Despite some sloppy play, particularly around special teams and dumb penalties, the debut performance for the 2008 Bears was a solid one.
In particular, we discovered that this year’s defense is going to be stout against the run and that many of the younger players whom Cal is counting on in 2008 are not only talented but ready to contribute.
Let’s break things down by position groups:
QBs: Kevin Riley played a solid game overall and most importantly made plays at crucial moments. Despite three drops by the Bears new WR corps, Riley’s numbers were a very respectable as he completed 70% of his passes with no interceptions. He looked poised and in command throughout the game. Nate Longshore came off the bench for two exciting series. At a time when Cal’s offense through the air was stuck in neutral, Longshore comes in and immediately hits Cameron Morrah with a 50 yard bomb that gets the Bears knocking on MSUs goal line. Reversing his success more quickly than John McCains selection of Sarah Palin, Nate went on to throw an interception that nearly went 100yds for a Spartans TD. Longshore made a quick read on a seam route and either there was a miscommunication with the receiver or Nate never saw the safety as it wasn’t even close to being caught by a Bear. The very next possession, on a very similar pass route, Nate throws a pick six to the same safety in an area where there were three white shirts and no gold ones. You have to feel for Longshore, whose confidence is clearly not high after the Riley selection as the starter followed by a dismal performance coming off the bench. But clearly, Tedford made the right call on his starter.
RBs: Jahvid Best is a spectacular football player. He’s improved his quickness and his decisiveness from last season and he simply looks like he plays at a different speed than the defense. He’s more elusive and physical than one normally sees in a speed back which allows him to be equally effective between the tackles as running outside. I do fear that 25+ touches a game may be too many for him. His running style is such that he will take some big hits and staying healthy is definitely a concern. Shane Vereen is not playing at 100% yet still out ran the entire MSU defense. His pass catching abilities are tremendous and when he does get healthy, his quicks and speed will rival Best. Will Taufouo may be the best all around FB Cal has had in many years. He’s not just a good blocker, he’s a great one. Outside of Alex Mack, Will may be the 2nd most important part of our running game, even ahead of our talented tailbacks.
WR/TE: Let’s start with the positives. Cameron Morrah is a big time weapon in Cignetti's passing offense. He can really run and is very fluid in getting in and out of his breaks. The one concern is his need to become a better blocker. If he fails to improve beyond what we saw against MSU, Cignetti will be tempted not to play him as often on running downs which will reduce his impact as it tips off the defense. Sean Young had a wonderful game. He is a crisp route runner and has the quickness to get behind coverage. He’s less a play maker (think Robert Jordan and not Hawkins or DJax) than might be ideal but clearly he will be an important part of the rotation. After those two, this may be the position group of most concern after the first game. Nyan Boateng displayed hands that would only impress Roberto Duran and Mike Calvin’s toe injury limited him to a handful of plays. Between Calvin, Ross and true freshman Marvin Jones, one of them needs to establish themselves as the Bears primary playmaker in the passing game. If Calvin can’t get healthy, it may very well be Jones, whose body control and size make him a real threat on jump balls.
OL: I thought the run blocking was better than the pass protection on Saturday, but Cal only gave up one sack so that aspect of things was far from a disaster. MSUs DE collapsed the pocket more often than we are used to seeing with a Jim Michalzik coached line resulting at times in Kevin Riley throwing before he wanted. Given Teofilo and Schwartz’s lack of experience at tackle, that isn’t surprising and their pass protection skills should improve as the season progresses. Norris Malele was a monster run blocking in what may have been his best game as a Bear. With Schwartz, Teofilo and Guarnero all basically newbies on the line and with Tepper likely to return in the next few weeks, I’d say the best is yet to come.
DL: I was very, very impressed with the starting three down lineman. Derrick Hill’s one tackle doesn’t jump out at you but he controlled the middle of the line all day long and was a huge part why the Cal LBs make a ton of tackles. Alualu was the star of the group this day as he practically lived in the Spartans backfield. Rulon Davis faced double teams for much of the day and still played well. Bob Gregory, the Bears defensive coordinator had Davis line up at NT in obvious pass rush situations, which seemed strange given his ability to collapse the pocket from the outside. Of the backups, I thought Kendrick Payne and Kevin Browner, in particular, acquitted themselves well.
LB: They looked awfully fast and basically eliminated Javon Ringer from having any big gains. Felder was a beast and is in my opinion, the Bears best all around LB. Anyone he touches goes down and he seemed to consistently be in the right place at the right time. His one weakness is in coverage and he did get beat by their TE a few times. Worrell Williams looks much more decisive as he was able to read and react faster than I’ve seen in the past. He over ran some plays and still misses some tackles so there’s clearly room for growth. Follett struggled as a pass rusher alongside the three man line. He was often matched up with MSUs tackle who engulfed him on a regular basis. However, his tackling was strong and he made a couple of nice reads resulting in tackles for losses. Eddie Young didn’t stand out other than not making a mistake which given his relative lack of experience is a good thing. Ditto for Devin Bishop.
CB: SQT looked like an all-Pac 10 player against MSU. He comes up and plays the run better than any Cal cornerback in memory and he was superb in pass coverage. He got beat only once that I saw in single coverage and by the end of the game had MSU looking the other way on almost every play. SQT needs to get better at playing the ball when we go to a two deep zone as he’s clearly more comfortable playing bump and run. Darian Hagan showed that he has star potential with his ability to play the ball in the air. He’s got great quickness and seems to have a knack to be exactly where the ball is being thrown. Hagan needs to spend some time with Boateng working on his hands as by my count he dropped three sure interceptions (not counting the one he did get but the refs gave to the Spartans). Hagan did struggle a bit with the bigger MSU receivers pushing off on him while running out routes but he will learn.
Safety: Along with WR, this was my other position area of concern. Marcus Ezeff racked up nine tackles and no doubt he is a sure tackler. He also looked decent when matched up in man coverage. The problem was his ability to find and then play the ball when it was in the air. The Bears had a rough day with their zone and most of it was their safeties not being in position to make plays on the ball. Bernard Hicks had the same problem and then also forget he has a pair of arms. His shoulder tackle cost the Bears a touchdown on Dell’s catch late in the game and he was lucky another shoulder to shoulder hit without wrapping up didn’t result in another six points for MSU. I suspect Ezeff will get better in this aspect of his game and that Brett Johnson will start to play more and more at the expense of Hicks.
Punter: Wow. Wooooow. Does this guy have a leg or what? Anger is a big time weapon for Cal. He needs to learn to get the ball of more quickly and let’s hope he’s taking lessons from Benji Molina on how he catches Todd Lincecum so he’s better prepared for one of Nick Sundberg’s fastballs. The biggest concern is his health as he sprained his knee on his final pouch attempt is questionable for the WSU game.
Kicking: David Seawright looked poised and solid on his one Field Goal try and the five extra points. Kickoffs? That’s a whole different ball of wax. The kicks were short, flat and easily returnable, which resulted in MSU having excellent field position all day long. This needs to get figured out and fast. If you assume Cal will kick off at least four times a game, we’re giving our opponents a 60+ yard advantage if they average starting at their own 35 instead of the twenty. I watched a lot of college football this past weekend and didn’t see a single team that couldn’t consistently get the ball to at least the ten yard line with a high ball that was easily covered.
Coaching: I could quibble here and there with new offensive coordinator Frank Cignetti's playcalling (waited too long to stretch the field with deep passes and not enough stretch running plays to utilize Best’s speed) but I thought overall he did a nice job. On defense, Gregory game planned to shut down their running game and then blitz Hoyer into turning the ball over. We stuffed Ringer and the Spartans ground game and Hoyer’s PER of 103 was well below his average, but we failed to come up with interceptions when we had the chance. I also thought that we left our corners and safeties on an island far too often in obvious passing downs and I’d like to see us lose the three man rush save for when we have a 20+ point lead in the 4th quarter.
Conclusions: I believe MSU will go on to have a solid year and could win as many as nine games. Against that quality of an opponent for us to win the battle at the LOS on both sides of the ball as demonstrably as we did is quite impressive. The talent and depth on this Bears team are obvious. Riley and the defense as a whole showed they were ready to battle hard in a close game giving hope that our leadership issues are behind us. All that said, we have a young offensive squad with virtually no experience on special teams and while Washington State is not Michigan State this year, playing in the Palouse versus the friendly confines of Memorial Stadium will provide a stiff test for our untested newcomers.