"We have to win every game from now on. We can't lose again. We lost two games already. We can't lose again, and I don't think we [will]." – Linebacker Mychal Kendricks
The two long weeks since Cal’s last game are nearly over and the Cal Bears hope to turn around their season in their contest against the UCLA Bruins this Saturday.
After two of some of the worst losses (combined loss of 72-6) under Jeff Tedford’s tenure, it will be interesting to see how the Bears respond. With hopes for a conference championship all but gone, or at the very least out of their control, the Bears recognize they have a chance to start their season anew, with different goals in mind.
Unfortunately for the Bears, Cal must do so in a situation that hasn’t been favorable for them in recent years: playing UCLA at the Rose Bowl, where Tedford has yet to win in his time leading the Golden Bears.
In fact, looking even deeper into the history books reveal that games at the Rose Bowl haven’t proven to be favorable to the Bears not only in terms of the final score, but season implications as well. In 2005, the Bears were 5-0 before eventually falling to the Bruins 47-40. Cal would go on to lose 3 of their next 4. Two years later in 2007, the Bears would come off a bye week with a 5-1 record, and lose to begin a 1-5 finish in a disastrous season.
While I’m not one to look too deeply into historical trends, it goes to elucidate the possible repercussions of another loss at the Rose Bowl at this point in the season. The game will be intensified by UCLA’s added drive, also looking to salvage their season with an identical 3-2 record and two conference losses.
Shut Down Coverage
Defensively, the Bears will look to make the game one-sided. Despite giving up yards on the ground in the past few games against two of the better rushing offenses in the conference (USC and Oregon), the Bears’ run defense has expectedly stout thus far. This should provide plenty of confidence as they face off against the conference’s 9th worst rushing offense in the Bruins, who average just 112 yards on the ground per game.
The defensive concern for the Bears is their recent struggles against opponents’ passing games.
While UCLA doesn’t enter the game with the most impressive passing stats (averaging just 170.2 yards per game and a conference low 3 passing TDs), they will still likely attack the Bears in the same way that USC and Oregon have done in the last two games. Against both teams, the Bears have been susceptible to quick passes to WRs and TEs slipping out into the flats, as well as wide receiver screens. Particularly, the Bears have given up chunks of yardage to tight ends and slot receivers over the middle in softer zone coverage.
Prince won’t be required to stretch the field vertically to be successful against Cal’s secondary unless the Bears plan on tightening coverage or moving into more man coverage. It hasn’t been so much of an issue of getting pressure on the QB, as opposed to the Bears simply allowing for enough space for quick slants and hook routes to do the damage.
At this point, the onus falls more on Cal’s linebackers to tighten up their coverage and be more disciplined in their assignments on passing downs. I’ve seen the LBs bite a bit too hard on playfakes leaving far too much space for opposing TEs and WRs to slip through. Cal will need to be more disciplined in this regard, as you can be sure that the Bruins will key in on utilizing space given to them in the first ten yards.
Pass to Run
The true question marks for the Bears lie on the offensive side of the ball. The Bears have the arduous task of attempting to reestablish their running game against a UCLA defense that gives up just 3.32 ypc and 123.6 yards per game. It appears that might be the task ahead though, as Cal will have their work cut out for them in trying to throw the ball against UCLA’s talented secondary which currently leads the conference in lowest passing yards per game, and ranks second in interceptions.
However, it has become fairly obvious in the past few weeks that Cal’s struggles running the ball are directly the result of their inability to establish a consistent passing game. Oregon and USC dared the Bears to throw, willing to stack the box against Best and Vereen, confident not only in their defensive speed, but in Cal’s inability to hit receivers in one-on-one matchups.
UCLA also features an athletic and speedy defensive front seven and will likely choose to challenge the Bears in this fashion by pulling in their safeties. I actually really liked the offensive gameplan against USC (not so much against Oregon) and believe a similar one will provide greater success against the Bruinsas Cal’s struggles against USC were more on the execution end.
If Riley and crew can get their connection going early on with similar playcalling, ie. quick passes to TEs, slot receivers, rolling the pocket to get Riley to throw on the run, while mixing in reverses and the occasional wildcat formation, I think the Bears can get the desired matchups for UCLA to remove a man or two out of the box by the second half of the game.
It really might be the only way to give our backs a lane to do some damage.
I bring this up simply because there hasn’t been much attention given to what has been the most consistently disappointing unit on the team. Cal has struggled with nearly every aspect of special teams from the kickoffs to return coverage. Even the reliable Bryan Anger has shanked a few punts in recent games, and Syd’Quan's fumble on his punt return in the closing minute of the USC game reminds Bear fans that this team has a myriad of issues to shore up with their special teams.
Just as a quick projection, Cal’s opponents have been fielding the Bears’ kickoffs on average at the 15 yard line. UCLA’s Terrance Austin has been averaging 24.8 yards per kickoff return. That’s an average projected starting field position of the 40 yard line. UCLA also features the conference’s best field goal kicker in Kai Forbath. Essentially, UCLA would only need to drive 30 yards or so to get into field goal range—critical in what is projected to be a low scoring affair.
Cal also has the dishonor of having the conference’s worst punt return coverage unit, giving up 16.33 average yards per return and one score. That’s nearly 6 yards worse than the second worst team in this regard, ASU. Again, given Cal’s offensive struggles and Terrance Austin’s punt return ability (3rd in the conference this year in this category), Cal could be in a hole in terms of field position all game.
Who knows, perhaps I’m just a bit sensitive to special teams when it comes to playing UCLA. Maurice Jones-Drew in 2005 says “hello.”
I don’t expect this to be a very high scoring affair. In fact, this could be an Auburn Mississippi State type of game.
Ok, not that bad. But for a UCLA team that is currently ranked 114th nationally in total offense, and a Cal team that has scored just 6 combined points in the past two games, I expect both teams to rely on their defensive strengths to turn the tide in one direction or another.
Penalties, turnovers, any of these could swing the game in one direction for a game with such a low spread. I’ve already harped on season repercussions before, so I won’t go into that here.
Cal 17 UCLA 13