In my Keys to the Game feature I stated that I, like most Cal fans, wouldn't really be paying too much attention to the score. When playing against an FCS foe, it was extremely unlikely that the result of the game was ever going to be in question. What was going to be in question though was how well the Bears would respond after a disappointing and rough start to the season.
The result was not promising.
Again, this is not some bloodthirsty desire to see an FCS team get Savannah Stated. The Cal faithful knew the only solace that could be gained from the Bears' game on Saturday was to see the Bears get back to executing and looking polished.
Instead, the Bears came out in a seemingly self-destructive form early on, committing multiple penalties and two turnovers in the first half. And despite the Bears' abilities to move the ball and physically dominate their opponent, they looked sloppy, disorganized and far being the type of team that's prepared to enter into the most difficult stretch of its schedule.
It's the type of win that that's hard to feel super excited about. Sure, the big plays are fun to watch, but it's got to be frustrating for the players and coaches right now. They must feel they're capable of better, but it's distressing to see them come out flat in back to back weeks in front of their home crowd.
Let's dive in the positives and negatives from the game.
No Quarterback Quandaries
I don't think there can be much debate with Maynard at this point. He is what he is: he'll make plays but he'll always cause much headshaking in the stands. I actually didn't think he had a bad day, and was decent statistically, going 17-23 for 229 yards, a TD and a score. He also broke off a few decent runs, gaining 46 yards on the ground. The majority of his passes didn't seem to be forced and were on point.
But Maynard still had a few instances of overthrowing his intended receivers on some simple throws out in the flats that could have gone for some big and critical yardage. It's a bit head-shaking at this point that he can't complete those passes.
Maynard was also picked off for the first time this season after a busted blocking assignment on a roll-out screen led to Maynard throwing the ball right into the mits of an outstretched Southern Utah defensive lineman. I know it's one of those quick hitting plays, but you would hope that your QB would pull down the ball upon turning face to face with massive defensive lineman.
There's also increasing discontent with Maynard's antics after a play is done. There was the whole "point to my 16 inch bicep" bit from last week that rankled some fans, and this week, Maynard seemed to get under Tedford's skin. After the Bears elected to kick a field goal at 4th and goal from the one yard line (more on that later), many of Cal's offensive players tried to remain on the field. They ultimately trudged off the field, but apparently Tedford wasn't happy with either Maynard's body language or something he said, because Tedford grabbed Maynard by his shoulder pad, and shared some choice words before roughly sending him off.
Look, I don't have too much of an issue with it, because I understand that football is very much unlike any other sport because of the level of raw emotion that a player is forced to channel in a game. It's a heated game, and things are going to be said. But this kind of stuff is more easily swept aside when your team is performing at a high level. When your QB isn't, and your team's performance is inconsistent, these kinds of antics are only going to be intensified under the proverbial microscope, causing more distractions. And quite honestly, that's not something the Bears can afford at this point. If there's trouble brewing under the surface, or if it's a matter of controlling one's body language, it needs to be nipped in the bud. Now.
Overall, I thought the defense played fine. The starting unit got much better penetration at the point of attack, and had a pretty solid first half, holding the Thunderbirds to just 83 yards and 10 points. 37 of those yards and the TD came on a botched Hail Mary defense. After a pass interference call, SU's Brad Sorensen chucked a 37 yarder into the endzone, only to have Michael Lowe inadvertently deflect the ball into a Thunderbird receiver for their lone first half score. It was a botched play that cost the Bears, but it didn't change my impression the Bears' defense had by and large played solidly in the first half.
The second half was far more inconsistent however, with the Bears allowing Southern Utah to drive 75 yards in a 6 minutes and 33 seconds for a score. The Bears' secondary seemed to be in fairly good position on most passing plays, though I would have liked to have seen more plays on the ball instead of simply trying to get in good position to prevent the receivers from making more yards after the catch. Their problems were exacerbated with the Bears' electing to go with a softer zone coverage instead of man against SU's defenders. Though it did seem to be by design, it did allow Sorensen to get in a bit of a rhythm, which would hurt the Bears later in the game.
Another concerning trend has been Cal defenders' poor leverage on some tackles. I'm not sure if they're trying to go for the ball rather than getting the defenders on the ground, or if they're simply getting outmuscled, but I'm seeing far too many opposing ball carriers get extra yardage despite Bears' attempts at gang tackles.
Finally, I did find the performance of Cal's second string unit to be...disappointing. Southern Utah's offense really imposed their will on Cal's backups, and effortlessly moved the ball down the field on their final two drives. That really shouldn't happen, but here's hoping they learn from the experience.
Individual Defender Notes
I was struck by the play of Cal's young linebackers Nick Forbes and Jalen Jefferson. I thought Nick Forbes looked very stout early on, and even made some nice plays in pass coverage. The same can be said of Jefferson who always seemed to be near the ball. The two led the team in tackles with Forbes notching 8, and Jefferson recording 9, and both contributing pass breakups. That's encouraging given the question marks still remaining at inside linebacker positions. The Bears are going to need to build some quality depth there pronto.
Running Game Rebounds
This is one of those areas I was for the most part content with despite the quality of our opponent. I was far happier with the distribution in carries this week, with Isi Sofele rushing the ball 19 times for 104 yards and a score. CJ Anderson gained 46 yards on 5 carries and a TD, and looked really good with the ball in his hands. As of now, Sofele looks like the more seasoned back, and hits the hole a bit better than CJ, though it's real close.
And nice long run there by Daniel Lasco to close out the game on offense. He's gone under the radar to most Cal fans, but you've got to think he turned a few heads by breaking off one of the longest runs by a Cal back in years. Anyone who caught the broadcast, got to see a nice moment on the sidelines afterwards with all of his teammates congratulating him. You can hear CJ Anderson ask him, "How'd it feel bro?"
Lasco's response? "It felt so good bro! Felt so good."
Again, it's just Southern Utah, but I did appreciate the Bears making a more concerted effort to actually running the ball, and it was nice to see the effort pay off with 289 yards on the ground.
10 flags for 96 yards. In the first half.
This has been by far the most alarming characteristic of this team this season. It's not the just the lost yardage and negated plays that bother me, it's that the flags themselves seem to be symptomatic of a larger and more troubling issue of a lack of focus. You could point to a number of attributing factors: too little emotion, too much emotion, but you have to think that ultimately the coaches are responsible for setting the tone and the message on what will be tolerated in terms of penalties.
The Bears were a staggeringly bad 119th (out of 120) in the nation last season in penalties. They're sitting at 108th this season. That's not a blip. That's a trend, and a troubling one.
I have to say, these freshmen wide receivers are really impressing. Bryce Treggs had a quiet, but decent day with 3 catches for 38 yards. Chris Harper though has surpassed everyone's expectations, as he's emerged as one of the top playmakers on the team early on in the season.
Like I said last week, we knew Harper was sure-handed and a polished route runner, but I didn't think he'd be this good after the catch. He had a nice 60 yard catch run negated by two (TWO!) penalties, and shook off a tackle with a nice spin move to earn the first down on another. It is a bit disconcerting to see him fumble the ball in back to back games, but again, last week's play was NOT a fumble, and it was just a nice play by the defender this week.
Plus, I also like the little things both Treggs and Harper are doing, including laying some nice block downfield to spring off some extra yardage. Solid start.
Conservative Coaching Calls
I very rarely harp on coaching decisions throughout a game. Generally speaking, I feel most fans are uber aggressive (likely the years of going for it on 4th and 17 in Madden), and coaches generally know a bit more about football than the average fan. Just a bit.
But there were two moments throughout the game that I felt showed an utter lack of faith in the offense. The first was the aforementioned sequence that saw the Bears elect for the field goal when they were just a yard out from the goal line. First off, the Bears had punched it down Southern Utah's throat, scoring on back to back runs. Why they would then elect to pass it on third is beyond me. But for the Bears to not go for it is just frustrating given they knew they could run on these guys. They had just proven it. Plus, the worst that could have realistically happened at that point is that they fall short and forced Southern Utah to start at their own one line. With the way Cal's defense was playing in the first half, was that really such a huge risk?
The second moment was late in the third quarter when the Bears were facing a 4th and 2 on Southern Utah's 44 yard line. The Bears chose to punt. This one was a bit more understandable, and subsequently drew far fewer boos from the home crowd. I still wasn't fully satisfied with the reasoning though. I just felt it sent a message to the offense that they weren't trusted in being able to pick up a yard against an FCS team. Again, I understand that at that point, you're only up 3 points, you kick the ball and live another day, but I'd hope you send a message to both teams by lining up in a goalline formation right there.
I can't finish this post without talking about special teams. After a fairly decent week last week, the Bears went back to being a mixed bag of sorts.
On the good side, Vincezo D'Amato was 3-3 on his field goals, including a long of a 47 yarder that dinged off the crossbar, but through for three. However, for all of his success on field goals, D'Amato missed his final extra point attempt.
The decision to have your best playmaker return punts is playing immediate dividends, with Keenan Allen being the first Bear in nearly three years to return a punt for a score. Allen caused a heart attack by bobbling the ball, and even after watching the replay, I'm amazing that Southern Utah didn't come up with it. After recovering the ball, Allen was just Allen, turning up field and running untouched 69 yards for a score.
On the sad facey end, Cole Leininger took a real step back this week with some wobblers. The true freshman nailed two punts inside the 20, but managed to average just 30.7 yards on his three punts.
Oh, and I was fairly annoyed with the special teams coverage. The Bears chose not to go with touchbacks, which we know D'Amato is capable of. Instead they chose to pop it up into the air, in hopes of covering downfield and forcing the Thunderbirds into some poor field position. Instead, the Thunderbirds earned some great field position on some poor coverage by the Bears. Huh. Don't let that start up again guys.
I watched the game with some fairly casual Cal fans. "Boy, they're not so good, are they?" they asked in the middle of the game.
I couldn't bring myself to answer. Part of it was because I still don't quite know. A lot of the Bears' issues are self-inflicted and theoretically correctible. They've shown good athleticism and enough play-making ability to make one think that there's something there. This team is capable.
But on the other hand, there's also the fear that the penalties, lack of execution, missed assignments and murmurs of unrest are symptomatic of something far worse, a poorly coached team. I don't want to believe it, and I still believe we need to see more of this team to get a true sense of who they are.
Next week's contest against Ohio State will be revelatory. And not because a win will be necessary to validate this team's ability. The Bears haven't beaten as highly-ranked of a non-conference opponent in over 40 years. No, I just want to see how they compete. I want to see how they perform in a hostile environment. I want to see what the team looks like with their backs against the wall with the entire nation watching. I want to believe that we'll learn more about this team next week than we did the past two weeks.
And I'm praying that what we learn makes us feel better about the team than we do now.