The Wheels Come Off In Seattle

Two months after claiming the term "redemption" as their theme by avenging last year's thumping by Tennessee in a season-opening win at Memorial Stadium, the Bears found themselves in search of redemption again in their trek to Seattle to face another team who was also searching for answers.

Both teams started the 2007 season fast, with the Bears at one point just a play away from obtaining their first #1 ranking since 1951 after a 6-0 start, and the Huskies sprinting out of the gate with season-opening wins over Syracuse and Boise State - before the wheels fell off for both squads. Each team on the field today had tasted victory just once after those fast starts.

In an incident that in many ways sums up the compilation of mental errors and miscues that have derailed their season, the Bears mistakenly chose to kick off, even after Washington had "deferred," leaving the Huskies the happy recipients of opening kickoffs in both the 1st and 2nd half.

The Huskies responded quickly and with gratitude for the gift, with RB Louis Rankin bursting off tackle for a 46-yard run downfield before being hauled down at the Cal 25. Three plays later, Rankin walked into the end zone with a run up the middle to start the scoring.

After the Huskies were penalized 5 yards for kicking out of bounds, the Bears found themselves in good field position in the ensuing drive as Lavelle Hawkins returned the kick to the Husky 41. But then, after a delay of game penalty called back what would have been a long reception and run by Robert Jordan, the Huskies held, forcing a Larson punt to the UW 13.

The Dawgs march was on again as the Huskies methodically moved the ball past midfield before Rankin's lightning struck again with a slashing and winding 26 yard rush to the Cal 9, where the Huskies punching it in with a 5 yard run up the middle to take lead at 14-0.

At less than 10 minutes into the game Cal's formerly strong run defense had given up an astonishing 130 yards and 2 TDs to Rankin alone – not the type of start that brings to mind the term redemption, at least not on the Cal sidelines.

After a pair of 1st downs for RB Justin Forsett, QB Nate Longshore hit DeSean Jackson for a 16 yard pass up the middle, with Jackson juking several defenders as he found his way up the sideline. Three plays later, the Bears got on the board as Longshore hit Cameron Morrah with a pretty pass in the end zone for a Cal TD. A horrible snap over holder Bryan Van Meter's head left the score at 14-6 as the Bears could do nothing but fall on the free-tumbling ball.

After holding the Huskies to a quick 3 and out, the Bears went on the march again, methodically moving the ball downfield to the Husky 36.

The Bears then struck quickly when QB Nate Longshore hit WR Robert Jordan on the sideline for 17 yards, then finding TE Craig Stevens down the middle (in double coverage) for a Cal TD. With kicker Jordan Kay's extra point conversion the Bears were back in the game trailing 14-13.

After stopping the Husky offense again and forcing a quick punt that was returned 23 yards by DeSean Jackson to the Husky 30, the uncertain Longshore seen in recent weeks made an inopportune re-appearance: A poorly-thrown pass was intercepted by Husky linebacker E.J. Savannah at the Cal 32.

Three plays later the Huskies were on the board again with a 1 yard run by FB Luke Kravitz, taking a 21-13 lead 8 minutes into the second quarter.

The Bears struck back quickly after the Husky score on a 4 play, 76 yard drive that culminated in a 3rd down 58-yard run by Justin Forsett - and a 14 yard TD reception by RB James Montgomery (the first of his career), to bring the Bears back to within one at 21-20.

After holding the Huskies and forcing another quick punt, the turnover bug struck again as Syd Quan Thompson accidentally jostled returner Brandon Hampton whne he was receiving a punt, causing the ball to deflect off of Hampton's right hand - so said the replay officials - and the Huskies recovered at the Cal 19 with less than a minute left in the half.

Washington quickly capitalized the Bear's gift with QB Carl Bonnell hitting WR Marcel Reece for a 12-yard TD to close the scoring at the half - leaving the Huskies ahead 28-20.

The Huskies lengthened their lead at the start of the 2nd half with a 45 yard Ryan Perkins field goal, the longest of his career. The Bears came back with a 3-pointer of their own as Longshore hit receiver Jordan with a 42-yard floater down the middle - only to have yet another drive for a TD stall at the goal line after two short rushes failed and a pass on 3rd down fell incomplete.

After Cal stopped the Huskies on two short gainers in their next possession, Bonnell lofted a pass down the left sideline that was hauled in by Washington's TE at the Cal 20, but the Bears held there and the Huskies had to settle for a field goal, pushing their lead to 34-23.

Once again, misfortune hit. Hawkins had taken a quick sideline pass up field for 17 yards, but fumbled when being hit while hurdling Jordan. The fumble was the Bears 3rd turnover of the day, and Washington took over at their 43.

At this point the Bears were running out of time.

As the Huskies moved the ball to the Cal 36, the Husky's usually conservative coach Tyrone Willingham rolled the dice and went for it on 4th down but the Bears held - and took over on downs with 13 minutes left in the 4th quarter. At this point, there was still a chance to pull this one out, but the Bears shot themselves in the foot, again, when they were penalized for consecutive holding and personal foul calls that pushed them back to their own 13 yard line.

A stuffed run up the middle and an 10 yard gain by Montgomery forced a punt from the 22 yard line - but disaster struck again.

In a game marred by several questionable officiating calls, Husky returner Anthony Russo took the ball up the left sideline, touched the sideline at the Husky 31, and was stopped at the Cal 11. The play was reviewed but not overturned; this presented the Huskies with a chance to put the final nail in the Bears coffin.

They didn't quite manage that, however, as the Bears defense held and allowed only a field goal that pushed the Huskies lead to 14 with 7:54 remaining.

GoldenBearSports.com
Tyson Alualu vs Carl Bonnell

With a bit less than 8 minutes remaining, the challenge for the Bears was daunting - but still not impossible.

After two 1st downs on an 11 yard Forsett run and a 17 yard completion to Craig Stevens, the drive stalled after a short run by Montgomery, a delay of game penalty, and 3 incomplete Longshore passes. Success followed too often by failure.

And that - as it turned out - was the Bear's last futile attempt at offense, because their beleaguered defense was unable to prevent three consecutive Husky 1st downs that ran out the clock and put a dagger in the heart of the Bears' hope to finish their season with 3 victories after the USC loss.

Redemption? Maybe yes for Washington who have rallied to win two of their last three - and salvage some hope for a minor bowl bid.

But not for the Bears who have plummeted to depths they've never before experienced in the Tedford era. That this has happened in the same season as the strong start with impressive wins over Tennessee at home and on the road vs. a talented Oregon squad makes this Bears' funk all the more perplexing.

Looking back, the ankle injury Longshore sustained in the Bears' win over the Ducks contributed to the team's downward spiral when Longshore was mobility-limited in consecutive losses to UCLA and ASU - that after the upset loss to OSU with inexperienced freshman quarterback Riley at the helm. But even as Longshore has since regained much of his mobility, his performances in Cal's win over WSU and their loss to USC last week have not been up to the standards he himself established earlier in the season.

But there are other factors at play here too: Turnovers have become the #1 problem for the struggling Bears. After being among the nation's leaders in turnover margin in their 5-0 start, their turnover magic is now officially gone. The Bears are now -11 in turnover margin during their 1-5 skid.

Only the best teams can overcome negative turnover margins that bad - but in fact the best teams don't have turnover margins that bad to overcome. To the Bears' undoing, they've somehow forgotten how to protect the ball.

On top of those, let's add today's problem d'jour - the ground game.

This is a team that has been successful defending against the run, for example holding one of the league's best backs, Yvenson Bernard, to less than 100 yards rushing. But recently, the defensive line has been a sieve, allowing backs to torch them for over 200 yards in consecutive weeks, for example USC's Chauncey Washington last week and Louis Rankin today. Rankin confounded the Bears with 224 yards and almost 11 yards per carry in a little more than one half of play. To add insult to injury, freshman tailback Brandon Johnson doubled his season totals with an additional 121 yards as the Huskies totaled a near-astronomical 360 yards on the ground. Cal's defensive line was simply unable to shed blocks throughout the game - and too frequently the linebackers behind them faired little better.

That all said, turnovers were the key. The Huskies converted three turnovers to 17 points – a margin the Bears could not overcome when so little was working well in their offense.

The throw atrocious officiating into the mix - no excuses here - as Hampton's botched punt return did not appear to touch him and was even in question only because Syd'Quan Thompson was blocked into his left shoulder, then Lavells Hawkins' fumble call that came after he was already on the ground, and then an atrocious no-call when Bonnell threw the ball a yard behind him that was picked up by the Bears with clear sailing to the end zone only to be whistled dead, AND a back-breaking Husky punt return where the returner clearly had his foot on the UW sideline but was not called fopr it as the Huskies were able to run more time off the clock and put another three points on the board.

Were these officiating gaffes the cause of the Bear loss? No, not really, not when you have a team that turns the ball over and can't stop an otherwise unimpressive running game, particularly on a night that the Huskies quarterback – a backup at that – was clearly off his game - it's impossible to pin the loss on the zebras.

The confident team that took the field always expecting to win now seems a long way back in the rear-view mirror. That makes Tedford's biggest challenge going into the season finale against Stanford an effort to reacquire "the edge" that has eluded them since week 6 of the season.

"It's really frustrating," said Jordan, following the game. "We just need to get our confidence back. It's not hard to see that we didn't deserve to win out there today. In those early weeks of the season, we were exploding on people. We weren't just playing to keep things close. We were trying to blow teams out of the water. We have to get back to that."

When asked about the memory of what things were like when they were riding high after their big win over Oregon compared to where they are now, safety Thomas DeCoud noted the drastic difference, "Oh man, it seems like a year ago," said DeCoud. "We have to somehow find a way to stop shooting ourselves in the foot and get our confidence back. Sometimes things don't always go your way but you have to figure out a way to make it happen."

"We made a lot of mistakes and mental errors," said Tedford. "But I'm not going to sit here and blame the kids. It's the coaching. We've got to find a way to get better."

The question Cal fans have to ask is whether it is even now possible for that to happen. Just how deeply rooted is this funk?

With the best the Bears can now hope for is a win over struggling Stanford and a season-ending win in whatever bowl surfaces, the high hopes of the early season are now nothing but a distant memory.

With a bye week for players and coaches to reconnect with family for the Thanksgiving holiday, and a chance to stem the tide, the Bears now have two weeks to figure out how to crawl out of the deep dark hole they never saw coming.

To see Jeff Tedford's post game comments,


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