Zach Maynard loses the football. Not a terminal disease, just an irritating one. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)
He's not the only culprit. The Cal run game, which looked like it was finally making progress against Oregon, was completely clamped down by the USC front seven, daring Maynard to throw on every occasion. There were special teams gaffes like an ill-timed fake punt that set up USC with great field position. A Keenan Allen early fumble started the trend of trends, and Michael Calvin not maintaining a clean handoff from Maynard put him in a precarious situation to throw his first of three picks.
But ultimately, like so many Cal losses over the past five years, this loss will fall on the quarterback's shoulders, and this one deservedly so. Maynard knew it, Jeff Tedford knew it, everyone in the stadium resignedly knew it. This game was a golden opportunity to show that the Bears were finally ready to compete with the big boys of the conference. This was a game that could've gone down to the wire if Bryan Anger just kept on booting footballs. But because they traded in turnovers on short fields for 20 USC points on 62 yards of Trojan offense, the Bears are looking pretty low on the Pac-12 pecking order right now.
Maynard always seems to bring out a new tendency every game that has to drive Cal fans crazy. Against Washington, he couldn't hit anyone in the red zone after proving he could shred defenses anywhere else on the field. Against Oregon, a thigh contusion seemed to make his erratic mechanics even more deficient. And against USC, to seemingly improve his accuracy (which was pretty good), he honed in on his first read again and again.
The Trojans secondary was there and ready to pounce.
Every pick was fundamentally egregious, particularly the throw to Marvin Jones in the end zone that attracted THREE USC defenders. His helmet was turned toward the receiver early, his windup was slow, and the linebackers and safeties were breaking on those throws.
Keenan Allen, who had his latest career night, noted that his brother seemed to target him too much (which led to an early interception deep in Cal territory).
Maynard defended his tendency to throw to his brother, saying that he was a playmaker. No doubt, but Maynard's desire to hit the big play has come at the cost of balance with the offense, as Allen and Jones were targeted too often and USC defenders were ready to pounce on those routes. The downfield passing game seems to have sacrificed other parts of the offense, and made Cal a team that was susceptible to turnover after turnover on Thursday night.
It hurts even more so because Maynard proved he was resilient and could bounce back. After a first half to forget, his third quarter was quite good, as he led the Bears on two critical scoring drives that gave his team a chance to believe again. He didn't go into a shell or start throwing footballs all over the place. He tried to make the right play and often did. One quarter of great play can't cover up three quarters of bad decision-making though, and it ultimately sunk Cal's chances.
I wrote after Maynard's first stat that he would have his chances to really step up and do special things. He can make plays with his feet and his arm, and he's making them with greater frequency. You saw it on his scramble on 3rd and 20 when he nearly picked up the first down, or that zone-read touchdown that worked perfectly. Things are clicking here and there.
There was peril there too--Maynard just doesn't have the fundamentals of the game down, regardless of the big plays he can make, and that leads to frustrating erratic play on too many snaps. For a former QB like Tedford, it has to drive him crazy to see Maynard throw so often into double coverage, or target his first read early, or get his feet set, or not make a quick decision with the football when he can't find his primary target. These are unconscionable errors that'll cost you, regardless of the offense being run or the plays being called.
Tedford could budge with Maynard. He was visibly agitated with the turnovers. Even in his postgame comments, he talked about belief in Zach's ability to improve rather than firmly committing to him as his starter. This doesn't sound like a quarterback secure in his spot, even though Allan Bridgford probably shouldn't start thinking he's about to park in and get through it. Bridgford might not be ready to uncork a deep post route with great timing, but his ability to throw a catchable ball and solid technique sure do look attractive right now.
Tedford seems ready to ride with it a little longer. He knows if Maynard clicks and starts hitting everything with greater regularity, this offense could be really deadly, fundamentals be damned. We'll see, but I think the QB competition could still be worth monitoring. Bridgford knows that this could be a great moment of opportunity to prove his worth, and he'll start going as hard as he can to try and impress the coaches that he's ready to be the guy.
It's a treacherous road our head coach rides, because he has to know that of all the things the fans wanted to see this year, an inaccurate quarterback who throws game-changing picks was somewhere between "Tosh Lupoi faking an injury on the sideline" and "Oski actively pounding Jamesons in his eye on-camera".
Halfway through the season of rebuilding, Cal flashes great potential week-by-week in certain places. The defense is shaking off its September jitters and starting to look like it could breakthrough with some big performances this season. Stefan McClure and Steve Williams proved why they could potentially lock it up on the outside the next couple of years if they continue in their progression. Jones and Allen won the battle of all-conference receiving tandems with Robert Woods and Marqise Lee. And the season of Giorgio Tavecchio rolls on, even if it would be nice for his protection to allow him to kick a clean extra point every now and then.
But again, like so many times before with this team, we're left talking about what the Bears could be if their quarterback could do the things we need him to do. Same old story in Bear Territory.