Redemption for Ayoob - and for Bears?
It’s been a rocky season for Ayoob, who was thrown into the starting quarterback role when Nate Longshore broke his ankle in the opener against Sacramento State. Ayoob didn’t complete a pass in 10 attempts in that game, and coach Jeff Tedford pulled him for Steve Levy, to save him from further embarrassment.
Since then, there have been many ups and downs for Ayoob, who has been a very streaky performer. When he went 13-for-39, and 2-for-11 down the stretch, in the loss to Oregon State, angry fans in the north end zone cursed him as the Bears went into the locker room. One of my readers suggested that Tedford should activate Kyle Reed, the highly regarded quarterback from McClymonds who is redshirting as a freshman. That was never going to happen because Tedford doesn’t think Reed is ready but that showed the desperation of Cal followers.
It seemed like more of the same when Ayoob completed only one of his first 11 passes in the second half Saturday, but he redeemed himself by completing his last five passes, four of them on the two scoring drives which won the game.
Despite that second half drought, Ayoob seemed more composed, more comfortable within the framework of Tedford’s offense. Two plays, both involving fullback Chris Manderino, were prime examples of that. Each time, Ayoob was flushed out of the pocket, but as he ran to the side, he kept his eyes downfield, looking for a target. Both times, he threw to Manderino. The first pass was just off Manderino's hands in the end zone; the second was completed for a touchdown.
I was reminded of Steve Young’s early years with the 49ers. Unfamiliar with Bill Walsh’s offense, he would often pull the ball down and run, and because he was a very good runner, he usually ran for gains. It took him some time to understand that, though running ability can be a plus for a quarterback, his chief job is to throw the ball. Later in his career, Young ran much less frequently. “I’d rather pass the ball for eight yards than run it, even if I got more running, because when I pass the ball, I involve other players,” Young told me at that time.
That’s a lesson Ayoob has to learn, too, and the lesson is even more difficult for him than for Young, who had run out of the T-formation at BYU and set an NCAA record for passing accuracy. This is the first time Ayoob has run out of the T. He was an option quarterback in high school and ran a spread offense at CCSF the last two seasons. He’s learning on the job now, and under the pressure of high expectations.
When Tedford was quoted last week as saying Ayoob should just “wing it,” he wasn't saying that Ayoob should just let fly with passes. I was at the luncheon where Tedford made that remark, and he made it clear that he meant only that Ayoob should relax and let his natural ability come out. Saturday’s comeback should build Ayoob’s confidence and help him reach that point.
SATURDAY’S GAME was pivotal. A third consecutive loss would have made it conceivable that the Bears could even finish under .500 for the season, after a 5-0 start.
Now, the picture is much brighter, especially after Oregon quarterback Kellen Clemens broke his ankle in the Ducks win over Arizona. Clemens may well have been the best quarterback in the Pac-10, though USC’s Matt Leinart is a strong Heisman Trophy candidate. His loss will make Oregon much less formidable when the Bears play in Eugene in two weeks.
The Bears should be stronger by then, too. Their best defensive lineman, Brandon Mebane, should be back, especially since the bye week will give him more time to recover from an ankle injury. Offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan, held out of the WSU game because of a concussion, should also be back.
Even without Callaghan, the Cal offensive line protected Ayoob well for most of the game and opened nice holes for Marshawn Lynch and Justin Forsett. The Bears had 274 yards passing, 274 yards running – a nice echo of 1975 when they ended the season with identical running and passing totals.
Defensively, though, the Bears have not been the same since Mebane was injured in the Oregon State game. Without him plugging the middle, the Beavers ran successfully up the middle; it’s hardly a reach to say the Bears would have won that game if Mebane had played the whole game. His absence also hurt the Bears defensively against the Cougars.
Overall, this Cal team probably has the most talent of any of the Tedford teams, but injuries and inexperience have been critical in knocking down postseason hopes. Next year will be the Bears’ best chance for a top tier bowl, but they still have a chance at a decent bowl this season if they can win two of their next three, against Oregon, USC and Stanford, in the Big Game.
THE TRADEMARK of Tedford’s teams, when he was an offensive coordinator and now as a head coach, has been outstanding quarterbacking. His first two quarterbacks at Cal, Kyle Boller and Aaron Rodgers, have been first-round picks in the NFL draft.
That pattern had not asserted itself this season, until late in Saturday night’s game. That showed Ayoob’s ability. With an extra practice week to work on his mechanics and playing within the system, he has a chance to develop the consistency which both he and the Bears need.
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