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October 29, 2007The California Bears are in a freefall. A mere four weeks ago, they were at the top of the college football world - in the Top 10 and moving up with a bullet. Three weeks ago, they sat at #2 and needed only a Homecoming win over seemingly lowly Oregon State to move into the top spot after top-ranked LSU had lost to Kentucky in overtime. But the Beavers came down to Berkeley and shocked the Bears.
In that game, California was without the services of starting quarterback Nate Longshore, who was injured, forcing them to rely on freshman Kevin Riley and it was Riley's crucial last-second mistake that cost the Bears a chance at winning the game or sending it into overtime.
No matter, it was only one loss and the Bears were close enough to the Top 10 to rebound while also still being in the thick of the Pac-10 race with a road game against wobbly UCLA coming up. But the Bruins also ambushed the Bears - securing the victory with an interception return for a touchdown by Alterraun Verner and knocking the Bears not only out of national title contention but also out of Rose Bowl contention.
With two losses under their belts, California played league leader Arizona State last week and the Sun Devils put the final nail in the Bears' BCS coffin with a 31-20 win in Tempe. It was head coach Jeff Tedford's first-ever three-game losing streak as head coach in Berkeley and, now saddled with three losses and three teams sitting above them in the conference standings, the Bears have virtually no chance to go to a BCS bowl game. In fact, at 5-3 overall and with four games remaining, the Bears are still two wins away from securing a guaranteed bowl bid at all
On paper entering the season, the Bears seemed to be one of the conference's main title contenders, but injuries to Longshore, inconsistencies on offense and a porous defense have led to more defeats than expected for Tedford and the Bears.
The defensive problems were, if not expected, definitely suspected, at the beginning of the season. The offense, however, was expected to make up for any perceived defensive lapses as the returning trio of Longshore and receivers DeSean Jackson and Lavelle Hawkins was expected to put up some big numbers to be supplemented by running back Justin Forsett to give the Bears the enviable balanced offense that most Pac-10 teams covet. While Longshore has been hampered by the aforementioned injuries, both Jackson and Hawkins have underachieved so far this year. Both are sequestered in or near the Top 50 of most NCAA receiving statistical categories but nowhere near the numbers they were expected to put up with Longshore slinging the pigskin. Longshore, perhaps due to his injuries, has been inconsistent, and only has an 11-to-7 touchdown-to-interception ratio while tossing for 233 yards per game. Forsett is the only one who is hitting his mark - averaging 109 yards per game, making him the second-leading rusher in the Pac-10. But this inconsistent offensive production has meant the Bears have only been able to crack the 30-point barrier in the last three games - all losses.
The defense has had problems containing most Pac-10 offenses - especially the rushing offenses in the last three games. Oregon State, UCLA and Arizona State combined to average 186 yards per game rushing against the Bears' defense and the rushing game was crucial to the outcomes of all those losses.
The most glaring problem is the Bears' defensive line, who have not proven to get pressure on the quarterback nor tackles for loss. Demonstrating this is the fact that sophomore Tyson Alualu Cal's leading sackmeister with one sack after eight games. Linebacker play has been stronger as the trio of Anthony Felder, Worrell Williams and Zack Follett have played well. No member of the defensive secondary, however, can be said to have stood out in the first eight games of the season
Special teams is average for the Bears. Jahvid Best is a feared kickoff returner as is Jackson on punt returns while Andrew Larson is serviceable with a 42-yard-per-kick average but field goal kicking is not a strength with junior Jordan Kay hitting only seven of his 13 attempts so far this season.
Overall, the Bears clearly have the talent on the offensive side of the ball to produce more points than they have been in the last three games but on the defensive side of the ball, there are going to be continuing problems as long as there is no pressure being put on the opposing quarterback. Special teams could play a factor in this game, as both Best and Jackson have already proven they have the wheels to deal. If the Bear defense is not able to stop the Cougar rushing offense any better than they have in the last three games, it could make for a closer game in Berkeley than some might be expecting.
NCAA Top 25 for California
Net Punting - 39.28 net avg. yards per punt [5th]
WSU continues their football season against California at 7 p.m. on Saturday, November 3 in Berkeley.
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