Friday, September 28, 2007

San Jose Mercury: For Longshore, upcoming big games will be a test

This is it for Cal quarterback Nate Longshore. This is his chance to win a big road game, to become an elite quarterback, to take the Bears where they haven't been since 1959.

Starting with Saturday's showdown at Oregon and stretching into November, Cal plays four huge games that will determine its fate in the Pacific-10 Conference title race. Longshore, the junior from Canyon Country, is in charge. Is he up to the challenge of beating No. 11 Oregon, UCLA, No. 23 Arizona State and No. 1 USC?  In similar situations last year, he was not. Longshore struggled in the season-shaping games at Tennessee and USC, completing just 48 percent of his passes, with one touchdown and three interceptions. (In the other 11 games, he hit on 62 percent of his throws, with 23 touchdowns and 10 interceptions.) Granted, those were the toughest environments he has faced, against nasty, physical defenses. And he wasn't the only Cal player who wilted. But what Longshore will experience Saturday in Eugene is much closer to what he experienced in Knoxville and L.A. than to his other 16 starts.

The Ducks might not have the defensive ferocity that USC and Tennessee did, but they have a good secondary that will force Longshore to be precise. Autzen Stadium will be bedlam, requiring Longshore to communicate flawlessly at the line of scrimmage. And the pressure will be enormous, with ESPN's "Game Day" on hand, ABC broadcasting the game regionally and Rose  Bowl positioning in the balance. It's a huge game for the Bears - the kind of game that will require Longshore to make big plays in the fourth quarter and avoid killer mistakes in all quarters. "I've got so many talented guys around me, my job is to get them the ball in open space and let them do their thing," he said. "There isn't any extra pressure on me. I just have to get the ball to them and stay out of the way." If Longshore can do it at Oregon, you figure he can do it next month at UCLA and Arizona State and possibly against USC in November in what could be the biggest game in the modern era of Cal football. 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. Old and Young Blues 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 (63.3 completion percentage, only two interceptions). But he has thrown just five touchdown passes, and his longest completion to a receiver is 27 yards.

It's not like DeSean Jackson & Co. haven't been open. Cal's offense is all about space: using Justin Forsett and the running game to open up passing lanes. So far, Forsett has run well and the lanes have opened. But something's not quite right with the downfield passing game, and that something is the quarterback. "We've just missed some opportunities in games," Longshore said. "There have been some overthrows. I missed a few times." Those misfires haven't hurt the Bears so far. But they will hurt at Oregon, and at UCLA, and at Arizona State, and they will hurt the Bears against USC. For Cal to play on Jan. 1, Longshore must get sharp, and he must get sharp in a hurry.


No comments: