Golden Road
Cal - Minnesota Postgame

 

September 24, 2009

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 field goal.

 

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 program.

 

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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