For the fifth straight matchup in the series, a Golden Bear quarterback could not beat the Trojan defense.
Kevin Riley spread his first quarter inaccuracy woes (three TDs and a low completion percentage thrown careerwise in the first quarter) through the entire game. The result was a stagnant Cal offense that couldn't pass the ball for more than a few spurts, and by extension couldn't run the ball. You can blame it partly on the 20 mph wind gusts which might've put extra air on the balls, on receivers missing their cuts or stopping on routes, on the offensive line occasionally blowing their matchups and forcing the pressure (albeit they only allowed 2 outright sacks).
But most of the execution failures, for better or for worse, fall on Riley; there were too many throws that just weren't even close to the target. He held onto the ball for too long, his throwing motion just didn't look right, and he hesitated after making his drops in the pocket, whether due to good downfield coverage or...hell if I know, what else can make you hesitate in the pocket?
Neverthless, the opportunities were there; his accuracy wasn't. His completion percentage, one of the best in the country through three weeks, is now hovering at a horrifingly Ayoobian 50% on the season. I sincerely apologize to everyone for claiming Kevin Riley is no Joe Ayoob. He sure looked like it tonight.
It got so bad that Andy Ludwig ran the Wildcat with Best and Sofele in motion, down 23-0 for an entire drive. That's a damning indictment of our passing game--down three scores in the second half, our quarterback was set out wide to block for 30-40% of the offensive snaps.
The Oregon game was a much more complex failure. The USC game is a simpler one to figure out. The Trojans stacked the box on Best early on and dared Riley to beat them in the air. After the first drive, he couldn't. We can guess what the formula will be from here on out to beat the Bears.
Do I think Riley should be benched? Not in the slightest, and it's not just because Tedford's saying so. It's just too early in the season to mark this as a trend, and he did just face one of the best defenses in the country. Let's see if he can settle himself down and work his way into the system against the rest of the Pac-10. If the struggles persist deep into play and jeopardize Big Game or bowl hopes, then I might be persuaded to go the other way. But for now, I'm far from that jumping point.
Playcalling bad? I dunno. I know a lot of people are going to be mad at the run/pass disparity when we have #4 back there, but USC was selling out to stop him all day, and they have the talent and athletes to do so. And that first drive was going well there until the end. After that, it's hard to tell how much of that is on the players not running the plays right, or Ludwig calling in plays the defense can anticipate.
What does annoy me is that I'm beginning to predict what Cal will run on every play based on formation and snap motion, and I'm still fairly novice on the subject. Two tight end set to the left? Best running to the left. Riley in the shotgun is almost always an automatic pass downfield. Put Holley back there and it's almost always an inside run. Lord knows what other defensive coordinators are brewing together in the upcoming weeks.
We have a new tight end for the future. Anthony Miller was our offense for much of the game. The Trojans pretty much blanketed Verran Tucker and Marvin Jones, so that left the middle open, and Riley hooked up with Miller on some big catch-and-gains. At 6'3 258, we might've found someone who combines the blocking of Stevens and the pass-catching abilities of Morrah. In a game full of negatives, this is a pretty enticing development.
Bob Gregory's defense did their part. While the Cal defensive scheme bended plenty in this one, putting the Trojans in the red zone a lot, the final result was 16 offensive points going into the third quarter, with three impressive goal-line stands by an outmanned and outgunned defensive front. There were no big offensive plays other than the first McKnight touchdown. Add in the three points the defense helped cause from the turnover, and that's only a differential of 13 points. If you'd told me Cal's defense had held USC to 16 points going into the 4th, I'd have been strutting like Usain Bolt.
Yes, I'm frustrated by the zone coverage holes too, but give credit to the other team's quarterbacks. Masoli and Barkley made some huge completions that most college quarterbacks probably wouldn't have handled. That zone defense should do its job in future weeks in keeping Pac-10 quarterbacks from hitting their spots. For right now it looks bad, even though it was far from the reason for our loss.
Our linebackers are in serious learning mode. These guys are struggling. First they had to deal with the spread, than the best talent in the country in back-to-back weeks. Bad pursuit angles, dominated by blockers, no pass rush, nothing. I can't even talk in complete sentences about these guys, because it's frustrating to watch them struggle like that. They did hustle in there and help make some nice goal-line stops, so that's encouraging for upcoming road tests in Pasadena and Tempe.
You know how Mike Mohamed looked like the best linebacker last season? I'm starting to think that's because he was the fourth linebacker opposing offenses worried about. They should get better as the season goes along, but the growing pains hurt on our defense for now. The secondary and defensive line have been carrying too much of the weight. It's got to start evening out.
Two mistakes made a big difference in this game's outcome. The first mistake was the Riley interception (the worst of many bad throws), which turned a promising Cal start into a deflating Trojan bite-back touchdown drive. The second was the straight-on punt by Anger to Damian Williams right for the touchdown. Although I knew we'd get an Alamar special one of these days, these are the sort of things you throw out over the long run as anomalies rather than trends. Those two mistakes comprise a 15-21 point swing right there, which could've turned a 23 point margin into a field goal/touchdown margin going into the 4th.
Cal fans are being too critical of Jahvid Best's weak performances in big games. People need to get over how Jahvid is no longer a viable Heisman candidate. A Heisman Trophy almost always rewards the best QB/RB on one of the top two regular season teams; seven of the last ten seasons that's been the case. The odds were stacked against the Jet from the start, and it was impossible to live up to the hype in the long run without additional help from his offense.
Jahvid has his weaknesses, there's no doubt--his pass protection and blitz pickup abilities need plenty of work. However, in terms of running ability, he needs his blockers to open gaps for him and a stable passing game that plays in tandem with his abilities. He got neither in Oregon and only average run blocking against the Trojans. And even if he had Alex Mack and Will Ta'ufo'ou, they too would have had their difficulties against eight to nine Trojans in the box in that first quarter when it was a relatively close one.
Besides, how can Best step up if his counterpart in the backfield steps down?
USC brought their A-game. While it's always fun to blame the Bears for our woes, let's not forget the other team on the sideline is the six-time defending Pac-10 champs. I always worried in the back of my mind the Husky upset would awaken the sleeping giant, and...yeeeeap. They're back alright.
Matt Barkley only completed 57% of his passes, but converted several huge passes for crucial 1st downs. Joe McKnight stepped up big in the absence of Stafon. And God, those offensive linemen--I know it'll sicken you to hear me gush over USC linemen, but they dominated this game. Barkley had plenty of time to make his throws, and they were much of the difference between 3 and 4 yard runs and 6 to 8 yard runs. The most important part of this game that no one will notice was how well the Trojans blocked, from the tackles and guards and center to the fullback and the receivers and tight end.
Of course all that and we still held them to 16 points on offense going into the 4th quarter. I dream longingly of the day we'll hit 16 points on offense again.
We might have played the two best teams in the Pac-10 in back-to-back weeks. So let's keep that in perspective. Both our opponents came out with a specific strategy on offense and defense, executed it to a pinch, and watched while we bungled our opportunities. Yeah, it sucks to deal with the bad execution stuff, but it can happen with 19-23 year olds.
Yes, our expectations are smashed, but we have two weeks to refocus and retool for the rest of the season. I never really saw quit in our players, even late in the games, so you have to feel that the Bears will be ready to bring it the rest of the year. As much as we'd like to think it's the end of the world, there are other things our football players are willing to play for other than a Pac-10 title.
If our coaches are able to make the right adjustments in the upcoming weeks against formidable but equally flawed Pac-10 opponents, we should be able to right the ship and win five or six games in the conference. There are plenty of good but fairly winnable games coming up for the Bears in the upcoming weeks, we just need to focus on executing above all else.
And let's hope that Kevin Riley's arm can start throwing footballs like a regular quarterback again. Because I miss seeing regular quarterback play for the Golden Bears.