Wednesday, September 26, 2007

San Jose Mercury: Cal-Oregon preview: Is Nate Longshore up to the challenge?

By Jon Wilner

My guess is that I’m writing what many Cal fans are thinking this week: Time for quarterback Nate Longshore to play big in a big game — a big road game.  Over the course of his season-and-a-third as a starter, Longshore has been very good at home and very good against teams the Bears should handle. But in the biggest roadies of his career, at Tennessee and at USC last season, Longshore struggled.   He completed just 48 percent of his passes, averaged 130.5 yards and had one touchdown and three interceptions.

Compare that to his performance in the other 11 games of 2006: Completion percentage of 62, per-game average of 251 yards, 23 TDs and 10 INTs. Granted, those were the toughest environments he has faced, against nasty, physical defenses. He wasn’t the only Cal player who wilted in the face of the challenges. But what Longshore will experience Saturday at Oregon is much closer to what he experienced in Knoxville and L.A. than to all the other games. The Ducks might not have the defensive ferocity that USC and UT did, but they have a very good secondary that will force Longshore to be precise. The atmosphere will be awesome, requiring him to be as much manager as player, especially in regard to communicating at the line of scrimmage.

And the stakes will be enormous, with all kinds of postseason implications. It’s a huge game, on par with the Tennessee and USC games last year — the kind of game that requires quarterbacks to make big plays in the fourth quarter, to avoid killer mistakes in all quarters. It’s the kind of game in which elite quarterbacks excel. If Longshore can do it at Oregon, you figure he can do it next month at UCLA and at Arizona State and possibly at home against USC in November what could be the biggest game Cal has played in a half century. If he can do it in Eugene, the Bears have a chance for a special season, a Rose Bowl season. If he can’t, then book those Holiday (or Sun) bowl flights now.

Cal fans have reason to be concerned — not only because of how Longshore played in big road games last season, but because of how he has played in several games this season. His decisions have been sound and his numbers aren’t bad (completion percentage of 63.3, only two interceptions), but the he has only thrown five touchdowns. And it’s not like the Bears haven’t had receivers open. Their offense is all about space: using Justin Forsett and the running game to get DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan and Lavelle Hawkins open downfield. Something’s not quite right with the passing game, and that something is the quarterback.  As Coach Jeff Tedford acknowledged last week, Longshore is missing open targets.

I asked Longshore about it Tuesday. “We’ve just missed some opportunities in games,” he said. “There have been some overthrows. I missed a few times.” Good for him for being stand-up enough to admit it. (No surprise there; Longshore’s a stand-up guy.) His misfires didn’t hurt the Bears against Tennessee, Colorado State, Louisiana Tech or Arizona.  But if he’s a little wild Saturday — if he plays like he did in Knoxville and the Coliseum — then Cal will have a tough time winning.

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