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Cal Bears: Offering an Honest Assessment of the 2010 Squad

Zachary D. RymerMLB Lead WriterOctober 2, 2010

Cal Bears: Offering an Honest Assessment of the 2010 Squad

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    It has not been a good week for Cal sports fans. In case you missed it, Chancellor Robert Birgeneau announced that the university is going to axe several of its athletic programs, including the Bears' 118-year old baseball program.

    The good news is that Cal football isn’t going anywhere. And although the Bears are idle this week as they await their homecoming game against UCLA Saturday, there’s no reason we can’t talk some pigskin.

    One of the major shortcomings of college football is that a team’s ultimate fate can be determined after only a couple games. So it goes for Cal, whose two losses essentially eliminate them from the discussion of any major bowl game.

    Of their four games, the last two losses to Nevada and Arizona should give Cal fans a pretty good notion of the true character of the 2010 Golden Bears. The general trend of head coach Jeff Tedford’s first eight seasons at the helm seems to be holding as true as ever: the Bears are good, but not great.

    If we were to disregard those first two games against UC Davis and Colorado, whether or not the Bears are any good at all is a matter of some debate.

    For your reading pleasure, I decided to take an honest census of things. Start the slideshow to find a detailed study of what their two games can tell us about Cal’s defense, offense, and coaching.

Defense

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    After reaching the top of the charts with their first two performances, Cal’s defense has come back down to earth. Their 282 yards and 18 points allowed per game place them in the middle of the pack within the Pac-10 Conference.

    As many people already realized at the time, the defensive performance in those first two games was a mirage.

    However, Cal’s current defensive averages are, perhaps not surprisingly, horribly skewed by the debacle in Reno. Take away the Nevada game, in which Chris Ault’s pistol offense was flawlessly executed by Colin Kaepernick, and Cal’s defense checks in with averages of 194 yards and 6.6 points a game.

    Both of those numbers would rank first in the country by a long shot.

    Is Cal’s defense really the best in the country? Probably not. Much like last year, they’ve shown that mobile quarterbacks and option offenses are still their kryptonite, until proven otherwise.

    But that loss against Nevada obviously gave a lot of people an excuse to underestimate them. You could perhaps ask Mike Stoops and the Arizona Wildcats. Last Saturday’s game may have ended tragically, but it showed us how well the Bears match up against a traditional spread offense, starting with the secondary.

Secondary

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    As things stand right now, the Bears allow an average of 156.5 passing yards, which ranks third in the Pac-10. They’ve allowed only three touchdowns through the air and have racked up four interceptions.

    Once again, these numbers are good, but not great.

    Nevertheless, after spending most of their time making touchdown-saving tackles against Nevada, we saw just how great the secondary can be during last week’s contest in Tucson. Until Arizona’s final drive, where Nick Foles and the Wildcats offense finally rose from the dead, the pass coverage was consistently outstanding.

    One of the great shames of having to watch football on TV is that the secondary’s best work is usually done off-screen. But the fact that Foles was held to 212 yards—with about 70 of which coming on that last drive—on 25 of 39 attempts tells me that Marc Anthony, Darian Hagan, and friends were definitely doing their job.

    In reality, the only reason Arizona’s offense eventually won the battle was because wide receiver Juron Criner has four inches on Hagan, which I like to think has nothing to do with skill or athleticism.

    In a game that had few redeeming qualities for the Bears, the fact that the Bears totally stifled one of the best quarterbacks in the country in his own stadium should not be overlooked.

    The real bad news after this game is the fact that Arizona is really the only team in the Pac-10 that can't really run the ball. Otherwise, Cal's secondary might be a huge difference maker.

Defensive Line

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    Maybe that six-sack game against Colorado wasn't so misleading after all.

    After being pretty much a non-factor against the pistol, where the only bright spot was a forced fumble on a busted play, Cal’s defensive line played a hell of a game against Arizona.

    With a little help from the men behind them in Clancy Pendergast’s 3-4 scheme, Foles was sacked three times and was hurried just about every time he dropped back to pass. Cameron Jordan was particularly menacing, picking up a sack and deflecting a pass at the line.

    In a game where everyone expected Arizona’s D-line to be the dominant force, there were probably plenty of people who were shocked at the sight of Foles fearing for his life on just about every play. Big games against ranked opponents represent pretty good show-off opportunities.

    The verdict: pocket passers are not safe against Cal. It’s just a shame there aren’t more of those in the Pac-10.

Linebackers

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    The linebacking corps is really the only unit on Cal’s defense that has been hard to get a read on to this point.

    It looked terrible against Nevada, overpursuing the option and forcing the secondary to rack up career-high tackle totals. But they were also without Mike Mohamed, who would have been able to straighten things out to some degree.

    As for their performance against Arizona, the linebackers didn’t really stand out at all. But Stoops’ offensive scheme is the kind that wouldn’t really allow them to. The Wildcats simply don’t run the ball much, so the linebackers spent most of their time either in pass coverage or various blitzes, where I suppose you could say they were part of a very impressive effort as a whole.

    We’ll probably have a much better idea of the linebackers after next week’s contest against UCLA, where they’ll get another shot at stuffing the pistol.

Defensive Conclusion

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    Is Cal’s defense as good as it’s shown against Davis, Colorado, and Arizona?

    Probably, but that ultimately doesn’t matter. Their true challenges like ahead.

    Fresh off their win on the road against the No. 7 Texas Longhorns, UCLA isn’t the pushover that they at first appeared to be. After that you have a game at USC, and home tilts against Arizona State, Oregon, and Stanford still to come.

    If one were to be optimistic, you could say that the defense already blew their chance to make a statement when they got trounced by Nevada. Like the rest of the team, they have nothing to lose, but a continued string of strong performances might draw some positive attention going forward.

Offense

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    Unlike the Bears’ defense, there’s really not much silver lining to be found in the performance of the offense against Nevada and Arizona.

    If you discount the two blowouts of Davis and Colorado, their averages are 382 yards and 20 points a game—totals that rank pretty low within the conference. And this is even worse to consider once you realize that they racked up 502 yards and 35 points against Nevada.

    Facing a truly good defense for the first time this season in their tilt with Arizona, the Cal offense pretty much laid an egg. That egg is far more indicative of the true quality of Cal’s offensive attack than those thrashings of Davis and Colorado, no matter how fun they were to behold.

    At this point I’d like to assure you that this discussion will be brief.

Rushing

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    As you may have noticed, there are some pretty great rushing attacks in the Pac-10. To illustrate, Cal’s average of 190 yards rushing a game is only good enough for the fifth best total in the conference.

    Nevertheless, running the ball is definitely the Bears’ bread and butter. And indeed, it pains one to think where the offense would be without Shane Vereen.

    With the starting gig at long last his and only his, Vereen has established himself as one of, if not the best, running back in the conference. He may have fallen behind Oregon’s LaMichael James in rushing yards within the conference, but his six rushing TDs are still tops.

    Running for 198 yards against Nevada is one thing, but Vereen showed some true grit in grinding out 102 yards against Arizona’s brick-wall run defense. He’s a very tough runner who doesn’t shy away from contact and always seems to pick the right hole. And once he gets in the open, nobody catches him.

    Jahvid Best may be lighting up the scoreboard early in his NFL career, but right now it seems like Vereen is the one who is better suited for pro ball. Watching him play his way into the first round in the next NFL draft is going to be perhaps the best reason to watch every Saturday.

Receivers

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    The receiving corps is yet another unit that’s hard to get a true read on. Marvin Jones still leads the conference in receiving yards, but his numbers are pretty clearly skewed by his big performance in Reno. Nevertheless he’s clearly quarterback Kevin Riley’s primary guy, and he has done well in that capacity.

    After wowing fans in the first game against Davis, freshman phenom Keenan Allen has been nowhere to be found. He’s had only one catch in each of the last two games, which may or may not have something to do with a bum ankle.

    The bad news is that Jones and Allen are the only Cal receivers with more than 10 receptions.

    But it’s hard to blame any of them for the recent woes of Cal’s passing attack.

    I think you know where this is going.

Kevin Riley

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    I’m actually pretty tired of ripping on Kevin Riley. I feel like I do it every week. Unfortunately, the dude makes me do it every week.

    Indeed, of all the great quarterbacks who have trained under Tedford—see Trent Dilfer, David Carr, Akili Smith, Joey Harrington, Kyle Boller, and Aaron Rodgers—Riley hasn’t done much in 2010 to hoist his own name into their ranks. The man who once claimed to be a better quarterback than Foles, Andrew Luck, Jake Locker, or Matt Barkley has simply failed to walk the walk.

    It's all well and good that Riley looked outstanding against Davis and Colorado. It’s just too bad those two games don’t mean anything.

    In his last two games, Riley has thrown for an average of 197 yards and has completed just 57 percent of his passes. He has also thrown four picks, one of which was returned for a touchdown, and another that ended what might have been a game-winning drive.

    Factor in the seemingly constant overthrows and poor decisions, and you get the picture of a quarterback who just can’t cut it as an elite.

    To say that Riley is the key reason the Bears have all but fallen out of the Rose Bowl hunt would be to unfairly throw him under the bus. So I won’t do it.

    Not yet anyway.

Offensive Conclusion

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    In a conference loaded with teams that can rack up yards and points with the best of them, Andy Ludwig’s offense has emerged as something of an ugly duckling.

    Thanks to one of the best backs in the nation, they can sure run the ball. But the failure to execute on passing plays makes the overall experience pretty hard to withstand.

    By the way, if you’re concerned about why there’s no mention of the offensive line, don’t be. They’ve done just fine in every game and are one of the few bright spots on offense at this point, and probably will be throughout the rest of the season.

Head Coach

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    Remember when Jeff Tedford was a hero? You should. It wasn’t all that long ago.

    After the Arizona game, there was a lot of blathering about how Tedford’s Marty Ball philosophy always seems to kill the Bears, and that his faith in the run is ill-placed and perhaps even cowardly.

    Maybe. Maybe not. Let me say this: given the personnel at Tedford’s disposal, do you honestly think another game plan would work better?

    When you the kind of runners Tedford has always had at his disposal—Shane Vereen, Jahvid Best, Marshawn Lynch, etc.—you’re going to give them priority in the offense. And when Kevin Riley and Nate Longshore have struggled to be consistent, are you really going to put the ball in their hands with the game on the line?

    Am I begging the question? Yes. But I’m also begging you to realize that Tedford certainly knows how to call a game much better than you.

    As for this nonsense about Tedford needing to break his policy about not recruiting kickers, you can cram it. How many programs can you name that actually have a solid kicker who can nail a tough field goal to ice the game?

    Exactly.

    All that being said, even I admit that it would be nice to see Cal win a big one every now and then.

Hot Seat?

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    I think Gary Peterson of the San Jose Mercury News said it best: “Tedford's teams have consistently achieved. But at some point it would help if they stunningly overachieved.”

    In other words, it would be nice if they actually won a big game besides the Big Game.

    It’s pretty obvious that the doubts about Jeff Tedford’s ability to field and lead a truly great team are finally starting to get serious. After seven-plus seasons of moderate success, it appears that Cal fans and alumni are finally ready to demand their glass of milk.

    Because of all the great things Tedford has done since he arrived in Berkeley, running him out of town doesn’t really seem like a realistic idea. It’s probably a year or two too early to call for his head. His contract runs through 2015, and he’s demonstrated a pretty strong ability to attract recruits. The simple math: Cal is probably going to be good for at least another five years. It’s hard to get rid of a guy who can promise something like that.

    If by 2012 or 2013, Cal is still merely on the fringe of greatness, maybe then it will be time to start looking for somebody to finish what he started.

    Not convinced? Fair enough. But too bad. After all, I don’t think that Cal is going to want follow up the dismemberment of several different programs by jettisoning their most popular coach in years.

    Bear with it, folks. It's not like you're going to stop watching anyway.

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