Saturday, October 4, 2008

Defense a big hit in Cal's victory over Arizona State

That sound you heard Saturday afternoon from Memorial Stadium was Cal linebacker Zack Follett hitting Arizona State quarterback Rudy Carpenter at 100 mph midway through the fourth quarter, separating him from the ball and, most likely, his senses.

It was a huge hit. A violent hit. It was a great defensive play on a day in which Cal’s defense made big plays seem commonplace. And if you’re looking for a signature moment in Cal’s 24-14 victory, Follett’s payback sack has my vote.

Follett had been waiting nearly a year for another shot at Carpenter after last October’s 31-20 loss to ASU in Tempe.

“That felt good, man,” Follett said. “That was a long hit coming since last year. Last year he kind of got in my ear a little bit, talking a little trash. A long hit coming. A year of frustration was let out on that play.”

Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan saw the play unfold just a few feet yards in front of him.

“I had an (offensive) tackle, and I had him stood up, ready to pull him,” Jordan said. “I saw Zack make contact, and I literally might have stopped playing and watched. I told the offensive lineman, ‘Your quarterback just died.’ ”

No, not literally. But Carpenter did leave the locker room on crutches and with a foot in a boot after the game. Follett’s sack and forced fumble forced the Sun Devils to punt and helped kill their comeback bid.

Quarterback Nate Longshore, starting for the first time this season after losing his job to Kevin Riley, deserves some credit for Saturday’s win. He completed 17 of 28 passes for 198 yards and three touchdowns with one interception.

Running back Shane Vereen, starting for the injured Jahvid Best, did his part, rushing for 98 hard-fought yards and catching five passes for 51 yards. LaReylle Cunningham, Cameron Morrah and Nyan Boateng each caught a touchdown pass.

But if you want to pass out game balls, you might want to hand a dozen or so to the defense. The Bears held ASU to 71 net yards rushing and 2.2 yards per carry. They sacked Carpenter three times, Jordan notching two. They picked him off twice -- Chris Conte got one and red-shirt freshman Sean Cattouse the other – and broke up countless other passes. Cornerback Syd’Quan Thompson, as usual, played out of his mind.

Carpenter completed 20 of 35 passes for just 165 yards. Of course it’s hard to complete passes when you’re running for your life, trying to escape, Follett, Jordan, Tyson Alualu and a cast of thousands.

“Our biggest goal going into the game was stopping the run,” Follett said. “Even though they have a great passing attack, they came off their bye week saying how they were going to be more physical, they were going to run the ball. That was our first priority, and at home we usually take care of the run. So we came out of there fired up.

“As far as taking care of the pass, I’ve got to give credit to the ‘D’ line and to the pressure (defensive coordinator Bob) Gregory called. That’s what I think took care of the pass. Then after getting pressure on them, the (defensive backs) made plays. It was great defensive play all around.”

The longer the season goes, the better handle Cal’s defense seems to get on its new 3-4 base scheme, which allows the Bears to keep four linebackers – a team strength – on the field. Last year their base defense was the 4-3.

“The 3-4 did amazing,” Jordan said. “It gives us one less ‘D’ lineman, but it seems to put more pressure on than last year.”

Cal’s defense had four sacks and three interceptions, returning one for a touchdown, in a 42-7 victory over Colorado State two weeks ago. So Saturday’s game makes it back-to-back dominant defensive performances by the Bears.

“People are telling us this is the best they’ve seen the defense play so far,” Follett said. “The defense is going to get better as it gets more comfortable in it and starts knowing our strengths and what we can do and gets a little more experience. Because we’re still a little young.”

Cal needed its defense to step up, especially in the second half. That’s when the Bears’ offense scored just seven points and repeatedly stalled, giving ASU chance after chance to get back into the game. Longshore was 14 of 22 for 159 yards and two scores in the first half. In the second, he completed 3 of just 6 passes for 39 yards and one touchdown. Vereen had 111 of his 149 combined yards rushing and receiving in the first half.

“As an offense, we need to do better,” Longshore said. “It’s always nice to win. But in order for us to continue to have success, I have to do better.”

“The defense played hard all day for us,” Vereen said. “They’re a big reason why we were able to win this game. They picked us up.”

Longshore was right. Cal’s offense will need to play better, especially in back-to-back-to-back games against Oregon (Nov. 1) at home then USC (Nov. 8) and Oregon State (Nov. 15) on the road.

Arizona State was picked to finish second in the Pac-10. But the Sun Devils, who have now lost three straight games to UNLV, Georgia and Cal, were clearly overrated entering the season. And Colorado State offered little opposition to the Bears. Tougher tests are coming, and Cal will need more help from its offense.

Longshore played well enough to keep the starting job for at least another week. Cal coach Jeff Tedford said Longshore would “probably” start against Arizona on Oct. 18 after Cal’s this coming week’s bye. “We’ll talk about it.”

Tedford bristled when asked whether he may have created a quarterback controversy by benching Riley, who went 3-1 as a starter, for Longshore, who struggled last year down the stretch when Cal’s season imploded.

“You guys create the controversy,” Tedford said. “I don’t create the controversy. We just put in who we think is going to give us the best chance to win. I’m not saying it can’t be Kevin. I’m saying there are certain things we watch and evaluate, and we’ll make decisions. We’ll evaluate this game and we’ll look to see what Nate could have done better and what Kevin would have done differently.

“I’ve said it many times. It may take both those guys to get where we need to go. … Both those guys support each other. They’re completely fine. … There is no lock on the quarterback position. We may play both of them.”

Tedford said he made the quarterback switch Saturday in an effort to get a faster start.

“I felt we’d been starting a little bit slow, so I wanted to switch roles a little bit and let Nate have an opportunity to start the game. For all of our games, we haven’t started real fast offensively. We’ve had big runs, but we’ve missed some plays in the passing game. So I wanted to change it up a little bit and see if we could create a spark.”

Longshore certainly helped Cal get off to a faster start Saturday. But it was Cal’s defense that played the role of closer.

“To tell you the truth, I like that,” Follett said. “I hate to see the offense stall, but that’s more opportunity for us on the field. The day we were having today, that was nothing but fun. We were having a lot of fun. I was like, ‘If we go three and out, oh well, we’ll go back out and get a sack or an interception.’ That’s how the day was for us. It was a fun game.”

A day filled with big hits and big plays by Cal’s defense.

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