As the Cal-Southern Cal showdown approaches, Jeff Tedford is still in denial about his quarterback.
We all know the story. Nate Longshore injured his ankle against Oregon and missed the next game, the Bears’ first loss of the season. He came back the next week, but he’s been obviously hobbled. In each of the last three games, he’s played well in the first half but as his ankle stiffened in the second half, he’s become more tentative and unable to step into his throws, resulting in critical interceptions.
Yet, at the Cal media lunch this week, Tedford said that Longshore “is well enough to do the things he would normally do.”
Nobody knows more about quarterbacks than Tedford, but after the lunch, I went back to take another look at the Cal-Washington State game.
The game looked the same as I’d remembered: Longshore was right on the money early, completing eight of nine passes on Cal’s opening drive — and the incomplete pass was a drop. In the second half, though, it wasa different story. As game announcers Barry Tompkins and Petros Papadakis noted early, Longshore was floating his passes.
The Bears survived against the bottom-feeding Cougars, but they won’t if Longshore plays that way on Saturday. The Bears must win the turnover battle, which won’t be easy against the Trojans, who are a plus-93 in turnovers in Pete Carroll’s seven years. If Longshore starts floating his passes again, the Trojans will add to that total.
Tedford likes Longshore because the junior quarterback knows his system so well. And, like any coach, he doesn’t want to be shuffling quarterbacks in and out of the game.
In this case, though, I think he has no choice. Unless Longshore is able to step into his passes in the second half, I think Tedford has to bring in redshirt freshman Kevin Riley. It wouldn’t be a vote of no confidence for Longshore, just an admission that he isn’t the same quarterback with his ankle problem.
This would be a high pressure situation for Riley, but no more so than when he had to make his first collegiate start against Oregon State. Though he had brain lock on the last play of the game, Riley played especially well down the stretch in that game. He’s a cool one, and he would give the Trojans a different look because he’s more mobile than Longshore.
USC is not the offensive juggernaut it was two years ago, when Matt Leinart was at quarterback and Reggie Bush an unstoppable force. John David Booty is back at quarterback after missing three games with a broken finger, but though Booty ranks fifth in USC career passing totals, he does not have the playmakers who surrounded Leinart.
Defensively, however, the Trojans are terrific, with a defensive line and linebackers who pressure the passer and cut off running lanes.
Cal’s one chance to win this game is to keep it a low-scoring one. If both teams score in the low 20s, the Bears have a chance.If it goes higher than that, USC will win — because a higher score would mean more interceptions for the Trojans. The Bears need to control the game with running and short timing passes, and that requires a healthy quarterback. If Longshore can’t do it, Tedford has to make a change.