Cal Needs An Improved Ayoob
by Glenn Dickey
Oct 05, 2005

THE KEY TO the Cal season remains Joe Ayoob, so at Tuesday’s media lunch, I talked to Troy Taylor, who was a Cal quarterback in the ‘80s and later a quarterbacks coach under Tom Holmoe, what he thought of Ayoob’s play.

“I think he’s feeling much more comfortable with the system,” said Taylor, who is now an analyst on the game broadcasts, “which is very important. This is a very complex system, and when you’re not sure of what you’re doing mentally, it’s hard to concentrate on what you’re doing physically.”

That jibes with what both Ayoob and Cal coach Jeff Tedford have said. Ayoob felt much more comfortable operating out of a spread offensive system at CCSF, because he had been an option quarterback in high school. When I talked to Tedford in the spring, he predicted exactly the kind of problems Ayoob would have in adjusting to the Cal offense.

“I think he’s making good decisions,” Taylor said. “The one thing that I’d like to see from him is better accuracy. Sometimes, he throws the ball right on target, but there are other times when he sprays the ball.”

Ayoob has said that he sometimes gets too emotional in the games, which is one of the reason his long passes have sailed, a failing that was most obvious last Saturday against Arizona, but I’ve seen stretches in practice where he’s right on target for several throws but then will throw the next 3-4 passes off line.

He doesn’t have the poise of Aaron Rodgers, but he has a mental toughness that Taylor admires. “That’s what all the good quarterbacks have,” he said, “that ability to shake off adversity and come back strong. I think Ayoob has that kind of mental toughness.”

And I thought back to what Bill Walsh said about Joe Montana as a collegian, when Montana had some spectacular games, most notably the Cotton Bowl comeback, but some inconsistent stretches which sometimes led to his benching. After he drafted Montana, Walsh set the goal of teaching him to play consistently at a high level. That’s the goal for Tedford with Ayoob, too.

Taylor noted that Ayoob also gets considerable help from the running offense. “That’s the best thing a quarterback has going for him,” he said. “Nobody’s going to stop the Cal running attack unless they put 8-9 people in the box (near the line of scrimmage), and that’s really taking a chance because Ayoob can hit one of the young receivers, DeSean Jackson, Robert Jordan, Sam DeSa, for big gainers and touchdowns.”

Ayoob helped himself with his own running against Arizona, too, picking his spots well. He’s not just a quarterback scrambling away from pressure but a legitimate running threat when he takes off. “You don’t want him to take chances,” Taylor said, “but he’s a tough kid.”

Running quarterbacks often face criticism from writers who think they’re going to be injured but Steve Young, who faced much of that criticism early in his career, pointed out that, when he ran, he was usually tackled by a linebacker or defensive back, not a much bigger defensive lineman. Young also feared most the blindside hit when he was in the pocket, and it was just such a hit that ended his career.

SATURDAY’S MATCHUP in Los Angeles is an intriguing one because, though Cal is ranked 10th in the country and UCLA 20th, nobody knows yet how good either team is.

Cal’s schedule has been soft (I explained the reasons for that last week), which has helped them to a 5-0 record and a national ranking the Bears don’t deserve yet. Still, I thought their win over Arizona was a solid effort. The Wildcats were just 1-2 coming in, but they had not scored fewer than 24 points in any of those three games. The Cal defense shut them out, a strong indication that the young defense is rising to the challenge. Meanwhile, the offense played well against a tough Arizona defense.

It’s a measure of how high expectations have risen among Cal supporters in the Tedford era that I heard from several who were disappointed because Ayoob overthrew receivers on deep passes that should have been touchdowns that would have turned the game into a rout. Just think back to 2001 and remember how deliriously happy you’d have been with a 28-0 conference win. Or any conference win; the Bears beat only Rutgers that season, Holmoe’s last.

UCLA got everybody’s attention by beating Oklahoma in its third game. Then, after a bye week, the Bruins had to come from behind to beat weak Washington. I don’t think either game gives an indication of what kind of team UCLA is. Oklahoma is nothing like the powerhouse team that is the norm for the Sooners, and the Bruins no doubt were looking past the Huskies last weekend. They won’t do that Saturday.

The Bears’ running attack will again play a prominent role against the Bruins. In his first game back after breaking the little finger in his left hand, Marshawn Lynch had a solid game against Arizona and one spectacular play on which he started left, then reversed his field to go around the right side. In a backup role, Justin Forsett again sparkled.

Forsett is a great feel-good story. Despite a great high school career in Texas, he was passed over by college recruiters because he had played on a low level. “When that happens, you wonder if there’s something there you don’t know about,” Tedford said, “but we checked him out thoroughly and found nothing. He’s a great kid and a great talent.”

Forsett drew attention from the first day he showed at a Cal practice, with a darting style that brought comparisons with Darrin Nelson and Barry Sanders. “He’s got a great first step and, with his speed, once he gets into the secondary, he can make big plays,” Tedford said.

Lynch is still the starter, but Forsett is a good complement, especially since they have different running styles.

AS GOOD AS the running backs are, though, the Bears aren’t going to beat quality teams like UCLA, Oregon and USC without a balanced attack, which means improvement from Ayoob.

That’s especially important against USC because the only area where the Trojans aren’t knee deep in quality players is at cornerback. They’re vulnerable to a good passing offense, as Arizona State showed last week, though the Trojans came back to beat the Sun Devils.

So, the key to the Cal season is still Joe Ayoob.

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