Monday, October 29, 2007

How to Lose a Season in 15 Days

Supporters call them the Cubs of college football, so I guess it's appropriate that the California Golden Bears share a species with the lovable losers from the Windy City. And while I'm not so sure how lovable they are, the one thing I know them to be is frustrating.

Sure Cal has only recently reversed its fortunes to become one of the more talented teams in the country and maybe we should have seen this coming with the Pac-10 quickly becoming the SEC of the west. But that doesn't change the fact that a little more than two weeks ago this team was one freshman mistake away from being the #1 team in all the land.

That fact, combined with the fact that no team in the Pac-10 has gone more years since an appearance in a Rose Bowl than Cal (since 1959 to be exact) and you have one of the most frustrating and annoying seasons this Cal fan has had to endure in a while.

When they were bad, they were bad, and we could all live with that. It wasn't any fun getting beaten up by the likes of Stanford and UCLA, among others, but no one had any delusions that this team was any good.

In 2001 they were 1-10 and things looked worse than ever. Then came current head coach Jeff Tedford and everything changed. The offense got more dynamic, recruiting picked up and in the not-so-distant future there will be a shiny new Stadium that will help put Cal on par facility-wise with the Oregon's of the world.

However with all the recent success has come a feeling among the faithful that this team could make some real noise on the national stage. And up until a couple of weeks ago that feeling was being confirmed by a team who had already notched wins over Tennessee and Oregon and were sitting pretty as the #2 team in the country.

Then came that night in Berkeley against an Oregon State squad that most thought would get run off the field by the more talented Bears. Sure redshirt freshman quarterback Kevin Riley was forced to start due to an injury to starter Nate Longshore, but with so many weapons and momentum on their side it was supposed to be easy.

Of course no one told that to the Beavers who put up a great fight in the first half, and were benefited greatly when the Pac-10 officiating crew deemed a play in which Beavers QB Sean Canfield crossed the line of scrimmage before throwing an incomplete pass, inconsequential.

Nothing could have been further from the truth of course, as the Beavers took advantage of the extra down and set up kicker Alexis Serna for a field goal which made it a one point game going into halftime.

I'll admit, at the time I thought little of it, but as the game wore on the impending feeling of doom got stronger and stronger. Meanwhile Riley played well, overcoming a fumble by freshman Jahvid Best that allowed OSU to go up by 10 late in the game, and leading a stunning 79-yard touchdown drive in only 55 seconds to pull Cal within three points.

Three points, that's all they needed, three measly points. And then it happened.

12 seconds to play, Cal down by three inside the Beavers 15 yard-line, Riley looking for all the world like Joe Montana in fourth quarter comeback mode. But instead of Joe Cool, he turned into Rex Grossman in the matter of a few seconds. Forgetting to throw the ball away, Riley scrambled into the middle of the field and was taken down with no timeouts remaining.

Tick, tick, tick, ballgame. Goodbye #1 ranking.

OK fine, freshman mistake, it happened and it's over with. There's still a shot at the Pac-10 title and trip to the Rose Bowl, especially with games against highly ranked teams like USC and Arizona State coming up.

Again, someone forgot to tell Cal's next opponent, the UCLA Bruins, about the team's Rose Bowl plans. In a game that can only be described as "aaarrrggghhhh", Longshore returned only to show the country why he might be the most overrated signal caller in the country.

Another 14-13 lead heading into halftime made the whole thing seem a bit too eerie for yours truly, but again I figured Cal had the weapons and experience to pull it out and beat an inferior team. Wrong again.

Needing only a field goal to win, Best atoned for his mistake in the Oregon State game and set up the Bears with great field position on the UCLA 35 after a 53-yard kick return. Everything seemed to be OK, that was until Longshore stared down DeSean Jackson on a third down pass which was promptly picked off and returned for a touchdown.

Thanks Nate. Final score UCLA 30 Cal 21.

Another stunning loss to an unranked team and still there was hope. With the rest of the Pac-10 eating itself alive, the early November showdown between Cal and USC could still decide who goes to the Rose Bowl.

As the seconds ticked off of a second loss by USC, this time to Oregon, I suppose I should have known something terrible was about to happen later that night as Cal traveled to the Valley of the Sun to take on the fourth-ranked Arizona State Sun Devils.

20 first half points and a six point lead belied the fact that the game wasn't that close, with Cal dominating the opening 30 minutes but allowing ASU to hang around thanks to spotty quarterback play and a lack of offensive aggressiveness.

The second half saw Longshore up to his old tricks, missing open receivers, throwing interceptions and generally disappearing from sight as the high-powered Cal offense was shut out over the final 30 minutes, losing 31-20.

If it sounds like I'm piling on Longshore, I am. I'll admit that some of the blame has to fall on Tedford's shoulders for allowing his injured signal caller to take the field, but at some point a guy has to know when he's no longer helping his football team.

Against ASU Longshore threw two of the worst interceptions I've seen in a while, both of which could be directly related to his injured ankle. The first was a badly under thrown ball to a wide open Jackson, the second a stick throw in the middle of the field, both of which lacked the necessary velocity due to Longshore's inability to push off with his right foot.

Over the span of the three losses there were other problems as well. The offense taking its collective foot off the pedal after leading in the first half of each game. The defense refusing to keep the pressure on three sub-par quarterbacks who they held to 566 passing yards and only two touchdowns in the three games combined.

I guess the most frustrating part is that it never had to be like this. Ask anyone who knows what they're talking about and they will tell you that Cal is a better team than any of the three they lost their season to, but obviously that's not what counts.

In the meantime a team that was a handful of plays away from being the top dog will ultimately have to claw and scratch just to make another Holiday Bowl appearance. Go Bears!

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