Friday, September 28, 2007

San Jose Mercury: Cal-Oregon preview: Are the DBs ready for the onslaught?

By Jon Wilner

I ask that question of both sets of defensive backs.  From what I’ve seen, Oregon has a slight edge in the secondary. It has good cover corners and solid safeties. (The Ducks always have good cover corners, it seems, and sophomores Jairus Byrd and Walter Thurmond might turn out to be their best tandem since Alex Molden and Kenny Wheaton.)

Cal’s defensive backs are veterans, too, but it seems like there have more wide-open receivers than maybe there should be.    I know, I know, Arizona’s passing numbers (309 yards) were inflated because of the attempts (61) — the yards-per-attempt was actually low — and that the Cats didn’t compete a pass longer than 29 yards. But look at it this way, Bears fans: The Oregon offense is twice as good as Arizona’s, maybe even three times as good. The Ducks are more efficient, more versatile, have more playmakers, a much better quarterback and a much better running game. Cal’s defensive coordinator, Bob Gregory, is one of the best in the Pac-10 — he has never gotten enough credit in Berkeley because of the scoreboard-busting, attention-grabbing Jeff Tedford offense — and Gregory often employs the “bend-but-don’t-break” approach.

But based on what I’ve seen, I wonder if Cal’s defensive backs can stay with Oregon’s receivers. The Bears will have to commit so many bodies to containing Jonathan Stewart and Dennis Dixon that the corners and safeties will be in dangerous man-to-man situations. Then again, the same could be said of Oregon’s DBs, who will face an array of playmakers like they have not seen this season. Cal has a ton of speed, a playbook that makes use of that speed and a running game that accentuates it.  If Justin Forsett runs effectively, that will open passing lanes for DeSean Jackson and friends, put them in space in one-on-one matchups with the Ducks corners. How does Oregon plan to contain Cal?

“We’re going to mix man and zone to keep them off-balanced,” Ducks Coach Mike Bellotti said.  But Bellotti made it clear that stopping Forsett is Oregon’s priority (and concern).

“He makes them go. He’s a tough runner, and he’s small enough to hide behind things. he forces you to stop the run. “That opens the throwing lanes. We have to be careful not to commit too much and create islands” (ie: leave Thurmond and Byrd in too many one-on-one situations). The point — and it has taken me, what?, 18 paragraphs to get to it — is that the game could very well hinge on which sets of cornerbacks do the best job in man-to-man coverage. It only takes one gaffe to change the game, and it only takes one moment of brilliance to win it.

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