All posts by David Poole

The Best and Worst of 2016: Pac 12

There were a lot of praise-worthy moments during the 2016 Pac 12 campaign. And in the same breath, I can say with 100% certainty, there were equally plenty of cringe-worthy moments as well. In my opinion, I would say that the Pac 12 took a step back this year. There were some teams that performed extremely well (Pac 12 Champion Washington Huskies) and some teams that stumbled out of the gate, fell, face-planted, and remained on the ground for 12 weeks or so (Arizona, Oregon, Cal, take your pick).

Amongst the peaks and valleys this past season, there were some teams that represented the very best of the Pac 12 and what this conference has to offer to college football. Conversely, there are some teams that flat out stunk and left an ‘un-Febreze-able’ odor, stinging the nostrils of hapless fans up and down the Pacific coast. Depending on your perspective, some of these teams are interchangeable. In the end, we know good football when we see it, straight up. No exceptions. Looking back on this past season, here are my takes on the best and worst of the Pac 12.

The Best

Washington Huskies

Washington made good on their preseason picks to represent the Pac 12 and possibly crack the top four in the College Football Playoff. With an impressive 12-2 (8-1) record, the Huskies punished would-be opponents en route to the Pac 12 championship. It was their first since 2000. Led by sophomore quarterback Jake Browning, The Huskies jumped out of the gate winning their first nine games before falling to eventual Rose Bowl Champion, USC. However, despite the loss, U Dub was able to regroup after the loss, win the Pac 12 Championship and face Alabama in the College Football Playoff semifinal Chick-Fil-A Peach Bowl. Though the Huskies were put down 24-7, they showed no quit and scrapped it out until the very end.

USC Trojans

The Trojans stumbled out of the gate, losing three of their first four games. They were beyond cross road status. They were picking out a plot and resting in shame for the rest of the season. But, somehow, some way, they picked themselves up by their bootstraps and forged ahead to what was a turnaround of all turnarounds. After a 31-27 defeat to the Utes (Utah), USC went on a torrid win streak (eight straight) and displayed why they are perennial favorites to compete and win the Pac 12 year in and year out. And the ultimate cherry on top, you ask? It was an ‘instant classic’ of a game as you can imagine with an improbable come-from-behind Rose Bowl victory over Big Ten Champ, Penn State 52-49.

Colorado Buffaloes

No, this isn’t a typo. I meant it. Yes, I certainly wasn’t a believer for this pick, but I had to really sit down and catch a few games. And to my surprise, the Buffs were quite good this season. They finished 10-4 (8-1). I think Colorado would have given eventual champion Washington a bit more competition in the conference championship had Sefo Liufao not injured his ankle early in the game. That’s my opinion. But we’ll never know. It’s remarkable what Colorado could do in a course of two seasons. Talk about a serious 180 degree turn around from last season where they went 4-9 (1-8). It’s incredible, especially since it’s with the same group of players. Just goes to show you what continuity can do for a team. Unfortunately, the Buffs had to come crashing back to Earth from a 38-8 smack down at the hands of Oklahoma State in the Valero Alamo Bowl. Despite the loss, this was an impressive campaign and their heads should be held high.

The Worst

Oregon Ducks

A very popular acronym comes to mind when I think of the Ducks: W.T.F? To those not up on current social terminology, let’s just say that it’s a serious inquisition into understanding the unlikeliest of outcomes. Going into the season, there were some question marks regarding the quarterback situation. Graduate transfer Dakota Prukop didn’t quite live up to the hype and his position was given to true freshman, Justin Herbert midway through the season. The issues didn’t just end there. Their porous defense was atrocious. During the October 8th game against Washington, the Ducks surrendered 70, that’s right 70 points and a whopping 682 yards of total offense! To complement a passive defense, All Pac 12 running back, Royce Freeman battled injuries throughout the season and wasn’t even close to being a factor. All totaled, the Ducks finished 4-8 (2-7). Subsequently, Mark Helfrich was relieved of his duties at season’s end. His replacement, former University of South Florida head coach Willie Taggart assumed the position and is looking to retool a once proud and dominant program. One notable bright spot is that running back Royce Freeman will return for his senior season.

UCLA Bruins

Injuries to quarterback Josh Rosen quickly derailed what would be been a championship campaign for the Bruins. Without the sophomore quarterback, UCLA stumbled and bumbled to a 4-8 (2-7) record. Despite the record, the Bruins’ defense kept them in most of their games. Unfortunately, the offense could not drum up enough of a rhythm to keep the defense off the field for extended periods of time. The Bruins look to have Josh Rosen back for his junior season. Hopefully, he will be healthy and the defense, though losing some key playmakers, can resume consistent, strong play.

Cal Golden Bears

Oh, this pains me so! There is no way I can’t say that this season was an absolute disappointment. Early predictions had Cal contending for the Pac 12 North division title – key word, early predictions. When news that Cal had landed graduate transfer Davis Webb from Texas Tech, it seemed that the Golden Bears’ prayers had been answered as far as a replacement for former signal caller, Jared Goff. Statistically, Webb performed well above expectations- throwing for 4,295 yards with 37 TD’s versus 12 picks. Of course the other side of the coin reveals a much darker, bleaker situation. Cal’s defense, which showed some improvement last season, seemed to have left that improvement somewhere in 2015. Cal’s defense ranked at or near the bottom in several defensive statistical categories. It was a hot mess of a dumpster fire. However, the defensive highlight of the season and a moment which I figured would turn Cal’s season around was the epic goal line stand against then #4 Utah. It was the type of stand that sets the tone for the rest of the season. Alas, it was only good enough to get the win and nothing more. Sadly, it would be only one of two wins to come in the final seven games of the season. The blaze that was the 2016 season saw coaching casualties in Defensive Coordinator Art Kaufman and Head Coach Sonny Dykes. With a new regime taking place in Strawberry Canyon, first-time head coach Justin Wilcox is poised to right a ship that has been astray for some time.

Email David at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @VirgosAssasin.

Featured images courtesy of collegeswimming.com

Time is Ticking Away for the Golden Bears

As a kid, I would watch soap operas daily.  One of my all-time favorites was “The Days of Our Lives.” I know, I know. What’s a child doing watching soap operas? Well, I don’t have a legitimate answer for you. Moreover, I really don’t care what you think anyway. So, for those that are familiar with the popular daytime soap, the introductory line to the show went something like this, “Like sands through the hour glass, so are the days of our lives.”  Well, this notion is sadly similar to my beloved California Golden Bears. Fresh off a super-sized beat down from the #4 Washington Huskies, Cal is left picking itself off the turf at Memorial Stadium.

The night’s festivities couldn’t have begun any sweeter, Cal alum Marshawn “Beast Mode” Lynch whipped and swerved his way across Kabam Field in a golf cart as he did 10 years ago after an overtime win over these same Huskies. This time, Marshawn was accompanied by his mother for the first few whips about the field, but she soon got out and was replaced by none other than Bay Area Hip Hop legend, E-40. With the crowd in a frenzy, this was on the verge becoming something special. Could lightning strike twice, albeit 10 years apart? Let me put it to you this way, it was close for a few moments, literally, but in the end, the Golden Bear secondary was abused, torched, burnt, etc. in rout to a 66-27 drubbing. What a waste of a Beast Mode and E-40 sighting! Their mere presence alone should have garnered at least 50 points from the Bears in pure hype. Alas, all we were privileged to was just another dismal performance from the ever-suspect Cal secondary.

Cal (4-5, 2-4) is now down to its final three games of the season in hopes of winning at least two to gain bowl eligibility for the second consecutive year under head coach Sonny Dykes. Oh, and just in case you were wondering who those next three opponents are, let’s see. There’s #23 Washington State, The Big Game with Stanford, and UCLA. Luckily, the last two games are in front of the home crowd. At this juncture last year, Cal was 5-4 with only one more win to secure a bowl berth. Now Cal is faced with the un-enviable task of taking two wins from these three teams that have a combined record of 124-136 (Cal owns a 46-16 record over Washington State).

I swear, and I swear quite often and frequently, but why oh why must Cal’s bowl chances come with so little margin for error? Yeah, I get it. It’s clearly a sign of a mediocre team. But this is my mediocre team, dammit! I know I should be looking at this situation with the “glass half-full” approach, but why? This is ridiculous! When are we going to learn? Hell, I’m five seconds from reaching out to Nnamdi Asomugha to re-enroll and man the secondary again. Geesh! I don’t ask for too much. Or in Cal’s case, maybe I do.

Time is of the essence and if there ever was a time when Cal needed to play out of its mind (in a good way) and snatch at least two more victories, now is the time. The road isn’t going to get any easier and it would be a travesty to see the Golden Bears regress after they have made steady progress under Coach Dykes. Unless something miraculous occurs on defense in the next few weeks, we’ll be watching bowl season with Oski and friends at the local bar–and the clock will again be ticking on the Sonny Dykes regime.

Although I’m a loyal fan, I can’t escape the reality in which I live. Cal is not a good team overall. There are some bright spots and a lot of glaring deficiencies. These do not have overnight solutions. These are systemic issues that may take some time to correct. Unfortunately, it takes a change in staffing and/or culture to bring about desired results. Let me be clear, I’m not calling for Coach Dykes’ job. I am calling for a change in recruiting strategy. There’s plenty of talent offensively, but for Pete’s sake, can we please hang our hat on somebody on defense?

Football, unlike soap operas cannot be written and rewritten at the drop of a hat. For Cal to make the necessary changes, it will take time and patience. With the “win now or else,” mantra in full bloom among collegiate programs, dutiful program development under a coaching staff is a notion that has run out of sand.

Email David at [email protected] and follow him on Twitter @VirgosAssasin.

Featured image courtesy of Andy Simmons/ Flickr

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It’s Put up or Shut up for Oski and the Golden Bears

It’s moments like these where I hate to be a fan of a teetering squad. I don’t have the heart to throw up my hands and do away with my team, but what the hell gives!? I’ve been a staunch supporter of the Cal Bears all season, and going in I went as far as to say that they actually have a legitimate shot of making a run toward the Pac 12 title. And yes, I was sober when I made the claim.

My Cal Bears are at .500 (4-4, 2-3) with perhaps the most difficult 4-game stretch to come. How on God’s green earth did we get here? Relax, this is rhetorical. I know full well how we got here. Problem is, how can we get out of this all-too-familiar place? More on that later.

Back to what will be, in my humble opinion, a make or break stretch for Coach Sonny Dykes career at Cal in these next four weeks. Like I mentioned earlier, Oski and Bears have their paws full these upcoming weeks and will define the season one way or another.

This Saturday, the Huskies of U Dub (U. Of Washington) pay Memorial Coliseum a visit. Not only are they the #4 ranked team in the nation, but they are quite possibly the best team Cal will face this year, bar none. Hands down. My faith-o-meter for this one is admittedly low. However, Cal did beat Utah, and Utah gave Washington all they could handle. So, there is a glimmer of hope. Plus, we have home field advantage. Stranger things have happened (See Utah at Cal).

The remaining three weeks we have the Cougars of Washington State, Stanford, and UCLA respectively. I mean, hell, these are all quality programs. Cal is going to have to be on its A+ game to have a shot. All bias aside, offensively, Cal can do it. Davis Webb and company have proven they can hang with the big dogs. However, of course, defensively, I plead the fifth. Eh, I can’t put my finger on it. There are times where there is sound defense being played, in spurts. By and large, this defense is bad. Not historically bad, but by Cal standards, they are

However, defensively, I plead the fifth. Eh, I can’t put my finger on it. There are times where there is sound defense being played, in spurts. By and large, this defense is bad. Not historically bad, but by Cal standards they are underwhelming, to say the least. And I can say that as a fan with the utmost of honesty.

Flashback

How on God’s green earth did we get here? Relax, this is rhetorical. I know full well how we got here. Problem is, how can we get out of this all-too-familiar place?

The best way to address this question is to understand the problem. Taking the last three seasons into account, Cal usually comes out of the gate hitting on all cylinders. Why? Well, the good ‘ol non-conference schedule. Granted, there have been some competitive teams scheduled earlier on, but not with the level of talent the Pac 12 has to offer. So, what ends up happening is that Cal usually runs into a buzz saw come conference play and the Golden Bears barely escape the regular season by the skin of their teeth. Good offense and bad defense usually leaves a team in the middle of the road. And that my friends, is Cal’s affliction and subsequent result. Mediocrity.

My wife often tells me, don’t complain about a problem. Instead figure how to create a solution. Well, here’s my four-year, $11.4 million dollar solution. Win early. Take advantage of the easier schedule so attaining bowl eligibility won’t be such a daunting task in the waning weeks of the season- as has been the case the last three years. Also, beat the teams you’re supposed to beat! C’mon, Oregon State takes us to overtime and wins! These cats (I mean Beavers) are 2-6! Really?!

The Golden Bears are two wins away from bowl eligibility for the second consecutive year. Quite the achievement for Coach Dykes, I’ll admit. Of course, which of the remaining four opponents will Cal topple to reach the mountain top? Washington? I don’t think so. Washington State? Well, maybe. Stanford? They need to win, but will they? Which leaves UCLA. (sigh) I don’t know folks. We may have to take a mulligan and try again next year. At most, I see Cal squeaking out at least one more victory. Maybe if we were to grab a win when we were supposed to, this wouldn’t be such a tall order. But these are the cards that are dealt.

Like the post’s title, it’s put up or shut up. There’s no sugar coating it. It’s frustrating to see our season come down to must wins…again! When will we learn? Despite the odds, I’m going all in and going down with the ship if need be. Best believe, I’ll be standing near the life rafts though.

Featured image courtesy of John Martinez Pavliga/ Flickr

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @VirgosAssasin

At .500, Cal is at a Crossroad

After four games last year, the California Golden Bears were sitting pretty at 4-0. Hopes were high. The necessary talent was there with an elite quarterback, swift, sticky-handed receivers, and four diverse, yet effective, running backs. Cal had all the offensive firepower to make some noise in the Pac-12.

Of course, their Achilles heel, a much-improved, yet not-quite-there defense, was exposed too often to make Cal a legitimate contender in the Pac-12. However, Cal was good enough to post its first winning record since 2011’s 7-6 mark. To boot, Cal reached and won a bowl game (a 55-36 win over Air Force Academy in the Armed Forces Bowl).

I mentioned all of that to say this: Cal is not undefeated after four games this year. It doesn’t have world-beaters on the offensive side of the ball as in years past. Yet, it has the rarest of opportunities to mask those two blemishes in the loss column this Saturday.

Currently, the Golden Bears are 2-2, with a notable win over previously 11th ranked Texas.

Not bad.

In their two losses, both coming in the waning moments of each contest, Cal had the opportunity to change its fate. Against #19 San Diego State, Cal quarterback Davis Webb had the Bears knocking on the door for what would have been the go-ahead score and win. Unfortunately, Webb threw a costly interception that sealed the deal.

Last week at Arizona State, costly turnovers and a returned onside kick foiled what should have been a decisive victory. In retrospect, any time you give up 31 points in a quarter, you deserve to lose, hands down! Great game, Sun Devils.

Now at .500, facing what will no-doubt be a very difficult stretch to close out the season, Cal is at the inevitable crossroads all .500 teams encounter.

Which way will it go?

Currently on a two-game skid with #18 Utah coming to Strawberry Canyon, Cal is in quite the predicament. Utah (4-0, 1-0) is a talented bunch with an impressive defense and an effective run game, all the tools necessary to slow down that Bear Raid offense and make this one a real grinder.

If there was ever a statement game of the season, this one against #18 Utah would be it. This could be the monumental upswing that they have been looking for. If the Bears can knock off another ranked opponent, they will clearly show that they can hang with the “big boys” and be in prime position to make a run at the Pac-12 title.

If Cal can pull off the upset this weekend, I believe the preseason consideration it received will be reinstated. Cal would have to be recognized as a quality program worthy of a national ranking.

All (and I do mean all) the teams in the Pac-12 are in a down year. There are no clear favorites and every game is ripe for the taking. It just depends on which team is willing to reach for it. I know some may argue #10 Washington is very much worthy of the ranking and void of criticism. After Friday’s game against # 7 Stanford, we’ll have a bit more meat to chew on in that regard.

As far as Stanford is concerned, it goes as Christian McCaffrey goes.

Until then, I stand by my words. Every team in the Pac-12 is ripe for the taking. And it just so happens that both teams are on Cal’s upcoming schedule. Foreshadowing much?

Of course, if Cal lays an egg this Saturday, all won’t be lost per se.  They would have to gather themselves and march on to the next opponent. A third consecutive loss definitely affects the psyche. It very well could lead to a spiraling and eventual bottoming out. The season will go up in flames.

It’s sad, because there was optimism in this year’s Golden Bears. In the end, it’s up to Coach Sonny Dykes to rally the troops regardless of this weekend’s outcome. If Cal takes another loss this Saturday, you can kiss all hopes of a Pac-12 title away. However, consecutive trips to a bowl game are not entirely out of the picture. But we’re trying to aim high here! Bowl games are secondary to a conference title. Hell, you can make a bowl game and get the brakes beat off you. Where’s the fun in that? If you capture a conference championship, that accomplishment can never be taken away. That’s forever. As Michael ‘Squints’ Palledorous from “The Sandlot” put it, it’s “foooooreevvvvvvvvver”

Looking at the entire college football landscape, there are improbable wins and losses every week. It really has come down to which team shows up on Friday or Saturday. For Cal, it showed up to each and every game thus far. Admittedly, they checked out a bit early on a couple games. Nonetheless, Bears have demonstrated that they are a competitive and resilient bunch.

It’s time Coach Dykes makes good on the extension he received this offseason and gave a little return on investment to his employers. If he’s able to pull off the improbable, they will sing his praises for seasons to come. If not, well, cue the familiar song of ineptitude that has been playing in the background for quite some time.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @VirgosAssasin

Featured image courtesy of Eric Chan/ Flickr

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Pac-12 Pac(ks) Less Punch

We’re two weeks into the 2016 season and I must admit that I am afraid the Pac-12 has lost a lot of its mojo as a Power 5 Conference. Yes, that’s quite a bold statement. Looking at the Pac 12 as an entire conference, I’m not convinced that any team will have a shot at making the College Football Playoff. Moreover, I feel the Pac-12 is not what it should be.

I’m sure there are dozens of people who would vehemently disagree with my claim. And I would agree that those who oppose my position would have a valid argument or two to refute my point. However, the sample size over the past two weeks has provided me with ample cause for concern. Now, before we get too deep into this, let me preface my point in saying that I think the Pac-12 is still worthy of Power 5 Conference membership, but, the quality of teams that comprise this conference has dipped a bit from last season to this one. That “dip” is evidenced in the level of consistent performances from the top teams in the Pac-12, both in the North and South divisions.

Pac-12 North Division

The favorites in this division (Stanford, Oregon, Washington) have performed as expected, strictly from a win-loss record perspective. Take a closer look at the games played. The opponents aren’t world-beaters by any stretch of the imagination.

Washington beat up Rutgers and the University of Idaho. Quite the daunting task, no? Oregon quacked past UC Davis and Virginia. Although the wins were rather lopsided, Oregon’s defense is allowing 27 points per game. Is this what they brought Brady Hoke in for?

Stanford only has one game under their belt and their ho-hum 26-13 win over Kansas State certainly didn’t turn any heads. Christian McCaffrey bears the weight of the Cardinal and to some extent the Pac-12 on his shoulders being one of few stars in the division. Bottom line, if he struggles, Stanford struggles. It’s as simple as that.

California and Washington State are in some serious trouble in the coming weeks. The Bears outplayed Hawaii down under, but did surrender some points and down the stretch. Some would point to that as a lack of focus in putting away an opponent. Last week’s heart breaker to San Diego State was just that, a heart breaker.

I won’t poo-poo the Aztecs. They are a quality opponent with a workhorse running back that ran rough shod over the Bears. Next for California is a surging Texas team that has found new life. Last year’s narrow escape against the Longhorns will only prove one thing, if Cal can’t catch that same miracle; it’s going to be a long season, because it doesn’t get any easier for them.

Washington State, a team many thought would add some complexity to the division has not been able to catch a break. The Cougars are 0-2 with both losses each by three points. It’s that same old so-close-yet-so-far vibe. Luke Falk has continued to live up to the bill though. He’s thrown for nearly 1,000 yards and has eight touchdowns. Respect due Luke, but if those stats don’t churn out wins, that’s what they are, stats and nothing else.

Pac-12 South Division

I certainly thought the Pac-12 South was going to have the greatest opportunity to re-establish the Pac-12’s reputation of being one of the nation’s premier divisions. With the favored teams in the division sporting nifty 1-1 records (with the exception of Utah, 2-0), Colorado and Arizona State have jumped out the gate undefeated. That’s right. Colorado is undefeated.

UCLA came up short against Texas A&M, but bounced back the following week, doubling up UNLV 42-21. I’m not sold on UCLA. Yes, they have a talented squad, but not enough to crack the top four teams in the land. Their only saving grace is that A&M somehow, some way, makes some serious noise in the SEC and UCLA handles their business. Then and only then, maybe, they’ll get a respectable bowl bid. Maybe.

Oh USC. Where do I begin? I figured the match up with Alabama would give some serious credence to the Pac-12 if they won or made it a close contest. Alas, Trojans couldn’t get either one to go their way. To add insult to injury, after a 52-6 beat down at the hands of the Tide, an SC player got himself ejected for stomping on an Alabama player. I guess he couldn’t bear the embarrassment of being on the field any longer than he had to.

Pac-12 Outlook

It’s still too early to tell how the Pac-12 will shake out. There’s still hope that the expected teams in the conference will show and prove and establish their presence to the nation and the College Football Playoff committee. However pessimistic I may be about that actually occurring, I will gladly eat crow if at least one team from the Pac-12 were to make a substantial run toward the National Championship. However, in ironic bit optimism, I think the birds will be safe this year.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @VirgosAssasin.

Photo: Neon Tommy/Flickr.

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Eliminating Kickoffs from Football Would Be Beyond Stupid

Every year around this time, I get pretty excited for college football to begin. I usually search YouTube endlessly, trying to find the perfect compilation of hard hits and highlights to satiate my hunger. It doesn’t take long before I settle onto a video, or two, or three and become lost in a sea of tackling carnage.

As a former player, this gets me seriously hyped. The feeling of laying the perfect hit on someone (not injuring them, of course) is indescribable. It’s a precise mix of timing, force, and just the right amount of aggression to send a message that I’ve come to play.  I’m putting the crowd and the opposing team on notice that I’m not one to be trifled with.

I say this because these are the types of elements that make football as unique and addictive as it is. On the flip side, for every highlight reel tackle, there are unfortunate incidents where players are severely injured and on the rarest of occasions, players lose their lives.

All that said, there’s a serious hot button issue circulating around all levels of football concerning the overall safety and necessity of kickoffs. As we know, football itself is undergoing a massive overhaul in the realm of player safety. And to a larger degree, it’s the financial bottom line of these changes that can and will impact the game. The latter is a conversation for another time. For now, let’s narrow our focus on whether kickoffs are actually necessary.

I cannot imagine the game without the kickoff. It’s the moment in time where my adrenaline was at its highest. From the stare down with the opposing special teams unit to the roar of the crowd anxiously waiting to set things off. It was where you sized up your blocking or coverage assignment, determined your plan of attack, and ultimately “laid a hat” on someone.

I played football in a time that’s much different than what I witness now. The players are, by and large, the same but the mentality of the game is different. Due to the game’s massive popularity and subsequent financial viability, other interests have crept into the fold. I digress. That’s another story for another time.

I am going to look at this subject with as much of an unbiased eye as possible. I am all for player safety. The intent of the game is not to deliberately injure one another. However, it is a game of controlled aggression, intimidation, physicality, will-bending, and dominance. The key word being controlled.

With those parameters in place as a cornerstone mentality to be effective in the game of football, it seems a little incongruent to now scale back that approach in the name of “safety.” So it’s “safe” to say that I am not in favor of removing kickoffs from the game. However, I am open to understanding the argument from a different perspective, if possible.

The Impact of Removing the Kickoff from the Game

Admittedly so, from a physical perspective, the kickoff is the most intense and physically vulnerable a player can and will be of the three phases of the game. Depending on your team, (kickoff or return) you are exposed to the most amount of physical contact in any given amount of time.

On the kickoff team, your job is to sprint 60 or so yards, while maintaining proper lane coverage and tackle the returner. Now, before you get remotely close, you must bust through the return wall and seek out the ball carrier. And by bust I mean literally run smack dab into another human being at top speed, hoping to weaken the wall set up to protect the returner. Depending on your size and the speed at which you cover ground, this can be a tremendous impact. Think of it like charging soldiers in war time. Once they clash, it can be a disorienting experience.

On kickoff coverage, at top, straight-line speed, it’s extremely difficult to change direction on a dime. Few are blessed to do so. For the others that are not, those players are exposed to serious injury to their lower extremities with every kickoff.

Usually, you’re coached to establish lane coverage as quickly as possible (that’s where the sprinting comes in) and once you’ve reached the return team, breakdown (slow down, widen your stance to gain balance, center yourself and prepare to take on a blocker or tackle the returner). Now keep in mind, the blockers for the return team are charging you and high speeds as well. So if you break down too early, you’re liable to get obliterated. In the end, it just becomes a demolition derby with bodies flying everywhere.

By eliminating the kickoff, there will be less direct collisions between players at high speeds and awkward angles. Also, blindside blocks, blocks in the back, and helmet-to-helmet hits will be lessened. Not eliminated, but lessened.

According to a study by the Research Institute at Nationwide Children’s Hospital in Columbus, Ohio, 16% of injuries occur during kickoffs. Although the percentage is low, they are finding that those injuries are the most severe. In May of this year, Pop Warner football leagues have eliminated the kickoff for teams 10 years of age and under.

The NFL and NCAA rules committees have not had any formal discussion on eliminating the kickoff and will not broach the subject until after the 2017 season. Instead, they have moved up the kickoff placement to the 35-yard line to increase the number of touchbacks, therefore limiting the amount of returns and possible injuries. I can understand the intent of the rule change. Less is more in the vein that players will sustain less injury, therefore keeping quality players (product) on the field at all times. Get my drift?

Why the Kickoff is Necessary

Kickoffs have been a part of the game since its inception. Throughout all the modifications in football over the years, the kickoff has remained one of the few constants. It’s how you begin the game, simply put. It’s as iconic as the tip-off in basketball or the face-off for the puck in hockey. It wouldn’t be football without it.

Safety aside, let’s looks at the importance of the kickoff. First, it’s a positioning battle. It’s all about location in football. Where you begin determines the strategy you use to score.

If you start on your own 40-yard line, offenses don’t feel the pressure of being backed up to their own goal line. In that, offenses are more prone to exact more diverse play calls.

If you start at the 25-yard line or closer, typically, the offense will scale back the offense until they establish a better yard placement on the field, which is why you see more runs and short passes in those situations.

Another aspect to look at in regards to the importance of the kickoff is that it directly affects the type of personnel each team carries. Every team has a return specialist. Usually, they have great top end speed and elusiveness to maneuver through the carnage and gain as many yards as possible.

However, they may be lacking in other skill-sets that would not enable them to play offense or defense. Players like Devin Hester, Ted Ginn, Jr. (to a lesser degree) and the like would not have the opportunity to play football if it weren’t for special teams. This isn’t limited to just returners, I’m talking the entire special teams units altogether. Every player has a specific skill-set, and it just so happens that it fits in line with either setting up or disrupting a return.

Just as field position is vital to the game of football, momentum is just as, if not more, important. Momentum sparks, drives, and changes the complexions of the game. How many times have you seen your team down by a score with seconds to go, only to have a kickoff, or punt return for that matter, completely change the outcome. Kickoffs are as majestic as the Hail Mary. The fortunes of a team are transformed in the blink of an eye.

Happy Medium?

In the end, I may be a football purist, but I do see and understand the level of concern folks may share. It’s the purist in me that always comes back to, “this is football!” It’s meant to be violent. I’m not advocating deliberate injuries. However, I am in favor of setting a tone. Tackles, stiff arms, jukes, and kickoff returns set a tone. It’s that very tone that either helps earn the victory or invites defeat.

Is there a happy medium that can be reached? Frankly, I don’t think so. If we go by an adjusted field placement, they’ll be a shift in strategy that could possibly augment the game, making it less exciting. Not to mention, you eliminate the crowd’s involvement. There’s nothing more exciting than to see thousands of bulbs flash during teh opening kickoff.

I can’t imagine a crowd getting hype over the offense and defense simply taking the field. There’s no momentum, no emotion, no signifying moment that lets the player and you, the fan, know that there’s a battle brewing. Until the 2017 season ends and the rules committee bump heads on whether to change a rule as vital to the game as the quarterback, we’ll just savor these moments and enjoy football the way it was meant to be.

E-mail David at [email protected] or follow him on Twitter @VirgosAssasin

Featured image courtesy of Erik Drost/ Flickr

Does Davis Webb Give Cal Legitimacy In The Pac-12?

When former all-world Cal quarterback Jared Goff decided to forgo his senior year and test the waters of the NFL, it left an indelible hole in the Golden Bear offense. How does a program replace such an important cog in a machine that lit up scoreboards and record books?

Enter graduate transfer, Davis Webb. Formerly of Texas Tech and a brief commit to the University of Colorado, Webb chose Cal as his final landing spot. After four days into fall camp, Cal elected to go with Webb as the opening week starter versus the University of Hawaii on August 26 in Sydney, Australia.

I figured as soon as Webb set foot on campus, the starting job would be his to lose. He clearly has all the physical measurables (6’4”, 224 lbs) to fit Coach Dykes Bear Raid offense. But the most important characteristic that benefits Webb the most is his familiarity with the type of offensive scheme offensive coordinator Jake Spavital plans to run this season.

During his tenure at Texas Tech, Webb amassed 5,557 yards, 46 touchdowns against 22 interceptions- fairly expected numbers for a program that runs the spread offense. All totaled, Webb’s experience, body of work, and maturity makes him the legitimate choice to lead Cal this season.

All being said, does Webb’s addition give Cal legitimacy in the Pac-12 this season? If you look up and down the Pac-12, there are some programs with returning impact starters at the quarterback position (UCLA, Washington, Washington State, Arizona, and Colorado). Adding someone of Webb’s qualifications should automatically give Cal some sense of credibility. Yes, the receiving corps is brand spanking new, but nonetheless talented. What better way to guide young talent than with an experienced quarterback that will make their transition all the smoother.

To add more credibility to Cal’s case is that there’s a built-in fail safe in the back field. Cal returns three distinct running backs to add some extra flair in the play calling. Khalfani Muhammad, Vic Enwere, and Tre Watson are the epitome of a three-headed monster. Last season, each back rushed for over 500 yards. Remember, Daniel Lasco was the feature back in this system last year, but injuries cut short what would have been a break out season for him.  To accompany this talented trio in the back field, Cal returns an experienced offensive line that should open some holes and wear down opportunistic defenses should the passing game catch a snag or two.

Something else that will no doubt help Cal is their schedule for the first half of the season.  The first six opponents Cal faces have a combined 37-40 record. Two of those teams (San Diego State, 11-3 and Utah, 10-3) are the only ones with winning records. Cal can certainly use the Hawaii game a tune up of sorts, provided the time difference and playing down under don’t prove too costly.

As I stated earlier, Davis Webb certainly gives Cal Legitimacy in the Pac-12 this season. If Webb is able to use this time to develop a sound relationship with his receivers and linemen, the Golden Bears can prove to be a worthy adversary come conference play. Remember, Coach Dykes has an ace in the hole with a proven run game. Should the passing game sputter, there’s nothing wrong with slowing the game down a bit to keep his defense from being exploited. Coach Dykes also emphasized a more aggressive pass scheme that utilized short passes and catch and run situations (which Coach Dykes has admitted that this year’s receiving corps is better suited to execute than last year’s group). Essentially an extended run game, Webb’s accuracy will come into play. As a career 61% passer, he is more than equipped to make the necessary throws to keep defenses off balance.

With a little less than three weeks away from kick off, I have renewed faith that the 2016 Golden Bear campaign will be more than a rebuilding year. I look for Cal to be competitive in just about every game this season. I can say this with the utmost confidence because we now have a proven signal caller with the acumen to get the job done-Albeit for just this season.

Featured image courtesy of Wikimedia Commons 

Shades of A Loss: The best and worst times on the losing end

Best and Worst Loss to a Rival? Is There a Difference?

As an Avid Cal football fan, this is quite the interesting question. And I mean interesting in the sense that when it comes to the Big Game against the Cardinal of Stanford, any loss versus the tree birds of Palo Alto is a bad loss. There is no such thing as a good loss, right? I sat this with this question for a few days, mulling over whether or not a good loss was even possible. I tried looking at it from every possible angle.  I scoured the Big Game results over the past 10 years and what I noticed is that Cal had only won three of the past 10 Big Games. Three! So, I asked myself again, is there a good loss? Well, I certainly have plenty of games to choose from.

What exactly constitutes the worst loss? Initially, one would think the blow out games would serve as a worst loss. But hold on there a second. In the event of a blow out, there’s no more emotional energy spent after the game is already out of reach. Therefore, defeat is inevitable and one can focus their energy on matters other than the debacle on the field.  So it can’t be that bad, right? However, the final score can really add insult to injury and deepen your Saturday depression to depths greater than the Mariana Trench.

Or the worst loss could be when victory was only minutes away, and in an instant, those dreams are dashed due to a costly turnover or an errant play. It’s that, “so-close-yet-so-far” scenario. Or, the absolute worst loss could be losing to a rivalry team that peaked as your team slowly sunk into the abyss of futility. Ah ha! I got one:

December 1, 2007.  I don’t recall what I was doing exactly, but I do remember how I felt after the game was over. The 2007 season was the last time Cal had high national recognition. So high, in fact, that it was the second-ranked team in the nation during the BCS Bowl era. It was amazing! The pride I felt to know that I lived mere miles away from the second-ranked team in the nation! The fanfare was otherworldly.

As you already know, nothing lasts forever and neither did Cal’s hold on the number two spot in the national rankings. With key losses down the stretch, they schlepped into the Big Game against rookie head coach Jim Harbaugh and the (4-7) Cardinal of Stanford. It was a low-scoring affair. The high octane Jeff Tedford offense was stymied all afternoon. Cal trailed late in the game and had two, count them, two opportunities to score. I’ll cut to the chase.

Opportunity one was fumbled away with 2:43 seconds to play. But, Cal’s final and most heartbreaking opportunity came to a crashing halt when receiver Lavelle Hawkins dropped a sure fire, dead-to-rights touchdown, and had it miraculously intercepted. I mean, come on! Stanford would bleed enough of the clock down to preserve the 20-13 win.

To make matters worse, which I believe is the epitome of the worst loss, with that Stanford win, it was the imperfectly perfect ending to a season that began with national championship hopes only to finish at a pedestrian, mediocre 6-6 record. Oh and here’s the kicker, the loss also snapped a five-game win streak over the Cardinal too! Yeah, the abyss is real deep, y’all!

Now that I have already reopened the wound, I might as well go all in and dig up some more nuggets of sorrow and bitter disappointment. But, this part of the posed question is supposed to be the Superman to my Lois Lane. Well, the Superman that relieved himself of his powers to be human so that he may have a “normal” life with Lois Lane, Superman. If it still doesn’t make sense, watch Superman II with Christopher Reeve.

When it comes to the “best” loss, which I believe doesn’t even exist, especially if it’s against a rival, I have to really put my thinking cap on. I don’t remember a time when I watched the Big Game and I felt satisfied after a loss. How does a team achieve the “best” loss anyway? Since the Big Game has been in existence, I don’t recall Cal fans taking the high road after an L. On second thought, a certain Big Game does come to mind. Mind you, this isn’t a moral victory by a long shot. It’s merely a glimpse into the past where an all-time Cal great first earned his wings:

November 23, 2013 It was a season that can easily be forgotten for a multitude of reasons. It was the first season of now head coach Sonny Dykes. And, a true freshman out of Marin Catholic by the name of Jared Goff led a far below achieving Cal Bears team to the final game of this miserable 1-11 campaign.

There were no heroics in this game. There were no pivotal moments that evoked the slightest bit of hope of a possible victory. All hope was void, as evidenced in the 63-13 drubbing by the Stanford Cardinal. But, and I say this with the tiniest grains of salt here, it was the first “Big Game” of Jared Goff’s career as a Golden Bear.

He didn’t fill up the stat sheet as he later would come to do in his illustrious career at Cal. Becoming, statistically, the greatest Cal quarterback of all time. No, his numbers (10-19, 194 yds. 1TD) were modest against a stacked Stanford squad. When you look beyond the numbers, it was his poise that made us believers.

Despite suffering a knee injury early on and miss the remainder of the game, Goff displayed the type of moxy that forced you to take notice. It was the game that solidified Goff’s future as a Golden Bear to watch for seasons to come. Sadly, Goff never defeated the Cardinal in three attempts in his collegiate career. But on a brighter note, Cal fans knew they had a legitimate quarterback that “could” bring the winds of change in the Stanford-dominated Big Game rivalry.

Looks like I’ve come full circle. Initially, I bemoaned the idea of recalling best and worst losses. I felt that there was no way to distinguish the two-moreover distinguishing them against your bitter rival. No way. It wasn’t possible.

In the end, after some serious “cup-is-half-full” analysis, there was/is some validity to the question. No, this experience doesn’t diminish the hurt or disappointment. But, it did allow me to adjust my perspective and come to the conclusion that losses, best and worst, come down to team expectation.

If your team is expected to win and does not, it hurts. You line up the excuses: bad play offensively and defensively, the ref blows a call, critical injury to a star player, etc. Bottom line is when you’re expected to win and your team doesn’t follow through, it’s a gut punch. It’s sickening. However, if your team has nothing to lose, and promptly gets their tails handed to them, it’s not so bad. The idea of winning is so far out of the realm of reality, you’re forced to look at the underlying stories that may pay dividends in future meetings.

In Cal’s case, we never cashed in on those dividends against Stanford, but let’s not overlook the ascension of Cal football in recent seasons and their new place among the elite in the Pac-12 Conference. Sometimes you have to see the forest beyond the tree. In this sad bit of irony, there will always be a tree. A stinking, tall, Palo Alto tree.

Feature image courtesy of John Martinez Pavilga/ Flickr

Violence Against Women Up, College Football Down

The words of Vince Lombardi are echoing repeatedly in my head, “What the hell is going on out here?!”

We’re months away from the 2016 season kickoff, and frankly, I’m the least enthused about the upcoming season. As much as it pains me to say this, the off-season’s reports of sexual assaults by football players around the country have put a serious damper on my mood surrounding my most beloved sport.

I’m not naïve by any stretch of the imagination. These senseless and cowardice acts have plagued campuses for decades. It just pains me to see campus administrators and coaches turning a blind eye to such disgusting acts to preserve the cash cow that college athletics (more notably football and basketball) have become. The recent scandal and fallout at Baylor University  puts such practices in plain sight.

Before Baylor University, there was the alleged sexual assault by two  University of Tennessee players. The sickening part of the University of Tennessee case is you actually have a football player doing the right thing and supporting the victim. Instead of being commended for standing up to poor cultural standards in the Tennessee locker room, he is instead ostracized and forced to transfer schools. It infuriates me that such ignorance and blatant disregard of life is permitted at higher learning institutions.

When racial tensions were high at the University of Missouri, you had the football team band together for a common good that affected not only the campus, but the state as well.  Where is that same banding together against violent acts against women on campus? Instead, there is a complete 180 degree turn in regards to women’s safety on the Missouri campus, which tragically earned the second-highest rate of sexual assault incidents in the nation.

These women are someone’s sister, daughter, girlfriend, or otherwise. I can only imagine what would be going through the head of a player, a coach, or an administrator if a sexual assault had been committed against someone they knew. I’m assuming the first thought would be to identify, locate and beat the (expletive) out of the attacker. The idea of someone violating a loved one brings up feelings of guilt and helplessness, which lead to anger. Ultimately, those feelings of anger lead to acting upon them toward the guilty party.

In the wake of all this madness, college athletic departments have adopted more stringent player evaluations and are now “more” cognizant of the moral character incoming players possess. It’s all quite convenient at this juncture to take such a stand now. Before the curtains were thrown all the way back, these events would have been simply glossed over and categorized as isolated incidents where things just got “out of hand.”

College Football’s Cover Up

Usually, position battles, preseason rankings, Heisman, and All-American candidates flood the college football airwaves. Yes, these conversations are still present, however you can’t help but feel a little dissatisfied that those same conversations share the same narrative as the disgusting actions that are occurring on campuses nationwide. I feel it’ll get harder and harder for telecasts to cover the latest events of the season without addressing the most glaring blight on the college football landscape. However, the sports media have become quite adept and brushing aside the most important topics to maintain viewership.

The newest distraction of college football is the satellite camps and the attention it’s gathered over the past months. It’s interesting how college coaches and the NCAA are squawking back and forth over the legitimacy of this practice, yet take a ‘pass-the-buck’ approach when it comes to women’s safety on college campuses when collegiate players are involved. Again, I guess it only matters when it hits close to home or it begins to affect the bottom line, whichever comes first.

I could care less about satellite camps. I could care less about which coach is subliminally taking digs at another coach in regards to satellite camps. What I do care about is the safety of students on campus. It should be the primary goal for universities. Students come from far and wide to pursue an education at higher learning institutions. There, students are bombarded with coursework, managing/developing a social life, and self-discovery.

It’s the responsibility of the institution to have preventative measures to guard against violence towards students, but also to treat victims with a sense of humanity and compassion regardless of how it may affect the guilty party involved. Unfortunately, if the guilty party happens to be a high profile athlete, chances are the victim may be discouraged from coming forward to report their attack(er).

Some Perspective

I’m not trying to make a hokey statement about nationwide campus peace. But collegiate administrators, coaches, and players have a responsibility to represent their institution and themselves. I would be ashamed to be a part of a team with players that committed such acts against women. Yes, this may break every team bond and code to speak ill of my teammates. However, as a man, there are certain things one stands for and then there are certain things a man doesn’t.

I’d be careless to think that every situation that involves violence is the same. There are back-stories upon back-stories that either gets the gist of it reported on or the source of the incident isn’t reported at all, and is simply centered on the actions taken place. My wife always says, “There are three sides to every story…your truth, their truth, and the truth.” Somewhere in there, you’ll discover the answers.

Don’t get me wrong, situations that end in violence should not be justified. But if we’re going to combat this trend, we need to understand each situation in its entirety. Unfortunately, there are so many scenarios in which violence against women has occurred. Here’s an idealistic approach- require all incoming students to attend a mandatory campus conduct course during their student orientation. This course would be signed by each enrollee after attending. It would be used as a legally binding document in the event legal action is brought upon a student who violates the agreement, and holding them accountable for their actions. This agreement will also hold students that make false allegations against other students just as accountable.

As the days approach opening day kickoff, my hope is to feel less jaded about all that’s transpired over the past few months and generate some excitement for the upcoming season. I pray that universities, players, coaches and the like can approach the situation of violence towards women with the intention of bringing greater awareness,  higher accountability, and stronger conviction when tackling this dangerous phenomena plaguing college football.

I don’t expect any major changes in the immediate future. However, if college football doesn’t right their ship, don’t be too surprised that the amount of support that elevated college football to the stratosphere of popularity, suddenly gives way and the entire institution of college football as we know it will come crashing down with no one to pick up the pieces.

Can Davis Webb Keep Cal Relevant?

Fans of the California Golden Bears are in for a pleasant surprise this fall. Cal just landed senior graduate transfer Davis Webb, formerly of Texas Tech. Webb, familiar with coach Sonny Dykes’ air raid philosophy, chose Cal over his previous destination, the University of Colorado. As a graduate transfer, Webb is immediately eligible to play for the upcoming 2016 season. Although there is a battle brewing as to who the successor will be to Cal’s quarterback god Jared Goff, it’s easy to assume Webb’s familiarity with the air raid passing scheme will give him the upper hand heading to training camp this summer. With the recent addition of Webb, is he the key to keeping Cal relevant this season?

Webb, a 6’4″, 230-pound pocket passer, put up fairly respectable numbers during his three years at Texas Tech (5,557 yards, 46 touchdowns, and 22 interceptions). Webb was later supplanted by sophomore Patrick Mahomes early into his third season with the Red Raiders. I know what you’re thinking- how can an ousted quarterback actually benefit the Golden Bears? Simple really, the benefit is experience. It’s very infrequent that you lose your all-time passer and follow it up with a potential replacement with vast knowledge of the very system his current team is running. It couldn’t have been scripted any better.

Not only does Cal benefit from a system- experienced quarterback, but Cal returns an intact, veteran offensive line that played relatively well in some moments. Moreover, Cal has as much of a diversified back field as any team in the Pac-12, or even the nation for that fact. When times get rough, and they most likely will, it’ll give the quarterback some stability to lean on such a dynamic running back corps.

 

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         Photo courtesy of  Flickr/John Martinez Pavllga 

Upon hearing of Webb’s transfer to Cal, I was pretty excited. It’s quite rare to have such a windfall from departing star quarterback and follow up with a quality successor (see Everett Golson in for Jameis Winston. Most recently, Vernon Adams in for Marcus Mariota). Although this seems too good to be true, which it is most times, I had to look a bit closer at Webb. He has all the physical measurables. His arm checks out. He can make all the throws. But, something stood out as I was looking into his season and career stat lines, completion percentage. In the two-plus seasons and briefly into his third, he completed a little over 60 percent. His final season, in which he was replaced, he completed 53 percent. To be fair, that was just the one game he played. Even if I were to omit the final season, only completing a little over 60 percent of pass attempts does give me a little cause for concern. It’s not like Cal is returning the same receiving corps from last season, far from it. So, it’s going to be very interesting how Webb will be able to vibe with his receivers going into camp and then onto the season, provided he’s starting. Cal plays a challenging schedule and his ability to get rid of the ball and keep the chains moving in this pass-happy offense is paramount.

All in all, a lot of things need to come together for coach Sonny Dykes, offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, and the Golden Bears. I do believe the addition of Davis Webb certainly gives the Bears more wherewithal in the experience category. How this translates to wins, I have no clue. But moving forward with a player who has performed at the major college football level for a team with the same philosophy, you cannot ask for better odds. Besides, if Webb does not pan out, the news of his transfer didn’t affect the quarterback battle during the spring game, which means Cal isn’t tied to one option at quarterback.

At this stage of the game, it’s all speculation. When the season begins, then we can take stock in Webb’s ability to lead the Golden Bears. I will say this,  if Cal can go into conference play with zero, or at the most one loss, Webb will have done enough to keep the Cal Bears relevant.