Saturday, December 27, 2008

Cal's Follett, Best come up big in Emerald Bowl win

Cal and Miami were tied 17-17. The clock was down to 3:45 and counting in the fourth quarter. My money was on the Emerald Bowl going to overtime Saturday night at AT&T Park.

Then Cal senior linebacker Zack Follett stepped up and did what he had done so often before in his career. He made a huge, explosive, game-changing play that paved the way for Cal’s 24-17 win before an Emerald Bowl record, sellout crowd of 42,268.

Great players make big plays in big games at critical moments.

This was a made-for-Follett moment, and he didn’t disappoint. When I saw a Cal defender at the far end of the field running 100 mph and knocking the ball out of Miami quarterback Jacory Harris’ hands, I had no doubt that speeding bullet was Follett.

Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan grabbed the loose ball at the 9 and returned 7 yards to the 2. Two plays later, Nate Longshore hit freshman Anthony Miller with a 2-yard game-winner.

“We all know Zack is the sack master,” Jordan said. “If you need a big play, Zack’s going to come up with it.”

Let’s set the stage for Follett’s heroics. The Hurricanes had roared back from a 14-0 first-quarter deficit. They had tied the game on Matt Bosher’s 22-yard field goal with 9:13 left and had held Cal to just three second-half points.

Now, Miami faced third-and-8 from its 22. Harris, a true freshman, took the snap and rolled to his left, looking for an open receiver. But as Harris rolled, Follett shot past right offensive tackle Chris Rutledge then hit another gear.

“I was battling against those tackles all game,” Follett said. “They’re big and athletic. I kind of said something at the pep rally that made them mad.

“Once (Harris) put the ball down and started to roll out, I knew I had him.”

Follett said that as he closed in, a message from defensive line coach Tosh Lupoi came into his head at high volume: Bring the “hammer” down.

Before Harris had a chance to throw, Follett launched himself through the air and jackhammered the ball out of his hands.

“He’s a tenacious player,” Cal defensive coordinator Bob Gregory said. “He goes hard all the time.”

Not surprisingly, it was Follett who gathered the defense on the sidelines just minutes before that series and implored his teammates to make a big play.

“He’s the guy all the guys look to,” Gregory said. “Those are the kind of guys who win games for you.”

Follett had nine tackles, two sacks, four tackles for loss, one forced fumble and one pass defensed. And yes, he earned Defensive Player of the Game honors in what had to be landslide vote by media members.

Cal running back Jahvid Best, Follett’s big-play counterpart, earned Offensive Player of the Game honors in what surely was another landslide decision.

Best rushed for an Emerald Bowl record 194 yards and two touchdowns on just 20 carries. He averaged 9.3 yards per carry. Best’s 1-yard run gave Cal a 7-0 lead midway through the first quarter, then he added a 42-yard scoring burst with 4:55 left in the opening quarter.

Going into the game, Best vs. Miami’s leaky run defense was clearly the most critical matchup. He had rushed for a combined 512 yards against Stanford and Washington in his two previous games. Miami had allowed 691 yards rushing to Georgia Tech and North Carolina State in its final two regular-season games.

“We had him in the backfield a couple times and guys couldn’t wrap up,” Miami coach Randy Shannon said. “Which is amazing, because we’ve been working on it the last two weeks.”

“We came out and we made a few mistakes,” Miami linebacker Glenn Cook said. “The last couple weeks at the end of the season we made the same mistakes. He’s a great player. He took advantage of them.”

The fact that he had set an Emerald Bowl rushing record was news to Best. He had more important matters on his mind.

“This game just meant so much to me, playing for these seniors,” Best said. “I was playing a lot for (fullback) Will Ta’ufo’ou.”

Ta’ufo’ou helped open running lanes for Best. Then Best did the rest with his blazing speed that seemed to catch the speedy Hurricanes off guard.

“I don’t think anybody’s really ready for Jahvid,” Ta’ufo’ou said. “I think people know he’s good, but maybe they don’t really know how good. He’s explosive.”

Follett and Best saved Cal coach Jeff Tedford from what would have been tons of second-guessing from fans and the media for his decision to start Longshore over Kevin Riley.

Longshore did throw the game-winning touchdown pass, a beautiful strike to Miller, who made his first career catch. And he avoided the killer turnovers that have plagued him. Longshore, though, completed just 10 of 21 passes for 121 yards, pedestrian numbers..

Riley, a redshirt-sophomore, started the final three regular-season games and was 6-3 as a starter. His numbers weren’t great this season, but benching him for the bowl game still seemed like a strange move. Maybe there’s more to this story than what Tedford said was Longshore’s great two weeks of practice.

Tedford said he never considered switching to Riley during the game, not even in the second half when Longshore was struggling and Cal’s offense had ground to a halt.

“I thought he managed the game well,” Tedford said of Longshore.

Whatever. Hopefully next season Tedford can pick a starting quarterback and stick with him, whether it’s Riley, Brock Mansion or some other candidate. This quarterback shuffle wasn’t good for Riley, Longshore or the Bears’ offense.

Yeah, right. That’s a story for another time. This is a time for Cal fans to savor an Emerald Bowl victory and the big plays they got from Follett and Best.

Friday, December 26, 2008

It will be strength vs. weakness when Cal runs against Miami

As they prepared for Saturday night’s Emerald Bowl at AT&T Park against Miami, the Cal Bears made sure to let us know how fast, athletic and talented the Hurricanes are. Hey, that’s Football 101. You always praise your opponent in public.

But I wonder what the Bears are saying to each other when they’re away from the television cameras, digital recorders and notepads. My guess? I bet they can’t stop talking about how much fun it’s going to be run the ball against Miami.

College football is all about matchups, about finding an edge then exploiting it. And this matchup, Cal’s running game vs. Miami’s run defense, clearly favors the Bears.

Just consider some of the numbers.

In its next-to-last regular-season game, Miami gave up 472 rushing yards, the second most in school history, in a 41-23 loss to Georgia Tech. Nine days later, North Carolina State rushed for 219 yards in a 38-28 victory over the Hurricanes. That’s 691 rushing yards allowed in two games.

In its final two regular-season games against Stanford and Washington, Cal ran for 718 yards. Jahvid Best rushed for 201 yards against Stanford then a team-record 311 against Washington. Best has rushed for 1,459 yards this season and is averaging 8.0 yards per carry. Backup Shane Vereen has added 679 yards, gaining 5.1 yards a pop.

“We’re going to really have to run to the ball,” Miami middle linebacker Glenn Cook said Tuesday during a press conference at AT&T. “If you don’t, they take it to the house. They have a lot of speed.”

Miami has allowed an average of 184 rushing yards per game. The Hurricanes may be fast, but their defense is undersized and young. They do have a pair of 300-pound tackles, but no other starter weighs more than 266 pounds. Cal’s starting offense line averages 307 pounds. Three freshmen and two sophomores start on defense for Miami.

Cal’s defense, which has intercepted 23 passes, could have a matchup of its own to exploit, facing quarterback Jacory Harris, a true freshman.

Harris saw plenty of action as Robert Marve’s backup during the regular-season in a two-quarterback system. But Marve was suspended for the Emerald Bowl for missing too many classes, which means Harris will start and, most likely, play the entire game. Ironically, Harris’ only other start this season came in Miami’s season-opener against Charleston Southern when Marve was suspended for an incident off the field.

Harris’ numbers aren’t bad. He completed 93 of 153 passes (60.8 percent) with 10 touchdowns and just six interceptions. He ran 40 times for 198 yards.

“He can run the ball and he can throw the ball,” Cal linebacker Zack Follett said. “He’s trying to prove that he’s a passer. Since he’s young, my job is to try to get pressure. So we’ll see if we can get that done.”

At 6-foot-4 and just 185 pounds, Harris looks every bit the freshman. But he actually enrolled at Miami last January and took part in spring practice.

“I’m past the freshman stage,” Harris said. “We consider ourselves, the ones that came early, we consider ourselves sophomores now. Because starting in January, we’ll officially be sophomores anyway. The freshman phase, I think that passed me after the Duke game. I really felt like I could go into a game and take over and control this team.”

Harris threw four touchdown passes and ran for a score in Miami’s 49-31 comeback win over Duke on Oct. 18.

In Miami’s 52-7 victory against overmatched Charleston Southern, Harris passed for 190 and a touchdown and ran for a touchdown.

“Charleston Southern wasn’t a bad opponent,” Harris said. “It’s just that you wouldn’t put them in the same category as Cal. At the same time, playing against Cal is going to be a whole different level because of the speed, the talent, the coaching. Everything is going to be different, just because of those three factors there. That’s going to be the difference.”

Harris said he’s not the same quarterback he was in that Aug. 28 opener.

“My game has changed. I’ve gotten smarter, faster on my reads,” he said. “I’m more of a team player. I learned to love my teammates, and they love me back. So it’s a mutual bond between us. So we can go out there and have fun.”

Monday, December 22, 2008

Ex-49er Jamie Williams breaking new ground at Academy of Art University

When I was newspaper sports writer covering the 49ers beat, tight end Jamie Williams was someone I relied on for deep, philosophical answers on a wide range of subjects related to the team.

Williams shattered the stereotype of the tunnel-visioned pro athlete who rarely thought of issues beyond the playing field or locker room.

Some 14 years since retiring from the NFL, Williams is still busting stereotypes and dancing to his own unique beat. Make that, Dr. Williams. After playing his final NFL season with the Raiders in 1994, Williams went on to earn a masters degree in mass communications from San Jose State and his doctorate in education from the University of San Francisco.

Williams now has the perfect job for someone who likes to go against the grain. He’s the athletic director at the Academy of Art University in San Francisco, building an NCAA Division II program from the ground up. This is the Urban Knights’ inaugural year.

NCAA sports at a private art university may seem like an odd mix to many. But to Williams, it’s a perfect match.

“Personally, I’ve always broken the mold,” Williams said. “Somebody just came up and showed me a picture of when I had dreds (in the NFL) before anybody did. I’m smiling in the picture like no problem.

“When I was in college (at Nebraska) I was doing the creative, artsy thing. Everybody thought it was different, but I was the top cat in my class in terms of that field of study (broadcast journalism). At the time, I was chasing linebackers in the Big 8.

“That’s my big problem, people putting restraints on others because of what they don’t believe. I think that’s the wrong answer. If a kid loves art, has a passion for it, but is also proficient in a sport, who are we to take that opportunity away from them?”

On the school’s athletics web site, Williams has his mission statement. It reads: “I seek to inspire through the three A’s: Academics, the feeder of intellect and wisdom; Arts, the emancipator of spirit and expression; and Athletics, the builder of physicality and courage.”

The university has six men’s teams (baseball, basketball, cross country, golf, soccer and track and field) and seven women’s teams (basketball, volleyball, softball, cross country, soccer, tennis and track and field). And yes, these teams offer scholarships.

Not surprisingly, as a new program the Urban Knights are taking their lumps this year, and Williams said he has experienced some dark days.

“But the highs outweigh the lows for sure,” Williams said. “Because there’s a there there. There wasn’t before I came and put the (program) together.”

Former Warrior Peter Thibeaux is part of the coaching staff that Williams hired. Thibeaux coaches the men’s basketball team while ex-Stanford and WNBA guard Lindsey Yamasaki leads the women’s team.

Williams credits university president Dr. Elisa Stephens and her father, former president Dr. Richard A. Stephens, for the decision to create an athletic department. According to Williams, they’re both “huge sports fans” who want to include a few traditional college touches to their non-traditional university as a way to bring students together.

“They understand that athletics can kind of break down inherent fragmentation that you find at schools that have a lot of different disciplines,” Williams said. “Sometimes there’s a disconnect there.”

Of course there are plenty of students who question the move.

“People inherently don’t like change,” Williams said. “The athletics part is not just about going to a game and cheering. It’s also about intramurals and living a holistic life with wellness. That’s all part of it, too.”

Thursday, December 11, 2008

Sharks find a new way to win

So how good are the Sharks?

So good that style points are starting to matter. When they “muck and grind” their way to a 2-0 victory, as coach Todd McLellan described Thursday night’s win over Anaheim, you start to wonder if the flu has hit the entire team.

We not only expect the Sharks to win every game, we also expect them to win with that explosive, high-octane, no-shot-is-a-bad-shot, pinball style of play they have used in their blistering 23-3-2 start. They’re the NHL’s answer to the 2007 New England Patriots, where a win just didn’t feel right unless Tom Brady threw four touchdown passes and the Pats scored at least 30 points.

The Sharks have set the bar higher than Jody Shelley’s pain threshold. And when a 2-0 win has you wondering what went wrong, well, that’s a clear sign that you have a special team.

“It wasn’t quite the kind of game we’ve been playing, the free-flowing game,” McLellan said. … It was good for us to be in a game like that, a little tighter, a little more physical.”

If nothing else, the Sharks proved they could win the old-fashioned way, with defense, lights out goal tending from Evgeni Nabokov and a physical scrum or three.

This is a Sharks team that took 57 shots against Nashville earlier this season. They entered Thursday night’s game averaging 36.1 shots. They’ve been overwhelming opponents with mass quantities of shots on goal.

In their win over Anaheim, the Sharks took only 27 shots and were actually out-shot 30-27. I know, I know. Shocking.

The Sharks hadn’t played a game since Saturday. So that layoff probably had something to do with the sluggish offense. Then there were the Ducks, who have a way of bringing games to a grinding halt.

“They’re a physical team,” McLellan said. “No surprise. They play hard. … That’s the kind of game they play. It’s very effective for them. I thought we did a pretty good job along the boards and in front of the net when we had to.”

The Sharks got a first-period goal from Patrick Marleau, who lasered a shot past Jonas Hiller from just beyond the right face-off circle. Then in the second period, Devin Setoguchi knocked in a rebound from in front of the net.

The way Nabokov was playing, turning back all 31 shots, that was more than enough scoring for the Sharks.

“Nabby’s Nabby,” Setoguchi said. “He’s going to stop the puck when he sees it. He’s an all-star caliber goalie. He played great.”

“When I didn’t see the puck, the guys blocked the puck,” Nabokov said, praising his teammates.

One fact was verified Thursday night. These two teams really don’t like each other. Shelley, the usual fisticuffs suspect, got into an early smack down with Anaheim’s George Parros. No surprise there. But typically mild-mannered forward Milan Michalek was in the middle of a couple scrums and even drew a 10-minute misconduct penalty, as did Anaheim’s Rob Niedermayer. Sharks defenseman Rob Blake drew five minutes for spearing.

“It’s a rivalry game,” said Sharks center Jeremy Roenick. “It’s a big rivalry. We have to keep our dominance at home. It’s always fun. It’s always heated.”

Well, it wasn’t that much fun for Roenick in the first period when Ducks defenseman Brett Festerling knocked him into the boards, sending Roenick to the locker room for treatment.

“Not good,” Roenick said when asked how he felt. “Shoulder came right out.”

Even so, Roenick returned to the ice in the second period when he was hit with two penalties at once, 2:00 for roughing and 2:00 for unsportsmanlike conduct when he argued the call.

“I don’t know what the refs are thinking,” Roenick said. “I don’t know what they’re looking for on penalties anymore. … Sometimes they punish you for working hard.”

Wednesday, December 10, 2008

U.S. House member takes aim at dreaded BCS

I don't know Joe Barton. I'd never heard about him until a few minutes ago. But he's my new hero. Barton is a member of the U.S. House of Representatives from Texas. He's the ranking Republican on the House Engergy and Commerce Committee. And he plans to introduce legislation that would make college football get rid of the BCS and adopt a playoff system to determine its national champion. As Marv Albert would say, "Yes!" I'm typically not much of a hater, but I hate the BCS. It's absurd to have computers and pollsters determining the champion in big-time college football.

President-elect Barack Obama has already come out in favor of a playoff system for college football. Two other Reps., a democrat from Illinois and a republican from Texas, are going to co-sponsor Barton's legislation. It will probably take political pressure or legislation to force those who are getting rich off the BCS to get rid of a system that insults the intelligence of college football fans, players and coaches throughout the nation.

We can always hope.

Sunday, December 7, 2008

It's time for 49ers to get rid of "interim" from Singletary's coaching title

Well, I’ve seen enough evidence to make a call.

It’s time for the 49ers to strip the interim tag from Mike Singletary’s title, give him a long-term contract and make him their official coach.

Am I right or am I right? Surely John, Jed and Denise-DeBartolo York, the 49ers’ deciders, are having similar thoughts after watching the 49ers beat the Jets 24-14 on Sunday at Candlestick Park.

Under Singletary, the 49ers are 3-3 after back-to-back wins over the Bills and Jets. They could easily be 4-2 if not for a meltdown late in the fourth quarter of a loss to Arizona when offensive coordinator Mike Martz had a brain-lock or two.

It’s not just the record that speaks so loudly in Singletary’s favor. It’s the transformation this team has made in just seven short weeks since he replaced the fired Mike Nolan. They say that a team takes on the personality of its coach. In this case, the 49ers have become intense, passionate and physical, mirroring the traits of their coach, a Hall of Fame linebacker and former Chicago Bear, who learned his craft under Buddy Ryan and “Iron” Mike Ditka.

“I’m not the guy to make those decisions, but obviously we all love coach Sing,” 49ers running back and special teams ace Michael Robinson said. “For some odd reason, he has a way of motivating you, especially on game day. You just want to go out there and fight to your death for him. Know what I mean?

“Obviously the credibility factor comes in. You know he’s been through it. When he says stuff, I think the guys listen a little bit extra. He’s done a great job. I hope he does get it.”

You’d have to search long and hard to find a 49er who doesn’t feel the same way about Singletary, especially now that their hard work is paying off in wins.

“He brings so much to the table, from a former player to a Hall of Fame player, to a guy who’s been waiting for this position for so long,” 49ers linebacker Patrick Willis said. “I’ve always believed just keep grinding, keep grinding, keep grinding until the opportunity comes, and when it comes, seize it. That’s how he’s been with the head coaching job. I’m excited for him. I know our team respects him a lot. … He coaches with intensity and passion.

“I want him to stay. I want him to be our coach. I’m excited. Who knows what’s going to happen. All I know is we’re going to continue to play for ourselves, the organization and for him.”

Are you listening John, Jed and Denise? If Singletary is good enough for your rising defensive super star, he should be good enough for you. Make the move now. Don’t make Singletary go through some long, drawn-out performance review after the season before you decide his fate. There’s no need for that type of drama.

I know some 49ers fans are pining for Seahawks coach Mike Holmgren and see him as the team’s savior, a link to its glorious past. But Holmgren has promised his family that he’s going to take at least one year off from the NFL. Even if Holmgren changes his mind, I don’t think he has the energy and passion to tackle the 49ers job at this stage of his career.

Singletary is the right man for the job. He’s already made a huge impact on the team

“I think Mike’s done a great job,” Jets coach Eric Mangini said. “They play hard, they play tough. We’ve seen it every single game they’ve played the same way, and you have to be able to match that.”

How about that? An opposing coach talking about matching the 49ers’ intensity and toughness.

Singletary coaches as fearlessly as his players have been playing. The 49ers opened Sunday’s game with an onsides kick and went for it twice on fourth-and-1. No, they didn’t recover that kick. But they made the first fourth-and-short and converted the second when Jets nose tackle Kris Jenkins jumped offsides.

Singletary said he was just sending a message with the game-opening gamble.

“We knew we wanted to set the tone from the very beginning of the game and just let them know, let our players know – because they didn’t know we were going to do an onsides kick, our players,” Singletary said. “So we just let the jets know and let our guys feel that, ‘Hey, you know what? We’re going all-out. This is our game. We’re approaching it that way and you’ll see it from the very beginning.’ ”

That aggressive approach is just part of the 49ers’ emerging personality under Singletary.

“When you take the few games that we’ve played, I think one thing that jumps out right away is that we play hard,” Singletary said. “The next thing that jumps out is we play fast. Then the other thing that jumps out is we play pretty physically. We’re still not playing as smart as I would like for us to be. But we’re getting there.”

Hey, three out of four ain’t bad.

After the game, Singletary did a good job of dodging questions about his coaching fate with the 49ers. Finally, a questioner asked him point-blank, “You do want this job next year?”

“I’ll say it again,” Singletary said. “Yes, I want the job. I’m going to work as hard as I can, as honestly as I can, and when it’s all said and done, whatever happens, happens. I’m not trying to impress anybody. I’m not trying to prove anything. I’m just being me. So hopefully when it’s all said and done, that’s enough.”

Singletary has already proved he deserves to keep the 49ers job. It’s time to get rid of that interim tag.

Tuesday, December 2, 2008

Bears trying hard not to overlook winless Huskies

Cal’s football mantra and marketing slogan this year has been “Every Game Counts.” But it’s clear that some games count less than others. Take this Saturday’s game at Memorial Stadium against winless Washington. Please.

The 7-4 Bears have already wrapped up a bowl game. They’re going to either the Las Vegas Bowl or, most likely, the Emerald Bowl in San Francisco. The outcome of Saturday’s game probably won’t truly enter into their postseason equation.

This is a game that even Oski and Joe Kapp would have trouble getting excited about.

So it came as no surprise when Cal coach Jeff Tedford showed up at his press conference Tuesday and went all Lou Holtz on us. Well, minus the mumbling and the politically incorrect gaffes. Tedford pointed out repeatedly how dangerous these Huskies are, especially playing in fired coach Tyrone Willingham’s final game and being down to their last chance to avoid a winless season.

This is the same “Beware of Dogs” sermon Tedford has been preaching to his team. And it’s clear that he’s reaching deep into his bag of motivational tricks to prevent a letdown against the Huskies.

Trick No. 1 is a no-brainer. Tedford has already pulled out the videotape of Cal’s 37-23 loss to Washington last season at Husky Stadium and showed it to his team. That loss ranks as arguably the worst and most embarrassing in Tedford’s tenure at Cal.

It wasn’t just the fact that the Bears lost to a struggling Washington team that was missing injured quarterback Jake Locker. It’s the way that they lost. The Huskies rushed for 360 yards that day. Louis Rankin carried 21 times for 224 yards. Brandon Johnson added 121 yards on 23 carries.

After the game, the usually mild-mannered Tedford tore into his players at a volume you’d expect from Bobby Knight.

“The last time we played these guys, they embarrassed us,” Tedford said. “They knocked us off the ball. They were more physical.”

If there’s anything a football team hates, it’s getting physically manhandled.

“I remember the defense getting beat up pretty much the whole day,” Cal linebacker Anthony Felder said. “We played pretty bad that day. I think even if you were trying to forget it, the coaches wouldn’t let you.”

“I think our guys will be pretty focused to get some revenge,” Cal cornerback Darian Hagan said.

The Bears entered last year’s game in Seattle in a terrible slump. They had lost four of their past five games and were coming off a 24-17 loss to USC. Even so, Felder said the Bears took the Huskies lightly.

“I don’t think we were prepared mentally,” Felder said.

This shapes us as an even bigger “trap” game for the Bears. I mean, it’s not easy going oh-for August, September, October and November in college football, as the Huskies have done. It’s not easy losing 16-13 in double-overtime to a Washington State team that many consider to be one of the worst teams in Pac-10 history.

In their past five games, the Huskies have averaged 9.2 points. That’s tough to do, too.

“When you watch them on tape, these guys do a lot of good things,” Tedford said.


“I don’t think this is your typical 0-11 team,” Cal quarterback Kevin Riley said. “They have athletes all over the field.”

At least Riley didn’t say Washington was the best 0-11 team in America.

After listening to a handful of Cal players on Tuesday, it appears that Tedford has them convinced that the Huskies won’t lie down like dogs on Saturday.

“Every year they play us tough,” Cal fullback Will Ta’ufo’ou said. “No matter what their record is, they’re going to come out and fight.”

“At 0-11, you can’t just keel over,” Cal defensive end Cameron Jordan said. “They have to be fired up. People have too much pride.”

The Bears will try to draw motivation from a multitude of sources this week. They want to finish the season undefeated at Memorial Stadium. They want to give their seniors a victory in their final home game. They certainly don’t want to be the only team to lose to Washington. Consider that the motivation of fear.

Then there’s the matter of Jahvid Best’s pursuit of the Pac-10 rushing crown. He trails Oregon State’s Jacquizz Rodgers by 170 yards. Best is coming off a career-high 201 yards against Stanford.

“I think that would be a great accomplishment for the offense as a whole,” Ta’ufo’ou said.

Finding reasons to get excited about this game is an accomplishment in itself.