In what can only be described as a supremely deflating and disappointing loss, the Bears fell short against the Arizona State Sun Devils on Saturday by a score of 27-17. The Bears showed all the signs of a team that was fated to sink their chances at a victory, and made an emphatic statement about the state of the program and the direction of the season.
In my keys to the game feature, I stated that Saturday's game was going to be critical for the Bears' confidence, focus, and bowl eligibility hopes, and unless there's a dramatic and revelatory turnaround, the Bears seem to be set on a crash course for the worst season under Jeff Tedford's tenure. The loss also puts the Bears in an increasingly impossible task of quieting questions on whether the Tedford era appears to be drawing to an end.
It's a saddening and sobering moment for a vast set of fans. Let's get into a couple of thoughts on Saturday's game.
Maynard's Worst Game of the Season
I'm not sure there's much to debate here. Look, we all know Zach Maynard was under plenty of duress during the game. Maynard was sacked a whopping 7 times (we'll talk about the number in a bit) and again was pressured all day.
But it seemed to me that Maynard was actually harrassed less in the second half of the game and missed on a lot of passes even when he wasn't being pressured. The end result was Maynard completing just 9 of 28 pass attempts for 126 yards and a TD. While he didn't turn the ball over, there were numerous occassions where that was almost the case. I was actually pretty shocked at how poor the hands were of the ASU defenders who had numerous shots at picks.
Any way you slice it, those types of numbers simply aren't going to cut it in any conference, let alone the vastly improved Pac-12. You can't complete less than a third of your passes. You can't. And again, I understand that it's going to be difficult for even the best quarterbacks to look good when they're under that kind of pressure, but you've got to make the best of the opportunities when you do have them, and Maynard simply couldn't do that.
The lack of quality offensive line play makes it difficult for me to say that Maynard has regressed from last year, but it's been fairly clear to anyone that despite his best efforts, he hasn't shown he's taken his game to the next level. And that's putting it supremely generously.
Running Game Sprints and Stumbles
There were a couple of bright spots with Cal's run game. They actually outgained ASU's rushing attack with a 159 yards, and if you take out Maynard's sacks, the team actually rushed for 185 yards on 24 carries for a 7.7 ypc. That's actually a pretty good number, and both Sofele and Anderson look good running the ball. They showed nice burst out of their holes and had some nice moves to get to the edge for some long runs.
With that said, for all the good Sofele did on Saturday, his fumble just before the end of the first half was a huge momentum shift. The Bears had just gotten a big stop on defense, and just down 10-7, the Sun Devils recovered a Sofele fumble. The Sun Devils then took advantage of the short field position, scoring a TD just before the half to put them up 17-7. It was exactly the type of sequence that loses games. The Sun Devils have been working big first half leads all season, and haven’t shown the type of offense crispness in the second half. To turn a potential tie or lead into a 10 point deficit is an absolute back breaker.
Bigelow, Where Art Thou?
I was in considerable shock, shock I say, that Brendan Bigelow didn’t get a single touch in the game. Shock. That’s just unbelievable. Bigelow was indeed in the game on a zone read which Maynard kept, and was intended for a pass as a receiver, but I’m still stunned there wasn’t a more concerted effort to get Bigelow the ball. I know this has been beaten to death which makes it all the more surprising that a guy who’s averaging 20 yards a carry and has been a game breaker every time he’s touched the ball goes without a single touch in this critical game. I’ve never been one for conspiracy theories, but it’s enough to make me wonder if there’s some other reason why he’s not getting more touches.
I don’t think fans are expecting Bigelow to become the starter or an every down back immediately. But they are likely in disbelief that such a dynamic offensive player doesn’t at least get a halfback toss or halfback screen. He doesn’t need to know the entire playbook or be in on every down or pass protect, but give the kid a chance to carry the ball.
Offfensive Line Continues to Struggle
At this point, it's just getting ridiculous. Cal surrendered another 7 sacks this weeks, which puts them at an absurd 20 sacks in the past three games. They have 22 already on the season which puts them dead last in the entire nation.
Last week Tedford commented on the line and seemed to state that he wasn't too concerned and felt they were playing ok for the most part. It was simply a matter of going up against some really good linemen, and losing some individual battles which happens from time to time. And he didn't pin it all on the offensive line saying pass protection is also about what tight ends, backs, receivers and QBs do. In essence, sacks are a reflection of the entire offense.
I agree on some points, but it's absurd to think there's anything else other than a huge issue here. 20 sacks in 3 games is inexcusable. It's a consistent and utter breakdown of pass protection, often times on consecutive downs. There were plays on Saturday, where it honestly didn't even look like there was any blocking whatsoever. ASU defenders were going untouched before rocking Zach Maynard.
Like I said last week, there isn't much you can say when your players simply aren't good enough. We knew it was going to be tough with this patchwork offensive line this year, but you figured they'd be better by game 5 of the season, especially after having gotten invaluable experience of going up against OSU and USC. It's a wide-eyed, head shaking problem.
Penalties. Oh my eyes, the penalties
In a sad and frustrating reality, penalties have become the norm for the Bears. The Bears' cleanest game was strangely their road game against Ohio State since they were flagged just 4 times.
On the season? The Bears have been flagged 42 times through 5 games, averaging 8.4 yellow hankies a game. That's 107th in the entire nation. And this isn't an anomoly. The Bears were similarly awful last year in this category. Fair or not, the Bears have become that team, you know, the one where officiating crews know are going to play sloppy ball and won't get the benefit of the doubt on calls.
Think about the most frustrating teams in college football. The ones whose talent and positive plays are wiped out with procedural mistakes and brain farts. That's who the Bears are. Again, fair or not, this isn't a disciplined, polished team.
Defense Actually OK...
I actually thought the Bears' defense played pretty well on Saturday. Until Sofele's turnover left them with short field position, they had kept ASU to just 10 points in the first half, and allowed just 10 more in the second. They battled many of the issues a defense faces when its offense can't sustain drives and leaves them with short field position.
I particularly liked Avery Sebastian getting the nod over Alex Logan at a safety spot. Logan's been trying, but has been the victim of some big plays throughout the season. Was Sebastian perfect? Not by any means. He was out of position on a few pass plays and was a step late on a handful others. With that said, this guy was absolutely flying to the ball. It was almost Chris Conte-ish, with his ridiculous 14 tackles on the day which led the Bears. That's what you want to see out of safety. Well, you never want to see your secondary lead the team in tackles, but it's always encouraging when you see your safety always near or around the ball by the time the play is dead. By and large, I thought Sebastian played physically, and showed good instincts around most plays.
Brennan Scarlett also continues to impress as a first year starter, as did Todd Barr who did well in filling in for an injured Aaron Tipoti.
And it is worth noting, that despite only getting 3 sacks, I thought the Bears at least showed they made a concerted effort in pressuring Taylor Kelly, making it really difficult for him to sit back in the pocket and complete passes down the field. Most of his big completions came when he rolled out of the pocket on the run.
Except the Defense Falters with...
The Bears' achilles heel on Saturday though was their inability to get off the field on third downs. They were actually pretty good on a lot of drives, putting the Sun Devils in third and long situations, but faltered even in those.
The Bears' allowed ASU to convert 9 of their 20 3rd down attempts. You want to see that number down to around 30%, but are allowing 46% 3rd down conversion rates on the season. It's so hard to win games with those kind of numbers.
And for all the coverage woes, I feel like Cal's secondary has actually been in pretty good position on most plays. But when the Bears curiously decide to dial back pressure on 3rd down, it's resulted in a Cal defender helplessly just being there in time to make a tackle for no gain on a receiver, instead of making a play on the ball.
The game was virtually decided in the 4th quarter on one particular drive. The Bears had just scored a TD and were down just 17-20 with more than half the quarter left to go. All the Bears needed was one stop and they would get the ball back with a good 9 minutes left to go in the game. The special teams unit came out, imploring the crowd to cheer, and the entire stadium got on their feet in hopes of cementing the momentum shift in the game.
Instead, the Bears surrendered a 9 play, 74 yard drive, winding the clock down almost 4 minutes in time of possession. Too many missed tackles, too many blown gap assignments, and not enough left in the tank to shed blocks quickly. For all their efforts, and for all the good things the Bears' defense did that day, they simply couldn't get off the field when it counted the most.
I'm still gathering myself a bit here in regards to this season and the state of Cal football in general. I'll have more up later in the week in regards to this, as this post is typically more of a recap and thoughts surrounding the game itself.
And in terms of losses, it's not that it was egregiously bad. It's just that the game seemingly found a way to disappoint even the lowered expectations of the program. And that's it's so disappointing to watch unfold.
Really, the afternoon can be described perfectly through the following sequence: With the Bears having given up a late score to pull the ASU lead to 17-7, the Bears had close to a full minute to try and march down the field and at least make it a one score game going into half time.
Maynard hit Chris Harper on what would have been a huge gain to drive the Bears to midfield. Instead, Harper's athleticism and team blocking was negated by a holding call which backed the Bears up 10 yards. Despite having only have lost a few seconds off the playclock, the Bears opted to take a knee, to the chagrin and chorus of boos in the half-empty stadium.
The booing was so visceral and just smelled of frustration. I honestly can't remember the last time a home crowd at Memorial booed a team off the field at halftime just down 10 points. I'd have to really reach back to think about the last time the team was booed going into half time period.
But, I think the word "negated" just describes the current state of the team so well. It's not that they're not trying, it's not that there isn't talent or even solid coaches, it's that so much of what of Cal has going well for them, seemingly gets negated. From odd coaching choices, to poor personnel decisions, to boneheaded mistakes or a lack of general polish or discipline, the list goes on. But it's hard to shake the feeling that the team is in a perpetual state of negation.