adversity facing them, and forced a
punt. Calís return man SydíQuan Thompson uncharacteristically dropped the
punt but fell on it to preserve possession. Cal faced 3rd and 16 when the
Golden Bears suddenly started clicking again. Kevin Riley hit wide receiver
Jeremy Ross 25 yards downfield for a first down, and Ross dragged the
Minnesota defenders an extra 10 yards for good measure. Riley then completed
an 11 yard pass to tight end Skylar Curran for Calís second first down of
the drive and the half, and then found Ross for a 31 yard gain to the
Minnesota 1 yard line. Jahvid Best ran it in from there for his 4th
touchdown of the afternoon.
Another crappy Cal kickoff
gave Minnesota good field position but the defense was more than up to the
task. Harassed by the fearsome Golden Bear pass rush, Minnesota quarterback
Adam Weber threw an ill advised pass that was intercepted by Cal linebacker
Mike Mohamed. Eight plays later, Best had his modern day school record fifth
touchdown of the game. The win was secure.
Special teams nightmare
aside, it was a promising game for the Bears. Cal showed it could win on the
road and that it could win a four quarter game. Doing both at the same time,
a harder feat, was also proven to be in the Bearsí repertoire. Cal also
showed that it could win by throwing, an aspect missing since at least early
2007. The biggest play of the game was made not by Heisman candidate Best
but by quarterback Kevin Riley and backup receiver Jeremy Ross. And yes, Cal
also showed it could overcome a special teams apocalypse, which is sadly an
ability they will likely need again this season.
At the end of the day Best
had his Heisman numbers, Riley and the passing game had come through, the
defense (except cornerback Darian Hagan who was burned on all 3 Gopher
touchdowns) was stout when needed, and Minnesota was Bear Territory.
Quick Oregon Preview
The Ducks were awful, Pete
Alamar special teams level awful, in their opening game at Boise State. Both
of their lines were dominated and a comedy of errors by Boise was the only
thing keeping the game from being a 30 point loss for the Ducks. Then
running back LaGarrette Blount punched an opposing player after the game
just to spice things up.
Since then things have gone
better for the Ducks. Blount, expected to be a star in his first year as a
starting running back, looked slow and out of shape against Boise. His
replacements are smaller but showed much better quickness and speed. Oregon
beat a bad Purdue team and a ranked Utah team, both at home. Oregon has
struggled mightily in the passing game and seems to be winning with smoke
and mirrors, but the bottom line is still win/loss record and the Ducks are
2-0 since the Boise debacle.
Now the Golden Bears come
calling to Autzen Stadium. This is Oregonís chance for redemption on a
national stage. With the exception of the 2006 game, a Cal blowout win,
Calís games with Oregon have been close since Jeff Tedford took over the Cal
The biggest challenges for
Cal, aside from the possibility of Pete Alamarís charges throwing up all
over themselves yet again, are the noise and itís inexperienced linebackers.
Cal has succeeded in slowing the Oregon spread option in recent years due in
large part to superior linebacker play. Cal has the speed and talent at
linebacker to shut down the Oregon run game again but this group of Ďbackers
hasnít seem an attack like Oregonís before. Itís imperative that the Cal
linebackers maintain their assignments, shed blocks, and donít miss tackles.
Oregon has struggled with their passing game and would love to be able to
run on the Bears. If Cal can force the Ducks into 3rd and long situations
the Golden Bear secondary should be able to create some turnovers to help
win the game.
The noise speaks for
itself. Cal got good exposure to playing in front of a hostile crowd at
Minnesota but Oregon takes it to another level. Cal did a great job of
taking the Gopher crowd out of the game early (though they then late the
crowd, and the Gophers, back in later) and need to do the same Saturday if
possible. The offense will need to know how to communicate without speech as
they will likely be unable to hear each other on the field.
The prediction here is that
Oregon is a better team than they showed against Boise, especially at home,
but Cal proves themselves to be up to the challenge. Cal has the best
playmaker on the field, the best passer, and the best defense. The Bears
will win the turnover battle, their linebackers will limit the Oregon run
game with maybe one or two exceptions, and Cal wins 38 Ė 21.
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