College Football Roundup: Bay Area Upheaval
Perhaps no one outside of the Cal locker room would've predicted that, three weeks into the 2017 college football season, the Bears would be undefeated and that the team across the Bay, a national powerhouse for the past eight years, would be 1-2.
But here we are. For the third week in a row, Cal came back from a halftime deficit to win against a quality non-conference opponent. This time it was the SEC's Mississippi Rebels falling to the Bears, 26-17, after leading 17-6 at halftime. Under new coach Justin Wilcox, and new defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter, Cal has found discipline, backbone, and resilience. Last year's "Bad Defense Bears" allowed over 45 points a game. This year's team has allowed 66 points in three games, including only 13 in the second half, and forced nine turnovers .
When Wilcox was hired, I wrote on Comcast Sports Net Bay Area that "the Bears got it right this time," but I didn't think the turnaround would happen this quickly. Wilcox (above) cut his teeth building top defenses at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC and Wisconsin. And people forget that DeRuyter not only earned his rep as a defensive turnaround specialist at Ohio, Nevada, Air Force and Texas A&M, but was once a hot commodity as the head coach at Fresno State. He recorded an 11-2 season in 2013 and played in the Mountain West Championship game in '14, before being cut loose by an ill-advised administration halfway through the '16 season.
It's been a group effort on defense, with standout inside linebacker Devante Downs leading the way. Other notables include outside linebacker Cameron Goode, whose pick six sealed the Mississippi win, defensive backs Jaylinn Hawkins and Marloshawn Franklin Jr., and linebackers Raymond Davidson III and Hamilton Anoa'i. Quarterback Ross Bowers and former walk-on running back Patrick Laird have been the studs on the offensive side.
Meanwhile over at Stanford, the lights went out on the Cardinal, literally and figuratively, Saturday night at San Diego State. With 3:58 left in the game and Stanford nursing a 17-13 lead, the host Aztecs picked up a first down at the Cardinal 42 and suddenly everything went dark. Twenty-three minutes later, after the lights were re-booted, SDS grabbed the lead on an 8-yard TD pass with 54 seconds left. But Stanford QB Kellar Chryst tossed a badly under-thrown interception on the first play and, suddenly, the Cardinal look very vulnerable at 1-2.
Coach David Shaw has some difficult issues to confront. Chryst deserves tremendous credit for battling back from a serious knee injury suffered in the Sun Bowl, but he's no match for the sterling quarterbacks putting up remarkable numbers throughout the Pac-12.
In a conference that boasts USC's Sam Darnold, UCLA's Josh Rosen, Washington's Jake Browning, Washington State's Luke Falk, and Oregon's Justin Herbert -- not to mention up and comers like Utah's Tyler Huntley, Colorado's Steven Montez, Arizona's Brandon Dawkins and Cal's Bowers -- Stanford will be hard pressed to compete with Chryst or the man he replaced halfway through the 2016 season, Ryan Burns, at quarterback. To date, neither has shown the necessary accuracy, pocket presence, or quick release.
Consider that last week, Pac-12 teams scored 63 (Arizona), 54 (Utah), 52 (Washington State), 49 (Oregon), 48 (Washington), 45 (UCLA and Arizona State), and 41 (Colorado) points. Stanford scored 62 against Rice, a team that might have a hard time with De La Salle H.S., but right now the Cardinal has precious few obvious "wins" on its remaining schedule.
There are a lot of very smart people in the Stanford football office. But to this observer, the Cardinal need to make two significant changes on the offensive side of the ball. First, give more touches to Bryce Love. In three games, the explosive junior running back has carried 43 times for 524 yards, an astounding 12.2 yards per carry. Saturday night, he out-gained Rashaad Penny, one of the best backs in the country, with 19 fewer carries! Penny gained 175 yards on 32 attempts. Love had 184 yards on only 13 carries. Why not give him the ball 20 or 25 times a game, particularly with the passing game struggling?
Secondly, Shaw needs to give sophomore K.J. Costello a look at quarterback. In a very small sample size -- a few series late in the game against Rice -- Costello showed the arm strength, release, and pocket "feel" that Stanford needs. He also ran 25 yards for a TD. It's time to give the kid a chance.
Random thoughts: I'm not the first person to say this, but it won't be a surprise if the same two teams meet in the national championship game in January for the third time in a row. Clemson and Alabama once again appear to be the two best teams in the country...Florida quarterback Felipe Franks' game-winning 63-yard touchdown pass vs. Tennessee was one of the best throws you'll ever see, delivered on the run, traveling nearly 70 yards in the air, hitting the receiver in stride, in the bread basket, in the end zone...Washington receiver Dante Pettis is making a case for himself as a Heisman candidate. Pettis had four touchdowns on Saturday, including the NCAA record-tying eighth punt return TD of his career...UCLA's Rosen has all the tools to be a top NFL quarterback, but he needs to learn to throw the ball away when he's under duress, rather than forcing it into coverage. He made three bad decisions at Memphis on Saturday, and it cost the Bruins the game.
Up Next: From Superstar to Outcast