Friday, November 23, 2007

Contra Costa Times: After the bye, Bears went bye-bye

Coming off open week at 5-0, Cal then saw its season quickly go south

By Jonathan Okanes

BERKELEY — Little did Cal know when it had its bye week in early October that it also was saying bye to its hopes for the 2007 season.   The Bears haven't been the same team since it took the week of Oct.6 off. Cal went into the week coming off a landmark win at Oregon, which improved its record to 5-0 and moved it up to No.3 in the national rankings. By the time the Bears took the field again on Oct.13 against Oregon State, they had risen to No.2.  For whatever reason, Cal hasn't been able to capture whatever formula it had been using during the first half of the season. The Bears have gone just 1-5 since the week off and are in danger of missing a bowl game. But it's the way the season has turned south that has been so striking.  During the first five weeks, the Bears were a crisp machine, overpowering opponents with a dynamic offense while playing mistake-free football. Cal somehow lost that sharpness during the bye week because since then it has been plagued by turnovers, untimely penalties and other assorted mistakes that seem to demonstrate a lack of focus.  "The bye week was a momentum killer," Cal wide receiver Robert Jordan said. "In those early weeks of the season, we were exploding on people. We were trying to blow people out of the water. We have to get back to doing that. We just have to get our confidence back, and I'm pretty sure we'll be all right."  The most glaring difference in the Bears is their tendency to give the ball to the other  team. Through the first five games, Cal turned the ball over only four times, and its turnover margin of 2.20 was tied for third in the country. In the six games since the bye, the Bears have given it away a staggering 18 times and have forced only seven turnovers themselves.

"It's not that we've focused on anything different in practice or anything like that," Cal coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's just kind of the way it's gone. We have to be more protective of the football."  It's not just the turnovers. While the Bears are committing penalties at about the same rate as before the bye, they seem to be coming at more crucial times, and more have been of the undisciplined variety. Cal hasn't been the quick-strike offense it was during the first half of the season, and both sides of the ball haven't been able to maintain a high level of play throughout the entire 60 minutes of a game.  "At that time of year, we really needed (a bye week)," Tedford said. "We were pretty banged-up at the time. It's a culmination of things, of how to handle expectations, how to handle adversity, things like that. It's something that we're probably not used to."  When asked whether the bye week could have had an adverse affect on the Bears, Cal left tackle Mike Gibson said, "That's the way I've been looking at it, too." He said he felt the Bears did the same thing last season after a bye. They beat UCLA in their first game back but had a letdown in a loss at Arizona and fell to USC the following week.  "It's just little mistakes that keep adding up," Gibson said. "The little things keep on getting bigger and bigger. I definitely feel that we're lacking somewhere, and it's the lack of drive to win, like we had in the first five games."  So what happened during the bye week? Was it simply that the time off ruined the Bears' momentum? Did expectations get too high after they moved up to No.2 without even playing? Nobody seems to have an answer, but one thing is for sure: Cal has just one more regular season game — next Saturday's Big Game at Stanford — to solve the problem.  "That's the thing we as a team, each and every player, each and every coach, is trying to figure out," Cal middle linebacker Worrell Williams said. "I can't quite put my finger on it. It's frustrating."

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