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September 24, 2011
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SEATTLE -- This isn't about last year. It's not about history. It's about now. It's about this California football team; not the scars of 2010. It's about the beginning of a gauntlet: four straight games against Washington, Oregon, USC and Utah -- a quartet against which the Bears have gone 0-7 since 2009. It's about time.
Yes, the Huskies were the team on the other side of the field when Cal head coach Jeff Tedford's bowl streak, his winning season streak and much of the good will he had built around the program were washed away in the December rain, in an all-but empty California Memorial Stadium, last year. But Washington was just the final nail in the Bears' 5-7 coffin. Cal did plenty on its own to finish below .500. Now, after three nonconference games, it's time to see if they've begun to mend those cracks, to tighten those bolts and figure out who -- and what -- it is. It's time for Pac-12 play.
"This is a heavy test," Tedford said. "It's the toughest opening of the season we've ever had, no question about it. On the road to Washington, on the road to Oregon, then USC, it's a difficult task, but that's why it's even more important to focus one at a time. They're going to come, but you look at the whole schedule, and there aren't any breaks. After that, we have Utah, so there are no breaks anywhere."
After three games, many of the same questions which haunted this program last season are, as yet, still unanswered.
Who will be the heir to the tailback legacy? So far, junior Isi Sofele has been underwhelming, averaging just 94 yards per game and 4.5 yards per carry.
How will junior quarterback Zach Maynard re-adjust to the college game after sitting out a year after transferring? So far, he is averaging 241.3 yards per game through the air -- eighth in the Pac-12 -- and is ninth in passing efficiency with a 140.5 mark. He's thrown nine touchdowns to three picks. He's been one of the main reasons that the Bears are one of the best squads in the conference on third down -- converting 19 of 42 attempts.
But, this is conference play. This isn't Presbyterian. This isn't Fresno State.
"There's definitely motivation. I think the biggest motivation of all of them is that it's starting conference play," said senior Bears safety Sean Cattouse. "They're a good team, it's going to be a fight, for sure, and we're all welcoming it. It's nothing we're taking lightly at all. We're going into a bye week after, but this is the biggest game of the season for us, right now."
The offensive line is still unsteady. The defense has been hit-and-miss. Special teams have struggled with at least one big miscue per game.
Saturday's 12:30 tilt at Husky Stadium could go at least some way toward at least beginning to provide some more answers, as both Cal (3-0) and Washington (2-1) -- the only two teams to play in the conference every season since the league was founded in 1916 -- open their Pac-12 schedules.
"They've beat us the last two years, and they beat us pretty bad two years ago, so we're going into this game with a vengeance, ready for conference," said Maynard. "It's a conference game, it's an away game, so it's going to be big for us, playing on the road."
The Bears have already been on the road this year, and they have won. It took Cal five tries to finally come out on top away from Berkeley last season, and even then, in a closely-fought contest against Washington State.
"It's all about us," Cattouse said. "It's doing our job, doing what we need to get done. They're going to do it with their type of offense, they're going to do what they do. They have their scheme. They have their thing that they do, but it's about us, reading our keys, everyone, 11 guys, doing their jobs. It's all about us."
Though the Bears faced a hostile crowd two weeks ago against Colorado, the 72,500-seat Husky Stadium, in its final season before a massive renovation, will be a bigger test.
"They're very good, and they've got the crowd back," said Tedford. "They're very physical, they're very athletic, they do a great job in all phases of the game.
"Fresno was a good test, Colorado was a good test, and those seemed like road games. One was a true road game and the other one seemed like one. I think we're mature enough to be able to understand the level we have to play at. There were a lot of good things on tape this last week, but we have to take the things that weren't so good and make sure that we focus on that so we don't form bad habits."
Officiating crews have been paying attention to some of those bad habits early and often. The Bears have been penalized 26 times in three games, second-most in the conference behind Arizona State.
"It is concerning," Tedford said. "A lot of them are odd things, too. All I know is that it's an issue that we have to correct. We had 10 penalties for 94 yards, and negated some gains, big gains. The previous week [against the Buffaloes] we didn't have very many, but Fresno, we did. That's what I'm talking about. We can't let those things go as, 'Oh, it's OK because we won the game,' because those are things we need to improve on. Whether it's decision-making or fundamental things or whatever they are, mistakes, sometimes you don't mean to; it just happens. We have to continue to work at it."
Those 26 miscues have cost Cal 234 yards in total. In contrast, Steve Sarkisian's crew is the third-least penalized team in the conference, having been flagged just 18 times. However, half of those came last week against Nebraska.
Communication flubs at the line have cost the Bears more than their fair share of false start flags and errant shotgun passes, and, despite the volume of simulated crowd noise all this week at Witter Rugby Field, Husky Stadium will be rocking at a whole new level for many of the Cal players.
"This will be the biggest," said junior tailback C.J. Anderson, who has seen increased work over the first three games after transferring in from Laney College, taking over the No. 2 slot behind Sofele and averaging 7.3 yards per carry. "I heard the stadium holds 72,000, and UW fans, when I went on a recruiting trip to Washington State, UW fans travel big. They were louder than the Cougar fans, when I went there. This will be the biggest stadium I've played in, but I still have to find different things I need to focus on when I get called on so I can be successful."
There will be fans screaming at emergent true freshman tailback Brendan Bigelow, who spurned the Huskies in order to come to Cal, not that he'll take any of it to heart.
[Read more on Bigelow's debut HERE]
"We work on snaps every day, because Dom and I had a few miscues. Some of it was my fault; it's not all on him. We just have to get the cadence down and we've got to communicate a lot better so it will be easier on him," Maynard said. "On the field, it gets loud in some places, such as Colorado. It was very loud and it's hard for me and him to talk if I'm in the shotgun. So, I try to get up close to him and tell him pre-snap, before the ball, what the cadence is going to be and how it's going to be coming out."
There will be plenty of Washington fans who remember some of the beat-downs that Tedford and his Bears of yesteryear dished out in the Emerald City. In 2003, Cal routed the Huskies 54-7 in Berkeley. In 2004, an Aaron Rodgers-led Bears squad handed Washington a 42-12 defeat in the Evergreen State. In 2005, much-maligned quarterback Joe Ayoob had the finest game of his brief Cal career, finishing 17-of-27 for 271 yards as the Bears trounced the Huskies 56-17 in Seattle.
Things haven't been quite so rosy, since. Washington has handed the Bears two straight defeats overall and has won the last two meetings in Seattle.
"We've been there before, and I know we haven't had the greatest success, but we haven't had the team chemistry, the kind of focus and determination as a total team in the past years as we have now," Cattouse said. "We know it's going to be noisy for our offense, but we'll be there to keep everybody going and to keep everybody focused."
In those wins, the Huskies had Jake Locker. Now, with Locker having made the jump to the NFL, Sarkisian is breaking in a new signal-caller -- sophomore Keith Price.
"[They're] not a lot different. He can do a lot of the same things," Tedford said. "He's mobile enough; he's just not as big or as physical, so he doesn't run through as many tackles as Jake, because Jake was a big, physical guy with great speed. Keith can run with the ball, they do a lot to get him outside the pocket, things like that, so he's athletic and very accurate throwing. Schematically, they're the same.
"They kind of spread out with Jake, more, did a lot of zone read stuff, but they can do both. They can run it downhill with a fullback and tight ends. They can line up and run it downhill at you, but then they can spread it out and run some of the zone-read type stuff that Jake could really hurt you with."
Despite two bad knees -- sprained during the Huskies' nonconference schedule -- Price said that he will play in the Pac-12 opener, allowing many Husky fans to breathe a big sigh of relief. Price has the 17th-highest passer efficiency rating in the entire nation at 165.91. He leads Division I FBS with 11 touchdown passes, tied with Bowling Green's Matt Schilz for the national lead. Price is the only Washington signal-caller in recorded history to throw so many scoring strikes over any three-game span.
"I think he's playing at a high level," Sarkisian said. "I thought he had this capability within him all along, coming into this season. I didn't think it was going to be a matter of his knowledge of our offense or his ability to execute our offense. He's been kind of raised in this system, knows it extremely well. My concerns were how he would respond just to being the starter every day, and life as the starter, and he's handled it extremely well. But, from an efficiency standpoint and on the field, I'm not nearly as surprised as maybe others are just because I see it every day."
The 6-foot-1, 195-pound Price may not be the bruiser that Locker was, but he can make plays with his feet, gaining 34 yards on the ground while scrambling, but losing enough to put him at -9 in net yards thanks to seven sacks allowed by a Washington offensive line, which -- while not as veteran as the Bears' offensive front which owns 100 collective starts -- is fairly stout.
The starting five weigh in at an average of 303.8 pounds. Senior left tackle Senio Kelemete started all three games this season and 13 games last season at left tackle, and 11 games at right guard in 2009 after switching over from the defensive line. Redshirt freshman left guard Colin Tanigawa has started all three games this season. Junior center Drew Schaefer is perhaps the most veteran, having started all 13 games last season on the offensive line, and playing in all 12 games in 2009, starting the final four games of the year at left tackle.
Sophomore right guard Colin Porter and sophomore right tackle Erik Kohler combined for 11 starts and 21 games played last season as true freshmen. Each played multiple positions along the line.
With much of the starting line having shuttled back and forth between positions for much of their careers, the Huskies have allowed 12 tackles for loss and seven sacks over their first three games, meaning that Price has had to be on the move much of the time.
"He does a nice job of seeing the field, he tries to keep plays alive," said Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "When the play may break down, he does a good job of getting out of the pocket and he sees guys downfield, so he scrambles and throws instead of just scrambling to run."
Washington ranks 18th nationally in passing efficiency, and fourth in the Pac-12. Paradoxically, though, the Huskies rank 10th in the league in passing offense, generating 230.3 yards per game through the air.
"There's always pressure on the DBs," Tedford said of his defensive backfield, which was torched for 474 passing yards by Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen in week two. "You want to make sure that you can try to get some pressure on him and that's key. Obviously, be disciplined in our coverage, mix up the coverages on him."
Against the Buffaloes, the Bears allowed 582 yards of total offense, recorded no sacks and had no answer for speedy Paul Richardson, who gained 287 yards through the air.
"We did that to ourselves, if anything," said Cal senior inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks. "We're very motivated. Everyone knows what happened last year. The team's fired up about it."
Though Price has completed 64.4 percent of his passes, he's really spread the wealth, as no single Huskies receiver has more than 181 total receiving yards. That top mark belongs to senior Devin Aguilar, who's turned the trick with only 11 catches.
While the Huskies don't have that single home run threat that the Buffs presented in Richardson, the lack of pressure on the passer two weeks ago still loomed large during preparation this week for the Cal defense.
"We try to do it every week, and obviously, the first two quarterbacks we played against -- Fresno and Colorado -- both had the element in their arsenal to be able to move around a little bit, so we have things within our package that we'll try to do to control that," said Pendergast. "We're going to run our defense, and every week it's a little bit different with how we feel like we're going to attack people. This week's no different than any other week, from that standpoint."
James Johnson recorded 106 of his 155 yards and two of his three touchdowns on six catches against the Cornhuskers, and had just five other catches in the previous two games. Physical senior Jermaine Kearse (8 catches, 107 yards, 4 TD) can spread the field. However, perhaps the biggest schematic challenge for Pendergast will be freshman tight end Austin Seferian-Jenkins.
"This is probably going to be the best receiving corps we've faced all year," Kendricks said. "The quarterback can throw, and he likes to throw on the run, so we've just got to put that pressure on him. He makes good decisions, but he's made a couple bad ones."
Lusted after by many programs -- including Cal -- while he was a recruit, Seferian-Jenkins has paid immediate dividends after choosing to stay with his hometown team. The 6-foot-6, 258-pounder out of Fox Island, Wash., has caught five balls for 116 yards and a touchdown. If the Huskies stay in a pro-set, employing Seferian-Jenkins, they could keep some of the younger, more dynamic Bears pass-rush specialists on the bench.
"He's pretty good. They do a nice job with him and he's definitely someone that you have to game-plan for," Tedford said.
Another playmaker to keep an eye out for will be another former Cal target in freshman Kasen Williams. One of the Huskies' top four receivers, he's also provided punch in special teams. The Bears have allowed an average of 11.8 yards per punt return, and that's including last week's FCS opponent Presbyterian. Williams -- against Eastern Washington, Hawaii and the Cornhuskers -- has averaged 10.7 yards per punt return.
"I think we'll continue to use a variety of punts because it helps our coverage," said Cal special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk. "It also helps protection. We'll continue to use all three types of punts."
Those types will include the rugby punt, which takes one of the biggest legs in the country - senior punter Bryan Anger -- and arguably takes the Bears' best special teams weapon away.
"One of the things that Bryan's personal objectives, from a continuous improvement standpoint, was to be able to have better hang time," Genyk said. "Better hang time, more fair catches, that's certainly what the next level is looking at. Balls that are kicked 65 and 70 yards are very difficult to cover at this level, and certainly at the next level, so the hang time aspect is something that he wants to work on, but also the aspect of the rugby punt, it provides a challenge for their unit as far as where to place their returner, and also we can get multiple hits on their returner, which is effective and is one of the reasons that we did that against Colorado, to try and slow [Paul] Richardson down."
Just as Price will take the field despite two balky knees, so will sophomore kickoff returner Jesse Callier. A tight hamstring has bothered Callier all week, but he will take the field as the No. 2 behind venerable tailback Chris Polk on Saturday. Much like the Bears' own star-in-waiting in Bigelow, Callier has made his biggest impact on special teams, returning 11 kickoffs for an average of 26.5 yards.
"I think, first of all, our kickoff cover team needs to do a great job tackling," Genyk said. "Last year, Callier broke seven tackles on three kickoff returns, and they're very aware of that. We've got to wrap up, stay in our lane and make sure that we tackle really well."
In fact, it was Callier's injury during the Nebraska game that precipitated a crucial kickoff return mistake on the part of Bishop Sankey at the start of the second half. After the Huskers went 56 yards in nine plays to score on a Rex Burkhead one-yard run, Nebraska kicked off to Sankey at the goal line, Sankey fumbled at the one, leading to yet another one-yard scoring rumble by Burkhead to give the Huskers a 27-17 lead.
If he's healthy enough to be his usually-explosive self, Callier will hurt a tender-footed Cal special teams unit which will be missing big tackler Michael Coley, out with a sprained foot suffered against Presbyterian.
[Read more on Cal's special teams issues HERE]
"He's done a really nice job on special teams," Tedford said. "He did it on the very first kickoff, and then played the whole first half and it really stiffened up on him at halftime."
Even without Coley, though, the Bears do have true freshman Stefan McClure, who will not only take Coley's place on special teams -- recording two of his four tackles last week covering kicks -- but also on the defense, coming in as a nickel back.
"It's nice to get him going," Tedford said. "We need him to kind of assume a role on special teams that way, so, as the season goes on, you've got a lot of your starters who end up getting banged up a little bit, and things like that, you need to fill in with special teams, with some of the young guys."
Polk -- who has now rushed for 100 yards in 14 games over his career in Seattle, including a 130-yard, 22-carry effort against Nebraska last week -- will keep on trucking at the starting tailback slot, and has been solid against Cal defenses of years past, running for a total of 180 yards on 40 carries with two touchdowns, while catching four balls for 17 yards, as well. So far this season, Polk is on pace for another 1,000-yard season, rushing for 362 yards on 67 carries with two touchdowns, posting a 120.7 yards per game average.
"He's a strong, hard runner," Kendricks said. "He likes to gain a lot of yards after contact, so I'm looking forward to that."
As a team, the Huskies rank a middle-of-the-road 148.3 yards per game on the ground, but when it comes to stopping the run, Washington has been far from elite.
The Cornhuskers peeled off 309 yards on the ground on 55 rushing attempts last week, with four of their touchdowns coming by way of the rush in a 51-38 win over the Huskies.
"A lot of our formations are just to create gaps and create mismatches for us to move the ball. They like to put a lot of people in the box, so we're trying to do things to get them out of the box, so we can have a successful running game," Anderson said. "The fact that they see a lot of passing and they played Hawaii in the first week, they also had to face Nebraska, so they got a running game coming at them. Nebraska had a pretty good running game, so we're just going to try to pick up on what we do best, which is ground and pound, being the most physical football team there."
Vaunted All-Pac-10 Honorable Mention defensive tackle Alameda Ta'amu has been particularly disappointing for the Huskies, registering just three tackles against Nebraska -- none for a loss -- and tallying just 10 on the season, with two TFLs and one sack.
"I've seen him on film, but it's all about us," Anderson said. "They treat me like I'm the sledge hammer back with not a lot of shakes, so I just have to try to open my game up and show them what I can do."
When it comes to the Washington secondary, though, opposing teams have fired at will. The Huskies rank last in the conference in passing defense, allowing 320.3 yards per game through the air (115th nationally), allowing a 59.3 completion percentage and 7.1 yards per attempt. Washington is last in scoring defense in the Pac-12, with opponents scoring an average of 36.7 points per game (107th in the nation). The Huskies are 11th in the league -- ahead of only Arizona in total defense, seeing opponents put up an average of 452 yards of offense per game, a figure which ranks them 108th nationally.
"I think one of the biggest things is that we're not playing football with the tenacity and the relentlessness that's needed to really be a great defensive team," said Sarkisian, who's team ranked second in the Pac-10 last season in passing defense, allowing just 194.4 yards per game through the air. "I think we're playing with some hesitation. I think we're playing, not letting loose or letting go, we're a little bit afraid, maybe, to make a mistake, and you can't play defense that way. It has definitely something that's been addressed, and I think it will be corrected sooner, rather than later."
Opponents have converted 57 percent of third-down chances and attained 43 first downs via the pass. If there were any perfect environment for success as far as the Cal passing attack is concerned, this would be it.
Maynard's two favorite receivers -- senior Marvin Jones and sophomore Keenan Allen -- are 25th and 24th, respectively, in the country in receiving yards per game. Allen -- Maynard's little brother -- is averaging 100.33 yards per contest, and Jones is averaging 98.67. Allen is also 25th in the country in receptions per game with 6.67.
"We all think on the same page," Maynard said. "I always go by my reads. Whatever coach sees is open, whatever the defense gives me that's open, that's where I'm throwing to. We all communicate well, and if they see an open gap in the field somewhere or against the defense where we can line up against a certain formation and feel like they're going to be open, the coaches let me know what's going on.
"We have a lot of great receivers, not just those two guys, so I mean, we have a lot of guys rotating as well, throughout the course of the game, because we run a lot of routes and guys get tired. We throw a lot out there for guys to see. I have all the faith in the world in my receivers, and against any DBs or any secondary, I feel like we can beat any team."
Kendricks, for his part, said just about what you'd expect coming from a veteran linebacker. That gauntlet that's starting this weekend? When he first saw it, he had one thought.
"I like it," he smiled. "It's how we want it, while we're fresh. I like it. We've got a bye week for Oregon, which is great, then the next home game is 'SC. It's a perfect schedule, to me."