BY Steven Dunst
Nobody who was in Tucson, Ariz., last season for the Cal football team’s crushing 24-20 loss will forget the feeling of knowing a Rose Bowl berth just slipped away. Receivers Lavelle Hawkins and DeSean Jackson were closer to the action than most. Hawkins had nobody between him and the end zone after hauling in a pass with the Bears down 24-17, but he stumbled and fell short of the goal line. Cal had to settle for a field goal after failing to punch it in on three consecutive plays.
Jackson thought he hauled in the game-winning touchdown when he eluded a defender and sprinted into the end zone for the apparent go-ahead score with under three minutes left, but instant replay showed that he just barely stepped out of bounds. Even though the Bears have since earned a share of a Pac-10 title and started this season 3-0, the receivers—in addition to quarterback Nate Longshore—still have a lot to prove. Throughout the offseason, the inexperience of the No. 6 Cal football team’s defensive line caused the most concern. On offense, questions swirled around whether tailback Justin Forsett would flourish as an every-down back. But going into Pac-10 play against the Wildcats, the onus is on quarterback Nate Longshore and the Cal receivers to finally live up their potential.
Statistically, Longshore has been more than serviceable. He has completed 66.7 percent of his passes, thrown four touchdowns and generally avoided drive-squashing turnovers. Overall statistics, though, tell only part of the story. Over the past two weeks Longshore has padded his stats with most of his yards coming from screens and short outs. The big plays through the air—something that the Bears relied on last year to get them out of jams—have been largely nonexistent.
No pass play has gone for more than 25 yards. Junior DeSean Jackson, considered by many to be the top receiver in the country, is only averaging 37.3 yards per game through the air and has fewer receiving touchdowns on the season than backup running back Jahvid Best. There were numerous instances in the past two weeks against Louisiana Tech and Colorado State that Longshore missed Jackson and Hawkins on deep passing connections. Cal is fortunate that a combination of Forsett, Best and James Montgomery has been nearly unstoppable on the ground behind the Bears’ mammoth offensive line and that both Hawkins and Jackson have been able to reach pay dirt through the return game. But it is time for Longshore to have the type of monster game that characterized his play last season, when many talked of him as a potential high NFL draft pick because of his touch on the deep ball and accuracy on short to intermediate routes. It is vital that Longshore and Cal’s receivers finally connect for big passing plays today at Memorial Stadium. Before the Bears travel to face off with No. 13 Oregon in their toughest test yet. Without a confident Longshore, winning at Autzen Stadium will be even more daunting for Cal. The passing attack has a chance at redemption Saturday and a chance to finally erase the painful memories of last year’s loss in the desert. Hawkins and Jackson have been waiting almost a year for the opportunity.