After last week's loss to Washington State, the general consensus amongst Cal fans was that 2013 is a lost year in terms of meaningful achievements like Bowl Games. It's time to look ahead to 2014. In every game here on out, we'll all look for signs that players are improving, that underclassmen can contribute to a winning team, and that players are gradually getting a better grasp on the schemes and techniques the coaches are trying to impart.
From that perspective, there were certainly some positives in Cal's loss to UCLA.
Let's start with the big picture. Cal allowed 488 total yards, 37 points, and 6.5 yards/play to the Bruins. Collectively, adjusted for the quality of the opponent, it's probably Cal's best defensive effort of the year. It's certainly the best we've seen from Cal's defensive line. Brett Hundley was caught for a loss twice and UCLA's running game managed a meager 2.8 yards/carry.
Easily the biggest bright spots were Deandre Coleman and Viliami Moala in the interior of the defensive line. Both players have a ton of hypothetical talent that wasn't seen on game days nearly often enough. But the duo got consistent push on the Bruins, particularly in the 2nd half. They did a good job of disrupting run plays, they kept Brett Hundley in the pocket, and they even got some occasional pressure.
And there were even flashes from the depleted secondary. Damariay Drew slashed through multiple attempted blocks on bubble screens. Cam Walker had a nice pass break up and 8 total tackles. Adrian Lee was right with Bruins WRs a few times on passes over the middle, and probably should have had an interception were it not for an iffy pass interference call.
I don't want to sugarcoat things. The defense still has issues. There were still missed tackles. There were some blown assignments. Guys over-pursued and often had trouble shedding blocks. But there were two fundamental changes from the first few weeks of the season:
1. Guys were typically in a position to make plays
2. They then actually made those plays a reasonable percentage of the time.
Perhaps the biggest stat for the defense is that UCLA was a mediocre 7-15 on 3rd down attempts. Firstly: Cal forced UCLA into 3rd down 15 times! And then when they got them there, they stopped them about half the time. Those are stats you'd expect from a mediocre defense - not the youngest, most inexperienced, most injured defense in the country.
So, kudos to the defense for a consistently solid effort in a game in which they got almost no support from the offense. Which brings us to the less encouraging side of the ball.
Cal's first five drives totaled 25 yards, 1 first down, and 5 punts. It's a shocking regression from an offense that moved the ball against pretty much everybody but Oregon. While things picked up a bit from that point on, the game was already a bit out of reach.
Nobody was surprised to watch the running game struggle, but Jared Goff just didn't have a good game, by his own standards or anybody else's. And in a way, it reminded me of the Oregon game. UCLA got a ton of pressure early in the game, and I'd speculate that it was in his head the rest of the game. And for the rest of the game, he was throwing off his back foot and feeling pressure when there wasn't necessarily any (UCLA's pass rush wasn't as potent after Cassius Marsh got himself thrown out for throwing a punch). His throws didn't have the same zip that we're used to seeing and he didn't really have any success with deep balls. He also made his single worst throw of the season, an out pattern that was well covered . . . even if UCLA safety Randall Goforth wasn't lurking underneath to pick the ball off. The pick snuffed whatever slim chances Cal had of making it a game in the second half.
I'm not going to get on him for a bad game too much, and I'm certainly not prepared to call for Zach Kline. UCLA has an excellent pass rush, and expecting Goff to throw for 500 yards against everybody as a true freshman with limited support from his offensive line just isn't realistic. He was bound to have a game like this eventually. It's mostly a shame it happened in a game that saw the defense play reasonably well.
The offensive line struggled again with some relatively fundamental stuff. There was discussion in the gamethread about frustration on both sides of the ball with basic, fundamental errors, and I was reminded of something I saw in this week's episode of 'The Drive.' The show covered Chris Adcock's season ending injury, and then showed extensive footage of Tony Franklin working with the linemen on basic play call cadences. Adcock's injury forced Cal's offensive staff to go back to some very basic work just to make sure that the offense could do something simple, like get a play snapped without a false start.
And I think that's an issue that pretty much every unit on the team is dealing with. So many guys have been injured, that coaches have to spend more and more time in practice just teaching these guys to play together in a basic scheme. And the more time that is spent on that is less time spent on anything else. And I think that's a factor when we feel like the team isn't getting better as fast as we might hope.
And the way Cal played in the 2nd half, it almost feels like the coaches are playing for next year. Cal had a 20 play drive that spanned the 3rd and 4th quarters that included 15 runs, even when the Bears were down by 20 points. Playing Richard Rodgers as a short yardage pack and just pounding the ball makes me think that the coaches were either trying to send a message to their players or testing out some ideas for the future.
The drive ended without any points after a head scratching designed run for Goff, but it was oddly encouraging to see Cal move the ball downfield mostly by handing the ball off. Flashes, people. Every game, we're looking for flashes of what might be valuable down the road.
On Saturday night, there were enough positive flashes for Cal fans, and hopefully this game gives the coaches and the players something to build on. During a long rebuilding process, that's the only perspective that will keep you sane.