From the press box at the Rose Bowl during Cal’s loss to UCLA last Saturday, I sent out a tweet that may have been perceived as a joke by some of my followers.
“Lost in the minefield of inconsistency has been the play by Cal punter (Cole) Leininger so far. Two great punts, the last one pinning UCLA deep.”
Later, after Cal kicker Vince D’Amato nailed a 51-yard field goal, I took to Twitter again.
“Add another to the list of positives for Cal, as D’Amato just hit a 51-yard field goal. Both kicker and punter are putting in work today.”
Then, Leininger boomed another punt for a net of more than 50 yards. Once again, I couldn’t resist.
“Leininger with another 50-plus yard punt. All jokes aside, he’s playing great.”
The joke being that if a punter or kicker is a football team’s best player, then that team probably stinks at every other aspect of football. You know, like throwing, catching, blocking and tackling. It’s not certainly not a ringing endorsement for any football team.
It’s a joke that rings true for Cal. Sure, Jared Goff can throw. Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper can definitely catch. But can the offensive line block? Can the defense tackle anybody without the help of the ground?
The answer is, of course, no. Cal’s offensive line surrenders more than three sacks a game. The defense is ranked 123rd overall, out of 125 teams. So no, Cal can’t block or tackle. Despite Goff’s throwing abilities and Treggs’ and Harper’s catching skills, the offense is ranked only 88th in the country in scoring.
After Leininger and D’Amato tore up the Rose Bowl, I decided to dig into their season statistics. What I found was impressive, to say the least. Impressive enough that I think it’s time to give credit where credit is due.
Remember when D’Amato missed three critical field goals against Ohio State last year and essentially cost Cal an upset over a perennial powerhouse? Through the first six games of this season, D’Amato is 12 for 13 on field goals. Meanwhile, Leininger’s punting average is more than 42 yards, just five yards off the national leader. To put it simply, the two kicking specialists have killed it this year.
It’s not just a testament to both D’Amato’s and Leininger’s individual growth but also to Mark Tommerdahl’s coaching. Although it’s something of a norm for special teams to fly under the radar, Tommerdahl’s role as special teams coach shouldn’t go unnoticed. So far this season, Tommerdahl’s unit has successfully pulled off a fake field goal for a touchdown. His squad has brilliantly executed a fake punt. Kick returner Khalfani Muhammad is tied for sixth in the nation in long kickoff-return plays.
Unless you have a Devin Hester on your side, special teams won’t generate wins alone. Even if D’Amato doesn’t miss another field goal the rest of the season, the Bears won’t win unless they score touchdowns. Even if Leininger continues to positively shift field position, it won’t matter unless the defense successfully gets off the field. And even if Muhammad continues to break off big returns, it won’t matter unless the offense turns the field position into points.
But for a good football team, special teams can be the difference between a win and a loss. If an adept offense and defense are paired with inept special teams, the results can be catastrophic. Just ask the 2012 Baltimore Ravens. But if a good football team features a special teams unit that can carry its own weight, it can lead to championships. Just ask the 2001 and 2003 New England Patriots.
It’s clear Cal hasn’t reached the status of a good football team. In order for that to happen, all three phases of the game need to show up on Saturdays. But at least the Bears have a third of the battle figured out. Now, it’s time for the other two-thirds of the Cal football team to show up.