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October 6, 2011
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BERKELEY -- Last season: it's been the focus of much of the discussion heading into this Thursday's clash between California (3-1) and No. 9 Oregon (3-1). Before stumbling to a 5-7 finish, the Bears held the Ducks to 15 points on 316 total yards in Berkeley, but still failed to upset the top team in the land.
But, this is not last season. Nor is this 2007, when then-No. 6 Cal - before its epic collapse in the latter half of the season - upended a No. 11 Oregon thanks to a dramatic fumble in the end zone caused by Marcus Ezeff.
"This is about this year," said head coach Jeff Tedford. "You take those experiences and know what it's like to play there and what a challenge it is to play there in that environment, but you take away that you can absolutely go in there and be successful, but this is a new year and this is this year's team and that's what this is all about. We can't really look at what happened that year, or last year, here, for that matter. This is a whole new year."
When it comes to defense, he's right. Where 2010 was marked by stout -- if inconsistent -- defensive performance for Cal, 2011 has been quite a bit more vexing. After finishing last season as the No. 1 overall unit in the Pac-10, the Bears are now seventh in pass defense (236.0 yards per game) and fourth in scoring defense, tied with Washington State in allowing 24.2 points per game.
While Cal is second in the Pac-12 in total defense (314.2 ypg) and second in rushing defense (78.2 ypg), those numbers are skewed by a week three thumping of FCS opponent Presbyterian, when the Bears held the Blue Hose to 28 yards passing and 20 yards rushing.
Oregon, meanwhile, is averaging 52.0 points per game, pounding Nevada 69-20, ripping Missouri State 56-7 and torching Arizona 56-31, with the Ducks' only blemish coming in week one against LSU -- a 40-27 loss. Oregon is No. 1 in the conference and sixth in the nation in total offense, gaining 533.75 yards per game. Cal is 27th in the country in total defense, behind the Bayoux Bengals (ninth). LSU is holding opponents to 262.2 yards per game, but still allowed 335 yards to the Ducks.
"Every game is a statement game for us," said senior Bears safety Sean Cattouse. "They are one of the top 10 teams, so it's going to be a statement game, but I think more so, it's a game to kind of pick our whole defense back up and get us going, get us back on track to where we want to be, and other than that, it's just the next game."
But it's not just another game. It's a chance at redemption for a defense which has given up some big performances against some of the more middling teams in the Pac-12. Colorado quarterback Tyler Hansen blew up for 474 passing yards, with 287 of those coming to receiver Paul Richardson.
Tedford was non-committal as to whether the issues in the secondary have been addressed in practice this week.
"We'll see," Tedford said. "You hope to correct any of the things, and sometimes, it's not one thing, whether it's a lack of pass rush or losing contain or a coverage or whatever it may be, it's the defense as a whole, and you'd like to be able to think that you improve from week to week off the mistakes you made before."
One way of bolstering the defense will be the increased playing time of true freshman cornerback Stefan McClure.
"I think to have him play this week will keep our depth and keep fresh and things like that, it's a big part of it," Tedford said. "Now with the cast off his hand finally, he'll see some more action this week."
Like the Buffaloes, though, Oregon uses a short passing game to supplement the run. Ducks quarterback Darron Thomas is 17th in the nation and fourth in the conference with a 161.4 passing efficiency rating, while Cal is seventh in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency defense (133.1).
"I think the biggest thing with them is the tempo, No. 1," said Bears defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "They spread the field. They use all areas of the field in the running game and the passing game, and they've got a lot of speed on their offense."
In last year's contest in Berkeley, Thomas found Jeff Maehl five times for 84 yards, and while Maehl is gone -- picked up as an undrafted free agent by the Houston Texans -- Thomas has found other targets. 12 different Ducks have caught at least two passes on the season, with three players -- De'Anthony Thomas, Lavasier Tuinei and LaMichael James -- catching at least 11 balls.
"We're trying to get our speed guys on the field and that's an important element every week," Pendergast said. "Particularly now that we're in conference play, we'll be continuing to see a lot of speed every week."
While Oregon has not a single receiver in the conference's top 10 in receptions or yards per game, James is first in scoring, having nine TDs to his name -- the most in the Pac-12. James also has 159 receiving yards to his credit, and ranks first in the Pac-12 in all-purpose yards per game with 226.8.
"No team is going to get to much out of what they did well, so they're definitely going to have something to try, and when we see it, we'll fix it quickly," Cattouse said. "No team is going to have a whole new offense. They're going to stick to what they do best. I think they have a great team, they're going to get a couple, we're going to get a couple, but we're going to fight to the end."
Last year, the Bears were able to get Thomas out of his comfort zone, forcing him to pass 29 times. This season, Thomas is averaging 27 passing attempts per game, and last season, he averaged 27.8 attempts per game. If Cal can stop the run, as it did in 2010 -- holding James to 91 yards on 29 carries -- it will go a long way toward changing the way the Ducks do business, though that may be easier said than done.
"They really could hurt you with the play-action pass, obviously, because their run game is so strong that when you try to get up and stop the run, then the play-action pass comes from there and they can spring guys free," Tedford said. "He's an accurate passer, and he gets on the edge and he's a guy that can -- a lot like the guy last week [Keith Price] -- can extend plays with his legs. He does a good job of keeping his eyes down the field. He can hurt us in a lot of ways."
This season, Thomas has looked far more comfortable throwing the ball than he did in his first year as the starter, as evidenced by his six TD passes against the Wolfpack.
"It looks like a very similar passing game," Pendergast said. "He does a very good job locating receivers down field, and I think he's an accurate quarterback that sees the field well."
Gone are first-round NFL Draft pick Cameron Jordan along the defensive line, linebacker Mike Mohamed and safety Chris Conte.
"Who said we don't have players of that caliber?" Tedford smirked. "That's yet to be determined. No, I know what you mean: you lose Cameron and you lose Conte and Mike Mohamed - three really good players, no doubt about it - but you also have Trevor Guyton, who's a very good player, both safeties are good players and the linebacking corps with Mychal Kendricks and Holt in there, are good players, too. To be able to repeat what happened last year is a huge challenge, because the defense did play very well, but it's not just going to happen by saying that it happened last year, so it's going to happen this year. It's all about execution. It's all about tackling. I think they're even better than they were last year, because I think the backs are stronger. They break more tackles."
To halt James -- who ranks first in the conference with 153.2 yards per game on the ground, buoyed by a 288-yard performance against the Wildcats -- and to contain Thomas, the Bears will have to rely on some fresh faces, including freshmen outside linebackers David Wilkerson -- limited so far due to a balky ankle -- Chris McCain and Cecil Whiteside. Pendergast said on Wednesday that Wilkerson is close to 100 percent, and will see more snaps than he has so far.
"When you play a game like this, with their tempo and the number of snaps that they average per game, a lot of players are going to play," Pendergast said. "We're really going into this thing with two platoons and we really plan on playing a lot of guys, and we've repped a lot of guys so we can try to stay fresh. We're not for-sure [on the starting outside linebackers], but we'll evaluate the tape."
The man behind James in the conference standings is Washington's Chris Polk, who averages 122.2 rushing yards per game, and was held to 60 yards in the Huskies' 31-23 win over Cal in Seattle.
"I think they just have to lean more on the older guys, because we've been there and done that," said Bears senior inside linebacker D.J. Holt. "We've got to bring those guys along and I've been on Cecil and all the young guys, and even Wilkerson, who all didn't play last year, to kind of lead those guys. This is not going to be an easy game. You've got to stay focused this game, because it's going to be tough out there. It's going to be tough. I played in it last year, and it's a fight to the end. Although we came up short, we set a statement last year during that game, and like Sean said, it's a statement every game, this year, because we've got to prove ourselves."
While Cal's outside linebacking corps is anchored by youth, seniors Holt and Kendricks have been big playmakers in the middle. Kendricks is tied for seventh in the Pac-12 in tackles (35) and Holt is 14th with 29. Kendricks is tied for 10th in the conference with four tackles for loss, while Guyton is tied for 19th with 3.5. No team has rushed for more than 86 yards against the Bears this season, and that came in the season-opener against Fresno State.
"I know, as the front seven, we have to take pride in not letting anybody rushing for over 100 yards on us," said Holt. "That's been our motto, the front seven, being physical up front and we're going to let those guys handle the line in front of us, and we're going to do our job. He has a lot of yards and he's rushed for a lot, but at the end of the day, he's just a college football player like us, and he can be stopped any day. We've just got to execute."
Beyond James, the Ducks also have junior Kenjon Barner back from a leg injury. Against Arizona, he rushed 13 times for 72 yards and two scores.
"Both their backs are excellent backs, as everyone knows," Tedford said. "LaMichael seems like he's breaking more tackles. I think everybody understands when he hits a crease, he's very dangerous, but from what I've seen so far, he's able to break tackles. The other thing about him is that he starts so fast that he can be stopped and then get going again really quick. There's no doubt: our hands are full."
Barner has rushed for 79 total yards on 17 carries in two games this season, has caught three balls for 15 yards, returned three punts and taken back four kickoffs for 65 yards.
"We're not afraid to play anybody," said Oregon head coach Chip Kelly. "It's always good when you have playmakers to use. It's our job to make sure we exploit them, and I think if you look at the game against Arizona, we were running the ball pretty good, and that opens up other aspects of our game because it was working for us. If things are working for you, it opens stuff up for you and you have some other options."
Oregon's offense is designed to do one thing: make the opponent make mistakes. The longer a defense is on the field, the more tired players will get.
"I think, for the most part, it's everybody lining up and doing their assignment," Holt said of the keys to succeeding against Oregon. "If that's staying in the gap, having a responsibility for the quarterback, or the running back or the receiver, everybody has to do their job. You see, time after time, we watch film with Arizona and all these other teams that have lost to Oregon pretty badly, they gash them pretty badly up the middle, because guys are trying to do too much. You've just got to do your assignment, as a group, and you'll come up. We watched LSU film, and they executed well, Auburn executed well, and they won. That's what it comes down to."
To help simulate that this week, the Bears have substituted fresh scout team players on offense while the same defensive personnel remain on the field. The coaching staff has also been pushing the pace of practice on the defensive side, something which helped Cal defenders prepare for last year's effort.
"For me, I felt like practice was harder than the game, but the coaches knew what they were doing, they believed in us, trusted in us and they had us ready for the game," Holt said. "We've got to execute, do our job and we'll be fine, regardless of what the outcome may be. There are ups and downs in the game, so we've got to -- it's all about us; that's what it comes down to."
Last season, Cal sacked Thomas three times for a loss of 16 yards, and held the Ducks to 8-for-21 (38.1 percent) on third down and 0-for-2 in the red zone. The Bears mixed man and zone coverage, and Pendergast still said that his unit is still both a man- and zone-oriented team.
"I think No. 1, we tackled in space, and that's going to be critical again on Thursday night," Pendergast said. "[Darron Thomas and James] both look really good to me, and they're spreading the ball around in the rung game and the pass game. They've added some guys that have been explosive, that they're getting the ball to in playmaking-type positions."
One of the dynamic young players that Oregon has added is true freshman tailback De'Anthony Thomas. He is the Ducks' second-leading rusher (173 yards on 23 carries, one touchdown), second-leading receiver (11 catches for 172 yards, two TDs), the No. 2 punt returner (three returns for 52 yards) and top kickoff returner (eight returns for 163 yards).
"You saw De'Anthony back there [returning] in the Arizona game, you saw LaMichael back there in the game, you saw some other guys," Kelly said. "It's just a matter of making sure that we've got fresh bodies out there, because we believe that special teams is a chance for you to really change and build your skills, from a skill position standpoint, and any time you can get returns like we're getting, you take it."
In all, Oregon has seen four players return punts and six return kickoffs.
"One of the things that's happened with both Kenjon and LaMichael returning against LSU is that some guys were unavailable to us, and then Kenjon got banged up a little bit, so now you're asking a couple guys," Kelly said. "It's just a matter, if you look at it, that Kenjon is a very dangerous guy to have back there. It's a lot like Cal had in the past, having DeSean Jackson deep. What are you going to do? Are you going to kick to them -- like Arizona did [with James] and he returns it for 61 yards -- or are you going to kick away from them? We've had Jonathan Stewart return kicks here, and he was a great one for us. We believe special teams are really just an extension of our offense, so it's just another opportunity to get the ball. I've been back there with the returners some weeks, and we come out of practice and I got, 'Wow, we're going to have a pretty good game tonight,' and I've been back there other weeks and I've been like, 'Wow, who's going to return this week?' It's really just on a weekly basis, and what we do during games is just to try to rotate some of those guys in."
Perhaps the best way to at least in part neutralize the Ducks' return game would be to wear down James, De'Anthony Thomas and Barner, dealing big hits and sticking tackles in the backfield.
"Really, it depends not so much on the hot hand as what happened a couple plays before that. If we had a 10-play drive and then it was three-and-out and they're punting, we may go with someone that wasn't in on the drive. It's the same thing if one of your returners is a defensive player and he just played 10 straight snaps, then, unfortunately, we've stopped them and they've got to punt, we're not going to have the guy who was out there for 10 straight snaps back deep. We're going to get fresh legs in there. Sometimes, based upon kids getting banged up, you don't have that luxury. You've got to stick with them. It really is a luxury to have those guys, but it really depends on who's the freshest."
Kelly has also utilized true freshman jumbo athlete and former US Army All-American Colt Lyerla in all facets of the game. The Hillsboro, Ore., native has played in all four games and caught three passes for 53 yards and three touchdowns, while also recording three tackles.
Like Cal's last opponent -- Washington -- Lyerla poses a big threat from the tight end slot, similar to Austin Seferian-Jenkins. The 6-foot-5, 238-pounder not only adds a receiving target, but an aggressive blocker at the line.
The Ducks lost four seniors along that offensive line last season, and have had to rely on junior guard Carson York and redshirt freshman center Hroniss Grasu.
"Hroniss had done a nice job stepping into a real difficult position playing for us," said Kelly. "Playing center is really difficult at the collegiate level; you have to make a lot of the calls up front, you also have to make sure you get the snaps good back to the quarterback and run the show up there. I think Hroniss has done a real nice job, considering that he is a redshirt freshman and that he has no game experience and his first game experience came against LSU. I've been really happy and pleased with his progression as the season has gone along."
The line has had the benefit of at least one veteran in senior tackle Mark Asper, who, thanks to a Mormon Mission following high school, is longer in the tooth than most seniors, allowing him to provide a steadying, mature influence.
"Mark Asper, I would say, is really the one guy that's emerged as the leader of that group," Kelly said. "He's got the second-most experience coming back, and he's really done a nice job in there."
Going up against that offensive line witll be a Bears defensive front that, while returning big contributors Aaron Tipoti, Guyton and Ernest Owusu, is without a big X-factor in the departed Jordan, now playing for the New Orleans Saints after being drafted in the first round.
While Owusu and DeAndre Coleman move quickly for their size, Pendergast said, neither are quite as fast as Jordan.
"Nobody I've seen here runs like Cam," Pendergast said. "I don't think there are any projected top-10 picks there. He's a special player."
What Pendergast does have is a lot of youth. True freshman defensive end Mustafa Jalil has played in all four games, recording five tackles and half a sack.
The heir apparent to the graduated Derrick Hill -- who recorded three tackles, two TFLs, one pass break-up, one sack, a forced fumble and a fumble recovery touchdown last year against Oregon -- is still waiting in the wings. True freshman Viliami Moala has recorded just one tackle this year, but has gotten into the backfield with quite a bit of regularity when he has seen time. The stout, 6-foot-2, 350-pounder may not look like he can move against a speed team like the Ducks, but he is plenty agile.
"I wouldn't say no. He's gotten reps, so he's putting on a helmet and he's going up there, so I anticipate him playing," Pendergast said. "For a man his size, he's pretty darn athletic. He's like a big dancing bear. He does not look 350. You watch him warm up and do the lunges and skip up and down and run, for his size, his stamina is impressive."
The youth movement doesn't end there. Now that true freshman defensive back McClure has moved to a smaller soft cast after mid-camp surgery on a separated ligament, both Tedford and Pendergast have said repeatedly that he will be a factor in the secondary.
"That was one of the issues I had about putting him out there, was the cast, because he couldn't really catch," Pendergast said. "He struggled in practice getting his hands on balls, and obviously, corners, you've got to be able to tackle and get your hands on balls. I thought it held him back and so, in my eyes, that was one of the reasons that we haven't played him as much." McClure will serve both a cornerback opposite the equally-speedy Steve Williams, and also as a nickel back, rotating with Josh Hill and redshirt freshman Michael Coley.
"I really like him. He's a very bright kid, and he's very talented," Pendergast said. "He's a developing player that we had our eyes set on getting him here to Cal. He's going to be a good player for this program, and I anticipate him only playing more as the season moves on, and he's ready now."
[How does Cal's offense stack up? Find out HERE]
With so much youth on defense, on a primetime stage on national television, Pendergast is not the least bit worried about the moment affecting McClure or any of the other youngsters.
"The game's not too big for him," Pendergast said. "I watched him play in high school. I went to one of his games. I watched a lot of tape on him, and I don't anticipate -- I'll see how it is Thursday -- but I don't anticipate that being a problem, and if it is, he's got to learn some time. We are playing a handful of freshmen. You talk about Mustafa Jalil, who has played and will play more, Whiteside and McCain, Wilkerson, McClure, those are guys that are helping us as freshmen, so you've got to get them out there and get their feet wet. We're going to play the best 11 guys that we feel are going to help Cal win."
Instead of seniors Hill, Mohamed, Jordan, Conte and Darian Hagan, Cal will be very, very young. Those cubs will have to stop an offense that has played on the biggest stage of all -- the BCS Championship Game -- with almost all of the key cogs returning. No, it's not last year. But that doesn't mean Cal won't try to repeat history, maybe this time, with at least one revision.
"I've been a part of beating Oregon before, and that was huge, looking up at a top-10 team, a top-5 team, after that week, and it was something you love to be a part of," Cattouse said. "It's a tough stadium, a tough crowd, it's a huge venue and a huge game, so that would be huge for me, personally.
"We definitely lost some key guys, some big guys, but I think the majority of the guys are back, so I think just the experience there is going to keep us a step ahead. It's kind of a been-there-done-that. We know their scheme. We're familiar with it, so I think it gives us a lot of confidence, confidence to be even better, that we'll do better this time."