It says a lot about the season the Bears are having when Cal’s defense happens to play its best performance of the year in the same game that Cal’s offense has its absolute worst. Scratch that—the most telling statement is that Cal’s best defensive performance of the year is one that had them still giving up 37 points in a 37-10 defeat to the Bruins in Pasadena.
Defense Not All That Terrible
Let me clarify something to start. I am by no means saying that the defense played great on Saturday night. All it takes is one look at the stat line to get that part.
UCLA’s Brett Hundley threw for over 410 yards and 3 TDs, and the defense failed force a turnover. They again showed difficulty defending the swing pass, and their struggles with open field tackling were again evident on Devin Fuller’s 18 yard score.
I will say this though: the defense played well enough to keep the Bears in the ballgame. And honestly, that’s a lot more than can be said about this unit all year. I’ll take it a step further—there were times when Cal’s defense showed some real grit.
You have to consider that the Bears’ D was facing poor field position all night and having to dig deep with the offense’s inability to sustain anything really. Of UCLA’s twelve drives, they scored TDs on just 4 of them, and held the Bruins to 3 field goals. Again, are the fantastic numbers? Absolutely not. But any time you can force punts and get red zone stops to force field goals instead of touchdowns, you are leaps and bounds better than what we’ve been used to seeing from this defense all year.
I’ve always said that statistics might lie to you, but your eyes won’t. One look at this defense, and you know that they played with better cohesion, displayed better gang tackling, and absolutely took away UCLA’s rushing attack. The Bruins were limited to just 78 yards on 34 carries for just a 2.3 ypc.
Tackles for loss? Penetration in the trenches? Goal line stands? BLOWING UP BUBBLE SCREENS?! Please sir, can I have some more?
There were of course still plenty of issues, and a lot of it still has to do with the youth and inexperience of this injury-laden team that is clearly still learning. But if I’m the defense, I’m bitter about the loss but have to think there’s quite a bit to take away from this game.
Offense Hits Lowpoint
While the defense was by no means impressive, they did do enough to keep the Bears in the ballgame. Unfortunately, the same can’t be said of Cal’s offense. The Bears continued their steady regression and hit a lowpoint in managing just 320 yards of total offense 10 points against the Bruins defense.
Cal was forced to punt on their first 5 drives to start the first half, four of which were three and outs. The rest of the game was was more or less the same issues that have plagued their offense all season: redzone struggles, anemic rushing game and turnovers.
The Bears continued to struggle in the redzone, scoring on just one of their three trips inside the 20. That’s 14 points left on the board.
Cal’s lack of a rushing attack and ability to make gains in short yardage situations was evident as they resorted to using WR Richard Rodgers as their short yardage back.
Playcalling Inside the Redzone
I’ve been a big Tony Franklin fan this season, but he hasn’t been without his mistakes. What was most troubling however was his playcalling inside the redzone on Saturday. After Rodgers had picked up the first down to put Cal inside UCLA’s 3 yard line, they stubbornly kept running Rodgers in the same formation which resulted in a total net of zero yards. To cap it off, Franklin than ran a QB draw for 185 pound Goff on fourth down.
It was just a perplexing series of calls. My only possible explanation was that Franklin was trying to drive a point home and give this running game some confidence, but I’m shocked that there wasn’t any attempt to get the ball in the endzone through the air.
Running Woes This Week on the Runningbacks
Cal’s running game this season has been a mess, and the blame is on both the runningback and offensive line units.
However, this week the blame rests more on the shoulders of the runningbacks than the offensive line. This is not to say that the offensive line blew dominated in the trenches. Far from it. However, looking at replay after replay, there were plenty of opportunities from runningbacks to be more productive than they were.
There were certainly running lanes and open holes. Not gaping holes, but they were there. Cal’s backs simply struggled to locate the running lanes quickly enough. The runningback vision simply wasn’t there.
Daniel Lasco was looking like Cal’s best back until he looked like he dislocated his shoulder. And that’s Cal for you.
Penalties Sink Bears
Cal has been a mistake-free team this season, but their sloppiness on Saturday really cost the Bears some opportunities from really competing in the game.
The Bears were flagged nine times for 87 yards. And they were dumb penalties too. Late hits, roughing the passer, just the type of stuff you can’t do. Especially when you’re behind enough as it is.
Special Teams Holds Steady
Other than the Oregon debacle, Cal’s special teams is playing like the most composed, focused and disciplined unit by far.
It makes you truly wonder how much of Cal’s negative play with the other units is a reflection of the coaching from those groups.
Vincenzo D’Amato has been an absolute revelation for the Bears. We’ve seen the lightbulb go off for senior kickers before, but D’Amato is having himself a very special season. D’Amato nailed a 51 yard field goal to bring his total to 12 of 13 field goals made this season. His 12 FGs put him right up there at 3rd in the nation, and his 92.3% FG percentage is 14th best.
Punter Cole Leininger is also averaging 42.62 yards per punt right now, after averaging 43.4 yards on seven punts Saturday night. He hasn’t shown quite the leg as Bryan Anger, but his punts have had plenty of boom and he’s been arguably the most consistent punter the Bears have had in years.
Cal’s coverage teams also continued to play well holding the Bruins to just a 5.7 yard average on punt returns and no big returns in the kickoff return game.
The only consistent drawback on special teams this year has been the lack of any return game, particularly on punt returns. Cal has been getting close to nothing on these returns. For as athletic as Bryce Treggs is, he’s strangely really hesitant on punt returns. He’s averaging just 3.38 yards per return on the season. For a team that’s struggling to get things going, a spark from special teams could be huge.
However, this is still a minor gripe for a special teams unit that has by and large played pretty well this season. My general theory about special teams is this: You don’t have to win the games, but for the love of all that is good, don’t lose the game for the team. And so far, Tommerdahl’s led special teams is doing that.
I thought Goff actually had his worst performance in his young career for the Bears. I know, I know, worse than Oregon? Worse than Oregon. I almost can’t count the Oregon game because of how weird the game was and how little he actually played in it.
But it simply wasn’t what we’ve been used to seeing from Goff this season. He felt pressured even when there was more space and time in the pocket than he probably thought. This led to some hurried and inaccurate throws.
On top of that, his interception was flat out bad. He simply didn’t see safety Randall Goforth hiding behind the line and threw what should have been a pick six had it not been some hustle from RB Daniel Lasco.
Goff has been solid so far this season, but he needs to show that he can stay more poised than he has been on the road this season. His next shot? At 20th ranked Washington.
Despite losing by 27 points, Cal showed some progress in some areas. For the first time all season, Cal’s defense was typically in position to make plays, even if they had the occasional gaffe and gave up the big play every now and then.
Cal’s special teams has returned to being solid and has kept games from becoming even more nightmarish than they could be.
Cal’s offense has been in a bit of a headscratching regression the past few weeks, but here’s hoping that they don’t give up on trying to develop a rushing attack because that will likely be the key to becoming more efficient in the redzone.
The Bears are pretty much playing for next season. I’m not trying to take on a defeatist approach. I’m simply stating that bowl eligibility is all but out of the picture, and many of Cal’s projected starters are probably not going to see the field this year. This time will likely be spent really coaching up some players who probably haven’t ever played a whole lot before.
Don’t get me wrong. It sucked watching the Bears get walloped by the Bruins. But it at least gave me pause enough to get back to remembering that this season is all likely about making sure that this team is better at the end of the season than they were in week one.