One bright evening in the middle of October, the Cal Golden Bears were a win away from starting the next week ranked No. 1 in the nation. About two months later, they trailed Air Force in the Armed Forces Bowl. How does a team fall so quickly? There are many reasons. It's easy to point at an unstable situation at quarterback, but that ignores a defense that was mediocre by any standards. The Bears have a ways to go to get back, but they have the personnel and the coaching to make a quick climb. There are some experience issues on offense, and confidence issues on defense. Can Jeff Tedford's team bounce back to 2004/2006 form?
The Bears started 2007 auspiciously with a two TD win over eventual SEC East champ Tennessee. A closer than expected struggle with Colorado State was followed by a cruise at home against Louisiana Tech. The Pac-10 season debuted with a revenge victory over Arizona. Then came the clash of the titans between Cal and Oregon. The Ducks controlled the game, but the Bears were able to win the game because of some crucial Oregon turnovers, including a late fumble at the one yard line on a play that would have tied the game. Little did Cal know that the win over Oregon was the beginning of the end. QB Nate Longshore suffered a broken ankle in the fourth quarter of that contest, even though the staff told the media it was a sprain.
Kevin Riley took over, and played admirably in a home game against Oregon State until the last play of the game, when he inadvertently ran out the clock by trying to run for a first down instead of throwing the ball away. Instead of being able to try a chip shot field goal that could have tied the game, Cal lost 31-28. Then the free fall commenced. The running game was neutralized in yet another loss in Pasadena. An early lead was erased by self inflicted mistake in a defeat in Tempe. The Bears needed a last second field goal to defeat the lowly WSU Cougars, and Longshore's poor play, including a late INT, cost the Bears a chance at beating SC.
The defense was then bludgeoned by a hapless Washington team in a shocking two TD loss, which was followed by Tedford's first loss to Stanford, in which the Cardinal held Cal to 108 rushing yards. Really, the only thing that kept Tedford's group from getting embarrassed by Air Force was the injury of the Falcons' starting QB and the insertion of Riley for the ineffective Longshore. The Bears finished 7-6, and a woeful 3-6 in conference play.
This has been the source of scrutiny, concern, and dissension when it comes to the Cal program since Longshore's injury, and the questions have stretched into fall camp. As of the writing of this article, Tedford has not named a starter for the Michigan State game. If I had to guess at his choice, I would wager on Longshore because of his experience because of his knowledge of the offense. Longshore had a solid sophomore season as the starter, and was playing pretty well last season before the injury. He did not manage a 60% completion percentage, and went from a TD to INT ratio of 24:13 in 2006 to 16:13 in 2007. He's your basic pocket passer who is accurate when healthy, but he is immobile and struggles when under pressure. He does get the ball out quickly though, and he's definitely a top half Pac-10 QB when he's healthy.
Riley is in the hunt though, and he is the fans' favorite, as the back-up guy usually is. He gave the team a spark in the Air Force game in leading them to a comeback win, and the last game often colors opinion. Riley is not as big as Longshore, but he is a strong kid, and he can move around a little to create opportunities. He played well last season when he got in the game. With experience, he can be a very good player. Both quarterbacks have the potential to lead Cal to a challenge of the Trojans at the top of the Pac-10, but can factions within the team put aside their personal preferences if their guy isn't chosen as the starter?
Wide Receiver/Tight End
The Bears were loaded at this position last season, but the three starters are gone, so Cal is back to square one. Fortunately, there is a lot of talent here, unlike at Washington. Sophomore Jeremy Ross will get an early shot to start over a more experienced LaReylle Cunningham. Nyan Boateng is now eligible after transferring from Florida. He is a big talented receiver who has had his share of off the field problems. If he can put it together, he might be able to beat out redshirt freshman Michael Calvin. Juco transfer Verran Tucker and prep standout Marvin Jones are trying to crack the starting line up as well. At this point, your guess on who will form the top three is as good as mine.
Cameron Morrah has made a few starts at tight end. He's a solid player but is not at the all conference level. JC transfer Skyler Curran and the heavily recruited Spencer Ladner are fighting it out to become the second tight end. There are a lot of questions about who will be catching passes this year.
The Bears lost Justin Forsett and James Montgomery, but they have an all star type performer in Jahvid Best if he can stay healthy. Best is an absolutely burner, and is somewhat similar in style to Marshawn Lynch, although he is not as strong. He averaged 7.6 yards per carry last season, and fans were begging Tedford to get him the ball more. It wouldn't surprise me if he lead the conference in rushing because he is that kind of talent. Shane Vereen will likely be the second option. He was good enough to be recruited by SC, UCLA, and Oregon. He's a little shifty guy with good quickness. Will Ta'ufo'ou has some experience at fullback and will lead the way. The Bears should be fine here with the current group.
The Bears have traditionally been strong here in the Tedford era, and 2008 should be no exception. They have not been as dominant in the running game as they were in 2004 and 2005. They could return to an elite level of play this year. The centerpiece of the group is well, the center. Alex Mack is a four year starter, and he has been first team all Pac-10 the last two seasons. Norris Malele has made 23 starts at guard, and Mike Tepper has made 25 at tackle on both sides. This year, he will protect the blind side.
Senior Chet Teofilo is battling the massive and more talentedMitchell Schwartz at right tackle. Mark Boskovich will likely get the nod at the guard spot opposite Malele. The Bears were hoping that the heralded Kevin Bemoll would finally live up to his promise, but it just hasn't happened yet. The Bears are fairly deep and talented along the line, reflecting the fruit of upgraded recruiting classes to Berkeley thanks to Tedford and his staff.
Cal brings back some experience from last season's defensive front, but they did not play well in 2007. The run defense was mediocre at best, and the pass rush was, in a word, garbage. Derrick Hill was forced into action last year because of a lack of quality players. He didn't embarrass himself, but he wasn't exactly the next Mike Patterson. The extra offseason work should make Hill the team's best tackle. Mika Kane made eight starts at tackle last season, but only had two tackles for loss and no sacks. Cody Jones made ten starts in 2007, but he will likely be demoted to second string. Tyson Alualu will continue to be a fixture at end, but he has not been very productive. Rulon Davs should be back in the starting line-up after an injury ended his season. Jones could back up either end spot. There really isn't anyone in the cur rent class who can step in and contribute. This is not one of the better lines in the conference.
Fortunately for the Bears, they have some good players here. Worrell Williams is a talented mike linebacker. He has a nose for the ball, and is very good against the run. His lack of height makes him a liability in pass coverage though. Zack Follett is the team's designated blitzer from the strong side, and he led the team in sacks with five and a half. Anthony Felder is very experienced at the will spot. True freshman Robert Mullins gives the group an infusion of talent, and Devin Bishop could be ready to hold the rope after a redshirt season. This could be the strength of the team, but they still need better DL play to become a solid defense.
The Bears were not able to adequately replace Daymeion Hughes at CB. The completion percentage for opponents ballooned to 61%. Syd'Quan Thompson is the team's best cover guy, but he is either making a solid play or getting torched. There isn't much in between. 6'3" sophomore Chris Conte made a few starts as a freshman, but quarterbacks picked on him, and I'm not sure he has the fluid type of athleticism at his height to play corner. Don't be surprised if Darian Hagan eventually wrestles the spot from Conte, who in my opinion would be better off at safety or weak side linebacker. Marcus Ezeff replaced the solid Thomas DeCoud at strong safety. Ezeff has some experience due to DeCoud's injury problems. Bernard Hicks is back to roam the middle of the field at free safety. I'm not high on this group. It lacks a consistent playmaker.
Cal struggled in this area for the most part. Kicker Jordan Kay made only 13 of 20 field goals, and was an abysmal two for five from 30-39 yards out. Andrew Larson handles kickoffs, but he doesn't have a big leg. Redshirt freshman Bryan Anger will slide into the punting spot. Tedford is really high on him. Best gives the Bears a dangerous kickoff returner, and Vereen will pair with him to form a fearsome pair. Thompson could be a good punt returner, but he won't be as good as the explosive Desean Jackson. Cal did a terrible job of covering kickoffs last season. The Bears need Kay to improve and Anger to meet expectations.
I think Cal is poised to return to form this season on offense, whomever they choose at QB. The non-conference schedule is manageable with home tilts against Michigan State and Colorado State and a roadie versus Maryland. Cal does have to come to LA to play the Trojans, but they get Oregon, ASU, UCLA, and Stanford at home, and they have fared better against the Beavers in Corvallis under Tedford (winning on average by five TDs) than they have at home (0-3). If the defense can return to form against the run, they could realistically compete for a Pac-10 title. Don't be surprised if the Bears are 7-0 coming into the SC game, and once again, that game becomes the key Pac-10 game of the season.