In what has become a tradition, USC continued its dominance over Cal with a 27-9 win over the Bears at the LA Coliseum.
Though most might easily chalk it up as another blowout loss to the Trojans (and believe me, there are plenty of reasons to think so), it's worth noting that the Bears were on the verge making this a game well into the 3rd quarter. Down just 17-9, the Bears had a key scoring opportunity at the USC 15 yard line. After a nice job of eluding pressure, Zach Maynard tried to force a ball to CJ Anderson, only to have his pass picked off by USC safety TJ McDonald. On replay, it appeared Maynard also missed a wide open Bryce Treggs in the endzone in what could have been the TD to tie the game. Instead, the turnover absolutely crushed the momentum that the Bears had been building up to that point.
While that play represented a critical turning point in the game, the reasons for the loss go well beyond that sequence. The Bears were dominated in the trenches, handicapped by curious play calls, and crippled by an offensive ineptitude that has become embarrassingly commonplace in their annual game against the Trojans. Consider this, since 2003 (Cal's last win against USC), the Bears have only scored 17 points twice, and have been held to less 10 points in 6 of their last 9 contests. That's simply dreadful.
It's not all gloom and doom though, as the onfield results the past few weeks aren't that far off from what fans had could have expected going into the season. With that said, we're seeing some pretty alarming trends with this team.
Let's talk details ladies and gents.
So there are a couple of different issues here with regards to the offense.
Offensive Offensive Gameplan
First, I'm downright confused as to the offensive gameplan yesterday. I'd love to ask what the coaches saw differently from USC's defense that forced them to stray so far away from what had clearly worked for them against OSU. Instead of allowing Zach Maynard to work on simple hitches, outs, bootlegs (to his leftside), screens, or hitting his tailbacks coming out of the backfield, they seemed intent on having Maynard throw downfield on seams and corner routes. That simply isn't a strength of Cal's passing offense right now. And this isn't meant to be a knock to Zach Maynard, but he hasn't shown an ability to consistently hit those types of passes while under duress.
And look, I understand the strengths and weaknesses of the Tampa 2 that Monte Kiffin runs at USC. I get that the Cover 2 can be beaten when vertical routes are run to stretch the coverage, causing indecision among the safeties. Similarly, zones can be “flooded” when multiple routes are run in hopes of pressuring the backers, typically the middle linebackers.
I get it. But it wasn't working. That is, even though receivers were inconsistently getting open, Maynard wasn't afforded the time in the pocket to make his throws, and the pressure was constantly forcing him to be unable to set his feet well enough to not sail his passes.
We'll talk about the offensive line in a bit, but it's frustrating that the gameplan didn't adapt throughout the course of the game given what was happening.
Red Zone Woes
Despite the curious offensive gameplan, what was more curious was the shift in playcalling whenever the Bears got into the redzone. Cal showed an ability to move the ball. In fact, the Bears got inside USC's 20 5 times in the game, but had to settle for 4 FG attempts (making just 3), and suffered through the aforementioned turnover on the other. If Cal scores a TD on just two of those visits, it's a completely different ball going into the fourth quarter.
Like I said, the Bears showed the ability to move the ball. In fact, I thought they showed great rhythm and playcalling in the 3rd quarter, to keep USC's defense off balance with a lot of zone reads running plays at play action calls to their TE, Jacob Wark.
But as soon as they got in the redzone, they seemed to go completely away from what had been working and went back to trying to beat USC's defense in the passing game. From turnovers, to negative yardage plays, it was about as bad as an offense could get in the redzone, short of losing enough yardage where they were moved out of the FG range.
While some of it was the playcalling, I'm also amazed at their use, or disuse of Brendan Bigelow. Bigelow was running the ball, and he was running it really well. And it wasn't even on trying to force the edge on stretch runs or tosses, he was running in between the tackles and gaining good chunks of yardage. On the day, Bigelow, had just 4 carries, but racked up 31 yards. He was averaging 7.8 yards a carry!
On both of Cal's first two drives in the third quarter to get them in the redzone, it was Bigelow's hard running that led to their offense's success. But as soon as Bigelow stepped off the field, the drive stalled.
Last week, when people cried out at the lack of Bigelow down the stretch, I wasn't too upset, because I understood you're putting a lot on the shoulders of a guy who simply hadn't carried the ball too much. And I know that he doesn't have nearly the understanding of the offense as the two senior backs, nor has he displayed the blocking capabilities of Isi Sofele. But in a game where the Bears had no answers on offense, it's almost inexcusable that Bigelow went without any carries until the third quarter. And for the Bears to pull him when it's most critical (in the redzone), is to put it very gently, a curious call. I like to think maddening, but again, I'm a gentle person.
Look, consider this, Bigelow accounted for 40% of the rushing yards yesterday, on just 11% of the total number of rushing attempts. Last week, he accounted for 71% of the total rushing yards on less than 10% of the total number of rushing attempts. You have to get this guy the ball. You just have to.
Offensive Line in Trouble
First off, let's state the obvious, this is a young and battered offensive line. They're returning just one starter in Brian Schwenke from last year, and he's playing a completely new position at center. They've got a redshirt freshman (Jordan Rigsbee) and sophomore (Chris Adcock) who are promising, but young and are naturally taking their lumps against some elite interior defensive linemen. The tackles are senior Tyler Rigsbee and junior Bill Tyndall who are older, but getting their first career starts as well. These guys are clearly working their tails off out there.
But the issues are apparent to anyone and everyone. While the Bears have been inconsistent in run blocking, they have for the most part done decently in this area. Yesterday, if you take out Maynard's carries and the lost yardage on sacks, the Bears running game rushed 17 times for 79 yards. Those are meager numbers, but it's still a 4.6 YPC, which is far from fantastic, but again, decent. You'll take that number against most teams.
The issue is their pass protection. In the past two games, the Bears have surrendered a whopping 13 sacks. On the season they've allowed 16, and are on pace for a crazy 39 sacks through the regular season. Consider that the Bears have yielded no more than 30 sacks just once in the past five years, and gave up just 11 back in 2007.
And like I said last week, it's not like the Bears are always unable to pick up blitzes, it's often a matter of a lineman just losing his individual battle. We're just flat out getting beat.
So as much as Maynard and the coaching staff deserves some blame for the passing performance, it's hard to create a plan to flood passing zones when your linemen can't block. And it's even harder to knock a QB for his poor passing numbers when he's being obliterated on every other passing play.
So, I'm not sure what to say at this point. Clearly, Coach M has more work to do and needs to continue to coach these guys up. But the Bears need to consider other options as well, perhaps in terms of personnel. This is more of a naive thought, as you'd have to think that Coach M knows who's most capable of being the best five, but what else can you say when those five aren't getting it done? The Bears need to improve there and you have to begin wondering if there are other viable options with backup players that haven't been fully considered.
As for the Defense
Let's say this, I thought Cal gameplanned pretty well for limiting USC's passing attack. While the front seven didn't record any sacks, they did hold Barkley to 192 yards, 2 TDs and 2 INTs. Not something to puff up one's chest about, but far from the bloodbath that could have resulted in facing off against USC's talented receiving corps.
Now here is where it gets alarming. The huge part of USC's modest passing numbers are because they went back to their gameplan of abusing the Bears on the ground, and the Bears were flat out dominated in this regard. The Trojans piled up 296 yards against the Bears on the ground. That's an embarrassing number anyway you swing it. That's got to hurt for a defense that had largely been solid going into this season in defending the run. And this wasn't a gimmicky offense, there was no pistol rushing attack, this was just the Trojans dominating in the trenches and running down the Bears' throats.
Not only could the Bears not hold the point of attack, but Cal's defenders took really poor angles and had difficulty shedding blocks as soon as USC's rushers got to the second level.
On the season, the Bears are on average, surrendering 31 points per game (ranking 93rd nationally), 430 yards per game (89th nationally), being equally bad in giving up yardage through the air and on the ground, 240.8 ypg (81st nationally) and 189.5 ypg (99th nationally) respectively. And perhaps the worst number? Opponents are converting 46.27% of their third downs against us, putting us at 102nd nationally in that category.
Let's face it, our defense is playing really poorly right now. It kills me to say it because our defense has been the strength of this team for the last four seasons or so, and I still think we have some quality talent, but it is what it is right now.
What's encouraging is that the Bears have shown stretches of good play, and some solid individual performances. I'm liking what I'm seeing from this young linebacking corps, and some of the younger defensive linemen in Todd Barr, Keni Kaufusi, Mustafa Jalil and even Villami Moala have shown some signs of maturity as well.
But I think Saturday was the truly defining moment when fans realized that you can't replace two starting safeties, two starting inside linebackers, and two starting defensive linemen and expect not to take a step back, talent be damned. But I'm hoping that talent is enough to move us forward for the rest of the season.
Final note, it is worth applauding Vincenzo D'Amato for bouncing back this week. After missing his first FG, it seemed like you might need to restrain him from burying his head under the turf.
But credit Tedford and Genyk, and credit D'Amato, because they spoke to him calmly, let him know they still would need him and that they knew he could get it done. D'Amato ended up nailing his next three field goal attempts, Cal's only points on the day.
Here's hoping he can keep the good mojo going forward.
So here's one way of looking at Cal's 1-3 start.
Most had realistically painted a 2-2 start to the season, so a 1-3 start isn't too far off from most projections, and can't be considered too alarming with conference play just starting up, and 8 games left to play. Also, don't forget that the Bears also started 1-3 in Tedford's second season, only to go 8-6 with a bowl win.
And for all the issues that the Bears' have exhibited, they have been largely competitive in each of their contests, in arguably the toughest chunk of their schedule. There were no pure blowouts, a symptom of some of Cal's most disappointing squads. Even in Cal's most lopsided loss this past Saturday, the Bears were down just 11 points with just under 6 minutes to go.
But here's where you can't stem the tide of pessimism and perhaps reality. The Bears have exhibited some major flaws on defense, an offensive line that is scrambling for answers, curious coaching decisions, and a proverbial game of Russian Roulette when it comes to special teams.
And for as much as we praise a competitive team, it might be far too telling when we applaud not getting blown out. There comes a point where moral victories of keeping it close with good teams doesn't mean much anymore. And yes, Ohio State and USC are good, but far from being elite squads.
Here's what I will say. I have an overall sense of where this team is and a more clear sense of its strength and weaknesses. But I will reserve judgment until the end of the UCLA game. I'd like to see how the Bears respond against what I consider to be two upper-tier Pac-12 teams in ASU and UCLA before I go calling this season a lost cause.
Saturday was clearly a step back after the Bears showed progress against the Buckeyes. But this season is far from over and I have hope (perhaps blindly), that this isn't close to the best that the Bears can be.