Arizona 10, California 9: Defense Steps Up, Offense Steps Down

A last minute drive by Nick Foles and the Arizona Wildcats helped negate a great defensive effort by the California Golden Bears and raised serious questions about Cal's offense going into the bye week. What a difference a week makes, huh?

Clancy Pendergast's Golden Bears defense was everything they weren't against Nevada. They were disciplined and aggressive. They stuffed the run, put pressure on Foles for most of the game, made huge plays in the backfield, broke up deep passes, and came up with big turnovers. Unfortunately, Cal could not capitalize and get into Arizona's end zone, and it eventually came back to bite the Bears.

Jeff Tedford will be coming under serious fire for what happened tonight, fairly or unfairly. He's going to receive ire for making some conservative decisions, like sending the field goal unit in on 4th and very short deep in the red zone, or predictably running the ball with a narrow second half lead. When the Bears got into field goal range, did any of us really think we weren't running the ball three straight times up the middle to burn all of Arizona's timeouts?

I don't believe he deserves a lot of blame. Giorgio Tavecchio should've nailed one of those two field goals, particularly the one that was an inch or two away from bouncing in. If that happens, it's a 12-3 game, and we're all talking about how the Bears won a physical, defensive slugfest on the road and upset a top 25 team on the raod.  But the nature of football is to criticize the coach when we "play not to lose" rather than play for the win, and this is what will happen in this case.

Last year Tedford's conservative decisions worked out for us against Arizona and the Cardinal (getting deep inside the red zone only to kick field goals rather than going for the jugular). They did not work tonight and he's going to get a lot of grief, whether it's deserved or not. He knows it. It comes with the territory. He'll have to get the team back on track for Homecoming vs. UCLA for the Bears to avoid falling under .500 for the first time since 2003, because otherwise things could get real ugly.

Let's start with the Cal defense, because that's a subject that makes me happy. Cameron Jordan left off from his 2009 game against Arizona right where he started, dominating right tackle Phillip Garcia and making life miserable for Nick Foles. He constantly got pressure in the backfield, whether off the edge or coming inside and stuffing the run. Jordan had three tackles, a sack, a forced fumble that Mychal Kendricks recovered, and had a few more pressures that didn't get logged into the scoresheet. Kendricks was his partner-in-crime, making a lot of great edge decisions and forcing Foles to scramble, something Foles HATES to do. Kendricks got two sacks and hit Foles at least one or two more times.

Arizona ran a surprising amount of zone-read, apparently trying to take advantage of the aggressiveness of our defensive unit much like Nevada's offense tried last week. However, for the most part, Cal's units did much better containing the plays and forcing minimal gains. D.J. Holt was a force on almost every play up the middle (notching seven more tackles), while the defensive backs contained the edges and the second level.  D.J. Campbell came in and got five tackles, and Chris Conte was much better with eight tackles. Conte may have made the biggest defensive play of the night: With Arizona driving late in the first half to take the lead, Foles threw a pass intended for David Douglas. Marc Anthony made a great read to break it up, and Conte came over to catch it while tip-toeing the sidelines.

Bryant Nnabuife sniffed out a few screens and made some huge tackles backfield (although he did get burned by some over-pursuit on a few occasions). Anthony missed a few tackles but made up for it with his big play in the end zone. Campbell broke up another pass on a broken play by Foles when a wide receiver ran a streak down the sidelines and D.J. stuck his paw in there and said "Naw-aw, son!". It was an outstanding effort by the Cal secondary, which made the Airraid attack look very average.

Unfortunately, some bad special teams mistakes other than Tavecchio's kept Cal from being up a dominant 9-0 late.  Ross fielded a punt inside the 5 (a horrid decision), which led to Bryan Anger punting out of his own end zone which he didn't release well (he kicked the ball off the side of his foot), which led to a short field by Arizona which they did nothing with, which led to the only three points of the game by Arizona. So the defense pitched a virtual shutout until the final drive.

But on the last drive, Arizona finally broke through. After Darian Hagan had shut down Juron Criner all night long with great pass breakups (along with a horrid pass interference call that thankfully didn't come back to bite us), Foles finally managed to get him with a beautiful fade throw that Criner hauled in. After getting burned by the fade once, Hagan thought they were going back to it on 3rd and goal. Criner faked to the outside and went inside on the slant. The danger of one-on-one coverage is you put a lot of pressure on your defenders. I wish we'd sent a safety out there to help out Hagan, but other than that I can barely complain about the defense's effort. Strong performance and it's a welcome sign that we could lock down a top tier Pac-10 offense.

On the other side of the ball, I can find plenty to complain about.  Andy Ludwig seemed to determine to design a gameplan that would not make Kevin Riley throw interceptions or challenge Arizona's secondary, something we were very concerned about going into this game. Arizona has some great cover corners, led by Trevin Wade, and we seemed to shy away from the sidelines and play a very short field with rollouts, screens, and a few checkdowns. The gameplan became pretty predictable early on, and Riley was forced to make a lot of difficult throws. 13 for 26 for 113 yards is a pretty weak number, but I blame some of this on the playcalling, and give credit to Arizona's coverage. There wasn't a lot of diversity tonight; even though Arizona also took away plenty of our looks with a disciplined defensive set and great pressure with their four man front, it felt like we didn't mix it up enough.

One of the big cues that we were trying to evade the defensive backs is when we tried the running back pass in the end zone between Shane Vereen and Riley. This is a VERY risky play and one that could've been intercepted if not thrown well by Vereen (overthrown in fact, because one of the defenders didn't bite and was chasing Riley down). Apparently Ludwig and Tedford did not like how the Golden Bears passing game matched up with the Wildcats secondary, and we did our best to evade it all game long. For the most part, they achieved that goal, for better or for worse.

I know people are angry with Riley, but I think he played a typical Kevin Riley game based on what we showed. He made some nice throws and decisions, he made some not-so-nice throws and decisions. He hit Jeremy Ross down the middle on a catch Ross couldn't haul in. He found Marvin Jones on a nice play-fake sell that Jones took down the sidelines for a huge gallop.  He didn't run for the first down and instead tried to fit the ball into Keenan Allen that hopped from the ground into his chest. He found Alex Lagemann in the corner of the end zone, but Loggy backstepped instead of trying to hug the corner, forcing us to settle for a halftime field goal. He rolled out to evade pressure to deliver a crucial third down throw to Michael Calvin (Calvin actually had his best game as a Golden Bear in two years, hauling in three catches). He also underthrew a crucial third down play to Vereen, which led to Tavecchio's bouncer off the goalpost.

Riley did throw a game-clinching pick late, but the interception late was on Marvin Jones--the ball was a little over him but he should've hauled that in. Still, it was a typical Riley interception--a little over his receiver and into the hands of the waiting safety Joe Perkins. Riley's diminutive height doesn't get discussed much, but i often wonder if he has trouble with those routes because he has difficulty seeing over defenders and outreached hands. And I also wonder if he was handcuffed by our gameplan, which never saw him seriously test a defender downfield. Again, I look quizzically at Ludwig, just as I question his decision to barely call Anthony Miller's number at all.

We were happy to pound the ball away with Shane Vereen, who had a reasonably good game against heavy pressure. The Wildcats often put 8 or 9 in the box when it became clear we were determined to run the ball, and all credit to our blockers, the Bears offensive line showed great heart down the stretch in opening up some huge holes. Lots of credit goes particularly to the left side of the line, particularly Mitchell Schwartz (I'll have to review the gametape before I can discern who played real well). Both Vereen and Isi Sofele (whose three gains were very successful!) took full advantage when they could, which is probably why kept on pounding the ball late (and why Tedford looks so conservative in retrospect).

The last drive that ended in Tavecchio's miss seemed like it would end in success, as Cal had multiple rushing plays end with double-digit gains. But our tendency to lean run and not try and test Arizona one-on-one limited our options offensively, and the run got stuffed just as often as it broke the defense. Does Tedford deserve some blame for thinking one-dimensionally? Perhaps, but it's hard to say that the Cal run game wasn't successful down the stretch.

Whether Ludwig or Tedford didn't trust Riley to throw the ball late by running the ball on 3rd and long (or 1st down, or 2nd down, or any down), or whether we really were placing all our faith on Vereen and the run to win the game when we have single coverage, it was a disjointed offensive effort against an ok Arizona defense. I was really hoping for more, and I still felt like we could've done more. With a lot of experienced talent on the field, the Cal offense laid a serious mulligan. Scoring no touchdowns is very disappointing, and it's the ultimate reason we lost, even more so than Tavecchio's misses.

For the record, I don't agree with the running to burn all of Arizona's timeouts or the 4th and 1 call. I would've liked to see us put the game away on one of those possessions. Who cares if we make them burn all their timeouts? It the Airraid attack. That's the whole point of the offense: Quick-hitting scores. Doesn't anyone remember how quickly Texas Tech marched down the field against Texas? That Arizona marched down the field and scored in ninety seconds with ample time to spare seems like a clear indictment of that strategy. Keep running the offense and make Arizona stop you rather than stopping yourselves. It's absolutely frustrating to see the Cal defense dominate this game and see them give up the go-ahead score. The offense wasn't good enough or aggressive enough, and that's what hurts tonight.

***

So we're 2-2 going into the bye week. Just like last year after the Oregon and USC debacles, Cal is at a crossroads. Their season could swing either way depending on the resilience of the players. However I saw a lot more fight and effort in our losses this year than I did last year. The offensive line is playing better each week. The defense looked like a top-tier unit. The special teams is finally competent (not great, but not the disaster it was last season). Our team has five more home games (and we always bring it in Memorial) and winnable road contests. Although this loss is uber-painful, we definitely could've beaten a top Pac-10 team if the ball bounces our way on one or two more plays, or if one more kick sails through the uprights. There's still a lot of season to play and no reason to give up hope that we can produce a solid season.

The loss stings (trust me, I'm hurting as much as the rest of you), but our team isn't going to just fold the tent and give up. Other than Oregon, you can't say any of the Pac-10 squads are discernibly ahead of the rest of us. We're playing better and starting to click as a squad, and if we can combine our execution with our resilience, we'll have a very very good football team in place.

That being said, it's definitely time for the coaching from our coordinators to start fighting along with them on both sides of the ball for an entire game. Pendergast didn't perform well last week, now Ludwig this week. They both need to click together, or otherwise more heartbreak could await.  Go Bears.

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