Big Game Gives Cal Hope
A loss would have meant that the best bowl possibility would have been the Emerald Bowl at Pac Bell Park, which gets the No. 6 team in the Pac-10. The worst possibility would have been either no bowl or one with very little national visibility.
The bowl picture is still clouded because it depends on other games Ė USC-UCLA and Arizona-Arizona State Ė and whether Oregon gets the BCS bowl it deserves, which would move up the other Pac-10 teams. (In theory, UCLA could get a BCS bowl, but it would have to beat USC. I put that in the 1 per cent category.)
Getting to a bowl is important for two reasons:
1) A team gets national visibility, which has an impact on recruiting.
Obviously, the more important the bowl, the bigger impact it has, especially if the team wins. Alumni talk of tradition, but prep athletes think only in terms of the present Ė and their future. Statistically, the chance that high school athletes will eventually play in the NFL is slim, but they all think they will. So, they want to be on a team that gives them a good showcase.
2) It gives a coach extra time to work with his team.
In a sense, practice for a bowl game is a combination of spring practice and game preparation. Of course, a coach works on a specific game plan for the team to be played, but the extra practice time gives him a chance to work on general preparation, as he did in the spring.
This wasnít so important last year, as Cal prepared for the Holiday Bowl, because that was a senior-dominated team. Itís very important for this team. The youth of the team has been a big factor in the inconsistent play this season. The defense, which went through the biggest changes, came up big against Stanford. Having the extra practice time for a bowl game will give both head coach Jeff Tedford and defensive coordinator Bob Gregory more time to put in their systems.
AS FOR THE Big Game, I agree with those who say that Steve Levy is a great story, a quarterback getting his first start and winning the Big Game. As Tedford noted after the game, his story will be part of the Big Game lore from this time forward.
But, it was defense which won the game.
The Cal offense was hardly overpowering; the Bears had played better offensively in their other three conference wins, against Washington, UCLA and Washington State, with Joe Ayoob at quarterback. The halftime score on Saturday was only 6-3.. After three quarters, the Bears still had only a 10-point lead. It wasnít until the fourth quarter that the Bears broke the game open.
The defense was absolutely dominating, sacking the Stanford quarterbacks, Trent Edwards and T. C. Ostrander, nine times. The Cardinal gained only 55 yards rushing. (Because the NCAA continues its illogical practice of counting quarterback sacks as runs, the official count was just 16 yards rushing.)
Edwards was knocked out of the game by the pounding he took. Trying to hide him from the view of the TV cameras, Stanford players and medical staff huddled around Edwards. Beats me what theyíre trying to accomplish with all this secrecy, but coach Walt Harris insists on it.
Meanwhile, Levy played a solid game, making good decisions, including running the ball for key gains in the second half. He made only one noticeably bad decision, forcing a pass while scrambling that resulted in an interception, but that mistake wasnít turned in to points by Stanford.
Inevitably, I got e-mails after that from the Ayoob-haters who thought the Bearsí record would have been 9-2 if Levy had played earlier. Thatís doubtful. It would have been much more helpful if the defense had played better earlier.
Look at the four conference losses:
--UCLA. Hard to say that Levy would have made a difference in that game. The Bears scored 40 points, so offense was not the problem.
--Oregon State. Ayoob played poorly in this game, and this one started the deluge of criticism. But the whole team played poorly. Iíve called it the worst game a Tedford team has played. Writing for The Bear Insider, Jeff Rhode gave the Bears failing grades in every department.
--Oregon. As Tedford has noted, Ayoob and his receivers were never in sync in this game. Several passes were dropped when Ayoob threw accurately. One interception resulted when DeSean Jackson jumped for a ball that would have hit him on the numbers if heíd stayed put, with the ball bouncing into the air. Other times, receivers were open deep and Ayoob overthrew them. The wet weather obviously affected both Ayoob and his receivers. Itís hard to see how Levyís passes would have been any easier to catch. Judging on the Big Game, Levyís deep throws are not very accurate. Jackson made a great play on an underthrown pass in the first quarter and went in for a touchdown. Other deep throws were not close to being caught.
--USC. Ayoob had a horrible game. Levy might have kept it closer. But the Bears were never going to beat the Trojans, no matter who played quarterback.
Summing up, only the Oregon State game might have turned out differently with Levy at quarterback. But if the defense had played at the level it did in the Big Game, the Bears would have beaten both UCLA and Oregon State. As I said earlier in this piece, inexperience prevented that, but letís have a little perspective about this. The game is about more than the quarterback.
LEVY DESERVES the start in the bowl game. Next year, Iím sure there will be a spirited competition between Levy, Ayoob, Nate Longshore and Kyle Reed, who redshirted this year.
But for now, the focus is on the bowl game, because it gives the Bears the chance to end their season on the upbeat and to start the work to put together a team next season that could be Tedfordís best. It all starts with the defense.
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