It's hard to figure out whether Cal's 2-0 start is all smoke or something that'll stick around longer.
It's deja vu all over again for Cal fans, who don't know what to make of their Golden Bears after two convincing victories over UC Davis and Colorado.
Well, here we go again.
Cal beat their first opponent UC Davis 52-3, and then stomped what looked like a challenging adversary in the Colorado Buffaloes 52-7. The media is starting to hop back onto the bandwagon after a preseason media prediction of 7th, ranking the Golden Bears 24th in the USA Today Coaches Poll.
So why is there no groundswell of optimism and belief that this could finally be a team destined for great things? Well, I have my reservations. I outline them in bold below.
A limping running game
Shane Vereen doesn't look fully healthy. He wasn't healthy in training camp and he doesn't look healthy yet. He's fully capable of playing a complete game, but the first kick burst doesn't seem to be there yet. Through two games he's managed 67 and 59 yards apiece (Jahvid Best's first touchdown against Maryland last season went 73 yards).
Now, some of this is on the run blocking. The offensive line is slowly improving, and Anthony Miller seems to enjoy turfing people into Memorial, but the new starters at the other tight end spot and at fullback are struggling. In two tight end sets, Spencer Lander has had a few whiffs. At the H-back slot, Eric Stevens and Will Kapp look like the current weak link. The current starter at fullback, Stevens in particular has a very strong and able body, but he doesn't seem to have the technique down to lead block for Vereen to take out the incoming linebacker and bust open the hole for number 34 to take one to the house.
If the Bears expect to get anywhere, Vereen (and his backup Isi Sofele) can't be having these struggles the further down the road. The running game has been the difference between good Cal offense and bad Cal offense almost every season. A sputtering rush attack will only end in miserable places for the Bears.
Defenses preying on inexperienced quarterbacks
Clancy Pendergast's new defensive schemes are being praised to the hills for only giving up ten points and making opposing quarterbacks look skittish and hapless. While it's true the defense has looked impressive, these aren't real tests for them. Colorado's offensive line crumbled, including touted left tackle Nate Solder--outside linebacker Jarred Price blew right past him on two occasions, forcing a crucial fumble on one particular play that gave Cal the ball and pretty much the game.
The real question for Cal's defense this year is how well they can handle the air attack; the run defense has always been solid, dating back to Bob Gregory's earliest days. Rattling Randy Wright in his first true start for the Aggies and battering Tyler Hansen in only his fourth road start doesn't really make you feel as if Andrew Luck, Jake Locker and the Oregon offenses will tremble in fear. Hansen seemed apprehensive at the thought of throwing it into coverage. He eventually had to be rolled out away from the pressure on a few drives in the third quarter to finally get him completions and get the Buffaloes offense their only score of the game.
As Cal heads on the road, don't expect Colin Kaepernick of Nevada and Nick Foles of Arizona to be as easily rattled. Those two know how to run an offense, and they definitely have multiple ways to kill an undisciplined, emotional blitzing unit. If that defense can make both of those quarterbacks look pedestrian, then we can start talking about their limitless potential.
The Colorado beatdown wasn't really a beatdown
Although we were in control from start to finish, it hardly felt like we were destroying the Buffaloes. Colorado was inflicting plenty of their own wounds.
Colorado gave up 31 points from turnovers, with 14 directly deposited into the end zone. The two defensive touchdowns seemed right out of NFL Football Follies--Colorado wide receivers couldn't hang onto the ball on both a missed pass and a Robert Mullins strip, and the balls landed right into the respective hands of Michael Mohamed and Darian Hagan. Not to take credit away from those two (right place, right time), but those are pretty random occurrences.
Another two turnovers and a Jeremy Ross punt return gave the Bears considerably short fields--the Cal offense only needed to drive 57 yards to put up the first 17 points. So take away all those points set up by short fields and turnovers and you wipe out probably 21-28 points off the board. It's still a very respectable and safe victory, but hardly as impressive. The Cal offense didn't really take the game to the Colorado defense except for one drive in the second quarter and two late scores when the outcome was well at hand.
Cal 52, Maryland 13 and Cal 59, Eastern Washington 7
What about it? Well, that was how LAST season started. One dominating home win against what should've been a legitimate Division I non-conference opponent. Another walkover on an FCS opponent that provided little more than sheer sport. That was a season that had the Golden Bears ranked twelfth to start, a team that was expected to do tons more--and ended up accomplishing very few of those tasks.
Considering the way the schedule was shaped this year, it's hard not to be a tad skeptical of the quality of our opponents. There is a possibility that Colorado might be tons better than Maryland, but we can't really count on that. UC Davis hardly looks like a special win after their 41-33 home loss to Portland State. It's two wins without any bite.
In short, we've seen Cal dominate like this before, and we've seen them get romped down the road in meaningful games. While it's fallacious to presume that this team will follow last year's crest, it's become a trend of Tedford's Bears to rule early September before tapering off into October and November.
We go on the road to Nevada certain of one thing. Cal is 2-0, and they have the chance to be 3-0. What none of us want to see is history repeat itself again. Deja vu is not a welcome feeling for Cal fans.