EUGENE, OR - OCTOBER 06: Quarterback Zach Maynard #15 of the California Golden Bears looks for a play call against the Oregon Ducks on October 6, 2011 at the Autzen Stadium in Eugene, Oregon. (Photo by Jonathan Ferrey/Getty Images)
This is different.
I've seen bad 28 point losses. In Cal's last trip up to Oregon State, they lost by 28 to a team with four walk-on offensive lineman that dismantled a solid front seven within thirty minutes. I watched Brock Mansion throw the hardest looking incompletions against a Beaver defense that would end up making Richard Brehaut and a 2-10 WSU team look terribly competent. I watched Kevin Riley go down on some of the worst O-line execution you'll ever see, and a season come apart at the seams. That was incompetence and stupidity of the highest form, and I would never want to relive any of it again.
This wasn't that. This was different.
Zach Maynard had the jitters. It was clear early on when he saw a flash of white, hauled the ball down the field, and decked Puddles smack dab in the middle of his forehead. (It's not clear that this actually happened, you'll have to check eBaumsWorld for the vid probably). Usually Maynard could recover by hitting Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen with some deep throws, but even that deserted him on Saturday. That brotherly connection with Allen kept him from totally falling apart though. I don't think I've ever seen quite anything like that throw to his brother in the end zone, where he looked like he was whipping his entire body to prepare for a sack that was never coming.
Yet even despite those struggles, the worst of Maynard was far better than the worst Cal QBs had to offer last season. Maynard kept drives going just enough in the first half to set up opportunities for points, which is a sign that he can at least get the ball rolling. The Bears generated 350+ yards with Maynard in the game. He didn't finish many of them as he kept on missing his targets, but remember the last couple of years when Cal would punt the majority of that yardage? These are positive flickers, positive developments. These fifteen points were hard-earned and relevant, as opposed to the garbage-time touchdowns we put up last season.
Allan Bridgford has his own troubles, but he also looks a solid back-up who got some important reps. He had some nice drives at the end of the game and got Cal into scoring position, but he also has to work on his finishing ability. However, he's probably closer to where Riley was the past few seasons than Mansion, which is an encouraging development.
Red zone problems are troublesome, but it's a better dilemma then "just getting to the red zone" problems.
Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones may be the future pro talents on the offense, but Isi Sofele showed me football talent on Thursday night. Sofele was bouncing back, finding the edges, making so many of Cal's big offensive plays that it should have given his critics some pause, at least until the next week when they gear back up again.
Unfortunately, Sofele's big runs almost always ended up with him taking a seat on the bench. Sofele still hasn't developed himself to the point where he can handle a huge workload, nor stay in the game after big-time runs the way a Vereen or a Best or a Forsett could do. Sofele is getting better at being one of Cal's workhorses, but he needs help, needs balance to keep the run attack strong.
C.J. Anderson has shown flashes, but he isn't there yet--he got rushed and pushed back without much difficulty on too many runs in Autzen. Covaughn Deboskie-Johnson isn't even running the ball; he might never reach there. Brendan Bigelow fielded a kickoff that was bouncing out of bounds. There are pieces, but they don't fit together yet. They produce but don't finish. It's a problem that can only be fixed with time and experience.
For two quarters, the Cal defense tried to make do with only the spirits of guys like D. Hill and CamJo, MikeyMo and Conte guiding them along. They tried to contain (although they did make some huge slip ups). They blew things up on the inside. They put pressure on the quarterback. Even with LaMichael and De'Anthony running loose on the outside, for awhile it looked like it might work, and Cal could keep things close for their offense to keep pace.
Then in the second half, they got slow burned for a five minute drive, and suddenly the gloves were off. They lost contain, couldn't blow up anyone anymore, and were roasted. The energy was all expended in an effort to race early to the lead, to fight Oregon from ahead. The offense couldn't get far ahead enough, and the defense ended up paying the price when their all-or-nothing strategy got turned back on them.
It was a thirty minute effort by a defense that thought it could summon the spirits of those ghosts of the past to get an upset. But ghosts can't tackle. They're spectators like the rest of us, and Cal was left with broken play after broken play in both the run and pass attack. Mychal Kendricks and Sean Cattouse were great supporters of Mike Mohamed and Chris Conte, but the young Cal OLBs and new Cal DBs just weren't ready to shoulder the load and made too many mistakes for the backline to support.
(By the way, I remember one play where Cal sent six defenders at Da. Thomas, the O-line picked it up, and he found De'Anthony for the game-clinching score. As that instant replay with the six man blitz came up on the screen, I swear Craig James said the following words, "Cal has stopped being aggressive in this second half. They're sitting back and letting Oregon take over this game." Craig James has stock in Pravda, I'm almost sure of it now.)
Cal has a new starting quarterback, new running backs, new outside linebackers, new safeties. We lost four NFL talents and a handful of others. The talent for the veterans has never been lower.
Cal is playing better in the trenches. The offensive line is playing better. The defensive line plays with fire. The corners look more assured. The wide receivers are in a better place. They're fighting, but other than maybe Allen, no one is game-changing.
The talent on this team is young; the vets that are left are decent enough players, but they need those guys to grow in a hurry. We knew it would be a rebuilding season, but we so desperately want to believe that this team can start winning right now. But they still are making mistakes, fundamental mistakes that are costing them in the trenches. They are fixable though.
The lost years of 2009 and 2010 could've been salvaged with the coaching of 2011. Right now 2011 is going as 2011 should be going.
Oregon tornadoed Cal in that third quarter because the Ducks are two-time Pac-12 champions who have the players and the system in place, the reps to understand how to fight back from a deficit. Not a lot of players are back from that title team, but Cal lost as many players as Oregon from that team, and the Ducks have faced halftime deficits like this for about a year or so before gangbusting in the third quarter. The Bears are a team trying to find its way back.
This game didn't nibble at your soul and make you question your fandom. There are glimpses of a real good Cal team in there, but the talent is young and Oregon still has just enough to reign supreme. Learning how to execute is what keeps the youngsters from being great, and right now that's Tedford's biggest task: Getting this team the reps, so that they know what to do the line.
In fact, it just confirmed a lot of conceptions about where we stood and where we felt we were as a team. We're still a few hours short of midnight, and time moves too slowly in the development of student-athletes. We want them to get there now, but freshmen will still be freshmen tomorrow and first-time starters won't be getting a year or two older for next week against USC. But eventually things will start clicking for these guys.
They're fighting. They're landing punches. But just like Foreman trying to brute his way through Ali in Zaire, they don't know how to finish things up. They need to learn how to win the bout instead of the rounds.