Has Soft Schedule Hurt Cal Bears?
by Glenn Dickey
Sep 27, 2005

CAL’S SCHEDULE so far has been marshmallow, which makes the Bears’ 4-0 record and No. 12 ranking illusory. Coach Jeff Tedford has made several comments about his team not coming close to achieving its potential, so after practice yesterday, I asked Tedford if he thought players were letting down subconsciously because of the schedule.

“Not at all,” he said. “I think we’re playing hard. The effort is definitely there, but this is a young team that is still making mistakes.”

Tedford pointed to a couple of examples from the win over New Mexico State. On one, freshman linebacker Anthony Felder was called for a personal foul for hitting a player as he was going out of bounds. It was a borderline call, as Tedford demonstrated by straddling the sideline as he spoke to reporters. “The receiver had just put his foot out of bounds when he was hit,” Tedford said, “but it was third-and-eight and he’d only gained two yards. You have to be smart about a play like that and just let him go out of bounds.”

The other play was an end zone celebration by freshman receiver DeSean Jackson (and sophomore Robert Jordan as well) after a Jackson touchdown. “That was a mistake by a player who didn’t know the consequences of his actions,” Tedford said. “He does now, after we had to kick off from the 20 (and New Mexico State returned it for a touchdown.)”

Tedford noted other general mistakes, too. “When a receiver catches a curl at the first down marker, he has to take the first down and not try for more. Not every play can be a touchdown.”

Defensively, the inexperience often shows in tentative play. Felder, for instance, is playing because he’s a great talent. At some point, the light will go on and he’ll be a great linebacker. Mow, he’s still unsure of what he’s supposed to do, so instead of reacting instantly to a play, he’s waiting for it to come to him. That’s always the way it is for young players, on any level. Until they catch up with the mental part of the game, they can’t show all their physical ability.

In retrospect, Tedford thinks he was too critical of his team after the Friday night win. “We gained almost 600 yards offensively,” he noted, and added that, in his mind, he had greatly overestimated both the amount of passing yardage for the Aggies and also thought Cal had lost the time-of-possession game, which wasn’t true.

Meanwhile, Tedford said his young team is learning in many ways; he even cited learning how to prepare for road trips. “The schedule has worked well for us,” he said, “because it’s made it possible for our players to learn from their mistakes.”

THE CAL schedule also shows the problem with having to schedule 5-6 years in advance. Of the first four games, only the last one was scheduled as a “gimme”, a game the Bears could expect to win. That was during the Tom Holmoe era, when precious few teams seemed beatable for the Bears.

The Sacramento State game was a fluke. Originally, San Jose State was scheduled for the opener, but there was a dispute over the location. San Jose State wanted to play in Spartan Stadium. Cal proposed instead that the game be played at PacBell Park but be counted as a home game for the Spartans, which would boost their average attendance, as they struggled to reach NCAA standards for a Division 1-A school. When the Spartans bowed out, Cal was left with a big hole in the schedule. Dan Coonan, now athletic director at Santa Clara but then an assistant athletic director at Cal, telephoned frantically around the country to try to line up a suitable replacement. None were available, so he had to schedule Sacramento State.

When this year’s schedule was drawn up, Illinois was just coming off a Rose Bowl appearance. Now, the Illini are in a down period, though they looked awfully good for a half against the Bears. Washington had been a perennial powerhouse, and had not lost to Cal in a quarter-century. Now, after the tumultous experience with Rick Neuheisel and the predictable one with Keith Gilbertson, the Huskies will be fortunate to stay out of the Pac-10 cellar.

So, what looked like a reasonable early schedule five years ago, with two weak opponents and two strong ones, has turned into a cream puff schedule. But, it should also be said, that if Holmoe were still coaching at Cal, the Bears would be no better than 2-2 and might even be 1-3 with that schedule. That’s the difference Tedford makes.

Schedules in the immediate future won’t be this easy. Next year, the Bears open in Knoxville against SEC powerhouse Tennessee and then host Minnesota. “I don’t know if I’d want to do that every year,” said Tedford, wryly, “but it is what it is.” In 2007, the Bears host Tennessee and Colorado State in their first two games.

It should be noted that, although he likes this soft early schedule because of the inexperience of his team, Tedford normally wants tougher opponents. In 2003, he campaigned for – and got – a matchup with highly-ranked Kansas State in the Black Coaches Association game in Kansas City, because he said he wanted his team to see the level of play they’d have to reach to be among the nation’s elite.

THE SCHEDULE will get much tougher in the second half of the season, with away games at UCLA and Oregon and a home game on Nov. 12 against USC, which seems to have an even stronger team this year than the national championship teams of the last two years.

Tedford’s teams have played very well against USC, but even to an Old Blue, beating the Trojans seems just this side of impossible. So, the hopes for reaching a major bowl rest on winning the other two games. We’ll soon know how much the young Bears have learned from the glorified scrimmages of their early season.

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