Saturday, September 15, 2007

SF Chronicle: Bears' big-play offense meets a big-play defense

First-year Louisiana Tech head coach Derek Dooley already has playing the underdog role down to a tee.  "Take it easy on us out there," he said as he signed off from a Monday conference call with a swarm of Bay Area reporters. Few outside of Las Vegas - Cal is favored by 331/2 points - believe it will be that one-sided, however. When the No. 8 Bears host the Bulldogs at 3:30 p.m. today, the game will most likely be decided by a handful of big plays. Although it takes a deeper look at the statistics, the signs eventually point toward those type of plays happening during an entertaining matchup between Cal's weapon-loaded offense and a Louisiana Tech defense that has wrongly been considered a liability during its 1-1 start. The Bears average 431 yards of total offense and 39.5 points a game. Meanwhile, there isn't a player in Berkeley who believes the unit has scratched the surface of its play-making capabilities. "Playing with these athletes and this offensive line, which is killing without even tapping its full potential yet, is awesome," Cal quarterback Nate Longshore said. "I like my boys. I have the utmost confidence that we're about to break out."

The Bears just missed on three deep patterns in last week's 34-28 win over Colorado State. The longest pass play of the season came on a 2-yard screen pass that Justin Forsett turned into a 49-yarder in the season-opening 45-31 victory against Tennessee. Dynamo DeSean Jackson and leading receiver Lavelle Hawkins each have season-best 25-yard receptions, and tight end Cameron Morrah had a diving 23-yarder last week. The rest of the potentially explosive offensive players (receiver Robert Jordan, tailbacks James Montgomery and Jahvid Best and tight end Craig Stevens) have combined for a total of zero catches of more than 10 yards. "Maybe we haven't been running our routes as hard, or maybe the passes have been a little long?" Hawkins questioned. "Nate never really misses us, so that really is a surprise." Longshore is 38-of-57 for 387 yards, two touchdowns and no interceptions, but the big plays have mostly come from the running game and on special teams. Jackson, who also has a 77-yard punt return score, and Best each broke 64-plus-yard touchdowns on the ground last week. This week, however, the big plays may come in the passing game against a Louisiana Tech team that yields 412 passing yards a game on a nearly 65 percent completion rate. But don't get ahead of yourself. The defensive unit has also answered with its share of big plays. It has six interceptions and eight sacks - matching last year's season total - in two games.

The pass rush "was one of our No. 1 concerns coming into the season," Dooley said. "I've always felt like you have to affect the quarterback if you're going to play good defense."

The Bulldogs had 12 knockdowns, four sacks, four batted balls, 11 pressures and an interception in taking ranked (then 20th, now 24th) Hawaii into overtime before losing 45-44 last week. Intercepting Central Arkansas quarterbacks five times in the season-opener led Louisiana Tech to a 28-7 win, the fewest points allowed by the unit since a 41-6 victory over SMU in 2003. In the Bears' three losses last season, Longshore threw two touchdowns to six interceptions. In the 10 wins, he had 22 touchdowns to seven picks. "The quarterback and quarterback play is as important to winning and losing as just about anything," Dooley said. "Defensively, the worst thing that ever happens to you is allowing the quarterback to get in a rhythm and go unaffected. Certainly, with Cal, that's important."

Cal today

Who: Louisiana Tech (1-1) vs. Cal (2-0)

Where: Memorial Stadium When: 3:30 p.m.

TV/Radio: Comcast SportsNet/810

Story line: Receiver DeSean Jackson has an added incentive to perform this week as he faces Tech coach Derek Dooley, who recruited Jackson at LSU. "It just gives me a little something extra to get me going," Jackson said. Of course, Jackson gives an opposing cornerback an extra incentive each week, because stopping the Heisman candidate is an easy way to grab publicity. Tony Moss, who had three interceptions in Week 1, will attempt to do that for Louisiana Tech in a matchup that could decide the size of Cal's win.

Where's Comcast SportsNet? Bay Area digital cable subscribers will find Comcast SportsNet at Channel 400. It's shown on Channel 656 on DirecTV and Channel 409 on Dish Network.


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