Friday, September 28, 2007

ESPN: With multitude of options, Jackson isn't a one-man show at Cal

By Ted Miller

Oregon coach Mike Bellotti has been asked to explain what most worries him about California's offense, and he almost breaks out into a Woody Allen routine.  Kvetch, kvetch, kvetch.  Who can blame him? A few minutes of watching film of the Golden Bears' offense makes even a hard-nosed football coach wring his hands like a Manhattan intellectual ritualistically reviewing a litany of worries.   Oy vey! It's not just DeSean Jackson, is it coach? "We're just as concerned about [running back] Justin Forsett," Bellotti said. "He's the guy who makes that offense go."   Fair enough. Forsett is second in the Pac-10 with 121 yards rushing per game and is tied for the lead with seven touchdowns. Not to take anything away from Jackson. "DeSean is the most explosive player in Division I football," Bellotti said.

But he's not the only one. There are also receivers Lavelle Hawkins, who leads the team in receptions with 25, and Robert Jordan, who's caught a pass in 34 consecutive games. And don't forget speedster freshman tailback Jahvid Best, who averages 12.4 yards per carry. "They've all got great speed and are playmakers," Bellotti said.  What about the quarterback, junior Nate Longshore, who's already surpassed 4,000 career yards passing. "Nate Longshore is the triggerman," Bellotti said.  The sum total is nearly 42 points per game and a lot of kvetching from opposing coaches and their defensive coordinators. So many things to fret about. What's a defense to do?  Of course, Bellotti might be playing a little possum. His offense, after all, averages 49 points per game, and his 11th-ranked team will be playing inside the friendly confines of frenzied Autzen Stadium when the No. 6 Bears come calling Saturday (ABC, 3:30 ET).  Cal hasn't won in Eugene since 1987.

The consensus is the winner becomes the leading potential foil for top-ranked USC in the conference, stakes that are big enough to attract ESPN's "GameDay" troika for a rare West Coast swing. Jackson began the year as The Show. He was a leading Heisman Trophy candidate, a 1,000-yard receiver in 2006 who'd already returned five punts for touchdowns. He took a sixth to the house in the season-opening pounding of Tennessee, a highlight-reel, lickety-split number that left the Volunteers -- and a national television audience -- gaping.

But Jackson also hurt his thumb during Cal's 45-31 victory, and that has limited his production. Remember: Without an opposable thumb, humans would just have paws, which are not conducive for gripping a football when opponents are pummeling you.  That's how Cal's offense ended up more like the "X-Men" instead of Batman and a handful of Robins.

It starts with Longshore, the wisecracking, loosey-goosey quarterback who dyed his hair blue during the preseason, though he breezily dismisses his primacy in the offense. "I've got so many talented guys that my responsibility is to get them the ball in open space and let them do their thing," he said. "I don't think there's much pressure on me. It's more I get it to them and stay out of the way."  He got in Oregon's way a bit last year, throwing three touchdowns passes and running for another in a 45-24 blowout victory, a game that started the then-unbeaten Ducks downward spiral from a No. 11 ranking to a 7-6 finish, capped by a humiliating 38-8 defeat to BYU in the Las Vegas Bowl.

Longshore keeps everyone loose. For example, he enjoys entertaining his huddled teammates during lengthy television timeouts. During the Tennessee game, he related to them how he'd run into a gaggle of Vols fans, clad head-to-toe in orange, who started jawing when they spied his Cal hat at a Berkeley restaurant two days before the game.  "They didn't know who I was," Longshore recalled. "They were just busy telling me how they were going to stomp all over us. I asked them if they wore those [orange] shirts on the weekends to go hunting, but they didn't think that was too funny."

Forsett knows all about on-field humor. Opposing defensive players tend to find his size -- 5-foot-8, 196 pounds -- amusing. They call him "5-3", a knock on his height, or "little man." Until he starts gashing them. Oregon knows all about Forsett, who's rushed for more than 2,000 yards at Cal, despite spending the previous two seasons backing up Marshawn Lynch. He contributed 163 of the Bears' 235 yards on the ground against the Ducks last year. The most improved player of the bunch is surely Hawkins, whose 25 receptions ranks second in the conference. His summer work with Longshore ensured he wouldn't merely become Jackson's sidekick.   Jordan is the steady one. Honorable Mention All-Pac-10 a year ago, he leads the Bears with 30 starts and 121 career receptions. Oh, and the freshman? Best is only one of the nation's fastest players, see his 10.31 100 meters that won the California state championship last spring, though Longshore uses another measure to note Best's raw speed. "His face jiggles funny when he runs," Longshore said. "Anytime your face is moving like that when you run, you've got to be moving."

Most teams have tried to roll their coverages toward Jackson, using a safety or linebacker to provide help "over the top," as coaches are wont to say. It hasn't worked, a fact that Arizona coach Mike Stoops bemoaned after losing 45-27 at Cal. The Wildcats muted Jackson, but that left gaps for the other guys to slip through.  Or, as Hawkins said, "DeSean, he can go the distance. Every time Forsett touches the ball, he can go the distance. Robert Jordan, he can go the distance. Jahvid? Any of those guys. We all can go the distance." For an opposing coach, to paraphrase Woody Allen, that can divide a game between the horrible and the miserable.

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