After last week's dominating win against Utah, there was a spring in the step of many a Cal football fan. Looking at the team's performance against the Utes, particularly the play of the defense and quarterback Zach Maynard, and coupled with the prospect of seemingly winnable games coming up against UCLA, Washington State, and Oregon State, even the most doomsaying Cal fan thought that the Bears had a chance to ride a four-game win streak before facing high-powered rival Stanford in the Big Game.
How does that old saying go about the best laid plans of mice and men? I think it's something like, "the best laid plans of mice and men often get screwed up by turnovers and poor run defense." On Saturday in Pasadena, UCLA (4-4 overall, 3-2 Pac-12) turned four of Cal's five turnovers into 24 points on the way to a stunningly one-sided 31-14 win over the Bears (4-4, 1-4).
Maynard had a hand in all five turnovers: he threw four interceptions (three of them to UCLA safety Tevin McDonald, who can probably clear a space for the Pac-12 defensive player of the week honor he'll get as a result) and was involved in a botched handoff that became a lost fumble charged to Isi Sofele. But Maynard was not the only one who turned in a disappointing performance. With the UCLA offense depleted by suspensions to four wide receivers (Taylor Embree, Shaquille Evans, Randall Carroll, and Ricky Marvray), it was no surprise that the Bruins' offense turned to the running game. Yet, Cal's defense got scorched by UCLA's pistol attack for 294 yards rushing, including a career-high (not to mention mind-boggling) 163 yards by UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince.
In the end, there is no sugarcoating this one. With UCLA reeling from suspensions and its coach, Rick Neuheisel, previously winless against Cal Coach Jeff Tedford and sitting on a hotter seat with every passing day, the stage seemed set for Cal to come into the Rose Bowl and continue the momentum it had built in the win against Utah. Instead, Cal suffered an ignominious defeat -- one that might rank among the worst losses of Coach Jeff Tedford's nearly ten-year tenure.
Ignominy did not seem like it would be the order of the day early on. Cal actually led 7-0 in this one, thanks to Steve Williams forcing a first-quarter fumble by Prince in UCLA territory. Dan Camporeale recovered for the Bears, which led to a Sofele one-yard touchdown run five plays later. Little did we know at the time that Prince's fumble, which came at the end of a 21-yard run by the Bruin quarterback, would be a harbinger of things to come. Prince would continue to run well out of the pistol offense and there would continue to be turnovers -- except that it would be the Bears, for the most part, being the team turning it over.
Trailing 7-0, the UCLA offense got into gear in the second quarter and kept on going. And, ironically, it was the passing game that was arguably the catalyst. Facing a 1st-and-20 at its own 26 after a holding penalty, Prince found Nelson Rosario -- one of the Bruins' few experienced receivers available -- for 19-yard gain against Cal freshman Stefan McClure. The play was key, for it took UCLA out of an obvious pass situation, where the conventional wisdom was that they would struggle. From there, the Bruins shredded Cal's defense with the run, including a 32-yard scamper by Prince on a zone read. All told, six straight runs, capped by Johnathan Franklin's 11-yard burst to the end zone, gave UCLA the tying touchdown with 6:37 left in the first half.
And then, the wheels started to come off for the Bears.
On the next series, Maynard threw his first interception of the day to McDonald, who returned it 15 yards to the Cal 15. Though the Cal defense held UCLA to a field goal, the Bears offense did not exactly thank them for the stop. Sofele fumbled a handoff from Maynard on the first play of the following series, leading to a short touchdown run by UCLA's Derrick Coleman. All of a sudden, Cal was down 17-7 and reeling.
Cal threatened to get back in the game in the third quarter, with help from the Bruins. After Cal punted on its first possession of the second half, UCLA immediately gave the ball back to Cal when Jordon James muffed a Bryan Anger punt at the Bruin 15-yard line. D.J. Campbell recovered, and Cal suddenly found itself in the red zone. It took Cal only two plays to score -- a 14-yard pass to tight end Anthony Miller and a one-yard touchdown run by C.J. Anderson -- and the Bears had seized momentum, cutting the lead to 17-14.
Cal had its chances to either tie or take the lead after that. But Giorgio Tavecchio missed a potential game-tying 42-yard field goal late in the third quarter. And then, after the defense forced a UCLA punt early in the fourth quarter to get the ball back, the turnover bug struck Maynard again. McDonald picked off Maynard for the second time in the game and set the Bruins up at the Cal 20-yard line. Coleman knifed through the Cal defense for a touchdown on the very next play and UCLA had a 10-point lead again.
To the Bears' credit, they threatened to make a game of it again even after the Coleman touchdown made it 24-14. On the very next possession, Cal drove deep into UCLA territory with still plenty of time remaining in the fourth quarter. After a Sofele run on which UCLA linebacker Dietrich Riley was injured (Riley was carted off the field after a scary-looking play, but Riley appeared after the game to have escaped serious injury), Cal found itself at the UCLA 22-yard line. But from there, Maynard's threw his third interception of the game -- again to McDonald -- ending a promising drive with no points. After the interception, the Bruins killed whatever hope the Bears had of getting back in the game, clinching the game with a painful (for Cal fans) 9-play, 83-yard drive in which UCLA did not throw a single pass. Prince ran for 50 yards on the drive and Coleman added 33 more, including an easy 24-yard touchdown run that gave UCLA its final margin of victory.
Though the UCLA story of the game was Prince (19 carries, 163 yards; 92 yards passing), Coleman was no slouch himself. The bruising running back hurt the Bears for 80 yards on 16 carries and ran for three touchdowns. In the end, the Bruins' running attack (294 net yards on 52 rushing attempts) made the suspensions to their four wide receivers irrelevant, as Cal could not force the Bruins to resort to the pass. Offensively, the Bears mustered 333 yards of total offense, but were their own worst enemy with five turnovers and an erratic day passing by Maynard (14 of 30, 199 yards, 4 INT).
What else can be said? It was an ugly performance by the Bears in a game that they probably had no business losing. With their record now 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the conference (tied with next week's opponent, Washington State, for last in the Pac-12 North), the Bears must now look in the mirror and figure out where to go from here. After eight games, the Bears have far too many questions and not enough answers.