Aug. 29, 2014
The hours separating the 2014 Wildcats from debuting on their home field are diminishing rapidly, and so before they are exhausted Skip Myslenski provides one final look at the 'Cats and their opening opponent, the California Golden Bears:
AND SO IT BEGINS (and what you might want to look for): A number of themes have consistently cut through the days that have separated them from their last public appearance in November and their Saturday season-opener against Cal at Ryan Field. The 'Cats must get stronger and be more physical and dominate the trenches. (Pat Fitzgerald in July: "Football is a trench game. You've got to win the trenches to win the game, and we didn't win consistently enough up there a year ago on either side of the ball. We're going to be better there this year.")
The 'Cats, in addition, must finish better and make the play when it is there to me made. (Defensive co-ordinator Mike Hankwitz in August: "We had some opportunities to make some plays last year that we feel we can make this year. So one of our challenges to our guys is to make the plays they're capable of making. If it happens to be in crunch time, so what? We practice making those plays in practice.")
The 'Cats, finally and not unimportantly, must do a better job when faced with adversity. (Wide receiver Tony Jones
after a spring-practice session: "Last year I think at times we let one bad thing lead to two bad things, then three bad things and so forth. We've got to be able to come together as a group and be able to get things back on the right track no matter what adversity this team faces.")
Those were the themes mentioned to Fitzgerald this week and then he was asked if he knows, through practice, whether his team has improved in those area, or if that's why we play the game (to get the answers)? "We'll talk at about 6:30 on Saturday night. How does that sound?" he said with a wry grin, and then he added: "I think they've been really focused. They've had a good two weeks since we've been back. We had a good camp (in Kenosha), but we've had a good two weeks (as well back on campus). I think everybody in the country that's not playing until Saturday, they're excited to play."
"It's absolutely why we play the game," echoed offensive line coach Adam Cushing, whose group (of course) operates in the trenches. "But I do think that definitely the group as a whole is stronger. Just physically, weight-room stronger, and it's showed up on the field so far. But we haven't hit anybody else, we've just hit our guys. That's why we play the game on Saturday."
He was now reminded of something he said last spring, which is when he avowed, "Our goal is to be more physical, to take the fight to them. The analogy is the hammer and the nail. Are you the hammer or the nail?"
"As far as the nail and the hammer go, same idea," he said this week. "That comes with strength, you increase your power output. But I also think it's a mentality, and having (center) Brandon (Vitabile) and (tackle) Paul (Jorgensen) both elected as captains, they've taken that on their shoulders. When it comes from the players, when it comes from the group, and they're spearheading that-- there was Brandon's post-season quote (from last year). `There's a difference between playing hard and hitting hard. We want to be a group that does both, not just one of those.' So we've really stressed that."
LOOK FOR THIS AS WELL: "Trevor just needs to play within the context of the offense, which he's always done. So I'm not concerned about that," Fitzgerald said of quarterback Trevor Siemian. "I want to see focus and execution from our guys on the perimeter. You need to execute what we ask you to do fundamentally. Blocking. We don't put it in the fine print of the scholarship, `As a receiver, you have to block.` It's kind of in bold letters at the top. So I want to see our guys playing physical out there and, when your number's called, execute the concept and catch the ball. They're going to get the ball. They've got an accurate quarterback. So they need to catch the ball and be more than catch-and-fall-down. They need to catch and make people miss, get yards after contact and yards after catch. If we can do that, we can get back to where we were a couple years ago offensively. We were really dangerous. We made them (the opponents) defend the field vertically and horizontally, and that's when this thing really works."
The 'Cats produced many noteworthy moments last fall in their season-opening win over Cal, one of which came on the contest' very first play. "I was running down the field, I just felt good being out there (as a true freshman), I was running as fast as I could," he said, recalling that play. "I saw two guys trying to double team me, then one guy came in late. At that point I couldn't do anything about it, so I just took the hit, suffered the consequences. But it's just, if I can take on three, I can definitely take on one. That's how I look at it."
And what's the difference in him between now and then? "I feel a lot older since that hit," he said with a smile.
Cal finished last season 1-11 in its first year rebuilding under Sonny Dykes and enters this season picked to finish last in the PAC-12 North. But that doesn't daunt their sophomore quarterback Jared Goff, who this week said, "I don't think we're taking a baby step this year. People may say you need a few years of rebuilding. I don't believe in all that. I think we're ready to do some great stuff."
In his debut as a true freshman last season, Goff was 38-of-63 against the `Cats for 445 yards with two touchdowns and three interceptions. He would end the year 320-of-531 (60.3 percent)for 3,508 yards with 18 touchdowns and 10 interceptions. "He's an outstanding quarterback," Fitzgerald said of him. "What he accomplished last year as a true freshman is nothing shy of incredible. He played outstanding. I know the wins didn't show up the way they wanted them to. But he's as good a quarterback as we'll see. He's going to be a handful.".
Goff choreographs a hurry-up offense called the Bear Raid, and last season it ran off 99 plays against the 'Cats and averaged 87.2 over its 12 games. "Obviously Cal does a great job playing fast, playing uptempo," Fitzgerald noted. "But it's not like we're a different style, a dramatically different style on offense. We see it everyday (in practice) and I think our guys handle it real well."
Still, speaking of his defensive rotation, he also said, "I expect to play 10 guys up front, five inside (at the tackles), five outside. You're going to see a lot of guys play up there."
Last season Cal surrendered an average of 45.9 ppg, so it's no surprise that it has a new defensive coordinator. His name is Art Kaufman and he shipped in from Cincinnati, where last season his Bearcats ranked sixth nationally in rushing defense (104.5 ypg), ninth nationally in total defense (315.6 ypg) and 14th nationally in scoring defense (21 ppg). "Anytime it's the first year in a system, there's always going to be a spike," Fitzgerald said of facing him. "A new coordinator brings new energy, and he brings new ideas. So we're expecting a very hungry defense when they come in here."
AND FINALLY, Fitzgerald, when asked if there's a secret to his 8-0 record in season openers: "Yeah, we watch 'Major League,' all that. No. We just do our thing. We've got a routine we stick to. I think, as a coach, you can lose the opener, you can grind your guys over the last month. I think more coaches do that, they make that mistake. It's just the paranoia of coaching. Me, I talk a lot with the guys about how they're feeling, where they're at. We build in systematic breaks for guys. Then it's just the way some things play out. But we'll be fresh. We'll be ready to go."
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