A too-soon look at next fall, sans the inevitable injuries, suspensions and other pratfalls of the long offseason. By popular demand.
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What’s Changed. Cal has a high-flying rep under Jeff Tedford, but the Bears have produced at least a 1,200-yard rusher every year of his tenure and were usually more run-oriented during his first four years -- the 2003 team ran 55 percent of the time, and the 2004 and ‘05 teams both ran on 60 percent of their snaps, a real smashmouth ratio. That’s changed dramatically the last two years, partly because the Bears were no longer averaging six yards per carry (as they did in ‘04 and ‘05), partly because they were in more losing efforts and partly because DeSean Jackson, Lavelle Hawkins and Robert Jordan represented one of the most athletic, experienced and productive receiving corps anywhere. That trio combined for 151 catches and 18 touchdowns in 2006, then went beyond their billing for 184 grabs and 15 scores last year. They were certainly an upgrade over their predecessors: the NFL only took one Cal receiver between 2002 and 2007 (Chase Lyman, whose college career was cut short by injuries and who failed to make even the slightest dent in Saints camp), but took Jackson last year in the second round and Hawkins in the fourth; Jordan signed a free agent deal with the 49ers.
2007 Record • Past Five Years
2007: 7-6 (3-6 Pac Ten; T-7th)
2003-07: 43-21 (26-16 Pac Ten)
Five-Year Recruiting Rankings*
2004-08: 34 • 23 • 9 • 19 • 22
Returning Starters, Roughly
12 (5 Offense, 7 Defense)
When young quirky hat aficianado Alex Mack became accidentally contaminated with the experimental substance GC-161 at her father's chemical plant, she initially gained the ability to "zap" people and objects with an electrical charge, move objects by telekinesis, and morph into a silvery liquid. Since taking on the form of a 6'4" 310-pound all-Pac Ten center in order to gain admission to Berkeley, she's focused her superhuman abilities to become the both the strongest and most flexible player on the team and possibly the first center taken in next year's draft. Now it's up to the rest of the Golden Bears to make sure Jim Harbaugh doesn't lead corrupt Paradise Valley Chemical Plant CEO Danielle Atron to Alex's true identity, cuz you know he totally would.
Cal invented the "card stunt" in 1910, and has either taken to digitally altering the results or has just evolved into one impossibly precise card stunt machine, as seen before the 2006 Game with Stanford (whose famous band was, yes, banned):
I find that hard to believe, personally, having seen enough of the "enhanced" variety on behalf of athlete's foot cream in commercials, but I find no one else claiming fakery on this or any other "card stunt" clip, so there you go -- Cal students are just freakishly good at coordinating large scale sign movement (if anybody was, you'd figure it'd be Berkeley, I guess). Click here for the full-sized clip.
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* According to Rivals.
Still, as struggles elsewhere on the offense put a greater strain on their responsibility -- namely, Nate Longshore was playing hurt, again (see below) -- the receivers were far less explosive last year. Jackson averaged 16 yards per catch as a freshman and a truly frightening 18 in ‘06, but only 11.7 in ‘07; Hawkins’ average fell from 15.3 as a first-year JUCO transfer to a pedestrian 11.9. Overall, yards per pass fell by a full yard from ‘06 to ‘07 and the number of big plays plummeted (from 40 in ‘06 to 26 last year, a drop of 35 percent), especially in Pac Ten games. The scoring average fell just below 30 per game, a field goal worse than the previous Tedford era low, in 2003. The balance remained, but it was generally a less explosive outfit as the season wore on, which is shown well in its inability to score more than 23 points in any of the last six regular season games, including clunkers against league bottom dwellers Washington State (a 20-17 win), Washington (a 37-23 loss) and, most inexcusably, Stanford (a 20-13 loss).
The bad news from that perspective is that both the most reliable and most explosive players have all gone on to the pros, and the immediate reserves are not as highly regarded -- though Jordan wasn’t a high profile recruit, Hawkins was a four-star prospect out of junior college and Jackson was the hands-down, must-have receiving star of the class of 2005, whereas expected replacements Jeremy Ross, Michael Calvin and senior LaReyelle Cunningham generated far less hype (and, so far, even less on-field production). If the Bears are looking for a new field-stretching athlete, it’s likely to come from among a group of guys who haven’t taken a snap: Florida transfer/serial legal risk Nyan Boateng or true freshman Marvin Jones. Otherwise, the focus of the attack is likely to shift back to the much-anticipated running of Jahvid Best, or whoever’s next in Tedford’s tailback parade.
What’s the Same. Last year’s defense also happened to be the most generous of Tedford’s tenure in terms of points allowed, and second-most generous in terms of yards; the Bears were last in the Pac Ten in sacks and tackles for loss and a balm for ailing offenses, generally -- six of the last eight opponents scored at or above their season averages against Cal, all but Air Force winners in the process. It wasn‘t pretty by any means:
|Yds./Carry||1st Down Runs||10+ Runs||20+ Runs|
If there’s anything good to add to that, it’s that the guys who did perform, by and large, return: the top seven tacklers, the top five in tackles for loss, five of the top six in sacks. The guys near the front of all of those categories are the linebackers, Worrell Williams, Anthony Felder and Zack Follett, the most statistically impressive of the three (12.5 tackles for loss, ten in the last seven games, and 5.5 sacks) and the only player on the defense deemed fit by Pac Ten coaches for the all-conference team. Those numbers should revert to the mean based on simple probability; if the "senior leadership" cliché means anything, they’ll be better than that. But the goal for now, at minimum, should be back to normal.
If At First You Don‘t Succeed, Tape, Tape Again. If no team has fallen harder than Cal since last October, no player has fallen harder than Nate Longshore, who went from possible early draft entry to possible benchwarmer. Longshore has the size, the arm and, occasionally, a complete grasp of the offense, which has led to some huge afternoons: he threw fifteen total touchdowns in wins over Minnesota, Arizona State, Oregon State and Oregon in a five-week stretch in 2006; went 20 for 24 and threw three touchdowns in a dismantling of UCLA a few weeks later; and put up a pair of two-touchdown, zero-INT efforts in wins over Tennessee and Oregon last September, where he also completed well over 60 percent of his passes in both games.
But Nate, he gets hurt -- in the first game of 2005, which knocked him out for the season; in the sixth game in 2006, which left him limping around with a more serious ankle injury than anyone let on for the rest of the year; in the fifth game last year, with another ankle injury that obviously affected him the rest of the way -- and when he gets hurt, things turn irrevocably south:
|Before||Games||Comp. %||Yds./Att.||TD||INT||Avg. Rating||Pts./Game|
|After||Games||Comp. %||Yds./Att.||TD||INT||Avg. Rating||Pts./Game|
Bear fans are understandably impatient to see the transition to the Kevin Riley era, especially after the then-redshirt freshman atoned for his epic boner against Oregon State by replacing Longshore with the Bears down 21-0 in the Armed Forces Bowl and completely dominating the final three quarters (Riley’s 255.4 efficiency rating in that game is truly off the charts, even against Air Force). It didn’t help that Longshore missed most of spring practice while Riley and Brock Mansion worked to close whatever gap still remains. But there’s every indication that if Longshore actually remains healthy -- and Cal’s line was outstanding in pass protection, first in the Pac Ten and third nationally in fewest sacks allowed -- he’s a well-above average quarterback, in corresponding with the Tedford lineage. That is, if his confidence isn’t completely shot at this point.
Overly Optimistic Post-Spring Chatter. "Confidence," or "chemistry," or some related psychological healing, seemed to be the theme in the spring, where the aftertaste of last year’s collapse remained strong. On a couple of occasions, Zack Follett embraced the "new tone" by backing Tedford’s tough love routine:
"Coach Tedford’s on us harder than he’s ever been," Follett said. "He’s reinforcing ‘Tedford’s Law’ around here. When I first got here, I saw how it was. Then two years went by, and I saw how much lenience was being allowed. He kind of recognized that. That’s the No. 1 change that he’s been making.
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…and calling out some of his departed teammates (DeSean*cough*Jackson*cough cough*):
"(Coach Jeff) Tedford has changed his tone. It’s more of a team-oriented approach now," Cal linebacker Zack Follett told the Contra Costa Times. "Last year a lot of our leaders were stars who were young. They didn’t provide leadership. No disrespect to those guys, but sometimes when you have star athletes, it’s hard to be a coach to those kinds of players."
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Tedford agrees, apparently, having shockingly abandoned play calling duties to new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti, late of a successful stint at Tedford’s old haunt, Fresno State, and a few less distinguished stops in the NFL. If Tedford the All-Seeing Motivator is actually more effective than Tedford the Master Tacticion/Quarterback Manufacturer -- and that’s a long ’if,’ because Tedford’s been very good in the latter role, the second half of last year notwithstanding -- he might yet re-ascend the ’hot commodity’ throne he briefly rode in 2004-06. But then, if Longshore’s lost the team, somebody’s still gotta do the quarterback thing with Riley, so just when you thought you were out, Jeff…
Cal on YouTube. You can learn about the "aging hippies in the oak trees" from Brent Musburger or from local news footage of the infamous, shrieking Dumpster Muffin or from guerilla footage of protesters talking shit to cops in hopes of stirring up some police violence. Or you can get more sober agitprop straight from the well-organized, professional reactionaries’ mouth:
You can get much more of that angle here, here ("I had some friends go to prison and they had a great time") and here, or just gawk at the naked people. (Re: the above-referenced law against building on a fault, see here).
See Also: After centuries of animosity, the famous Bear-Tree throwdown to end it all in the mid-nineties. … A very strange, uh, tribute to Roy "Wrong Way" Riegels. … And Marshawn Lynch takes a little joyride after the Bears’ overtime win over Washington in 2006.
Yes, Nate, of course we see the birdies. We all see them. How’s your ankle? Do you like your new room?
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Best-Case. The running game should be its usual steady self behind Best, which opens up Longshore and/or Riley’s options dramatically. Tedford’s consistent success offensively is too strong to ignore: if Longshore, especially, is healthy and has his teammates’ confidence, this is still a unit that can average in the low 30s. The Bears have two of the league’s most interesting, potentially season-defining non-conference games in September, against Michigan State and at Maryland, with likely victim Washington State in between. If Cal can start 3-0, take three of four against Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA and Oregon, and head into USC at 7-1, the dropoff in degree of difficulty at the end of the schedule offers a fine chance for BCS contention at 10-2. That seems like extreme optimism for a team with so many questions on offense, but beyond the Trojans, there’s nobody that should beat Cal -- these guys were No. 2 in the country as late as October, and if the pieces fall into place, it could shape up as a hell of a rejuvenation job.
Worst-Case. It’s very easy to think "Cal’s always good on offense" and overlook the total death of reliable playmakers; after one great year and a couple good ones, the defense looks like it’s back in the mire for the foreseeable future. There’s really only one ‘break’ in the first ten games, against Colorado State at the end of September. Assuming Cal wins that, it could still be just a 2-2 afterthought hitting the meat of the conference schedule, which is uncommonly tough to predict, and therefore potentially brutal. Through the next six games -- Arizona State, Arizona, UCLA, Oregon, USC and Oregon State -- it’s easy to see the Bears going 2-4, limping into the final two against Stanford and Washington just hoping to eke out bowl eligibility, drop another one to one of the up-and-comers and have to endure the longest offseason here in seven or eight years. That may seem a little extreme, but as high as I was on the Bears’ potential a couple years ago, the pendulum has definitely swung.
Non-Binding Forecast. The shine is definitely off here; the Bears look like just another team in the middle of a very crowded pack in a parity-driven conference that offers up five to six toss-up games, even before factoring in the Michigan State-Maryland gambit in September. Minus a couple fairly obvious games as buffers (a win over Colorado State, a loss at Southern Cal), the schedule breaks down according to three distinct sections: Michigan State-Washington State-Maryland (that looks like a 2-1 start), Arizona State-Arizona-UCLA-Oregon (the Bears might be lucky to split that run) and Oregon State-Stanford-Washington to close. If they beat everyone they’re supposed to beat, including a 3-0 finish against teams they were 0-3 against last year, this looks like an 8-4 kind of season; if there’s another stumble along the way to an Arizona or Washington, it could be 7-5. But unless the defense is hugely improved and a really sound, consistent running game emerges behind Best, there’s no great leap forward.