It's a basic rule of football that if you win the line of scrimmage, you'll win the game. Cal found a way to break that rule Friday night in a disappointing loss to a UCLA team with no head coach and (by the start of the second half) no starting QB, removing any doubt about whether or not this team was ready for a bowl.
On the plus side, this was another outstanding game from Patrick Laird, who has truly been one of the great stories of the year. Laird had over 200 all-purpose yards on the night (including 178 yards rushing), and showed his great vision and patience on a number of nice cutbacks through the Bruin front. The run-game playcalling was another relative bright spot on offense, with Baldwin mixing up the location of FB/TE/wrecking ball Malik McMorris, sometimes using him as a true in-line TE to seal the edge on the playside, and sometimes lining him up in the backfield to create additional gaps on the backside, creating those cutbacks that I mentioned earlier.
When they weren't being penalized (though they were penalized often) the offensive line performed adequately, allowing Laird to be the game's leading rusher and yielding only a single sack on the night. That sack, however, was indicative of a game in which the Bears as a whole, and the OL in particular, struggled with communication; two false start penalties and a substitution infraction, all in the red zone, contributed to Cal kicking three FG's when they could have scored three TD's. With a better red zone offense Cal blows out the Bruins and has a ton of momentum heading into a bowl game and signing day. Instead, we got our fourth straight loss in the Rose Bowl, and our sixth losing season in the last ten years. UCLA's lone sack, on 4th and 3 in the red zone, ended another promising drive when the OL let an unblocked rusher come free from Bowers' blind side. Overall this was a night on which the OL physically defeated the Bruins but mentally defeated themselves.
On the other side of the ball, the Bears' defensive front did enough to win. UCLA's leading rusher, Brandon Stephens, had one long run early in the second quarter, but otherwise was held to just over 2 yards/carry. We also picked up four sacks and nine tackles for loss, outpacing the Bruins' front-6 in both categories and forcing Rosen out of the game at the end of the first half. DeRuyter showed a nice mix of blitzes both against the run and the pass, and was able to keep UCLA's offense decently off-balance throughout the game.
And then there was the passing game, which most contributed to this loss on both sides of the ball. On offense the final stats don't look that bad; Bowers completed 61% of his passes for 242 yards and a TD. In the first half, however, he was 8/16 for 62 yards and no TD's. In that half Bowers was only able to convert on one of his seven third down passes and, while these weren't short throws (usually 3rd and 5-10), they didn't come on unreasonable downs and distances either. On our first drive, it was after one of these 3rd down incompletions that Matt Anderson missed a 46-yard FG, three points that ended up being the difference in the game. You’ll notice that so far I’ve mentioned five trips to FG range in this recap. Those trips yielded a missed FG, a fourth down sack, and three converted FG’s for a total of 9 points.
Cal never got the third-down passing thing under control, but in the second half we did mix up our playcalling on 2nd and 5+ with nice results. In the first half our usual sequence was to run on second and medium-to-long and then, if the run was unsuccessful, to throw on third down. In the first half we had a 6:2 Run/Pass ratio on 2nd and 5+, but in the second half that flipped to a staggering 1:11. Bowers acquitted himself very nicely on those plays by picking up six first downs and completing several other passes to set up manageable third downs for Laird and the run game. Overall Bowers looked much more decisive and confident throwing the ball on second down, even in long yardage situations. This was true despite the fact that UCLA played basically the same press-man coverage with a FS deep throughout the game.
The pass defense, on the other hand, never figured out how to stop WR Jordan Lasley, whose twelve catches and 227 yards were both career highs. The most worrisome part of this is that it didn't matter which QB UCLA had throwing the ball; Rosen went 7/8 for 135 yards when throwing to Lasley, and backup Devon Modster was 5/6 for 111. He was just that open the whole game. Schematically UCLA did this in part by working the seams and intermediate coverage when we were in Cover-3, a weakness that teams have exploited for big plays throughout the season, including most recently against Colorado. In this game the fade also emerged as a serious weakness against our press-man coverage, and this marks a significant step backward for a secondary that's pressed pretty effectively throughout the season, including against receivers with size and speed comparable to Lasley's. Lasley's single-handed effectiveness meant that it was either sack or bust for our defense, and unfortunately, because of our sputtering red zone offense, four sacks weren't enough.