Wednesday, September 26, 2007

Oregonian: California comes calling with big-time offense

Bears receiver DeSean Jackson is struggling, but Cal has a host of offensive weapons similar to UO


DeSean Jackson's numbers are scary because they are so . . . well . . . small.  California's big-play receiver and Heisman Trophy candidate has the kind of statistics that wouldn't excite a tight end. His per game averages are about four catches and 38 yards. He hasn't cracked 50 yards yet -- a level he reached in all but two games last season -- and doesn't have a touchdown catch.  "DeSean Jackson, when healthy, is the best offensive weapon in the world," said Oregon coach Mike Bellotti, whose 11th-ranked Ducks (4-0, 1-0 Pacific-10 Conference) face Jackson and the No. 6 Golden Bears (4-0, 1-0) on Saturday at Autzen Stadium and on a national stage.  Jackson has scored on a run and on a punt return, but why is he another world from his production of last season, when he was a 1,000-yard receiver and widely regarded as the most dangerous player in college football?

"I'm sure that people are aware of where he is and try to keep help to that side, to a degree," Bellotti said of the strategy of rolling coverages toward a particular receiver. "His (thumb) injury probably has hurt them a little bit, certainly in terms of not touching the ball as often as probably everybody would like."  Since spraining his left thumb in the season opener against Tennessee, Jackson has had to wear a cast in practice and has dropped a few passes in games. But it hasn't hurt Cal, which is averaging 41.5 points -- third in the Pac-10 behind Oregon (48.5) and USC (44.7).  Fellow receiver Lavelle Hawkins has picked up the slack, averaging six catches and 79 yards per game, with two touchdown catches. The equally athletic Robert Jordan rounds out the group of receivers who Bellotti called "the best we've faced, by far."  Then there's running back Justin Forsett, second to Oregon's Jonathan Stewart in rushing in the conference (121 yards per game) and freshman Jahvid Best, a speedy hybrid runner/receiver, to keep defenses further off-balance.  "(Best) comes in and adds to the problem," secondary coach John Neal said. "That's the strategy every game for them, to figure out how to have some sort of balance so they can overwhelm you with five guys."  And if Jackson breaks out, look out. In Cal's 45-24 win at Berkeley, Calif., last season, Jackson caught a 36-yard touchdown pass in the first quarter, then took a punt back 65 yards for another touchdown in the second that gave Cal a 28-3 lead. That's one of six career punt return touchdowns for the junior, who has gained at least 20 yards on a play 43 times in those two-plus seasons.

But it's not Jackson's team, and that's one of the ways Cal and Oregon are similar -- the array of offensive weapons -- even though Cal runs a different offense (though similar to the Ducks' old offense). The teams know each other so well, but stopping each other isn't easy.  "You have to be careful what you do," Bellotti said. "You have to stop the running game. To my mind, Justin Forsett is the thing that makes that thing go. He's the cog that is always there -- you always have to guard against him because he's a tough runner that is small enough to hide behind things, so you don't see him."  Last week against Arizona, the Bears got out to another early 28-3 lead and tried to rest Forsett but had to put him back in when the Wildcats closed to 38-27. He iced the game with a touchdown and finished with 117 yards.  "He forces you to stop the run," Bellotti said. "Their offensive line forces you to stop the run, and that opens up the throwing lanes. So I think we have to be very careful in how we approach this, about making sure we don't commit too much and create too many islands for our (defensive backs) versus their wide receivers."  The Ducks are fortunate to have defensive backs with "quick feet and short memories," said Bellotti, and who aren't afraid of being on an island -- even if it's an island on network television and with ESPN's "College GameDay" on hand for college football's biggest game of the weekend.  "We're just trying to slow them down," cornerback Walter Thurmond said, "and try to get a hand on them."  Maybe a short memory makes Jackson seem a little less of a threat. The numbers, after all, are small. But like Saturday's game, they are only going to get bigger.


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