There was a lot of uncertainty heading into the 2008 Cal Bears Football Season. Can they rebound from a disappointing 2007? Who's the starting QB? Can the Wide Receiver depth be replenished? Will the defense improve? Many questions & even after one game, there still may remain some to be answered.
Nevertheless, Cal's 38-31 victory over the Michigan State Spartans opened some eyes & sometimes made you shake your head. Here are the highlights & low lights from Cal's performance in the game:
- Kevin Riley is indeed the man for the starting QB job. Not only did he put up an impressive stat sheet, 17 of 24 for 202 yards 2 TD's 0 INT's, but he looked in command & showed great maturity. He made smart throws & reads and used his mobility to his advantage, none more so bigger than avoiding the rush & hitting Cameron Morrah for 26 yards on a 3rd & 13 when the game was 24-21. Those types of plays are what can make or break games.
- The new Cal running back duo. While we were introduced to Jahvid Best last year, Shane Vereen showed tonight that he can play the part as well. They combined for over 200 yards rushing on 33 carries, which will be important day in & day out with so much uncertainty at WR. Not only that, Best showed his impact in the passing game, with 63 yards on 5 catches. These 2 will be very vital for Cal this season.
- Cal may have a #1 Wideout. While there is some settling still going on with the Cal wideouts, Sean Young, the sixth year Senior, stepped up and caught 4 passes for 81 yards. While he may not be close to the talent level Cal lost (Jackson, Hawkins, Jordan), consistently performing like this will solidify a young receiving core.
- Morrah may be poised for a breakout year. After backing up Craig Stevens for 2 years, Cameron Morrah is now the starter & looked the part, collecting 93 yards on 5 catches. The converted defensive end showed his 4.6 speed, quickness & agility, making catches on deep routes, finding soft spots in zone coverage & making catches with a defender in his face. Tight ends like this are hard to find & if tonight is any idication on what's to come, he will be matchup nightmare for defensive coordinators.
- Offensive Line still looks strong. Losing 3 starters (Gibson & De la Puente via draft, Tepper via injury) on a team that only gave up 11 sacks last year (3rd in the nation) could be tough on a team. But Cal showed the depth is there & Bear fans should have nothing to worry about after allowing only 1 sack & opening holes for the running backs.
- 3-4 alignment looks good against the run. Michigan State running back Javon Ringer was probably licking his chops going against the 68th run defense from a year ago. Heck, running for 1,447 yards & a fat 5.9 yards per carry in 2007 would make me do the same. But the new Cal 3-4 alignment looked good against the run, only allowing Ringer 81 yds on 27 carries (3 YPC). Derrick Hill was stout in the middle & the linebackers, the undisputed strength of the Cal defense, were superb. They filled their gaps, were disruptive in the backfield & the longest run of the day against them was 10 yards.
- Syd the Shutdown Kid. You may look at the stat line and see that Cal gave up 321 yards through the air. It should be noted that none of that was at fault of Syd'quan Thompson, who carried over a strong sophomore season & has really become a shutdown cornerback. Michigan State did their homework & stayed away from him as much as possible. The times they did go his direction, Thompson was excellent, breaking up a TD pass in the end zone, breaking up a pass on 3rd down backed in their own territory & intercepting a pass right before half time. Outside of a phantom pass interference call, Thompson was outstanding & should be one of the candidates for First Team All Pac-10 Honors at the end of the year.
- Anger Management. We kept hearing about the leg Bryan Anger & tonight he certainly lived up to the hype. His first 3 punts were 56+ yards, none of which were returned & gave Michigan State no better field position than their own 17 yard line. Not to say there weren't growing pains, trying to punt the ball after a VERY bad snap & a shanked punt with a close game in the 4th quarter were definitely some lowlights. But special teams/field position are absolutely a key part of the game & Cal may have a special weapon in Anger.
- Longshore's confidence looks shot. If Riley were to go down, this team may be in trouble. Nate Longshore looks like a completely different QB & appears to have no confidence at all. Coming in the 2nd quarter he made a beautiful throw for 50 yards to Morrah only to see him throw a completely boneheaded interception in the endzone 3 plays later. The next series, the first pass he throws is intercepted & returned for a touchdown. These weren't tipped passes that became interceptions, these were "There wasn't a Cal receiver in the area" interceptions. You have to feel bad for the guy, because during his sophomore season & first half of his junior season he was a stud. Mel Kiper even had him as one of the best junior class NFL prospects halfway through last year. If Longshore has to come in during crucial times this year, California fans will be holding their breath.
- The wide receiver situation is still unsettling. Yes, Sean Young looked good, but Cal's next best WIDE RECEIVER was LaReylle Cunningham who caught one pass for 6 yards. Nyan Boateng ran good routes & got open at times but couldn't hold on to the ball. The younger receivers were basically invisible. Is someone going to step up? You can't count on your tight ends & running backs to carry the receiving load week in & week out.
- Can we get a pass rush? Cal ranked 84th in the nation last year in sacks & doesn't appear to be improving on that stat after tonight. Rulon Davis, Tyson Alualu & company applied pressure at times, but couldn't get to the QB to notch a single sack. When running a 3-4 alignment, linebackers need to also get to the QB, but they were stymied as well. Maybe it's talent, maybe it's technique or maybe it was the pass coverage, but whatever the case, giving the QB that much time to throw & not presenting long down situations will hurt a team down the road.
- The Secondary needs to step up. Excluding Syd'Quan Thompson, this unit was pretty mediocre. Granted, this was Darian Hagan's first start & at times flashed the potential that has got the coaching staff buzzed, but he got burned bad by Mark Dell. He also had LOTS of missed interceptions he should of had. He wasn't the only one, as the safeties Bernard Hicks & Marcus Ezeff were out of place at times which, thanks to over throws, saved TD's. Also, allowing a receiver to comeback to a under thrown ball which you were ahead of and should of intercepted is inexcusable too. Lets not forget the missed tackles on the Mark Dell TD pass at the end of a close game as well. Hoyer may have completed only 42% of his passes, but not capitalizing on getting those sure turnovers, missing tackles & blowing assignments will hurt in future games.
- Can Cal kickoff past the 15 yard line? Field position is important, so letting your opponent constantly field kickoffs at the 15 yard line is not a theme you want re-occurring. Both David Seawright & Giorgio Tavecchio had a tough time getting the ball past the 15 yard line on kickoffs, constantly allowing Michigan State to receive good field position. Luckily for Cal, they have punter Bryan Anger who can boom the ball. The question is, why isn't he booming the kickoffs?
- Penalties, Mistakes & Turnovers, oh my! As much as I could hamper about the negatives, this game shouldn't even have been as close as it was. Longshore threw 2 interceptions, one that cost them at least 3 points & another that resulted in 7 Michigan State points. Anger had a snap go flying over his head on a punt which resulted in fantastic field position & a Michigan State TD. Last but not least, Cal had a roughing the kicker penalty on a punt in the 4th quarter with a 10 point lead, resulting in a 1st & 10 at the Cal 24 yard line & an eventual Michigan State TD. Part of this is youth, but these are the little things that can cause that "How did we lose that game?" look.
Overall, it was a nice performance from a team no one quite knew what to expect. Cal has some cleaning up to do but has lots of positives to work with. Hard to tell what to expect after one game, but it appears Cal will be right in the middle of the Pac-10 hunt once again this season.