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The Countdown

A bottom-to-top assessment of the F.B.S. landscape heading into the 2012 season.

A Retrospective

The Year in Review: California (7-6, 4-5)

While college coaches have struggled transitioning to the N.F.L. — take note, Chip Kelly — former N.F.L. defensive assistants, promoted to defensive coordinator on the F.B.S. level, have largely experienced a smooth transition to the college game. Take Todd Grantham, for instance, who has helped lead the Georgia defense back into the upper echelon of the SEC over two seasons with the Bulldogs. Consider the case of Brian Stewart, now of Maryland, who provided the sort of defense that Houston coveted to go along with its high-powered offense. There’s Greg Mattison, who worked miracles with Michigan last fall, his first season in Ann Arbor. And after an up-and-down debut, Monte Kiffin has U.S.C. playing the sort of defense that wins championships.

California has its own N.F.L. coordinator in Clancy Pendergast, but his track record since moving down to the F.B.S. has been pocked with ugly defensive performances inside and out of conference play. At the same time, however, Pendergast’s defense has also shown an ability to randomly clamp down on opponents inside and out of the Pac-12.

The lack of consistency is what’s troubling, especially as the Golden Bears’ offense suffers the same bouts with inconsistency. Take a two-week stretch in 2010, for instance. At Nevada on Sept. 17, Pendergast’s group allowed 497 yards of total offense and 52 points in a humbling defeat.

A week later, Pendergast’s defense held Nick Foles and Arizona to 10 points and 311 yards of total offense, limiting the nation’s 24th-ranked offense to less than five yards per play. Unfortunately, Cal scored only nine points — hence the frustration over a defense that has shown an ability get stops and an offense that has shown it can score points, but rarely at the same time.

In November of that year, the Golden Bears came within a special teams gaffe of knocking off then-undefeated Oregon; in all, and thanks in part to LaMichael James’ ankle injury, Cal holds the Ducks to a season-low 15 points. But a week later, Andrew Luck and Stanford gashed Cal for 48 points and 467 yards of total offense.

The idea, heading into the 2011 season, was that the Golden Bears were still getting a handle on Pendergast’s system; such growing pains led to the sort of on-again, off-again defensive performance that plagued his debut campaign. But the unreliability continued last fall, both in victory and defeat.

Somehow, Pendergast’s defense gave up 582 yards of total offense in a 36-33 win over Colorado in September. A win is a win, but the Golden Bears allowed Tyler Hansen to throw for a program-record 474 yards — that’s the sort of win that provides more questions than answers. Oregon rolled in a Thursday night debacle, making Cal look like Cal Poly.

The simple truth — and a painful truth — is that Pendergast’s defenses, especially last fall’s group, have not been noticeably better than the last few defenses run by Bob Gregory, one of Tedford’s debut hires who was dismissed following the 2009 season.

Perhaps Gregory and the Golden Bears hit rock bottom in 2009, when Cal finished seventh in the Pac-10 in total and scoring offense. But Gregory’s defense, based solely on its ability to limit big plays and make opponents work, was never significantly worse than Pendergast’s unit in 2011.

Last fall, the Golden Bears allowed 28 plays of 30 or more yards, the 84th-worst total in the country. Blame the offensive surge taking place in the Pac-12, but a program expects more — or should expect more — when it hires a coordinator off the N.F.L. ranks.

That’s the thing with Pendergast: the Golden Bears should expect more. He’s coach with a 15-year N.F.L. pedigree, including six seasons as coordinator with the Arizona Cardinals and Kansas City Chiefs. He was brought in, at no small expense, to build the sort of defense that could hang tight with an Oregon, U.S.C. or Stanford.

Sometimes his defense does that, such as it did against the Ducks two years ago. But then it doesn’t, such as in the case of Colorado, Oregon, U.S.C. and Arizona State last fall, and that’s the problem. The Golden Bears haven’t played defense with a responsible level of consistency for the entirety of Pendergast’s tenure, which might explain why the program is a game under .500, at 12-13, over the same span.

Season grade: C The program is standing still while the rest of the league runs past. And runs past, and runs past again. The jury might still be out — U.S.C. has those future scholarship issues to address — but the Golden Bears made no hay while the Trojans played under N.C.A.A. probation. Oregon, which jockeyed with Cal for second place in the Pac-10 during U.S.C.’s glory days under Pete Carroll, is light years ahead of where the Golden Bears currently stand. After winning seven of his first eight against Stanford, Jeff Tedford has dropped back-to-back Big Games. The offense and defense rarely work in concert, as we saw in 2011. An improvement over 2010’s disappointment, but not a big enough improvement.

High point A 47-38 win at Arizona State in the regular season finale sealed a bowl berth for Cal, though it could have squeezed in with six wins, one over an F.C.S. opponent. The Golden Bears’ best win was the only one they’d notch against a team that ended 2011 with a winning record: Cal beat Utah, 34-10, on Oct. 13.

Low point Five understandable losses, even if Cal’s defensive performance on several occasions was inexcusable. Five understandable losses; the sixth, a 31-14 loss at U.C.L.A., was not so understandable.

Offensive M.V.P. Even in a wide receiver-heavy Pac-12, Keenan Allen’s play stood out. That’s partly because the offense, as led by quarterback Zach Maynard, was often cringe-worthy in the passing game. Yet Allen, always Maynard’s favorite target, pulled down 98 receptions for 1,343 yards, with both totals good for second on the program’s single-season list. Allen did have some help, especially with Isi Sofele cracking the 1,300-yard mark as a first-year starter, but he was always Cal’s first and last option when the offense needed to move the chains.

Defensive M.V.P. I bemoaned Cal’s lack of defensive consistency, but guess what: Mychal Kendricks, a senior linebacker, was the Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Year. As noted over the last two weeks, a conference’s M.V.P. is typically his team’s M.V.P. as well. A three-year starter who was slightly overshadowed by the since-departed Mike Mohamed, his former running mate at linebacker, Kendricks led the Golden Bears in tackles and tackles for loss, the latter for the second consecutive season.

Stock watch Consistency is key; consistency is king, in fact. Perhaps it would be slightly less frustrating if Cal didn’t show flashes of the sort of play that propelled the program into the B.C.S. bowl hunt in Tedford’s early years — a commitment to both sides of the ball that we saw against Utah, but was missing in those losses to the Ducks, Trojans and Tigers. At the same time, that the program has played at such a level on occasion does highlight the idea that it can, in 2012, put together an extended stretch of solid play and make a run towards a Pac-12 North title. There’s always Oregon, but Stanford should take a step back, not to mention the fact that Washington’s defense will undergo an overhaul. At the same time, however, Oregon State and Washington State will be improved. But the talent is there for Cal to turn back the clock; it’ll just take a dedication to consistent play every Saturday.

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  1. Nick says:

    Two Cal posts in a day, best non-Cal website ever?

  2. [...] More hope for Auburn:  “While college coaches have struggled transitioning to the N.F.L. — take note, Chip Kelly — N.F.L. defensive coordinators have largely experienced a smooth transition to the college game.” [...]

  3. LD says:

    In talking about former NFL DCs transitioning smoothly to college, I’m assuming you ignored the name Greg Robinson for fear of bleeding from your eyes.

  4. AERose says:

    Worth noting that your perspective on the defense wouldn’t be shared by many fans of the program. Or, like, any.

    I think you’re reading too much into scores and yardage totals. The Oregon game is a good example: they dropped a bomb on us in the 3rd quarter, which I’m sure had nothing to do with the fact that the Cal offense only managed three first downs and had less than half the snaps that the Oregon offense did. (28 to 13.) The Cal Poly joke is just silly, since Cal’s defensive performance was no worse than Wisconsin’s performance in the Rose Bowl, and probably better since the Wisconsin offense could actually stay on the field and score points.

    UCLA is another good example: with any kind of offensive efficiency and consistency the Bruins don’t score more than 17 points and we all ignore Kevin Prince’s running stats as an aberration. Same script with USC, except no one even put up good numbers in that game, the Trojans just scored repeatedly on short field drives.

    Finally I think you’re very much molding the facts to fit your narrative when comparing Gregory to Pendergast. The 2009 Cal defense was an unmitigated disaster that failed to get a stop in any meaningful game (with the exception of the Big one). Opposing offenses basically had their pick of how to abuse the Cal defense, as long as they didn’t try to run the ball or throw in the general direction of Syd’Quan Thompson opposing quarterbacks could leisurely stand in the pocket and wait for a receiver to find the hole in the zone. We didn’t adjust to bubble screens, we didn’t rush the passer, and as much as Gregory built the defense on taking away the big play we had some truly abominable deep coverage breakdowns. The idea that the 2009 defense was of a kind with the 2011 defense would be laughable if it didn’t make me think about the 2009 defense, which is something I’d just as soon avoid doing.

    Paul: Nicely put. When I wrote the sentence “Pendergast’s defenses, especially last fall’s group, have not been noticeably better than the last few defenses run by Bob Gregory” it was in the voice inside my head, which put a ton of emphasis on the words “noticeably better,” sort of extending the word “noticeably.” if you know what I mean. Little doubt that the 2011 group was better than 2009. But the general feeling I was trying to convey is that Cal wants and needs more — consistency, most of all — from an N.F.L. coordinator.

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