Obviously, something has gone very, very wrong at Cal. How can a team that was good enough to beat Tennessee and Oregon turn around and lose four of five games, drop out of the BCS and Pac-10 title races and scramble to make the Sun Bowl? How can an offense coached by Jeff Tedford and featuring all that talent average just 19.5 points per game (Cal’s number for the past four games)? Having watched the Bears win all those games and put up all those points early in the season, I consider this slide both stunning and perplexing. What’s the explanation? Let’s start with what it’s not:
* It’s not the defense, because we knew the defense wouldn’t be all that good in the first place because it wasn’t very good when the Bears were winning. Maybe it has slipped a bit as of late — not as much pass rush, not as good on third down — but that slippage doesn’t come close to explaining Cal’s collapse.
* It’s not Justin Forsett, because he has been what we thought he’d be: a very good tailback who cannot create yards for himself (like Marshawn Lynch could) by running over people. He needs space: When he gets it, he’s very good. When he doesn’t, he’s decent. But he can very definitely be contained. (Forsett ran wild against USC, except when USC wanted to stop him.) That was true early in the season and is true now.
* It’s not receiver Lavelle Hawkins: He’s climbing the NFL Draft lists and making a case that he might be a better pro receiver than DeSean Jackson. That pretty much leaves the coaches, the line, quarterback Nate Longshore and Jackson. I have written about Tedford several times, that he made the wrong decisions in the games that started and fueled the collapse: bypassing the field goal against Oregon State and being too conservative against UCLA. That brings us to quarterback Nate Longshore. It looks to me like he lacks rhythm and confidence, and has since returning from that ankle injury. When big throws need to be made in the third and fourth quarters, he throws interceptions. I can’t help but wonder if his ankle injury is worse than Longshore and/or Cal is letting on — maybe it’s a break and not a sprain? — and I say this because of how Longshore looks in the fourth quarter. He’s clearly hobbling more late in the game than early, and it appears to affect his passes. Should a sprained ankle suffered in late September still be causing so much trouble? Maybe so; I don’t know. I asked Tedford about the impact of the injury. Specifically: Does it bother Longshore more late than early, because it sure looks like it? Turns out, Tedford wondered the same thing, too. “That really doesn’t have anything to do with it. I ask him how he’s doing … and that’s not a consideration — that he’s hindered by that later on in the game,” Tedford said. “But I did ask him that to find out if that’s the case, and he says no.”
* I also wonder if something’s up with Jackson, because he’s not making the big plays that a big-play receiver is supposed to make. He seems to spend more time complaining about the lack of PI calls than he does catching passes.
Against USC, he caught five balls for 64 yards (41 came on one pass). Against Washington State, he caught five balls for 45 yards. Against Arizona State, five for 88, including one for 44 and another for 21 (touchdown). Against UCLA, he caught nine for 139 yards (and two touchdowns). Against Oregon State, he caught four for five yards. By my way of thinking, Jackson has had just one big game in the last five games and only five big catches in the last five games — those aren’t the numbers Cal needs from him. Are defenses paying extra close attention to Jackson? For the most part, but not always. Are Longshore’s problems hindering Jackson’s production? To a certain extent, but they haven’t hurt Hawkins.
Tedford was asked about Jackson on the Pac-10 teleconference, first by myself and then by another reporter. “He’s been fine. When the ball has come to him, he’s made plays. USC is a tough group to throw the ball on, but he made couple of key first downs,” Tedford said. “When time comes when his number’s called, he’s done nice job coming up with the ball.”
Then, later, this:
“Him and Hawkins both have the same amount of receptions. He hasn’t had the big yardage that he’s had, but a lot of that has to do with Hawkins coming of age and taking some of the pressure off that. “The one glaring spot DeSean hasn’t had the numbers is in punt returns. … He hasn’t gotten his hands on the ball much. I think that’s more glaring than offensively.” My sense is that Jackson’s problems are combination of things: Longshore’s woes, Hawkins’ emergence, the playcalling (ie: spreading the ball around), the coverage schemes and maybe Jackson himself. Having listened to Tedford talk about Jackson over the years, I get the sense that Jackson sometimes gets frustrated when the ball isn’t thrown his way as often as he thinks it should be. So I can’t help but wonder if Jackson’s focus hasn’t wavered a bit with the dip in production, and maybe that has affected things. He gets down, his play suffers, so the ball comes his way even less, which causes him more frustration … He has also been pretty well bottled up on punt returns, and that has to be something of a blow to his ego. And there’s no doubt that Jackson’s drop in production and Longshore’s struggles and Cal’s collapse are all intertwined. Think back to the second half of the Oregon game: Longshore was in rhythm, Jackson was dominating and it was one of the best 30 minute-stretches of the Tedford era. Cal looked like the title contender. Since then, the veteran QB, star WR and No. 2 team in the nation have all struggled.