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September 8, 2005Already one week into the season, the injury bug has hit the Cal football team like a Bobby Boucher open field tackle. Junior wide receiver Noah Smith and redshirt freshman quarterback Nate Longshore both suffered significant injuries in Cal's opener against Sacramento State. In "The Snap's" second Cal football game preview, we'll break down the Bears next opponent, the Washington Huskies. Both the Bears and the Dawgs are younger Pac-10 squads in 2005. However, despite the youth that fans we'll see on the field at times, the Bears are simply trying to reload under coach Jeff Tedford while the Huskies hope to rebuild under new coach Tyrone Willingham.
During the Don James era of UW football, the Huskies developed one of the most prolific college football programs in the country. There wasn't a star gridiron prep player on the west coast that didn't consider going to Seattle for college. James coached the Dawgs for 18 years, winning over 71% of his games and capturing six Pac-10 conference championships. In 1991, perhaps the defining moment of UW football occurred. The Huskies defeated Michigan in the Rose Bowl 34-14, thus securing the National Championship.
In the twelve years since the James era ended, Husky football has descended like a kite in a soft breeze. There were some gusts; two more co-Pac-10 conference championships in 1995 and 2000. Prep players on the west coast are still inspired to play for the Huskies. But before hiring their fourth coach in a dozen years, Washington football hit the rocks last year falling to a 1-10 record.
"The Return of the Dawgs" isn't only the clever and catchy slogan of Husky football in 2005, it is a statement that new UW head coach Tyrone Willingham hopes to establish in the Northwest. Bringing back the glory days of Husky football is the goal. Willingham is an accomplished coach and knows west coast recruiting as well as anyone. He sports a 65-51-1 record in 10 years as a collegiate head coach, including a seven-year stint at Stanford, where he twice won Pac-10 coach of the year honors and went to the 2000 Rose Bowl. After finishing 10-3 in 2002, his first season at Notre Dame, he was named National Coach of the Year and Sportsman of the Year by The Sporting News.
Willingham's 2005 Goals
"My coaching philosophy has simply been that whatever is available, you take it and make the best out of it," said Coach Willingham during his first press conference after being named the new football coach of the Washington Huskies. "I've always kind of described it this way, that I imagined when I was a senior in college and we had a new coach come in, how would I want that coach to approach me as a senior? Would I want him to say that young man, we appreciate what you've done but our future is down the road? Or would I want him to come in and say young man, let's get busy, let's be absolutely the best we can be right now? And that has always been my approach and that's what I'll do. Regardless of what's here or not here, my expectation will be for these young men to be absolutely the best they can be in everything they touch and to be the best we can be on the football field at this time."
The Curse of Willingham
Willingham boasts a 7-0 lifetime coaching record against Cal - his best record against any team. The former Stanford head coach was Pac-10 Coach of the Year twice with the Cardinal. Willingham has yet to square off against California head coach Jeff Tedford who has also won two Pac-10 Coach of the Year awards, both coming in the past three years. Tedford is 3-0 versus the Huskies in his career, so someone is going to get their first 'L in this series Saturday.
The Bark on Offense
So what does Coach Willingham have to work with? There's some talent in Seattle. A year ago, the Huskies turned the ball over 42 times and finished last in the country in both scoring and passing efficiency. After quarterbacks Casey Paus and Isaiah Stanback battled it out all spring for the starting quarterback spot, the job is Stanback's. Against the Air Force Academy this past Saturday, Stanback and the Huskies fell at home 20-17 after blowing a 10-point lead in the 4th quarter. Stanback did his part though. The junior hit on 19 of his 27 passes for 242 yards and a score. At one point in the game, Stanback hit 10 completions in a row.
"I feel that if defenses now sit back on me I'm prepared enough to pick them apart or if they want to blitz I'm smart enough to get it to who needs it or make a play on my own," said Stanback. "I feel like I'm always ready to make a play or help someone else make a play. Whatever the defense gives me that's what I'm going to take."
Paus, a senior and the starter in eight of the Huskies eleven games a season ago, will remain behind Stanback. Paus is coming off a terrible junior season that saw the Illinois-native complete just 42% of his passes, tossing 17 interception's against just 5 touchdowns.
The UW running game features former NorCal prep star, redshirt sophomore Louis Rankin. A native of Stockton, Rankin saw his first big opportunity in college football come calling last week when he drew the start against the Falcons. He capitalized by rushing for 112 yards on 23 carries. Rankin, the nephew of former NFL wide receiver Webster Slaughter, had a marvelous prep career at Lincoln high school rushing for a Stockton city record 42 touchdowns. Last year's starter Kenny James, a junior from central California, is questionable against Cal. He's nursing a shoulder injury.
Leading the way for Rankin or James is an underrated veteran offensive line. Seniors Robin Meadow, Tusi Sa'au, Joe Toledo, and Brad Vanneman combine with experienced junior guard Stanley Daniels as the front five. However, Toledo, a former tight end who just converted to tackle is out against Cal after suffering a high ankle sprain. Meadow, a former star lineman at Bay Area prep powerhouse De La Salle, will shift over to left tackle while sophomore Chad Macklin from Visalia (Calif.) will make his first collegiate start at right tackle.
Against Air Force, Stanback completed passes to seven different UW receivers - not one of them a senior. While the receiving corps is young, the Huskies have some talent and speed that they will develop alongside Stanback. Sophomore receivers Craig Chambers and Anthony Russo probably have the most upside of any of the wideouts. A year ago, Chambers torched the Cal secondary when he caught 8 passes for 189 yards, including a 77-yard touchdown reception. However, that game represented nearly half of his totals for the year (19 receptions, 408 yards, 2 TD's), playing in just five games. Chambers only caught one pass against the Falcons and when recently asked about his status as a feature receiving threat, Coach Willingham stated that, "Craig has done some good things but other guys have played better at his position." That's "coach-speak 101" fans - a statement that is said in order to motivate a player as talented as Chambers. Russo is another talented wideout who will start opposite junior Sonny Shackelford, a "90210" native was who UW's leading receiver in 2004.
The Dawgs 'D
Defensively, Husky fans are excited about welcoming back eight of eleven returning starters. Their linebacking core is one of the best in the west. Senior starters Evan Benjamin and Joe Lobendahn finished one-two in tackles last year while junior Scott White finished off the starting trio by finishing third. Against the Falcons, the group combined for 31 tackles. The experience and leadership of this trio is the absolute strength of the Husky football team.
Up front, the Huskies also have some experience. They are led by NFL prospect Manase Hopoi, a senior who led the Pac-10 in 2004 with 22 tackles for loss. Big enough to play inside and quick enough to play on the end, Hopoi, a former Sacramento area prep star, has the rare combination of speed, strength, and a chase-you-down mentality that is perfectly suited for the defensive line. He tallied 9 sacks last year to go along with 54 tackles. He'll start at DT against the Bears this Saturday.
Also along the line are senior end Mike Mapuolesega, junior Donny Mateaki, and sophomore Greyson Gunheim. Mapuolesega, a native Samoan, was a JC-transfer a year ago that started six games. Mateaki, a Honolulu football star before arriving in Seattle, will line up next to Hopoi while true sophomore Gunhiem, a former Petaluma (Calif.) standout athlete mans the end. Reserve defensive end Brandon Ala will be out for the Cal game with a knee injury.
The Husky defensive backfield is extremely beat up at the moment. Injuries to reserve cornerback Roy Lewis and safety C.J Wallace, who happened to both go down on the same play against Air Force when they collided in the 1st half, have the UW staff looking for help. The secondary depth was hit hard before the season even started when cornerback Chris Handy was declared ineligible, Qwenton Freeman was not admitted, and junior college transfer Marlon Wood was moved from corner to wideout during fall-ball. Despite the depth concerns, Lewis and Wallace are expected to return against Cal. They'll combine with former Bishop O'Dowd (Oakland, Calif.) high school cover corner, junior Matt Fountaine, plus sophomore Darin Harris and junior safety Dashon Goldson.
Ayoob will feel the pressure
After a career based on being an offensive genius and a quarterback guru, California top dog Jeff Tedford is already looking for answers this year. He is even taking some advice.
After naming Joe Ayoob, who missed every bowling pin in his first Cal game (0-for-10 in passing attempts against Sacramento State), as his starter on Monday, Tedford was bombarded with questions from the Cal writing corps after the decision. He was also given suggestions; something unthinkable over the past 4 years.
"Wouldn't it make sense to let him just throw a screen pass, just to get the first one out of this way?" one writer asked. "Yeah," Tedford answered after a brief pause, "That would probably be a good idea."
The prospect of starting a quarterback who was yanked from the team's previous game is a frightening one. "There comes a point when you are trying to save the kid more than anything else," Tedford said of Ayoob's first NCAA action. "But I think he's a confident guy and he will respond well."
This week, the question will not be whether Ayoob will get one completion; it will be whether he can lead the team to their second victory. While the injury to Nate Longshore (broken leg) in some ways solves any talk of a quarterback controversy that many thought existed entering the team's first game, it exposed a far deeper quarterback problem-since the beginning of fall camp, Ayoob has plainly struggled throwing the ball.
His performance Saturday came as no surprise to those that had witnessed him practicing this summer. The problems that Ayoob will be looking to correct in Saturday's game are seemingly three-fold: He lacks the ability to consistently throw a tight spiral. Compensating for that, he grossly overthrows receivers when he does throw a nice ball. Finally, he seems to frequently choose a target and throw before even looking in that receivers' direction. That was extremely evident on the first pass attempt of his Cal career - a jump ball into three deep coverage that freshman DeSean Jackson was able to break up. While according to Tedford, Ayoob made "all the right reads" it appeared that at times, he simply was not reading the defense at all.
Ayoob's predecessor, Aaron Rodgers also had similar struggles at times. Against Oregon State in 2003, the week following Cal's upset of USC, Rodgers was 9-of-34 for 52 yards. Of his first 12 passes in that game, he completed only two and threw an interception. But Tedford also was quick to distance that poor performance by Rodgers from Ayoob's against the Hornets.
"We didn't take Rodgers out because it is not like he made a lot of errant throws," Tedford said. "[Against Oregon State] that was more of a game-plan problem than anything else."
At the least, Ayoob is a winner. He lost only once in junior college, distinguishing the City College of San Francisco (CCSF) as the top Northern California JC program. Steve Levy and Bryan Van Meter are not long-term solutions. For the rest of the season, Tedford's only serious option outside of Ayoob is true freshman Kyle Reed. This week, Reed will get to rotate with the other quarterbacks in practice. Of all five Cal quarterbacks, Reed has the greatest potential. If Ayoob struggles, Reed may be called upon to burn his redshirt for this season, and step into the starting lineup.
For now, however, it appears that Ayoob will get one more chance to prove he can play at the Division I level, win games, lead his team to a major bowl, and successfully follow two consecutive first round NFL draft picks. Completing a screen pass would be a nice place to start.
Lynch is on his way
Fortunately, the rest of the Cal football team looked as flawless as could be expected against a Division I-AA opponent. Sophomore tailback Marshawn Lynch had a career high of 147 yards on 24 carries. While he didn't have any breakaway touchdown runs, he still had over six yards per carry and found the endzone once. He fumbled twice, but both were recovered by the Bears. Senior fullback Chris Manderino was used minimally as a blocking back. More often than not, the team was using a one-back set, knowing that they could overpower an undersized Sac State line. In the Pac-10 opener, look for Manderino to be used more frequently as a blocking back. Running back Marcus O'Keith should earn more carries this week after rushing for 69 yards on two carries last week. The forecast looks as though it could be rainy, in which case, everyone's carry totals will increase.
The offensive line did not appear to be as dominant as expected blocking for the run. But they did propel the Cal backs to over 200 yards and also protected the passer well. Longshore, Ayoob and Levy had all day to throw, and Sac State didn't record a sack.
Two more for DJ?
Freshman wideout DeSean Jackson made the most from his first catch in college-41 yards and a spectacular touchdown. Jackson only had one more grab but that was more of a delivery problem than anything else.
"We had a couple of plays called for him, it just didn't work out," Tedford said.
Jackson again will get the start, this time alongside fellow newcomer Lavelle Hawkins. Hawkins was listed as a starter on the two-deep heading into the game but sat out to guarantee that it had been one full year since he transferred from LSU. Having Hawkins, a CCSF teammate in the lineup should make Ayoob more comfortable in the pocket. However, that combination isn't a solution to making smart quarterback decisions.
Sophomore Robert Jordan, the team's leading returning receiver, will also be available on Saturday against the Huskies after being suspended the first game. Unfortunately, the team's leading receiver from their opening game, Noah Smith, suffered a broken fibula in the win.
The Golden Bears D'
After easily stopping a Div. I-AA opponent last week, it is still unclear how the Cal defense will handle the Husky offense. Some things appear resolved, while some problems remain:
1) Desmond Bishop, the team's leading tackler in Week 1, has made the kind of transition from CCSF that was expected from Ayoob. He was all over the field. Even if he is joined on the field by freshmen backers Zach Follett and Anthony Felder, it appears that LB unit is better than last season.
2) Brandon Mebane should be on his way to a big season, recording two tackles-for-losses in the opener, plus a sack. Generally however, the Bears produced only minimal pressure on the Hornets quarterbacks.
3) Every fan in the stadium had flashbacks to San Diego and Texas Tech when a Sac State receiver got 10 yards past Daymeion Hughes, who had no safety help. While it was a guaranteed to be an easy touchdown with a decent quarterback, the pass was overthrown. Against UCLA, Oregon, or USC, a singular mistake like that might be the difference between a win and a loss.
4) Cal's special teams looked spectacular. Field goal kicker Tom Schneider hit a 49-yarder and was 2-for-2 on his tries. David Lonie saw three of his eight kickoffs not taken out of the endzone. Tim Mixon returned two punts for 15 and 39 yards yet will be forced to share duties with Jackson who scored a 49-yard touchdown on his only punt return.
On a Rainy Day in Seattle
A 41-3 win was dominating enough to move up to No. 16 in the AP poll. At 21 positions, and on special teams, the Bears looked fairly exceptional. But it was at the most important position that they struggled. For this week, and the rest of the season, quarterback will be the primary, and perhaps only, concern. Fortunately, even with a poor QB performance, the Bears should be able to muster a victory against the Huskies. Both teams are younger but the powerful running game of Cal versus the semi-experienced defense of the Huskies should be the true battle. A quality performance by Cal's highly-touted offensive line plus providing game breaking runs for Lynch and company would propel Cal to a big win.
Will the Huskies make Ayoob beat them and stack the box? That's what we are predicting. Indeed Cal fans, every time Ayoob drops back you will be holding your breath. Hopefully, when you exhale, a breakout performance by Joe will allow everyone to breathe a sigh of relief.
Prediction: Cal 28, Washington 10