The California Golden Bears overcame a subpar passing attack and weak special teams play to beat the UCLA Bruins by doing the two things football 'experts' harp on to win football games: running the ball, and playing great defense. There was a Ravens-esque quality to the way Cal beat up UCLA for four quarters, rushing for nearly 200 yards in the first half and grinding out a rough second half by not letting them breathe offensively.
Cal football under Jeff Tedford went back to its roots on Saturday afternoon, pounding the ball up the middle on a base UCLA defense. The UCLA defensive formations were puzzling, mostly using standard run defense formations and rarely putting more than seven in the box. It seemed as if they respected Kevin Riley's ability to throw more than their ability to run the ball. They defended superbly, but at the expense of letting the run game explode in their faces. The offensive line performed very well because they were never truly challenged, and they allowed Cal's running backs to have their best game of the season.
I think I've finally found a nickname for Shane Vereen that has about a ten percent chance of sticking--the Submarine (Come on, say Shane "the Submarine" Vereen. It has some rhythm, right?). He dives and leans forward to his body to avoid tackles to the body, evades contact and is elusive to take down at first contact. He does his damage in small doses, but by the end he can leave the opposition reeling. This was best evidenced when he bounced back when the middle was stuffed, stiff-armed a UCLA defender, and dove for the end zone. He also wheeled out and caught a pass out of the backfield on one of the few good throws by his quarterback, and just got what he needed all day long to get the Bears where they needed to be.
Vereen had his third straight great game against the Bruins, piling up 196 yards (145 rushing on 25 carries, 51 receiving on 3 receptions). Isi Sofele got more carries and showed that he deserved them, operating very well out of the direct snap Wildcat offense, picking up 80 rushing yards on 13 carries. To compensate for the lack of throws their way, Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones also got in on the running action, with Jones punctuating the game on a 48 yard reverse. Cal's running game had 297 yards in all, and they built their way to a 28-0 halftime lead. The run-blocking was very solid, even with Dominic Galas coming in to start at center in place of the injured Chris Tompek-Guarnero, and UCLA's defense had no answer during the crucial first half.
This was good, because the passing game couldn't get going. Kevin Riley had his worst game of the season, throwing for a meager 83 yards on 9 for 16 throwing. He was missing receivers, holding the ball, not making good decisions. Despite scrambling to find Allen for a touchdown and running an option keeper for another, the bad outweighted the good. When the pass coverage was blanketed, Riley didn't take off much and try to scramble for first downs, instead settling in the pocket and getting sacked five times. And sometimes he missed receivers because of poor vision; he went through his reads, but it seemed like he missed guys all game long. This was partly due to pressure off the edge, but Riley held onto that ball too long on too many occasions. He didn't adjust well to how UCLA's defense was playing him.
In addition to that, the playcalling again by Andy Ludwig frustrated me, particularly in the second half. Although I liked the fact we ran a hurry-up at the line of scrimmage, other things annoyed me. There are certain plays where we give off our cues as to whether it's going to be a run or pass, and I want to smash things, because if I know what's going to happen, the defense sure as hell knows what's coming. We seem to keep on going to our shotgun formation on 3rd and short and let the defense play firmly against the pass. We line out the tailback in a receiver slot, leaving only the fullback back to pass, signaling to the defense it's obviously going to be a passing play. Defensive backs are draping receivers and making it very tough for Riley to make reads downfield. It didn't cost us today, but it'll cost us down the road. So while Riley didn't play well, he wasn't helped by his offensive coordinator.
The only good thing I can say is Riley didn't throw any interceptions (although he was close on one throw) and didn't give UCLA stronger chances [UPDATE: Okay, that isn't the only thing. He also did dive for that Vereen fumble, and then went out to block on that reverse that sprung Jones for that big touchdown run in the fumble. Riley plays hard, even if he doesn't always play smart, and I can't ask for anything more from a Golden Bear.]
Which is more I can say for the special teams, which was particularly bad today. Jeremy Ross did some inexcusable things with the ball, fielding the ball inside his own ten, fumbling the ball again and nearly giving up a late touchdown, Giorgio Tavecchio hit another field goal off the uprights after great kickoff coverage, and the kickoff coverage gave the Bruins a short field on a few occasions and helped set up Kevin Prince's only successful drive of the game. At least the legs look good; Tavecchio knocked kickoffs at an average of 63 yards and Bryan Anger smashed punts at an average of 50 yards. Thankfully most of the kinks happened in garbage time, so Jeff Genyk should probably sort them out this week.
Nothing needs to be sorted out by a defense that's finding its mojo at just the right time. These were the stars of the game from start to finish. It was a complete team effort, as ten Golden Bears had three tackles or more.
The Revolver offense UCLA ran so successfully against Texas (264 yards on the ground overall) came to a halt in Memorial. UCLA managed 16 rushing yards on their first drive and then put up only nine more the rest of the game, finishing at about one yard a carry. That number shrinks to three yards if you average in Johnathan Franklin's very next carry, where Chris Conte stripped the ball from his hands and Josh Hill recovered it inside the red zone, setting up Vereen's second touchdown and a 14-0 Cal lead. (I should mention Derrick Hill somewhere; his stats aren't impressive, but when he's in, there's just no space at all for the running backs inside.)
And the pass defense was equally up-to-the-task. Darian Hagan, Bryant Nnbauife, Marc Anthony, Steve Williams, D.J. Campbell all broke up a pass apiece. Hagan also added an interception of Prince, forcing UCLA's quarterback to a horrid performance (13 for 31 and barely 3 yards per attempt).
As seems to be the custom, Clancy Pendergast added in a new wrinkle for this week: The cornerback blitz. Hagan come off the edge twice to make two crucial sacks to end Bruin drives on 3rd down, and Williams added in another late. Cameron Jordan and Mychal Kendricks added in sacks of their own and Mike Mohamed, Ernest Owusu, and D.J. Holt also got in the backfield. Pressure came constantly and often, as Cal's stout front seven dominated an inexperienced UCLA offensive line.
Now it's time to be the wet blanket on a 35-7 victory. Yes, it was a solid performance by the Bears, but ultimately the offensive woes that we hoped would be fixed up after two weeks haven't been mended. Although I'm happy we ate up the first half, second halves like that against better Pac-10 competition are going to end in defeat. If the passing and running game can't mesh and complement each other, we're going to probably lose as many as we win on the remaining conference slate.
It remains to be seen if this type of effort will be enough to get our first win against USC in over eight years. As they say, the most important game is the next one.