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September 10, 2011
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BERKELEY -- Observing the California football team's 36-21 win over Fresno State, one would be hard-pressed to name exactly which tailback was the true No. 2 behind starter Isi Sofele.
Sofele -- who was said during fall camp by head coach Jeff Tedford to be limited to between 18 and 20 carries per game -- toted the rock 24 times for a total of 83 yards and two touchdowns on Saturday.
However, after halftime, Sofele was largely ineffective. In 10 carries, he gained a net of seven yards.
"We didn't block guys we were supposed to block at times," Tedford said. "We missed a couple safeties, receivers missing safeties, and we had some holes at times, which is just guys taking turns of not blocking certain guys."
Despite taking some hits last week, Tedford didn't feel that Sofele was wearing down. Instead, as back-up tailback C.J. Anderson said this week, Sofele simply had the hot hand. After gaining 10 yards on two carries last week, it looks like Anderson will be first in line to spell Sofele on Saturday in Boulder, Colo., as the Bears (1-0) take to the skies to clash with Colorado (0-1) in a 12:30 PM Pacific contest that is sure to test Cal's depth at tailback and at just about every position.
The last time these two squared off, the Bears dealt the Buffs their worst defeat of the 2010 season, a 52-7 drubbing at Memorial Stadium in Berkeley. Cal had a miserable season on the road last year, going 1-4, and will hit the road again this year for the first time for Colorado's home opener. In that last match-up, the Bears ran for a total of 159 yards, with four different Cal tailbacks getting at least three carries. Starter Shane Vereen rushed 16 times for 59 yards and a score, while Covaughn DeBoskie-Johnson had four carries for 31 yards. Sofele had four carries for 10 yards. It would not be entirely unexpected if this year's Bears employed the same strategy.
"That's all up to coach G. If Isi has the hot hand, then Isi has the hot hand," Anderson said. "If I've got the hot hand, I've got the hot hand. If Covaughn has the hot hand, then he has the hot hand. The altitude is up there, and as I told the running backs when we had our meeting, I think it's a mental thing. We're not the type that's going to come out and say we're tired. That's not our mojo. That's not our deal. That's not what we do. It's all up to coach G if he wants us to rotate and we'll see who has the hot hand on Saturday."
The rushing attack was largely uneven last week, corresponding to the play of the offensive line, from which none of the five starters were rotated out.
"Offensive line play was, there's still a lot of room for improvement," Tedford said. "They did some good things and they did some things that they definitely need to improve on. That's, from week to week, you always look for where you can improve and how can you get better. It's no different from any position. The offensive line fits right into that same thing."
Due to the unevenness up front, junior quarterback Zach Maynard spent a large portion of his snaps in the shotgun, upon occasion having with three receivers and a tight end split wide.
"It really doesn't matter to me," Maynard said. "I'm comfortable in every situation, and I play both a lot. The shotgun just buys a little bit more time for me, and that's about it."
Maynard's skill set is versatile and lends itself to some more diverse -- and creative -- looks and possibilities.
"You saw it the other day. He has pretty decent speed, so yeah, if people don't account for the quarterback, then he pulls it down and he can make things happen," Tedford said. "You saw him scramble around and buy time and things like that, which forces people to cover longer in the secondary and so on and so forth. His mobility gives him that option, to make people miss and make plays with his legs."
Last week, Hawaii quarterback Bryant Moniz ran for a career-best 121 yards and three touchdowns against the Buffaloes running largely out of the shotgun, while going 20-for-33 for 178 yards against through the air.
Last season, Moniz's big weapon was his arm. He averaged 360 yards through the air in 2010, and only totaled 47 yards on the ground to his 4,249 passing yards. Suffice it to say, Moniz taking off to run was a bit of a surprise.
First-year Colorado head coach Jon Embree said that the Warriors showed several new looks that they hadn't shown in any of last year's tape.
"We were a little bit [surprised]," Embree said of Moniz's sudden running game. "He didn't run that much last year, and they had some things, some new plays in their first game, like everybody has some wrinkles, and I think the thing that probably surprised our guys the most, and even me a little bit, was that he's stronger than what you think, and faster. So, our guys, sometimes took poor angles or thought they had him tackled and maybe over-pursued a bit and he's strong enough to run through maybe some arm tackles. We didn't get him solid. He's obviously a good player. He won that game. He beat us."
Maynard's ability to run won't be that much of a surprise to Embree and the Buffaloes' defense, but the new wrinkles in Cal's offensive scheme may prove to be just as jarring to Colorado as the way Hawaii used Moniz, given Tedford's historical tendency to favor a power running game which opens up passing lanes and the play-action.
"We're two totally different types of quarterbacks," shrugged Maynard. "He's a much bigger guy than I am, so I'm sure he can break a couple more tackles than me, but he's a great runner. He was a weapon against these guys, and he's going to do it for the whole season. I'm just going to take what they give me, and they can pick their poison."
The occasional pistol formation and its zone read mechanics could very well cause as many problems as the plays in that vein that allowed the Warriors to deal the Buffs a season-opening loss.
"Yeah, the zone read, I think they'd only run that once and they did that a couple times," Embree said of Hawaii's game plan. "They had a shovel pass and a couple of them were broken plays. He had a shovel pass and we took it away and he just kept it and ran around and the next thing you know, he's gone for 40 yards and I believe the read option was a little something new, but they ran that a couple times and got some yards. A couple of them were things that maybe they ran a couple times all of last year or didn't run at all. To his credit, he took full advantage of it."
Though Hawaii sprinted out to a 17-0 halftime lead last week, Colorado did make things interesting, pulling to within a touchdown before the Warriors nailed down the 34-17 win.
"Any time you to into a hostile environment like that, especially with what I've addressed with the team -- which is the DBs and the defensive guys -- is that Colorado always plays well against teams that come in that are good," said Cal defensive backs coach Ashley Ambrose, who, like wide receivers coach Eric Kiesau, spent last year in Boulder. "Three years I was there, we beat Oklahoma one year, one year we beat Georgia, one year, we beat West Virginia. Usually, typically, when good teams come in there, it's always a battle. They get fired up for games like this. I know it's going to be a war."
Colorado's biggest weapons against Ambrose's secondary unit is wide receiver Paul Richardson. In just 13 career games, the true sophomore has eight touchdown catches, including three games with two scores, tied for the third-most multi-TD games in Buffaloes history.
Last year in Berkeley, Richardson didn't catch a single pass. Toney Clemons, however, caught three balls for 36 yards. The Bears managed to hold NFL Draft pick Scott McKnight to just two catches for 14 yards. Last week, Clemons was benched in the first half after being flagged for an illegal procedure penalty, and didn't register a single catch.
"They're a completely different offensive system," said Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "They're more of a West Coast-based system there, so it's a completely different look. Of course, they had some guys that graduated from that group, and then there are some returners, so they're asking them to do different things offensively than they did last year."
One of those returners is senior tailback Rodney Stewart. The 5-foot-6, 175-pounder out of Westerville (Ohio) Brookhaven is the second 1,000-yard rusher the Bears will face this year, having gained 1,318 yards on 290 carries in 2010, scoring 10 touchdowns on the ground. Stewart was also a threat in the passing game, catching 29 balls for 290 yards.
"From what I've seen, of course, they want to be a team who wants to run first," Ambrose said. "They want to be one of those teams that establishes the run. That's what we see from it. I know at the end of the game, with the coordinator, that's what they want to do first. They want to be able to beat the clock up and run the ball and hit you with some play-action. We're going to have our hands full."
Last week against Hawaii, Stewart caught four balls for 98 yards, and rushed 18 times for just 52 yards behind an offensive line that allowed 10 tackles for loss and seven sacks. Former Cal offensive line coach Steve Marshall left Berkeley after last season to return to Boulder after a successful stint that included a Big 12 title in 2001, but he seems to have his work cut out for him.
"You know, I don't, it's hard to put my finger on it if you watch the tape. Part of it was communication, part of it was, as a team, we can't, they kind of came out and felt their way around instead of just coming out and playing," Embree said. "I felt, in the second half, once we got it going, our first drive, we go down and score, our next time we go down and score. I think we went three straight possessions, or three out of four, where we went on the field and scored, and were moving the ball well. We've got to start coming out and playing like that from the beginning. I felt like on the offensive side, we were feeling our way around and trying to see what they were doing, instead of just going out and playing, and not worrying about things. That was the disappointing thing about their performance against Hawaii."
Unlike last week's starting QB Derek Carr, the Buffaloes' signal-caller Tyler Hansen is a veteran. The 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior completed 112 of 164 passes last season for 1,102 yards, and has thrown nearly 500 passes in his four-year career.
"Carr had some experience; he played two years ago and then redshirted, and then, of course, Hansen has had a lot of experience," Pendergast said. "We go into the game trying to defend the things that they do and really run our stuff, and get better at what we're trying to do. Both those quarterbacks gave you the element of having the possibility to scramble, so there will be a lot of those same things that we worked on last week, and this week, because Carr was a very good runner, as well. He just didn't do it as much, last week."
Against the Warriors, Hansen spent most of his time on his back, behind a line that consists of two sophomores in tackles David Bakhtiari and Jack Harris, a freshman center in Daniel Munyer and two senior guards in Ethan Adkins and Ryan Miller.
"We've just got to make sure that we contain them," Ambrose said. "Offensively, they've got their running back, they've got Rodney Stewart, a good receiver in Paul Richardson and Toney Clemons, and those guys are very good football players. They've got an offensive lineman Ryan Miller who's a pro prospect and a very good football player. I think Tyler's gotten experience because he's been playing for four years in a row, Tyler Hansen. They're playing guys with experience, and guys that can make things happen and I've seen it done. That's one thing that I'm going to reiterate to these guys is that I've seen these guys make plays and make things happen. We've got to go in there with the right mindset."
Plaguing Miller and that offensive line will be a Cal defensive front that will be able to counter any altitude effects with tremendous depth. There was limited rotation up front against Fresno State, and Pendergast expects that to continue this week, as stud true freshman defensive tackle Viliami Moala will be just one of the young defensive linemen to see their playing time increase.
"I think we'll see how it goes, but that was the first game, so I'm big on continuity in our unit," Pendergast said. "It's important for me that, when you're in a fourth-quarter ballgame, that those guys have been out there together, start the second half, because there are going to be some games where they're going to need to, later on in the year. Early on in the season, those guys are going to continue to play until we decide to make some changes.
"We've got some depth there, particularly on the defensive line, and those guys, obviously, since they're taking contact on every play, they can get taxed more and we've got some guys that can go in there and spell them and help," Pendergast said. "We have Aaron Tipoti, Moala, all those guys, Mustafa Jalil."
As if Embree and his staff's home debut weren't enough motivation to kick the offense into gear, there's also last season's 52-7 route at the hands of these same Bears that's lingering in the team psyche.
"That was one of the first things I heard about when I got hired here, was about the Cal game from our fans and from our players, so yes, they were good working in the weight room coming off the loss and running in practice was pretty good, so they seem to be focused," Embree said.
In that game, then-true freshman Keenan Allen caught a game-high five passes for 57 yards and one touchdown, and returned one kickoff for 17 yards. In the first game of this season, Allen and senior Marvin Jones became the first Cal wide out tandem in five years to notch 100-yard games. Though Jones hauled in both touchdowns, Allen didn't have any hard feelings towards Big Bro.
"The last time he threw me a touchdown pass was the second round of the playoffs, 10th grade year," Allen smiled. "It's been a few years. I didn't rag on him, though. It was pretty cool that Marv got his two."
During this week's Pac-12 conference call, Embree was also complimentary of Tedford's offensive acumen, particularly his willingness to alter his scheme to accommodate a more dynamic quarterback.
"Jeff has always been I think, one of the brighter minds or sharper guys offensively in this conference, and when you look back at what he did with Joey Harrington and you look at Aaron Rodgers, as he's gone through it, he's done a great job of fitting things and fitting the schemes to the strengths of his quarterback," Embree said. "He's still a quarterback guy, but this is probably the first time he's had a quarterback that's been really good with his feet or at that level, running the ball, also. Just watching their first game, I thought the young quarterback did a great job. I can't imagine not playing as long as he has and his second pass was a pick that gives the other team six points just like that. For him to bounce back like he did, he was accurate under pressure, he gives his receivers a chance at the ball and he does a good job with his feet. I think Jeff does a very good job of getting his quarterback in situations where he can have success."
The biggest reasons playing into that potential for success are undoubtedly Jones and Allen.
Having two 6-foot-3 options on the edge, plus physical possession receivers like senior Coleman Edmond and true freshman walk-on Bryce McGovern would make any quarterback feel confident, but Maynard's bread-and-butter may be the sole fact that his go-to option in tight spots is to look for No. 21. There could be worse things, of course, than having a Miss Cleo psychic connection with one of the most dynamic playmakers on the field.
"You see it in the game and you see it in practice. They really have this unspoken chemistry," said Kiesau. "Sometimes, Keenan might have two guys on him, well, Zach will put the ball in a certain spot and it's almost like he knows [Keenan] is going to make that play. It's kind of like the deep post in the Fresno game. We were backed up and the ball probably should have gone to Marvin, he saw a little seam, took it and then 21 [Allen] made the play for him. I think they have that unspoken chemistry together, and it's kind of a unique deal. They've been playing park football since they were this big [waist-high], and now they're all grown up and doing it again."
The kind of joy that the two brothers take in just playing the game has spread throughout the receiving corps, giving them a bit of something Cal fans haven't seen in quite some time: swagger.
"Definitely, and you need that," Kiesau said. "You really need that, because this game is so mental, and if you have that mental edge, you feel good about yourself, you'll be able to execute on the field."
Not only do the Cal wide outs have an air of confidence, they now have the kind of physicality to back it up. Twice last Saturday, Jones spun away from the clutches of a defender for big gains, showing much more toughness than he had in the past. Both Jones and Edmond have made huge strides under new strength and conditioning coach Mike Blasquez.
"Coleman had a great offseason. I think all these guys, the mentality that coach Blasquez has taken in the weightroom, you can see it in the way they walk around. It's a big difference," Kiesau said. "Yes, it's physical and it looks good, but they also mentally feel good in the way they walk, the way they carry themselves, a lot of the self-taught principles we've talked about, it all encompasses the mental part of it, which coach Tedford does, and the physical part, which coach Blasquez does, and then you walk around, and they're very positive young men."
After Saturday's win over Fresno State, Jones and Allen took to the pressroom podium dressed to the nines. Allen, in an aquamarine shirt and tiger-striped glasses, stood next to Jones, decked out in designer jeans and a spiffy collared shirt.
"We try, we try," Jones smiled, when asked if the pair always looks so fly after a game, as Allen giggled in the background.
That fun-loving energy isn't just limited to the Bears' wide outs. It comes directly from Kiesau.
"You've got a coach like that with a lot of energy, you definitely want to go out and make a big play for him to get him excited," Edmond said.
The former offensive coordinator for the Buffaloes, Kiesau returned to Berkeley this past offseason and brought with him boundless energy and spark, and not a small amount of creativity to the play-calling booth, where he sits as Tedford's eye in the sky during games, adding a bit of creativity to the proceedings.
"Absolutely. I'm really trying to impress that on the receivers as a group: enthusiasm is contagious. When guys see other guys get excited, other guys get excited, we're making plays and it'll carry throughout the whole team," Kiesau said. "Once you build on that emotion, that's what can help you make big plays and keep the mojo going. The game is all about chemistry, and we're excited, we have that little spark and the whole crowd's going and all of the sudden, you're juiced and then you get one touchdown, two touchdowns and you're rolling. It all helps.
"If I've got to do cartwheels down the sideline, I'll do it. Whatever we've got to do to get them going. We've just got to create a little juice, especially with these morning practices. You've got to get some juice going early, so have a Red Bull and get them fired up."
During the final week of fall camp, to illustrate a particular point in a drill, Kiesau -- a former quarterback at Portland State -- ran a route and made a leaping, one-handed grab.
"He played quarterback, so I don't know where that came from," laughed Edmond. "He's a baller."
Kiesau's magnetic personality has given this wide receiving corps a distinct personality. It's not an unusual sight to see Allen dancing in line while waiting his turn during a drill or stretching, or Jones, Allen and true freshman Maurice Harris -- Allen and Maynard's cousin -- throwing the ball all over the field before practice with quite a bit of zip.
When the Cal offense does get rolling, it seems the only thing that can stop the Bears will be themselves.
"When we start picking up on everything, get the mental mistakes out of the way, I feel that we can put up a lot of points," Allen said. "I feel that Zach has a whole lot more knowledge of the game, his reads, his coverages and picking up on blitzes than he did at Buffalo."
Dropped balls, false starts, penalties along the offensive line -- all of those were of great concern following the win over the Bulldogs. Maynard himself rated his performance as a 4.5/10.
"We came out, started off pretty badly and he had jitters because he hadn't played in a year and a half," Allen said. "Then, he got calm. He ran the offense like he was supposed to. He's a cool guy, calm all the time, and if he makes a mistake, he goes to the sideline and says, 'Gotta get it fixed,' and he is never one to panic."
Going up to Folsom Field, at an elevation of 5,360 feet could prove a bit troublesome for the family act, though. Maynard's confidence in both Jones and his brother means that he takes a few more chances when throwing into coverage, which could mean several interceptions.
"It's really, I mean, it's there. It exists, but I think the biggest thing is that you have to be mentally strong and mentally focused and mentally prepared for it," Kiesau said of the altitude. "Coach T's been talking about it, but we're not going to make it a big deal. We're going to go out there and play. The thing is, you have a quick drive, a quick drive and then you get to go rest. You just can't let it get in your mind. I think it's going to affect you, because as you know, once your mind goes, it's going to affect your body.
"We're just trying to get them mentally prepared for when you walk in, so it's not a total shock. There's nothing we can do. We can't go train in it, we can't go up there two weeks early. You've just got to go do it, so really you've just got to get their minds ready for what they're going to expect, and don't panic. We'll have oxygen on the sidelines, we'll be fine, we just can't make it a big deal, and it's really not a big deal, because if it was a cross-country race or something long-term, it'd be very, very different, but in the way football goes, you get short spurts and you substitute guys in, you can help yourself in the game of football."
Cal fans astute enough to remember the last time the Bears played at altitude -- on Sept. 8, 2007 against Colorado State at Sonny Lubick Field at Hughes Stadum (5,190 feet above sea level)-- will recall that quarterback Nate Longshore had several crucial overthrows, completing 19 of 29 attempts for just 146 yards and no touchdowns in a closer-than-it-should-have-been 34-28 win.
While fitness may have been taken care of thanks to Blasquez, there is still the matter of the ball traveling a bit more, which could play right into the Colorado secondary's hands.
"We're not putting too much stock into that, per se," Kiesau said. "We're just getting our timing down, make sure we're throwing the ball on time, and making sure we have the correct timing. I don't think that would be much of a factor in the passing game. Maybe kicking the ball, it might help, just with the ball being up so high."
While there is not much film to go on thanks to the regime change in Boulder, that secondary, though, is at least athletically -- if not schematically -- familiar to both Ambrose and Kiesau.
"I think the only advantage that it gives us is that I know them on an athletic level, just what they do, personally," Kiesau said. "When you fit it into the whole scheme of what they're doing they're going to have a different scheme, different X's and O's, and they'll have what they want to do, scheme-wise, which is obviously very different from when I was there. Really, it's more on an individual basis."
As far as personnel goes, Kiesau said that the Buffaloes have at least started to make up for the loss of corner Jimmy Smith -- taken 27th overall in this past NFL Draft by the Baltimore Ravens - and Jalil Brown -- taken in the fourth round (118th overall) by the Kansas City Chiefs.
"Schematically, they're doing some things differently. They're flying around, they play hard, they play tough, they're a sound football team," Kiesau said. "I think they had some unlucky breaks in the last game, didn't bounce their way and being on the road, but, like I said, they're a different team at home ? They have some guys that are capable, and I think, what they're doing structure-wise is going to help them. They're doing OK."
Having coached on defense for the Buffs last season, Ambrose, too, is familiar with Colorado's personnel.
"They've got guys, and I don't want these guys to think they don't," Ambrose said. "Colorado is going to be a very good team at some point. Those coaches do a great job with them."
Maynard isn't likely to feel much pressure from the Colorado defensive line, bookended by two light defensive ends in 6-foot-1, 215-pound senior Josh Hartigan and 6-foot-3, 240-pound sophomore Chidera Uzo-Diribe.
The Buffaloes' linebackers, too, are a bit undersized for their 4-3 defensive scheme. After switching Evan Harrington and Tyler Ahles to fullback, Colorado is left with 6-foot-1, 210-pound senior Patrick Mahnke, 2-foor-2, 230-ound junior Jon Major and 6-foot-3, 230-pound junior Doug Rippy.
"What we have to do early is hit them in the mouth and we've got to jump on top of them and get the fans out of the game," Ambrose said. "That's what we've got to do: we have to get those guys out of it and really make them want to leave by halftime. That's what you have to do when you go on the road. It's tough to do."