It’s tough not to feel a bit of lightheaded giddiness coming off the 66-3 thrashing the Bears gave the Washington State Cougars on Saturday.
Clearly, WSU is in the midst of a rebuilding process and are more than a few players shy of having an actual Pac-10 football program. At the same time, they weren’t materially less talented than the Stanford and UW teams that embarrassed Cal last year.
It’s also worth noting that Michigan State bounced back from their loss in Berkeley to steamroll Eastern Michigan by a score of 42-10.
Still, the question of how good the 2008 Bears are at this point in the season is one where the answer is more minestrone than chicken broth.
Here are a few thoughts after the first two games.
• Kevin Riley is very talented but is still a work in progress. Riley looked a little bit out of sorts in his first real performance in front of a hostile crowd. He missed several wide-open receivers and seemed to be holding onto the ball longer than necessary. That said, it was nice to see Nate Longshore bounce back after his MSU debacle and look confident and on target in mop-up duty.
• Another positive in the passing game was the first career catch for Mike Calvin and the first catches in a Bear uniform by Nyan Boateng. Outside of Sean Young, the WR corps is still an unknown, and the emergence of a big play threat is something Jeff Tedford is counting on as the season progresses.
• The offensive line looks like the best unit Cal has had under Tedford. While it’s easy to focus on all-world center Alex Mack, the big surprises are the dominating performance of the guards.
Both Norris Malele and undersized but very athletic Chris Guarnero have impressed. Redshirt freshman tackle Mitchell Schwartz looks like a future star, and when Mike Tepper gets healthy, the depth across the entire line should be able to withstand any unexpected injuries.
• Jahvid Best has been the primary beneficiary of the blocking up front, and he showed that once he has a seam, he’s gone baby gone.
• It’s worth noting that both WSU and MSU’s defensive lines were seen as the weakest elements of their defenses coming into the season. We’ll know more when Cal faces a very stout Arizona State front four.
• Cameron Morrah didn’t catch any passes against the Cougars, but his blocking was impressive. If he makes himself a consistently good blocker, watch out, as he’s already the most dangerous pass catching TE in the Tedford era.
• Play calling by Frank Cignetti has thus far felt very Tedford-like.
• How can you not be happy with our defense? Very stout against the run, and we’re seeing breakout performances from Syd'Quan Thompson and Tyson Alualu. Both are playing like future NFLers.
• The run defense in particular has stood out, but again, it’s hard to get too excited once you take into account the OLs the Bears have faced in the first two games. While Michigan State has a potent offense, its weak point looks to be its young offensive line. WSU? Let me put it this way: When Stanford’s OL walks by, the Cougars' front five lower their eyes.
• I’ve heard criticism of the pass rush, but I think it’s premature. The front three defensive linemen have all gotten good push on passing downs, and in particular Alualu and Davis have collapsed pockets even while facing double teams. The 3-4 means that on most passing downs, Bob Gregory is going to blitz at least one linebacker.
To my eye, the LBs are still getting used to being picked up by a tackle or guard rather than a TE or RB, but given time, I think we’ll see this group get more comfortable and effective. Regardless, even when we choose to send only the three down linemen, we’re not giving as much time to opposing quarterbacks as we did last year, when they had time to send out for lunch and still complete passes.
• If there’s a concern on defense at this early stage, it’s the play of our safeties. Despite his interception and one highlight reel hit on Saturday, Bernard Hicks’ struggles against the Spartans continued in Pullman. Hicks seems to react a step slow to a thrown ball, and his penchant to hit high and not wrap up continues to result in broken tackles.
Hicks is plenty fast enough and has the experience you like at free safety, but he needs to step up his game or he may be replaced by Brett Johnson. Marcus Ezeff played better on Saturday but has yet to get back to where he was prior to his injury last season.
• Special teams continue to be “special.” While kickoffs were better, we’ve only gone from abysmal to plain bad. Let’s hope the progress continues. Bryan Anger was clearly impaired by his brace but more importantly needs to learn to catch the ball. His second drop in two games doesn’t inspire confidence.
David Seawright has been solid in his placekicking, but to my eye, he needs to get the ball up in the air to avoid being blocked once he is forced to attempt a longer field goal.
• One thing you have to like about a blowout is the opportunity to play the younger players. For example, D.J. Holt, Robert Mullins, and Mychal Kendricks all looked good in extended duty, which speaks well to our future LB corps.