I'm still shaking from this one, or perhaps from Cephalexin. Cal football - same side effects as 2000 mgs of antibiotics! A novice Cal fan may have seen the first two touchdowns and concluded that we win in a walk. David Norrie and Terry Gannon sure wanted us to believe that the rout was on, but we knew better. Hell, even if you've only been a Cal fan for the last 2 months, you've seen Cal jump way, way up on Minnesota, ucla, and WSU only to let all of them back into the game in various degrees. The 14 point lead was great, but just like at Minnesota, we blew the chance to go up by three scores and before you knew it, the game was tied. Cal deserves a ton of credit for coming out and carrying the play early in basically every game this year (Oregon for the opening kickoff, USC up until the interception in the endzone), but it seems that we need this early cushion to maintain the lead during the opposition's inevitable comeback. If we don't build this lead (Oregon and USC, obviously), we are in deep, deep trouble. Of course, most teams are not going to simply roll over and fail to score for the entire game, but Cal lets opponents back into games with startling efficiency and predictability.
More so than any game this year, this one reminded me of Cal's trip to Tempe in 2007. Cal led 13-0 early, but our penchant for field goal attempts instead of touchdowns put us up by only 6 at half. Cal's offense stalled and the defense was unable to stop ASU in the second half. With a few minor modifications, that was the story yesterday, at least until the final drive. Cal's inability to control the line of scrimmage throughout the game but especially in the second half was particularly troubling. And yet, unlike in 2007, Cal came up with a big stop on defense to get the ball back after Little Italy's second shank and a big drive to win the game. After a largely frustrating game, Cal displayed the poise and execution they often lacked to escape with the win.
It's interesting to compare our last two road games (ucla and ASU) to the same stretch in 2007. The similarities are distressing: looking great early only to squander the lead, being unable to control the line of scrimmage offensively or defensively. But where Cal was unable to stem the opposition's push or mount a successful comeback in '07, this year they did exactly that. Why? Is it a more mature team, more poised at the end of the game? Is there a greater focus on executing at the end of games during practice? Is the team mentally tougher with a better ability to handle adversity? Or is it just luck, the simple product of playing a lot of close games that, in the end, even out? Cal probably wasn't as bad as their 1-8 road record going back to mid 2007 indicated, and they're probably not as good as this year's 3-1 road record.
Cal finds itself in much the same shape as it was a week ago - a significantly flawed team, but a winning one. Once again, the dilema is whether to unabashedly revel in yet another road win, to worry about the flaws being exposed by upcoming opponents, or something in between. The defense turned in a better performance than they did against WSU or ucla, but the lack of a pass rush and the ineffectiveness of both lines loom as huge problems. I would love to believe that Cal can run the table, but each game looks like more or less of a toss up. The answer (or answers) to the previous paragraph's question will likely determine how the Bears finish the season - if it's just luck, we'll probably drop one or two of what will undoubtedly be some pretty close games. If Cal really has learned how to close out games (if that's even a tangible skill), perhaps 10-2 is an attainable goal.
The Cal pass rush makes one statement...on the final play of the game.
One shred of evidence indicating that Cal hasn't quite figured out the complexities of late game play was the Wildbear pass. On second down at the 7(?) yard line, with about 30 seconds left and ASU holding only one time out, Cal drew up a pass play...with Shane Vereen as QB. If you run the ball on second and third down, you force ASU to use their timeout and bring the clock down to virtually zero. If you score a td on one of the runs, great. If not, you're set up for a glorified extra point to win the game. Forgoing this elegant plan for a halfback pass seems...shortsighted, and was nearly catostrophic as ASU almost came up with a game clinching pick. If the play is executed properly, it may have gone for a touchdown. Still, it was far too risky for attempt at that juncture, given the high potential for disaster and the relatively straightforward path to a game winning field goal. Blame Vereen (he of zero pass attempts this year) for a poor thrown if you will, but he should never have been asked to throw at that point in the game.
Aside from that near disaster, the final drive was a clinic. Riley was accurate AND decisive, Marvin Jones was great as per usual, and Verran Tucker made up for his earlier abysmal drop with a slick catch inside the red zone. Anthony Miller had a beautiful catch, making up ahead of time for acting like a matador on Little Italy's winning field goal; he stood still between two ASU defenders as they went right by him and nearly blocked the kick.
Riley was generally very good. He had no help from his offensive line or running backs (save Best on check down shovel passes) for much of the game and still threw the ball accurately. On some passes, he looked indecisive, a problem that has plagued him for much of the year, but it's hard to say if that's him not seeing certain receivers or if everything is covered up - ESPN doesn't show you what's going on downfield until the ball is in the air. He was also very sloppy while handling the ball, fumbling three times and losing two of them. The last fumble was particularly frustrating, given that the defense had just come up with a goal line stand to preserve a two touchdown lead. To give the ball back to ASU at Cal's 5 yard line was an extremely careless and costly mistake. Next time, take the sack, Anger Boom the ball away, and trust the defense that was, up to that point, playing very well. That said, he played a hell of a game and basically carried the team to victory. He was playing against a pretty terrible and banged up secondary, so let's hope he continues the strong play against tougher competition in the coming weeks.
Kevin Riley and Cephalexin save Halloween!
My other helmet sticker goes to Josh Hill. He made several nice plays on the ball in pass defense, then came up with a potentially game saving tackle on third down late in the fourth quarter. ASU's runningback tried to break the ball outside and Hill cut him down a half yard short of a first down. If ASU converts there, Cal wouldn't have had much time for a game winning halloween saving drive. He's only a redshirt freshman and looks a lot better than he did only a few weeks ago. Hopefully he will carry on the legacy of Syd's awesome tackling in the AQ (After Quan) era.
Another "A win's a win" game. Our last three opponents may end the year ranked 8-10 in the conference, so we'll soon see if Cal is improved enough to make a serious run at the Holiday Bowl. If nothing else, saying "a win is a win" will carry far fewer reservations against OSU et al than it does against ASU and WSU.
Go Bears. Time to show up in force against brothers' Rodgers and the Beavs on Saturday and Shouty McStooge and the Wildcats in two weeks. We haven't beaten OSU since 2006, so show up and get loud, people!
Just because you can't say it enough, Go Bears.