Sunday, September 30, 2007

On This Team, They Fight For That Inch

Apologies for the delayed game recap, but as I’m sure that many Bear fans are just waking up from a night of well deserved celebration, maybe the delay isn’t so bad. Also, I’m assuming that the only Cal fans that haven’t already heard about yesterday’s thrilling 31-24 victory over then #11 oregon are those students and alumni doing work for the Peace Corps or Greenpeace in some remote corner of the world. During ESPN’s College Gameday pre-game show, venerable co-host Lee Corso made two predictions about the game. First, that the game was destined to become an instant classic, and second that the ducks would overcome the Golden Bears. Well Mr Corso, you were at least half right (and part of me actually believes that Corso secretly picked Oregon in order to jinx them). The hype leading up to this match up of top ranked teams was unbelievable, leading many to speculate that the game would never be able to live up to the expectations. Normally those cynics would have been correct, but on this Saturday, both teams combined to provide college football fans everywhere with a game for the ages. On a weekend where the mighty among the college football pantheon were being humbled, the Sturdy Golden Bears rose up to claim their place amongst the elite with the most significant win in the program’s recent history.

Game Recap

First Quarter

California began the game with the ball, and, as expected, the record setting crowd at Autzen Stadium was incredibly raucous. The Bears were equally determined to show that they could not be phased by the most hostile environment in the pac 10, and tried to go deep on the first play. Unfortunately, QB Nate Longshore threw incomplete to TE Cameron Morrah instead of hitting a wide open WR DeSean Jackson streaking down the middle. Oregon’s defense, energized by the near miss and by the outpouring of emotion from their home crowd, ratcheted up the pressure stopping the next two Cal plays for losses forcing a Cal punt.

The ducks began their first possession with excellent field position and began their drive by converting one third down on a nice scramble by QB Dennis Dixon and getting another third down via a 10 yard pass to RB Jeremiah Johnson. This time it was Cal’s defense that got the stop by the same sort of circumstances that oregon did earlier. A 7 yard tackle for loss and a near miss by Dixon to a wide open receiver ended the drive and the ducks punted.

Cal began their second possession from their own 14 yard line. The duck defense maintained their intensity and seemed determined to stuff the run. Nevertheless, Cal picked up three key first downs, and, although Cal punted, they were able to reverse field position when the punt was downed on the Oregon 8 yard line.

The specter of poor tackling seemed to raise its ugly head again as Jeremiah Johnson seemed stopped in the backfield but managed to break a big 26 yard run, and RB Jonathan Stewart later dragged a few tacklers for an 11 yard gain setting up Oregon on the Cal 16. The Bear defense escaped more close calls when Dixon ignored a wide open WR Cameron Colvin on 2nd down, and threw behind an open TE Ed Dickson near the goal line. The ducks were forced to settle for a 32 yard field goal from PK Matt Evensen to open the scoring. Cal 0 – UO 3.

The first quarter came to an end after RB Justin Forsett was stopped for no gain yet again by a swarming duck defense. End of first quarter Cal 0 – UO 3.

Second Quarter

Cal did little else with the rest of their possession as the oregon defense did an excellent job of tackling and pressuring Longshore.

After giving up a first down on two quick runs by Stewart, the Bear defense stepped up and DL Cody Jones came up with another tackle for loss and good coverage on third down by freshman CB Chris Conte forced a punt.

The Bears put together their first scoring drive of the day on this possession. Cal looked very impressive on this drive, methodically picking up 5 first downs with a good balance of runs and passes. Unfortunately, Cal also bogged down in the redzone and were forced to attempt a 34 yard field goal from the oregon 17 yard line. Jordan Kay converted the attempt and tied the score. Cal 3 – UO 3.

Bad tackling helped the ducks drive to just past midfield, and a bad late hit out of bounds (albeit a borderline call) by DB Marcus Ezeff kept the oregon drive alive after they had failed to convert a 3rd down. The ducks made the Bears pay when they cashed in on the penalty with a 15 yard reverse by WR Derrick Jones and a 5 yard TD run by Stewart. Cal 3 – UO 10.

The Bears last drive of the first half came to a quick end on a dropped pass by TE Craig Stevens, and the Bears were forced to punt. oregon was content to run out the clock to end the half. End of the first half Cal 3 – UO 10.

Third Quarter

The ducks began the second half with the ball but this time it was the Bear defense that came out fired up. Cal got good penetration by DLs Mika Kane and Cody Jones and LB Anthony Felder stopped oregon from converting a 3rd and 1 forcing a punt.

Cal’s offense showed a new level of intensity themselves as they came out with positive plays on their first 7 plays of the drive. This time it was the Bears’ players breaking tackles and making people miss as Cal drove all the way down to the oregon 12 yard line. In what could be described as trying to get too fancy, the Bears lost some of the momentum when they ran a reverse to DeSean Jackson on 2nd and 3 which resulted in a 4 yard loss. A bad no call on 3rd down let the duck defender, who had grabbed DeSean Jackson, off the hook and set up a 33 yard field goal attempt. Jordan Kay seemed to convert, but yet another questionable call by the referees deemed it no good.

The Cal defense maintained its intensity and great tackling forced a quick three and out. The ducks committed a kick catching interference and set the Bears up with excellent field position.

With the momentum provided by the defensive stop and duck penalty, the Bears stormed down the filed on just 6 plays. Longshore connected on 4 of 5 pass attempts including a 25 yard touchdown pass to DeSean Jackson for the first Cal touchdown of the day. On the play, Jackson ran a beautiful post-corner route which completely turned around the oregon defender; leaving Jackson wide open. Cal 10 – UO 10.

Not to be outdone in their own house, the ducks showed their own big play potential by driving 74 yards on just 7 plays. WR Cameron Colvin streaked 42 yards through the middle of the Cal defense on 3rd and 7, and outran safety Thomas DeCoud to take it to the house. Cal 10 – UO 17.

Past Cal teams might have folded at this point, but this incarnation of the Bears didn’t wilt one bit as they drove all the way down to the oregon 2 yard line by the end of the 3rd quarter. The key plays on the drive were a huge 3rd down conversion from Longshore to WR Lavelle Hawkins, and a 31 yard pass to DeSean Jackson. End of the third quarter Cal 10 – UO 17.

Fourth Quarter

After being stuffed on the QB keeper, RB Justin Forsett powered it in from a yard out for the tying touchdown. Cal 17 – UO 17.

The Bears dodged a huge bullet when QB Dennis Dixon overthrew his TE Ed Dickson who had beaten the coverage. Instead, the defense stuffed a 2nd down run and forced an incompletion on 3rd down bringing up another punt.

Lavelle Hawkins came through with yet another big 3rd down coversion catch, and DeSean Jackson followed it with yet another 31 yard catch, this time for a touchdown. The TD catch was the offensive highlight of the day as Jackson took a 5 yard hitch to the house by paralyzing the duck defender with what he later called his “Hawkins move,” in reference to his fellow WR’s stutter step juke. Cal 24 – UO 17.

Cal got a chance to put the game away when freshman RB Jahvid Best came up with a fumble recovery on the ensuing kickoff. In a scene out of the Three Stooges, the two duck returners knocked each other away from the ball and Best’s blazing speed allowed him to be in perfect position to fly onto the loose ball. Unfortunately, Longshore overthrew Jackson on what would could have been a dagger of a TD. A holding penalty and a sack moved the Bears out of field goal range, and the ducks survived their first big gaffe.

On their next possession, the ducks showed that they are indeed an extremely resilient team. Starting deep inside their own territory, Dennis Dixon methodically moved the ducks down the field. The 10 play drive netted 91 yards was highlighted by a big 36 yard pass to WR J. Williams, and was capped off by a 1 yard run by Dixon for the tying score. Cal 24 – UO 24.

Momentum seemed to be shifting entirely towards the duck side after a low hit on QB Nate Longshore knocked him from the game. Not surprisingly, the Bears ran on the next two plays and were stuffed by a defense fully aware that the run was coming.

Oregon began from deep inside their own territory after another great special teams play by Jahvid Best. Luckily for the Bear defense, Dennis Dixon picked the worst time possible for his first interception of the season. On the very first play, Dixon found a wide open LB Anthony Felder across the middle giving the Bears the ball back at the oregon 21 yard line.

Nate Longshore, hobbled by an ankle injury, limped back into the starting lineup and the Bears rode the legs of Justin Forsett into the endzone for the go ahead touchdown. Cal 31 – UO 24.

The remaining 3 minutes and 11 seconds of the game felt more like 3 days and 11 hours. The Bear defense, depleted of depth by injuries coming into the game and exhausted by the relentless attack of the duck offense, began to give up big chunks of yardage. In fact, the ducks drove all the way from their own 33 to the Cal 17 on just 3 plays. But the Bear defense came up huge again when Mika Kane tipped a Dixon pass into the waiting arms of Tyson Alualu forcing yet another turnover.

To the credit of the ducks, they became the first defense to stop the Cal running game in crunch time. In every game prior to this one, the Bears were able to come up with punishing runs in order to finish out games. The duck defenders came up huge by forcing a three and out giving their potent offense one last chance with just under two minutes remaining. (Yes I’m aware that they probably were more able to load up on the run b/c they knew Longshore was lame…but still credit goes to their defense).

On the ducks’ final drive, Dixon proved that he has indeed matured and become a deadly quarterback compared to the collapse he displayed last year. Luckily, the Bears showed that they matured as well. The ducks drove all the way to the Cal 5 yard line, and seemed destined to at least tie the game. But first half goat Marcus Ezeff changed all that when he became the hero of the game by forcing a fumble from Cameron Colvin that fortuitously bounced into the endzone resulting in a touchback.

Cal ended the game in the victory formation for the kneel down, and that knee sealed one for the history books. Final Score Cal 31 – UO 24.

First things First

Ok before I get into my thoughts on the game, I’m going to give a very perfunctory overview of all the things that the cynics/realists will point out about this game. Yes, they’re all true…but I just can’t justify focusing on them until at least next week.

1) This is only a big win if followed up by more victories

2) The Bears suffered injuries to some very key players (ie Longshore and Hawkins came up a little lame)

3) USC’s still out there

4) Most of the remaining road games are in very difficult venues(asu, fucla, uw)

5) The Bears still don’t have a defense to sustain a National Championship run (let alone win a championship game).

It’s a Celebration Bitches! Enjoy Yourselves!

Just to be clear, I’m not calling anyone a bitch, just using a funny line from the Chappelle show. But seriously, let’s all put our Cal fan paranoia aside and soak in how momentous this victory was. All the shortcomings of the Cal program, pointed out both by haters and by legitimately concerned fans, were put to bed on Saturday. Let’s see…

1) Tedford can’t win the big in-conference game…DONE!

2) Tedford can’t win on the road against a ranked opponent…DONE!

3) The Bears are too inconsistent to win in a hostile environment…DONE!

4) The Bears always collapse late in big games and can’t come from behind…DONE!

5) The Bears haven’t had a complete game this year…DONE!

6) Longshore can’t throw worth a damn away from the comfortable confines of Strawberry Canyon…DONE!

7) DeSean isn’t the same play maker at WR this year…DONE!

8) Our kick coverage can’t contain good returners…DONE!

9) Our defense is suspect and incapable of coming up with game saving plays…DONE!

The Offense

If I were doing grades for each part of the offense, I don’t know how I could give anything other than A’s all around. Granted, it’s because we won…but still, after re-watching the game on TV, I think that nearly every player on offense came up huge. The oregon defense might not have been that highly rated coming into this contest, but they were definitely playing like champions, especially early in the game. Energized by the largest crowd ever in the State of Oregon, the ducks were flying around in the first half and tackling everything in sight. They even managed to put more pressure on Longshore than he’s had in any other game this year.

(Longshore, the O-Line, & the Recievers)

Thankfully, our big O-line managed to make sure that the pressure was still relatively limited. More importantly, Longshore never got rattled by the pressure or by the crowd(even after he got hurt), and his leadership showed up big time Saturday. The Bears managed to weather the early onslaught of the supercharged ducks, and in the second half they started to assert themselves. Longshore’s role in this cannot be overstated. All throughout the game, he made great reads, and didn’t force very many throws. The O-line, as I mentioned above, gave Longshore time to repeatedly look deep and then check down to safer options. Most importantly, he connected on the home run balls to Jackson.

Seven different receivers came up with receptions on the day, and, even though DeSean Jackson rightfully will get the most credit, you can’t overlook how many big drive sustaining catches the other receivers had. The most notable non-DeSean catches were the two big third down conversions by Hawkins, and the 12 yard catch and run by backup full back Zack Smith. The Hawkins catches were huge because they came later in the game, were on scoring drives, and were both immediately followed by 31 yard catches by DeSean Jackson. I highlighted the fullback reception mostly b/c I love how Tedford makes use of our fullbacks, and it was great to know that we have a reliable backup at that position (For those that still doubt the usefulness of fullbacks, please review old 49ers footage, or how usc uses its fullbacks).

I don’t know exactly how to describe DeSean Jackson’s performance. It seemed like literally every time that we needed a big catch, Jackson came through for the Bears. It’s hard to tell from TV angles whether or not the ducks were defending him differently than previous teams, if it was simply the healed thumb, or if it was just a special performance by a special player. My guess is that it’s a little bit of all three, and whatever the reason, thank God we have a game changing receiver like Jackson. Just as impressive as the highlight reel 31 yard stutter step/accelerate touchdown grab was the fact that DeSean was active as a blocker in the run game. Bottom line, the superstar Junior had his finest and most complete game as a receiver to date, and he did it when the Bears needed it most.

(The O-Line & The RB’s)

Like I said above, the crowd in oregon was crazy as usual, and they definitely fired up their defense. The first half wasn’t pretty for the ground game, and the ducks successfully limited the Bears to just 31 yards in the first half. The second half was an entirely different story as the Bears gained 84 yards and two touchdowns as the Justin Forsett and the O-Line continued to pound away. You’ve got to give credit to Tedford for sticking to the run despite the lack of success in the first half. Especially considering the fact that the passing game was clicking so much also in the second half. It would have been very tempting to keep chucking it on every play, but, offensive mastermind that he is, Tedford maintained a great level of balance and it paid off big time.

As overrated as time of possession is as an indicator or success, it is a very telling stat when it comes to the effectiveness of the ground game. Without the success of the ground game in the second half, it’s almost a forgone conclusion that Oregon wins that game. Our defense was running on fumes in the last half of the fourth quarter, and I’m positive that the few extra minutes of rest that they got via the ground game were the difference between Ezeff making the play at the last possible moment and making it one step too late.

While this game was undoubtedly the Forsett show, the two freshmen phenoms and the backup fullback still got into the mix. Jahvid Best’s best performances came on special teams today, but he showed that he can be a good change of pace back for Forsett. Montgomery made his first baby steps in getting out of Tedford’s dog house with a tough 6 yard gain on his only carry. Again, props go to backup fullback Zack Smith for his solid performance.

The Defense

The old bend but don’t break was tested to its limits this game, but it came through nonetheless. There are still some issues with tackling, but when you consider how explosive the oregon ducks are, the effort of the defense was really a very remarkable thing. Granted, the Bear defense benefited from some bad throws in the first half by Dennis Dixon, but to hold that team to just 10 points at home was incredible. What makes that first half performance even better is that the offense was sputtering for most of the first half which put a ton of pressure on our D to keep the game close. Even when they were almost completely gassed late in the game, our defense managed to come up with the biggest plays of the game. These guys had been killing themselves for more than three quarters when our starting QB got injured. The Felder interception gave the offense a short field and set up the game winning touchdown. And Longshore’s injury again placed the pressure squarely on our defense to preserve a lead that looked unlikely to grow. They responded beautifully by intercepting another pass and forcing a fumble on the last meaningful play of the game. The trojans might have a more talented offense on paper, but as of right now, the duck offense is the best in the conference, maybe the country (behind only our Bears) and our defense held them to just 24 points at home. Awesome awesome effort.

(The Front Seven)

From looking at the box score, the first thing that jumped out at me was the high number of total tackles shared by the three starting LB’s (9,9, and 8). Although none of them notched a large number of solo’s, the assisted tackles tells me that there was a lot of swarming to the ball going on, which is a good thing. (Granted, some of the assists were because the first defender wasn’t able to take down the ball carrier alone). Williams continued his excellent play in the middle, Felder had that monstrously huge interception, and Mohamed did a more than adequate job considering he’s really a third option behind Follett and Moye.

As usual in Gregory’s scheme, the D-Line was tasked with playing the run and containing the outside rather than pass rushing, and, despite having limited depth, they performed very well. Dixon did manage to scramble out of some tight situations, but he wasn’t ever able to break huge gainers. On one occasion when he did escape, D-Lineman Mika Kane, who provided the initial pressure, showed great determination in tracking down the elusive QB. Backup Cody Jones had 3 big tackles for loss, and my favorite D-lineman Tyson Alualu came up with a huge interception off of a tipped pass by Kane.

We’ve been telling everyone all season that this D-Line has the potential to be something special despite the loss of three starters (including All-American Brandon Mebane, who notched his first NFL Sack last week against Caron Palmer). They’ve shown flashes against some inferior opponents thus far, and received little credit because of the way Gregory asks them to play (ie. not huge sack numbers). But the job that they did against this offense should be enough to show that they are for real, and, more importantly, continuing to improve.

(The Secondary)

Off the top of my head, I can only think of two really bad plays by the secondary all game. The first being the late hit out of bounds by Ezeff, and the second is the 42 yard TD catch by Cameron Colvin. Two bad plays against an offense as explosive as the ducks is not bad at all. Again, the secondary gave up big yardage and a big number of completions, but they managed to make plays when it counted for the most part. Marcus Ezeff is turning into a great player, and that was my assessment a few weeks ago. He led the team this week with 8 solo tackles (tied with two others for the lead with 9 total tackles), and of course he had the game saving play with the forced fumble at the end. Thomas DeCoud had a relatively quiet game, but as the leader of the defense he still gets a lot of credit. Bernard Hicks had a couple of very nice plays and finished with 6 tackles (5 solo) and a tackle for loss. The only bad performance by the DB’s can easily be turned into a positive (especially by someone like me with a penchant for clinging to the bright side). Freshman Chris Conte got somewhat of a baptism by fire when he saw some action. He gave up one big pass completion and also got completely bowled over by an oregon running back. But the bright side is that he didn’t give up any scoring plays, and the experience he gained from playing in a game of this magnitude is going to pay off later on down the road.

Special Teams

As I think that the refs blew the call on Kay’s second field goal attempt, I’m going to say that Kay had another great game for the Bears. This was a pressure packed game, and the backup walk-on kicker came through. Honestly, when it comes to kickers, especially backup kickers, I’m just praying that the guy makes the PAT. Kay has done a whole lot more than that so far this season, and he was big for us again this week.

Andrew Larson got a lot more work than I would have liked, but he also came through big for the Bears. Great punt coverage provided by Jahvid Best helped to make Larson’s average come out to a net of 38 yards, and he put 4 of his 7 punts inside the 20 with no touchbacks. Larson also did a good job on kickoffs this week, again with help from great coverage from our special teamers and terrible communication by the oregon side.

Final Thoughts

Looking back at this game, and also at this post, I realize that there’s really nothing I can say that sums up how incredible a win it was. It was an insane weekend for college football in general, and some will cite one of the upsets as more remarkable…but that’s bull. Yes maybe if you weigh all the upsets together versus our one game, that’s more crazy, but on a game by game basis, nothing tops Cal @ oregon. All the hype and pressure leading up to the game…all that was on the line for both teams…the frenzied record breaking crowd in football savy oregon…the implications of the game on the BCS…And then how the game unfolded…defensive struggle, offensive shootout, a big injury to the starting QB and his heroic return, defenders that are dead on their feet making huge plays…how do you top that?

While Kirk Herbstreit was covering the usc @ uw game, he commented that despite the loss he would still rank oregon at #5 in the nation. According to him, oregon would beat any other team that he matched them up against other than the four teams he ranked above them…and where was Cal? He had them sitting pretty at number 3 BEFORE the florida game went final. I know that’s only one analyst’s take on it, but I’m offering it as corroboration of what might be seen as a Pac-10/Cal biased view (mine).

Cal didn’t get lucky, they made the plays that were there to be made when they had the opportunity. The ducks weren’t overrated or just have a subpar performance. To paraphrase Dennis Green…they are who we thought they were, and we forced that subpar performance. Autzen is rightly regarded as one of the hardest places to win in the country and they had set a record for attendance on Saturday…Cal had only ONE false start. The Bears had earned themselves the dubious reputation of not being able to close out tough games on the road…well now they’ve earned a classic victory, and the #3 ranking in the nation to boot.

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give enormous props to the Cal faithful who made it to the game up in Eugene. Great job being there to support our guys, and the rest of us will forever be jealous that you guys will be the only ones able to say that you witnessed the win in person. As great as the action in the game was to see, it was almost as gratifying to hear, “you know it, you tell the story, you tell the whole damn world this is Bear territory,” wafting up from the stands after the game. It was also great to see the faithful rallying behind the Game Day stage during the post-game wrap up…mad props to you guys. Go Bears!!!


Anonymous said...

Since i don’t have a blog with nearly any traffic…i thought that i would relay this and hope it find some equally disgruntled Cal Fans:

This is the link to the AP poll entry by Bret Bloomquist of the El Paso (TX) Times. It has Cal at a ridiculous #13 for week #6.

Anonymous said...

I think he either confused or accidentally switched Oregon (#5) with Cal.

Anonymous said...

I thought the same thing about Corso picking Oregon. He has been so vocal in his support for and admiration of Cal, that is almost seemed hypocritical to pick against us. But, knowing that his pick equals the kiss of death, I was relieved to see the Duck head emerge from the black bag under the desk.

I can only hope he picks $C when they come to Berkeley on November 10!

Go Forida...beat LSU.

Go Purdue...beat Ohio State.

(That should take care of any immediate obstacles and threats to our place in the polls!!)

(I would say "Go Cardinal" but, really, is it worth the energy?? We can take care of the used Trojans ourselves!)


SoCal Bear said...

Can someone post Ray Ratto's weekly ranking's for Cal this season? Why does he pump the Furd so much and dump on Cal? (see sfgate article "Cardinal expose Ducks - and their own potential"). #4 in the rankings below Ohio St? Ratto is a joke. He's anti-Cal and anti-Pac10. (Forgive me if this subject has been explored before, but Ratto kills me).

Also, very much in agreement about the Corso "kiss of death" comment. My thoughts exactly.

Anonymous said...

Ray Ratto:

2 Southern Cal
3 Ohio St.
4 California
5 Boston College
6 Kentucky
7 South Florida
8 South Carolina
9 Georgia
10 Florida
11 Wisconsin
12 West Virginia
13 Oklahoma
14 Hawaii
15 Clemson
16 Oregon
17 Rutgers
18 Missouri
19 Kansas St.
20 Cincinnati
21 Arizona St.
22 Texas
23 Purdue
24 Connecticut
25 Miami

fairviewbears said...

The last two comments must have been posted while I was writing my newest post "Hater in the House!" There are some other gems among the AP voters this week.

lilbambina said...

wow. very nice and detailed "RECAP."

i think you should give up law school and become a sports writer. for reals.