It's hard to blame a defeat on a measly toe unless it's something like poor DeSean Jackson straddling the sideline in Tucson. You never want to point toward one player on a football team having that big an impact on the field, and being the difference between losing and winning.
But I'll go ahead and make that leap of faith tonight. We missed our defensive quarterback a lot.
Jonathan Okanes stated that Mike Mohamed's presence would've done very little, but I disagree. The inside linebacking position is the most important part of defending the Pistol, because those are the guys who make the majority of the tackles while the outside linebacker slows down the quarterback. D.J. Holt was probably our best defender tonight with sixteen tackles and nearly a forced fumble. Mohamed's replacements, J.P. Hurrell, Robert Mullins and Steven Fanua had only ten combined.
Just as important, Mohamed coaches the team on the field. He would have recognized the tendencies, he could've played and coordinated what type of plays Nevada would have ran, he would've been the steady hand for a Golden Bear defense not prepared for the gimmicky pistol attack. It was clear that no one else could handle that responsibility, as it took nearly one half for the Bears to finally contain the Pistol.
I could see some of the warnings ahead: Reports filtering out of practice indicating that Cal's defense was struggling with the Cal scout offense. Brock Mansion was literally torching them with the zone read at every point, making you wonder how different the trajectory of Mansion's career (who was recruited as a spread quarterback) at Cal would've been if we had stuck with Mike Dunbar's spread attack. With no Mohamed in practice, it was clear Cal was getting outsmarted by a second unit that had never run the Pistol there.
Without him in the game, for the entire first half against the true Nevada pistol, we were lost on defense. Totally, irrevocably lost.
It started with Keith Browner. Browner continually bit on the running back zone read, over and over and over. You could literally see the glee in Colin Kaepernick's eyes when he saw Browner go inside to attack Vai Taua, like a frat boy who thinks he's about to score. Kaepernick brought the ball back almost every time and veered to the outside for a huge gain.
But it wasn't just Browner. Defensive end Ernest Owusu was lined up on the same side. So was Mullins. ALL OF THEM bit on Kaepernick's play fakes, leaving one side of the field virtually unguarded for the first two drives. Almost every one of Kaepernick's big runs came on the side opposite of Holt. On the goal-line, both Josh Hill and Bryant Nnabuife came in, put a lot of pressure on the middle ... and let Kaepernick run right by them for two more scores. This became frustrating to see after awhile, because if I could see that, and every one of our commenters could see it, then I KNOW Clancy Pendergast could see it.
After all those plays, I'm starting to think our new defensive coordinator intended for our unblocked defender to attack the running back or quarterback rather than holding his gap. Why? Because this happened over and over without much adjustment by the Golden Bears defense. There was no disciplined approach or adjustment, just a lot of rushing to the inside over and over and leaving the outside gaps unattended (yes Nevada had some success inside, but only after Kaepernick had gashed the Bears on the outside). Too often Browner thought the handoff was coming and he bit inside and found himself looking foolish afterwards. The support behind him bit too, leading to more disaster on the edges as Kaepernick veered over and over.
Pendergast seemed to be willing to risk giving up the big play to try and get the big stop, starkly in contrast to Bob Gregory, who was willing to give up the small plays to prevent even bigger mishaps. Sometimes Pendergast's strategy works well, as it did in the first two games when the opponent had no idea what to do. But when it fails, it fails spectacularly. Like it did in the first half. The over-aggressiveness by Cal was easily combated by a smart and able quarterback, who showed the perils of being too passionate and attacking before it's prudent to do so.
More mental errors and bad flukes cost the Bears defensively. Cal nearly recovered a huge fumble on their side of the field to start the 3rd quarter, but an offside by Aaron Tipoti (who jumped the center) negated that play (to add insult to injury, Kendrick Payne jumped on the next play and gave Nevada an automatic first down). Then Marc Anthony played very tight coverage, didn’t give up after Kaepernick threw a perfect post pattern to Rishard Matthews, stripped the football into the end zone which was nearly recovered by a Golden Bear ... but Matthews reached out and grabbed the ball just as it was nudging the end zone. Instead of a touchback in the end zone, it was a two score game late in the third. It was little things like that.
When Cal's offense couldn't punch it in late, the Golden Bear defense caved in, giving up two huge runs to Taua and Kaepernick to complete the rout. Other than Cameron Jordan, the Cal defensive line got rocked at the line of scrimmage, as Nevada's linemen really made sure there was no real pressure on Kaepernick or penetration into the backfield--Jordan had five tackles, the rest of the front three/four only five or six combined. Nevada rushed for 316 yards, their second best output of the season.
We should give credit to Kaepernick's arm as well, because he threw some VERY important, solid passes. On the first drive, he nailed Tray Session on a dig route with Darian Hagan breathing down his neck. He found Session again for the first touchdown of the game on a simple vertical to the sideline on play action. Hagan didn't play for much of the rest of the first half, and Kaepernick picked on second-stringer Bryant Nnabuife on at least one drive. He was able to use his feet to evade pressure, step up and deliver throws on comeback routes or broken plays. Kaepernick was just super good and super efficient: 10 for 15, 182 yards, two touchdowns, no picks. And that was only the second most efficient part of his game.
An important note should be made about the Reno elevation, because it seemed to visibly affect the defense as the game wore on--there were a few visible shots of everyone on the D-line, including Jordan, sucking air. It shouldn't really be an excuse, but the high elevation did seem to force guys to rotate a lot more. Thus we played our second unit guys who definitely have even less experience with the Pistol. Kaepernick took advantage of this by upping the tempo of the offense and not allowing defenders to substitute in, and Nevada just kept Cal off-guard for most of the first half (Shane Vereen also struggled with this problem after huge gallops, forcing the not-as-effective Isi Sofele to take at least one or two of the next few carries. Marvin Jones looked exhausted by the end as well.)
For a brief flurry midway through the game, Cal's defense did gave the offense a chance to come back. Browner did redeem himself by reaching out and forcing a fumble on another near missed tackle, setting up a late critical score by the Cal offense before halftime. Nevada had some curious clock management issues at the end of the first half that left them only six seconds on third down with at least one timeout left, forcing them to settle for the field goal. It also led to a hilarious display of the usually reserved Jeff Tedford calling all three of his unused timeouts to try and ice kicker Anthony Martinez, leading to a chorus of boos from the Nevada faithful--Martinez booted it in unfazed. It was only 24-14 going into halftime, which left the door plenty open for the Bears to come back.
On the other side of the ball, Vereen and Jones were more than willing to carry the load offensviely. All worries about the run blocking and lack of power in our run game dissipated when Vereen responded by taking a toss play downfield and crossing back up diagonally for a 59 yard touchdown run to tie the game. He would score another 50 yard touchdown in the third quarter after Riley read defensive end Dontay Moch and handed it off to Vereen, giving Cal a numerical advantage up front. Vereen got a big downfield assist from Mitchell Schwartz before making the cutback and broke a few Wolf Pack tackles to cut the lead down to 24-21. He managed another 35 yard gain to help drive the Bears down the field and make it 31-24. Vereen was the truck that kept the Bears in the game in the middle quarters, with 198 yards on 19 carries. Nice bounceback game from the Cal offensive line, who struggled on the first few drives, but held their own the rest of the game.
Jones had an incredible game, catching 12 passes for 161 yards, hauling post patterns, slant routes, and some crucial third down throws. His best catch came on a sideline fade where he hauled in a throw and dragged his foot to pick up 39 yards and set up Cal's last touchdown. Anthony Miller finally got his number called, hauling in 3 catches for 57 yards, although he did make a costly error on a second down when he let his quarterback get hit from the blind side on a Dontay Moch sack. Jeremy Ross had a few short catches and a nice receiver sweep.
All of these receives might have had even better nights against a vanilla Nevada pass defense if Kevin Riley wasn't throwing them the ball.
Oh, Kevin Riley.
(tries not to facepalm)
Riley's first pass was a classic old-school Riley overthrow--a slight hesitation on a post route to Keenan Allen seemed to screw up the timing and ruin a promising Golden Bear drive. The ball went through Allen's raised hands and into the hands of Nevada cornerback Doyle Miller. While Allen could have probably caught that ball if he had made the right adjustment, he's a freshman, and I'm willing to cut him slack. I'm not willing to cut Riley slack. That's a play he should have pat down by now.
There was the inability to time things. Riley took one sack on 1st down when he should've thrown the ball away. He overthrew Keenan Allen by miles on a crucial 3rd down. There was the visible disgust Sofele showed when Riley overthrew a wheel route to him in the corner of the end zone--a play he had nearly overthrown Vereen on the week before. There was something wrong with that Jones fade route in the end zone that Miller broke up--it never looked completely right from the get-go, and Cal had to settle for a Giorgio Tavecchio field goal (this game from Riley actually made Jones's performance that much more impressive--any receiver that's had to make that many adjustments on errant throws deserves major dap). There was the delay of game penalty he incurred on the last real meaningful play of the game to turn a 4th and short into a 4th and long. These mental errors are the sort of things I expected from Riley two years ago. Except I'm still seeing them now.
And there was the pick-six, the critical play in the game. To that point Cal had been running the ball fairly well. But his audible to throw a stop pattern outside to Alex Lagemann was ill-advised, and the throw itself lacked zip and control. Marlon Johnson recognized the audible, hid a little behind Jones so that Riley wouldn't see him, jumped the route, then raced 65 yards to the house to give Nevada much-needed cushion. All the momentum the Bears had up to that point disappeared, and the game reversed back into the Wolf Pack's favor, where it would stay.
I said last week Riley would need to keep on playing the way he'd been playing for Cal to maintain its offensive prowess. He wasn't up to the task last night. With Pac-10 play opening up next week in Tucson, one thing looks certain. If he doesn't bounce back, and if Mohamed doesn't come back, Cal's season will end like every season has during the Tedford era: Dreaming of next year.