Lost in the hand-wringing and gnashing of teeth is the fact that yesterday's loss was one heck of a college football game. Seriously. Yes, it doesn't change the big "L" on our record. And yes, we missed a golden opportunity to take down one of college football's bluebloods. But for a Cal fan and a sports fan, you got to see a competitive game that kept you on the edge of your seat for an entire morning. Isn't that what we want?
At this point, the line in the sand has pretty well polarized. The Tedford Haters will use this game as another excuse that he can't win the big one, or coaches not to lose, or is just good enough to make us the perpetual bridesmaid. The Tedford Sunshine Pumpers will see this as perhaps a glimmer of hope that he hasn't completely lost his mojo yet and might actually fulfill the promises and expectations endemic to the upgraded facilities.
I will freely admit that I've met Hydrotech. I've read Hydrotech. And I'm no Hydrotech. However, these are your post-game thoughts:
1) This Cal team was ready to play. We looked prepared both schematically, mentally, and emotionally. A lot has been made of how the stolid Tedford just doesn't know how to get his players to that fine balance between fired up and not out of control. Whatever he did yesterday, let's bottle that up and drink it, shoot it, smoke it, or snort it for the rest of the year. Maybe this is the impact of encouraging a team council for internal leadership, but the players didn't look intimidated or nervous in front of a crowd 105k strong.
2) The game planning was sound and the coaches didn't panic. In the past, it's appeared that the staff would quickly ditch their plans and almost overcompensate with changes too early in the game. Yesterday, they showed a lot of confidence in their players. Despite the fact that Ohio State is known for a stout run defense with question marks in the secondary, we leaned on our strengths instead of trying to avoid theirs. We leaned on our running game to set up play-action and plenty of quick, controlled passes. And we stuck with the run even when we fell behind by two scores. On defense, we didn't let a few deep passes and one missed tackle take us out of scheme designed to maintain gaps and to contain Miller as a runner.
3) Halftime adjustments. For all those (myself included) who have grumbled about the lack of effective changes coming out of the half, it's hard to argue with a 195 to 21 yard advantage in the third quarter. It's an incredibly good feeling to have the sense that your coaching staff is able to out-think, out-adapt, and out-scheme the opposition.
4) This team didn't fold under adversity. In fact, they seemed to play harder and showed more heart than any Cal team in recent history. Get lit up by a long TD run? Pound it down their throats the next drive. Jobbed by the officials and sent into the half trailing instead of even or up? Dominate the 3rd quarter. Get burned all day by long receptions? Come up with a key interception that could have led to a go-ahead score. Wins and losses aside, I'll take this type of effort any Saturday.
5) You know those things we were worried about? We were right to be worried. Oline and inexperience in the middle of our defense were the two areas circled before the season began. Unfortunately, these remain areas with serious work to do. Ohio State was able to sack Maynard repeatedly with nothing more fancy than a basic four man rush. They just won their solo match-ups with our linemen over and over again. Although our defense as a whole showed a lot more discipline with regards to gap integrity and their assignments, we're still lacking that playmaking presence in the last level. The young defenders at ILB and S need to grow up in a hurry, or we're going to be on the ESPN highlight reels for the rest of the year.
6) This is the new and improved Maynard that was promised to us in camp. He was poised, decisive, and generally made good decisions with solid accuracy. I'm not going to nit-pick a few missed throws or reads. Keep in mind that Ohio State primarily kept 7 in the box and were able to generate a pass rush with just four linemen. That means that the rest of their defense was in coverage. Last year, he struggled against this type of D. He's not the reason we lost. In fact, I think he out-played his more touted counterpart. When you throw in the occasional matador nature of our oline and the inconsistent snaps, I'm hard-pressed to think of a better performance by a Cal QB under adverse conditions in years.
7) Welcome back. It's nice to see our FB and TE positions contributing again. Eric Stevens is a solid player running, receiving, and blocking. Jacob Wark really held the rope and stepped up when our 1st and 2nd stringers couldn't go. Although he may not be a down the field threat, he showed reliable hands as an outlet and did a great job setting the edge or hitting the 2nd level all day.
8) Brendan. Bigelow. That is all.
9) Thank you, Coach Chandler. We needed the young wide receivers to be ready to contribute early and they're delivering. Not just as receivers, but they've all shown an impressive level of effort as blockers. For all that the last touted crop of frosh receivers didn't pan out, it sure looks like Harper, Treggs, and Powe are the real deal.
10) 0/2 on 4th down. How I wish this were 1/3. It's been debated to death by this point. I love the confidence Tedford showed earlier in the game going for it twice. Even though we didn't convert, I thought it fired up the team. It certainly got me pumped. Unfortunately, there's only so much Dread Pirate Tedford that we can allow in any given game. I really believe that he called that timeout to prepare his playcall. I was betting on a power formation up the middle, naked boot by Maynard around the edge. Then, he talked himself out of it. Or maybe his coaches did. From a stats-based view, it probably makes sense to try to take the points. I'm sure there are incredibly boring charts showing how often teams win/lose. My preference would have been to seize on momentum, remember that college football is a game of morale, and let your team live or die with that esprit de corps. But, I can't peg this one as a no-brainer. Up to that point, the defense had been playing lights out. And because we don't watch practice, we have no idea if D'Amato is usually money when they run their "clutch" drill. (Make the FG or everyone runs.) Maybe he's usually automatic and this past game was an unusually bad day. It's a judgement call that no one fusses over if we had won. Next.
11) Special teams remains special. On the plus side, it's really nice to see kickoffs go into the end zone. I suppose that's one way to compensate for spotty coverage. It was an interesting decision to let our more experienced JC transfer(Steffan Mos) kick the first two punts. On the one hand, this makes sense in not putting too much pressure on true frosh Cole Leininger. On the other, Mos' 2nd punt was an awful shank that set up an Ohio State score. I feel badly for D'Amato. He probably feels worse than any of us right now, so I'm not going to pile on. Let's face it - will bashing on the kid make him perform better? We're all sitting here in our armchairs reading instead of playing because most of us has experienced more athletic failure than success. Whenever I see kickers struggle, I remember the story of Alexis Serna. He missed three field goals on national television which cost Oregon State an upset over LSU.
"After the heartbreaking loss and the surge in press coverage, Serna received hundreds of letters of support from people across the country. One of these letters came from 12-year-old Austan Pierce, a boy receiving cancer treatment from Sacred Heart Children's Hospital in Spokane, Washington. Serna was so moved by his words of encouragement that he wrote an "A" on his left thumb and a "P" on his right thumb before each game from then on, to remind him of Austan's words. Serna went on to complete 29 consecutive extra points and make 17 of 20 field goals in the remainder of the season, earning Pac-10 special teams Player of the Week twice and becoming a finalist for the 2004 Lou Groza Award in the process."
We can either support this young man, or throw him under the bus. I hope he turns it around.
That being said, I really do hope that Coach Tedford addresses this phase of the game sooner rather than later. Looking forward, we can at least take heart that here's a fantastic kicker on the roster right now, James Langford, who will be eligible next year after transferring from Cal Poly. Incoming stud Matt Anderson will also arrive next year. But the rest of this year may be a bit exciting.
Taking a step back, how would you feel if this game had been the season opener? Without the bitter taste from the first two games, I suspect that many of us would look at this season far more favorably than we do right now. Keep in mind that we were unanimously predicted to be blown out. Instead, we went toe to toe with the #12 team in their famously hostile stadium and played well enough to win. Not mistake-free by any stretch, but this was a team that didn't give up and showed dramatic improvement from our earlier games. If you can't appreciate at least some of the positives, then you probably need to buy a bucket and tie yourself to a tree somewhere.
Do we need to get better? Yes. Does this ultimately fall on the coaching staff? Absolutely. But let's not forget that these kids are working hard to represent us and our alma mater. There have been comments from players and their parents that it's really troubling when fans are unrelentingly negative, critical, and unforgiving. We're a better fan base than that. Aren't we, Cal fans?
Next up, tough sledding becomes skiing in an avalanche as our Golden Bears have to set aside their disappointment in preparation for a really ticked off Trojan team. It'll just make it that much sweeter when they turn the Coliseum lights off early and send Traveler to the glue factory, right? Go Bears!