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November 5, 2010

Cal hits the road for the final time this season

The last time that Washington State (1-8, 0-6 in the Pac-10) came out on top in a conference game, the Cougars upset then-No. 22 Washington on Nov. 22, 2008, downing the Huskies 16-13 and taking two overtime periods to do it.

To say the least, Wazzu is an easy mark to overlook for the Cal football team, which has No. 1 Oregon, No. 13 Stanford and always-dangerous Washington still left on its schedule.

But, considering that the Bears (4-4, 2-3) have not won a game away from California Memorial Stadium yet this season-and in their last six road trips, overall-this weekend's trip to Pullman, Wash., is all but a sure thing. After all, no team wants to surrender the Cougars' first Pac-10 win in nearly two years.

"I don't think we think about that as much as we think about us getting back on track, getting another win in the win column for us and forgetting about the tough loss that we just had," said junior Cal tailback Shane Vereen.

Last week's 35-7 loss to Oregon State in Corvallis, Ore., cost the Bears more than just a tally mark in the win column; it cost them fifth-year starting quarterback Kevin Riley, who suffered a career-ending knee injury midway through the first quarter.

"It's going to take another week of hard work. Last week, we had a lot of energy, we had a lot of emotion going into the game; it was just that our assignments and our execution weren't there," Vereen said. "Going into the game this week, we know we have to bring that same energy and that same emotion, but at the same time, be able to think and be able to react to what we see and execute our assignments a lot better."

Of particular concern is the offensive line, which allowed five sacks, committed six penalties costing Cal 37 yards and allowed the Beavers' defensive line to smother the running game. Vereen gained just 54 yards on 12 carries, while backup Isi Sofele gained 16 yards on five touches.

"I know they can get the job done," Vereen said. "They had a little bump in the road last week, but I have full and complete confidence in the O-line. I know that this week, they're working hard getting back to doing the things that they do best, and I'm still very confident running behind them."

So, to review: Cal is 0-for its last six road trips and has to break in a new starting quarterback behind a questionable offensive line, not in the friendly confines of Strawberry Canyon, but on the gusty plains of the Palouse.

"I'm making sure that everyone knows that, if we let down, they're a very competitive team," said newly-minted starting signal-caller, junior Brock Mansion. "They play really hard, and the teams that do that always have a good chance to-I don't want to say upset or surprise, because we're not looking at it like that at all-but they have a good chance to win the game. We need to go in with the same attitude and work just as hard and pull out a victory on the road."

With four years in the program and nine career games under his belt, Mansion certainly has the talk down, and this weekend, the Bears will see if he can indeed walk the walk and change the course of an offense that ranks ninth in the Pac-10 in fourth-down conversions (27.3%) and in passing yards per game (197).

"I'm going to be pretty excited," Mansion said, candidly. "I don't want to be too anxious or too excited. I want to do the same thing. I don't want anything to change; I just want the team to feel just as confident with me as they do with Kev, so I'm just going to try and be as level-headed as Kevin was throughout the process."

Mansion, Vereen and Cal's stable of wide receivers-headed by junior Marvin Jones and true freshman Keenan Allen-will face the worst scoring defense in the conference (40.1 points per game allowed), the worst rushing defense (224.3 yards per game), the worst total defense (487.7 ypg) and the second-worst defense on third downs (47.1%).

Under Riley, the Bears owned the conference's best red zone offense, going 28-for-30 inside the opponents' 20-yard line (93.3%) with 21 TDs (12 rushing, nine passing) and seven field goals.

The last time Mansion took his place under center, he engineered a 93-yard scoring drive on the last offensive series against Oregon State, going 6-for-6 with a 45-yard TD pass to tight end Anthony Miller.

Much of what Mansion learned as he settled in last week will aid in attacking a very young and inexperienced Washington State secondary which features three underclassmen and just one senior in Chima Nwachukwu.

"It's a bunch of the same carry-over, and we've just got to be prepared for everything they give us," Mansion said. "Last week, we had a few MA's-mental assignments-and I'm included in that, for protecting the ball and protecting the team. We've got to be prepared for every look that they give us, whatever it is. They could throw in something new that we've never seen, and we've just got to adjust on the fly."

With two and a half combined varsity seasons of tape to go on concerning sophomore corner Daniel Simmons, redshirt freshman corner Nolan Washington and sophomore safety Tyree Toomer, there may indeed be some surprises in store, but not when it comes to a 6-foot-1, 186-pound true freshman strong safety Deone Bucannon, who has spelled Nwachukwu as the starter for the past four weeks and already proven himself as one of the most stingy defenders in the conference.

Bucannon is No. 14 in the Pac-10 with 62 total tackles, and has the second-most solo stops with 52-both conference-bests for freshmen. Bucannon owns one of the Cougars' seven picks (the third-worst team total in the conference), along with a five-yard fumble recovery, two tackles for loss, four pass breakups, five passes defended and one forced fumble.

"Bucannon is a very good tackler, a very good tackler," said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford. "I think, if you look at the improvement on their team, in my opinion, from last year to this year, it's the safeties. Both of them are excellent tacklers that will come up and hit you. I've been very impressed with those guys."

While young and inexperienced, the Washington State secondary does have its strengths.

"They're aggressive, and they play a lot of bail, you know, press man," said Jones, who leads the Bears with 38 catches and 574 receiving yards. "They play a lot more press man than they have in past years. They're physical, just like all corners in the Pac-10, and they don't really disguise a lot."

The Cougars are much improved from seasons past in several facets. While their record says "doormat," they have shown flashes of competitiveness several times this year, losing to the Cardinal by just 10 points two weeks ago and losing to the Ducks by 20 on Oct. 9. While losing by 20 may not seem like much, Washington State hung closer to high-powered Oregon than all but one of the Ducks' other opponents (a 42-31 win over Arizona State).

"Their team speed is much different, they have much better tacklers, they've improved on the offensive line and they pass protect much better than they did a couple years ago, so I think there's a great deal of improvement there," Tedford said.

That progress on the offensive line, though, has been marginal, at best. Sophomore quarterback Jeff Tuel has had to contend with a line that has given up the most sacks in the conference (36 for 193 yards), something that Cal's blitzing, aggressive defense could very well take advantage of, especially with true freshman left tackle John Fullington protecting Tuel's blind side.

"We hope to," Tedford said. "You go into any game like this where they really spread it out and throw it, obviously we can't let them gash us with the run, but putting pressure on the passer is a significant part of what you need to do with a team that throws the ball this much. We hope to try to put some pressure on him."

The Cougars line has also hindered their running game, as Washington State is also dead last in the Pac-10 in rushing offense, churning out 73.2 yards per game on the ground. At the head of that rushing attack is a familiar face in tailback James Montgomery, who was in the Bears' program for two years-as a redshirt in 2006 and as Cal's No. 2 back behind Justin Forsett in 2007-tallying 171 yards and two touchdowns.

In early 2008, Montgomery was granted his release and transferred up north to play for head coach Paul Wulff. But his career then took a turn for the worse.

In the fourth quarter of Washington State's overtime win against SMU last season, Montgomery suffered a seemingly-routine knee injury that turned into a life-threatening ordeal.

As the pain got worse following the game, Montgomery visited the team doctor, who diagnosed him with acute compartment syndrome and operated immediately to save the junior's life.

Now a senior, Montgomery has gained 333 yards on 95 carries, scoring four touchdowns, while also catching eight balls for 43 yards for the Cougars.

"James looks like James. He's a good player, he has good balance, he's strong, he's thick," Tedford said of his former charge. "I'm happy for James that he's able to come back and play, because when he had his injury-and I saw pictures of that-it was a pretty bad deal. James is a great young man. When James was here, he roomed with my son and so I know James as a person as much as anything, and he's always been a quality young man, so when he was injured like that, I was very concerned for him, so I'm very happy to see that he was able to make a comeback."

Montgomery isn't the only weapon at Washington State's disposal. Under center, Tuel-despite being constantly on the run behind an ever-permeable offensive line-ranks fourth in the conference with an average of 248.1 yards per game and has thrown for 2,233 yards through nine contests this season.

"They do a nice job of throwing the ball and Tuel has a lot of confidence in his receivers," Tedford said. "He throws it with authority, so it's important that the secondary and the linebacking corps play a good game."

Combining for 1,419 of those yards are a pair of big-bodied downfield targets in 6-foot-4, 208-pound junior Jared Karstetter and 6-foot-3, 173-pound true freshman Marquess Wilson.

Karstetter ranks No. 4 in the Pac-10 in receptions per game (5.44) and has 49 catches for 534 yards and six touchdown catches, averaging 10.9 yards per reception.

While Karstetter is eighth in the conference with 59.3 receiving yards per game, Wilson tops all Pac-10 players with a staggering 98.3. Wilson is sixth in catches per game (5.11) and owns 46 catches for 885 yards-good for 10th in the conference for all-purpose yards.

"They have a very strong receiving corps and they run great routes," Tedford said. "Tuel has a lot of confidence in their abilities and they have great range. They're big receivers; one's 6-3, the other's 6-4 and I think the other one (Daniel Blackledge) is 6-1. They have very good size, they run very well, catch the ball very well and there's been many times where it looks like a guy's covered, but he's going to throw it to them because he has great confidence in their abilities, and they've gone up and made catches. It's a very explosive crew."

Yes, even the conference's perennial whipping boy has reason to hope. It seems that almost every team in the conference is on the upswing, and, judging by the Bears' conference records over the past several years, Cal is getting left behind. In Tedford's first five seasons, the Bears went 27-14 in Pac-10 play and earned a share of the 2006 conference title. Since then, Cal is just 16-16. So, what can Tedford-and the program-do to reverse that trend?

"Continuing to improve ourselves. It's a constant battle," Tedford said. "It's in recruiting, it's in what we do in the weight room, offseason work, fundamentals, all those types of things. There are physical, mental and emotional pieces to the whole thing that you constantly have to make sure that you're working on. Those are things that we're going to continue to try and improve each and every week and each and every year."

And what better a time to begin that change than against the Cougars? As many improvements as they have made, they are still struggling in many key statistical categories. Tuel is eighth in the Pac-10 in passing efficiency with a rating of 132.9, and guides the conference's second-worst offense (331.3 yards per game), which is dead last in scoring (18.1 points per game), seventh in third-down conversion (38.6%) and eighth in fourth-down conversions (29.7%).

But with all of those numbers, all of those stats and rankings, there is only one that matters: 0-4-The Bears' road record this season.

The flight up to Pullman will be Cal's last roadie this season, barring a possible postseason bowl berth that looks anything but certain despite three games left in Berkeley-where the Bears are undefeated this year against one FCS opponent (UC Davis) and three FBS foes which have a combined 10-14 record. At this point, for the veterans, it's not about the combined 18-6 mark of the three final teams to visit Berkeley; it's about pride. And it all starts this weekend with one simple goal: win the last one on the road.

"I think it's huge," said Vereen, the third-most prolific back in the conference with 774 yards. "As the season dwindles down-we have four games left, 16 quarters to get it done-we've got to take each and every game, week by week, step by step, but at the same time I think these next four weeks are very important to us. We want to close the season out the way that we know we can, regardless of our record, regardless of what bowl game we can go to, or if we can even get to a bowl game at this point. We definitely want to close the season out strong: the way that we know we can close a season."



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