A Disaster for Cal Bears
Yes, the lopsided loss to Texas Tech in the Holiday Bowl was embarrassing, but it was more understandable. The players were emotionally deflated because they should have been in the Rose Bowl, and they didn’t match up well defensively against Texas Tech, a good team whose all-out passing attack exposed the Bears’ relative lack of speed in the secondary.
Oregon State is not a good team, just a middle-of-the-road Pac-10 team which tried to give the game away. The Beavers’ quarterback, Matt Moore, threw two interceptions in the red zone in the first half, and when Oregon State got down there again just before the end of the half, Oregon State coach Mike Riley kept the ball on the ground. He wasn’t going to risk another interception, so the Beavers settled for a field goal that brought them to within five points at the half.
But, the Bears couldn’t take full advantage of the Beavers’ generosity because they were making so many mistakes themselves.
As the game progressed, the Bears got hit by significant injuries. Offensive tackle Ryan O’Callaghan missed most of the game with a concussion. Defensive tackle Brandon Mebane missed much of the game with an ankle injury, and that was a killer. Mebane is a playmaker and with him out of the game in the second half, the Beavers were able to run up the middle, so they didn’t have to rely on their passing, as they had for their previous games.
In addition, Marshawn Lynch was sidelined after two fumbles in the first half, and even though that deprived the Bears of a significant offensive weapon, I agree with Tedford on that decision. He’s emphasized not turning the ball over, and if he gave his star runner a pass on that, he’d lose credibility with the team.
But even before all this happened, the Bears were self-destructing. There was the usual yielding of a big punt return, this one for 51 yards, setting up a first quarter field goal. But this didn’t come because of a great returner like Maurice Drew. It was simply another breakdown, as the Beavers pulled a reverse and the Bears were unprepared.
That play probably sealed the fate of special teams coach Pete Alamar, who was already on shaky ground. When Tedford said one of the coaches on the sideline should have noticed that the Bears had only 10 players on the field when UCLA ran its fake punt the week before, those close to the team thought that comment was aimed at Alamar. In his first two seasons as special teams coach, Alamar did well, but that was with a largely veteran group. This is a much younger team but at this point, roughly two/thirds of the way through the season, that’s no longer a legitimate excuse.
The Bears never did get untracked offensively in that first half. Their one drive, for 82 yards and a touchdown, was made possible by 45 yards of penalties against Oregon State on three successive plays.
It got worse in the second half. With O’Callaghan out, and Andrew Cameron already lost for the season, the Cal offensive line wasn’t the powerhouse it had been. Justin Forsett can make big plays if he gets a hole, but he’s not a powerful running back like Lynch. The Beavers put eight men near the line of scrimmage and dared the Bears to throw, but quarterback Joe Ayoob couldn’t take advantage of that.
AYOOB CONTINUES to be a puzzlement. He seemed to be making progress in previous games, getting more comfortable with the system and his receivers, but he retrogressed seriously in this game, his worst since his 0-for-10 debut against Sacramento State.
He shows flashes of his ability, just enough to tantalize. In the third quarter Saturday, he had a run in which he completed five of eight passes and had one beautiful throw, a 52-yarder to DeSean Jackson that was nullified by a penalty. That was probably the best pass he’s thrown in a Cal uniform. But, after that one spell, he reverted to spraying his passes wildly and finished just 13-for-39. The Beavers had shown a vulnerability to deep passes in their earlier games, and Tedford’s game plan was drawn up with that in mind. But it doesn’t matter if the defensive backs aren’t covering well if the quarterback doesn’t make his throws.
Ayoob was under great pressure, and he didn’t handle it well. Several times, feeling the pressure, he’d put the ball down and start to run, but when there was no hole, he’d dart to the side and throw a ball wildly, not even close to a receiver.
Even with all that, the Bears had a 20-16 lead midway through the fourth quarter and were driving downfield. A field goal would have put them up by a touchdown, a touchdown would have put the game away – but Ayoob was intercepted.
With Nate Longshore out for the season with a broken leg, Tedford has no choice but to keep working with Ayoob to try to harness his emotions so he can put his physical talents to work. Possibly, he could use the shotgun more, since Ayoob ran out of a spread formation at CCSF with great success.
There is nobody else at this point. Highly-rated prep Kyle Reed is redshirting, and backup Steve Levy, who came to Cal as a quarterback but was a fullback last year, has never been considered anything but an emergency reserve.
WHAT’S NEXT? For the players, it’s time to take a long look in the mirror. Senior safety Donnie McCleskey held a players-only meeting after the game and said there would be more of those this week. (The secondary did play well on Saturday.) He doesn’t want to go out a loser.
Maybe those of us watching were fooled into thinking this team was better than it is. Even the loss to UCLA looks worse this week, after the Bruins had to go to overtime to beat Washington State. Earlier, they had had to come from behind to beat a bad Washington team. The Bruins are a fraud, and they’ll be exposed before the season is over.
The Bears’ hope for a top-tier bowl is gone, but they can still salvage their season and their pride in the final four games.
As for those of us watching, we have to lower our expectations once more. In his “Fan’s Notes” last week, Jeffrey Warren noted that Tedford had exposed us all: For all our talk about accepting athletic mediocrity because of Cal’s academic ranking, deep down, we all wanted the Bears to be in the hunt for the national championship. Well, not now. Right now, a 7-4 season would look good.
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