Monday, September 20, 2010
One game doesn't define Cal, Washington
By Ted Miller
The Pac-10, in general, collected applause for a mostly distinguished performance against a rugged nine-game slate over the weekend. Then there were California and Washington. They created the need for that weak adverb -- "mostly" -- because they got their rear ends handed to them.
Both surrendered more than 50 points. Both were sliced and diced for more than 300 rushing yards. Neither showed much backbone.
Their circumstances after three games are the same. And different.
Washington's Jake Locker only completed 4 of 20 passes against Nebraska's defense.
Washington entered the season with high expectations, that the program was on the cusp of returning to Pac-10 and national relevance. After an embarrassing 0-12 campaign in 2008 under Tyrone Willingham, the Huskies had gone 5-7 in 2009 under new coach Steve Sarkisian, with victories over USC and California. When quarterback Jake Locker, who might have been the No. 1 overall pick in the 2010 NFL draft, announced he would be joining 19 other returning starters in the fall -- good news that preceded the signing of a nationally ranked recruiting class -- it seemed like everything was trending up for the program.
The Huskies are now 1-2 after being completely outclassed at home in a 56-21 loss to Nebraska. Locker turned in the worst performance of his career and may have severely damaged his once-soaring draft stock.
"I know we are better than the way we performed," Sarkisian said Monday. "I thought in the second half there were moments there where we lacked the competitive nature that this program prides itself on. I was disappointed in that. That will never happen again."
Meanwhile, California didn't enter the season with high expectations, see a predicted seventh-place finish in the preseason media poll (one spot below Washington). But the Bears were so impressive in a dominant win over Colorado -- albeit a weak Buffaloes team -- that they earned a national ranking before heading to Nevada. So high expectations developed.
Of course, high expectations are Cal's bugaboo.
Now what? Are these two teams going to wilt from disappointment and play indifferently and inconsistently for the rest of the season?
Here are a handful of relevant but predictable statements from Mr. Obvious: One game does not a season make (either way). There are nine games ahead in which to erase the bad feelings from Sept. 18. Both teams are 0-0 in the Pac-10 and therefore are in the thick of the Rose Bowl race just like everyone else.
As for us observers from the outside, this is going to be interesting. How players -- individuals and an entire team -- and coaches respond to adversity is often telling.
Just about everything went as well as could be expected in Sarkisian's first year. Now, at 1-2, there's an inkling that the honeymoon is over. Fans and media fell prey to Sarkisian's extreme optimism entering the season. He sold his team hard, and lots of folks (including me) were buying.
How well the Huskies bounce back will be revealing. After a bye, they figure to be underdogs in five of their next six games. They need five wins to earn bowl eligibility and to avoid their seventh consecutive losing season. That won't be easy in the Pac-10 this year.
The Cal defense struggled with Nevada's pistol offense, allowing 497 yards.
As for Locker, the fact is he can fully recover his status. He just needs to play the next nine games like he was expected to play entering the season. If he does so, his NFL stock might actually be higher by season's end because he will have demonstrated that a bad performance doesn't linger with him, a quality all great quarterbacks have.
Then there's Cal. I'll pause for a moment and allow the Bears fans to mumble imprecations to themselves.
That newly aggressive defense under new coordinator Clancy Pendergast looked abysmal and poorly coached against Nevada's pistol offense. Say what you want about how funky the scheme is, but the Bears were getting gashed by simple option plays.
And then there's Kevin Riley. Not to spoil the Pac-10 blog's objective distance, but I've interviewed him a lot through the years: I like the guy. I don't root for teams but I will admit that I think it would be cool if he walked away from Cal after a senior year that made him proud.
But he's got to show some senior savvy. He's got to be more accurate. He's got to stop throwing interceptions at horrible times, such as hurling a pick-6 when the offense is driving for a go-ahead score.
Further, more than a few fans are frustrated with Jeff Tedford. He's averaged more than eight wins a year in eight seasons as the head coach, but even he admitted during the preseason that Bears fans are not wrong to want the program to take another step forward.
Unlike Washington's plight vs. Nebraska, Cal has better players than Nevada. It should have handled its business. Period. So how the Bears handle this bit of adversity also will be a measure of Tedford.
Moreover, Riley and Locker are the conference's only two senior QBs. They need to start playing like it.
There is a tendency to want to write a team's ultimate story after every meaningful game, no matter that this weekend's thrilling win can be reduced to rubble by what happens the following Saturday. And vice versa. If Cal wins at Arizona on Saturday, things will feel much better in Berkeley -- Nevada loss? A fluke!
And Wildcats fans will be slapping their foreheads.
If the Huskies win at USC in two weeks and Locker throws for four TDs, then Mel Kiper, Todd McShay and the Pac-10 blog will go (shrilly), "See! Told you so!"
As Mr. Obvious said, "One game does not a season make." Sure, it can become the first part of a pattern. But it also can become a touchstone for a reversal.