(AP Photo/Matt York)
On an evening in which Cal's defense struggled to stifle ASU's explosive offense, the Bears offense took advantage of a reeling Sun Devil defense to hang on in 47-38 shootout in Tempe.
It was the Bears' first conference road win of the year, and the victory moved the Bears to 7-5 on the season, ensuring a winning season and a likely higher bowl.
For this blogger, I think I speak for a few in the fan base when I say that it was validation of the sentiment that the Bears were improving. It is a huge momentum boost heading into bowl preparation, and into next season. Instead of questions of whether this team had made any strides this season, the team's play on offense alone the past several weeks provides some hopeful thoughts for the future.
Let's take a look at the game.
Maynard Express...All Aboard?
Zach Maynard continued his post-UCLA string of solid performances. The junior was 19 for 26 for 237 yards with one touchdown, and again, no interceptions. Maynard also rushed 5 times for 40 yards and a score, and often kept plays alive by buying time out of the pocket.
Maynard looked composed, and was more accurate with the ball than I've seen all season. Other than an poorly thrown swing pass, I can't think of many passes that were way off the mark.
He also pulled off what might have been the play of the season late in third quarter. Facing a 3rd and 4 at the Cal 26 yard line, Maynard was flushed from the pocket and began rolling to his left as he is prone to do. With his options limited on the right side, Maynard drew in two defenders, leaving RB CJ Anderson open just behind his defender. Maynard smartly lofted the ball over the defenders head right into the hands of CJA who ran the ball 74 yards for a score. Just an unbelievable play.
Maynard has shown a remarkable turnaround since the UCLA game which was easily both the team's and his nadir of the season. Since that game, Maynard is completing 67% of his passes, 5 TDs, just 1 INT and no fumbles. He's averaged a 149.5 QB rating, with season highs of 167.1 and 162.3 in back to back weeks.
In short, it's the type of performance Cal fans had hoped they would get from Maynard, an athlete with an ability to make plays. Most unfairly expected this performance from Maynard right from the season's get go, and many had lost faith in both Maynard and the coaching staff after some very painful growing pains in bad losses to Oregon, USC and UCLA.
Yet, credit Coach Tedford and Coach Arroyo for continuing to stick with and develop Maynard. Tedford and Coach Kiesau have done a much better job in the second half of the season in finding a formula that works for both Maynard and the offense. They've seen enough progress from the running game to help develop Maynard into a game manager, calling plays that suit his strengths as an athlete and passer.
And credit Zach Maynard for his growth and maturity this year. The guy is unflappable, and has bounced back from some tough games and criticism to really come on strong towards the end of the year. You can see his understanding of the offense, and his ability to go through his pre-snap checks improving with each game. If he can continue his growth, you have to feel a lot better about this offense moving forward.
Kudos Run Game
I'm getting real excited about the potential of Cal's running game. Like Jim Schwartz-Jahvid Best YouTube excited.
It's been a real pleasure to watch this offensive line grow under Coach M. It shouldn't be a real surprise given the proven commodity that is Coach Michalczik, but this unit has really started to gel and the results are showing. The Bears rushed for 247 yards against a pretty physical ASU front seven.
Isi Sofele has solidified his place as one of the top running backs in the conference. Last night he was impressive again, toting the rock 21 times for 145 yards and one touchdown. The speed at which he is able to cut it outside for more yardage is real fun to watch. He's also continuing to answer questions about being up to snuff as a physical back, as he is doing a nice job fighting for yardage. He even pulled off a mini-Marshawn last night, stiff-arming an ASU defender. How many 5'8 backs do that?
It's also been fun to watch CJ Anderson's development this season. Despite his limited carries, he's really developing nicely as a short yardage bruiser, and shows good nice hands as a pass-catching threat out of the backfield. CJA rushed 10 times for 48 yards for 2 scores, and added the aforementioned 74 yard TD reception.
You have to feel good about their future. They complement each other well, finding a great balance of shiftiness and power. Throw in the running threat that is Zach Maynard, you've got a lot of potential to do some damage on the ground.
Defense Struggles, but Comes Up Big
There's no way of sugar coating it. The defense was torched last night. The Bears allowed a whopping 38 points (the most since allowing 43 to Oregon in week 5), and 477 yards of offense.
It was an uncharacteristic performance from a defense that had been shutting down some potent offenses in weeks past. Yet, on a short week, and missing key players to injury, the Bears looked lost at times in giving up critical conversions on 3rd and 4th and long.
The Bears were unable to create a consistent pass rush, though the Bears elected to often only rush four defenders, choosing instead to drop back into coverage. Therein lied a problem. Cal's secondary had its worst performance of the season, losing sight of their receivers, and making poor decisions about turning the head and looking for the ball. In all, ASU QB Brock Osweiller carved Cal's secondary for 264 yards and 3 scores.
On top of that, the Bears allowed a gimpy Cameron Marshall to amass 157 yards and 2 TDs. It was just a poor combination of bad angles, and inability of defenders to shed blocks to maintain gap integrity. The Bears have struggled a bit against that zone read rushing attack (see Oregon and UCLA) this season, but it was maddening given that Osweiller represented absolutely zero running threat in that look.
Yet, the Bears made plays when it mattered. They forced and recovered two fumbles including a critical fumble by Marshall late in the game. That led to a five minute drive that put the Bears up by two possessions with 2 minutes left in the game.
On ASU's ensuing drive, safety DJ Campbell applied a gigantic hit on Osweiller on a blitz, forcing the deep ball to land right into the hands of a grateful Josh Hill.
For all the things that went wrong for the Bears, they still compiled 4 critical turnovers, which just might have been the difference in the game.
I had predicted at the beginning of the season that Tavecchio would turn it up for his senior year. He had shown enough mental toughness during his first three years and history for Cal kickers had indicated that the lightbulb would turn on for the Italian Stallion this year.
I've been ecstatic to witness the type of season he's had, and last night was the exclamation point.
Tavecchio was 4-4 on the day, nailing field goals of 48, 27, 19, and 30 yards. None were bigger than the last field goal that gave the Bears a crucial 9 point lead with just two minutes left in the game.
Tavecchio is a spectacular 19 for 22 on the season, and his 86.4 completion percentage on FGs is good for 7th in the nation.
You have to feel good for a kid who literally walked onto the team a week before the season started, and immediately jumped into a starting role as a true freshman. He's gone through ups and downs over his career, and it's been a real joy to see him grow and see success this year.
Miscues Nearly Doom the Bears
A few notes on some issues that nearly drowned the Bears.
True freshman Richard Rodgers made the gaffe of trying to return a squib kick, and instead coughed up the ball, giving the Sun Devils a short field, and eventually the touchdown. The Bears quickly saw their 13 point lead disappear within 52 seconds heading into the half.
I was anxious (to put it lightly) to see how the Bears would respond in the second half. I really do think previous teams would have wilted in the second half, leading to the typical conference road loss. Instead the Bears outscored the Sun Devils 20 to 10 in the second half, and made the plays when they counted.
Oh, and for all the great things I've said about Sofele, I still hold my breath when I see him run. He fumbled again near the goal line, and had it not been for a heady play by fullback John Tyndall, the Bears would have given up a critical scoring opportunity.
You could have written the end of the season much better for the Bears. They have the opportunity to get some much needed rest, especially given some players are banged up at some critical spots.
Hopefully the Bears also give plenty of practice time to Cal's reserves, as some younger players have the chances to make some huge contributions next year.
But more than anything, the mood in this program right now is infectious. They feel confident and loose. This team bonded together at some of the toughest moments of the season, and feel good about where they're headed.
For a young team in transitioning year, that's huge.
So enjoy the rest of the college football action today. The Bears' regular season is over, and for the first time in over a year, we can watch knowing the Bears still have more action to come.
Saturday, November 26, 2011
(AP Photo/Matt York)