Judging by the reactions following Saturday's 50-31 win over Utah, this had to be the unhappiest that the Bears ever could have been after a 19-point win. And for good reason. With the hapless Thunderbirds expected to be road kill by halftime, this figured to be a game where a lot of backups would see action and fans would get glimpses of - not just the backup quarterback but maybe the third-stringer as well.
Instead, it was a one-possession game headed into the fourth quarter, and while the Bears broke the game apart late, if anything, this game might have shown that the disjoint performance against Nevada could be closer to the rule than the exception for this year's team.
"(We had) too many penalties," said Cal head coach Jeff Tedford, commenting on the team's 12 penalties for 106 yards, with 96 of them coming in the first half.
"We cannot continue to do that, [to] shoot ourselves in the foot and expect to win close football games. We broke it open in the second half with a lot of big plays, but we are relly hurting ourselves a lot. We have to clean that up for sure.
"We are making positive plays, but [are] shooting ourselves in the foot with penalties. The touchdown [that[ got called back, we had a low block. We had a couple of holding calls.
"For the most part, we are making positive plays, but we can't keep shooting ourselves in the foot like that. There is quite a bit of improvement to be made. The improvement needs to come with what we are doing."
Isn't coach-speak informative?
Aside from the game's broadcast tribute to former Cal wide receiver Marvin Jones, who made references to the team shooting itself in the foot after every Cal loss, and where he faced the media during his four years as a Bear, Jones said what much of his team also thinks - that the team is playing beneath its ability.
The good news is that when (if) the team gets it together, they're going to be one of the better teams in the conference. The bad news is that it's hard to know when that day might come.
The offense put up more than 300 yards in the first half, but had trouble scoring points.
The defense allowed Southern Utah to sustain long drives throughout the game. With the Bears about to face Ohio State and USC in their next two games, the Bears will have to move quickly find a way to get better, or they will hit the heart of conference play with a 1-3 record.
“It's always good to have a win," said linebacker Robert Mullins. "I'm not satisfied in the least bit with how many points they scored today, not in the least bit. I really don't have any words because I 'm so dissatisfied with this. We made plays but we're very inconsistent. From this defense that we have, I've seen us do better in practice and I know that we can do better. We have so much potential, but potential can't make plays for you. That potential has to be shown and I know we can do that. The product that we put out there isn't what I think we're all about and I know we can do better."
Wide receiver Keenan Allen who was responsible for 167 yards in all of his various exploits echoed those sentiments for the offense.
"Yes, it's definitely frustrating," said Allen. "We feel like we're coming out pretty slow. (For a) home game, coming out slow is not good. We practiced everyday (and I) feel like we should come out fired up with a lot of enthusiasm. We should put points on the board early. If we do that we should be a pretty good team."
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Against Southern Utah, the Bears rotated their inside linebackers considerably more than they did against Nevada. While Robert Mullins and J.P. Hurrell saw most of the action at the two inside linebackers against the Wolf Pack, Jalen Jefferson and Nick Forbes saw a considerable amount. Mullins and Jefferson wound up sharing the team lead in tackles with nine, while Forbes finished with eight, including a team-high six solo tackles.
In his most extended action as a Bear, Jefferson, a 6-foot-2 redshirt freshman from Ventura, replaced Hurrell early and played for most of the game.
“I was really proud of Jalen," said Mullins. " When it's your first time out there you have (some) butterflies and nerves. A young guy can kind of like lose focus when they're first out there...He's been preparing really, really hard for this game because he know he was going to play a lot so I didn't have to do a lot to get him in the right position."
At times the Bears went with a linebacking corps that consisted entirely of sophomores and freshmen with Jefferson, Forbes, Chris McCain and Brennan Scarlett. McCain injured his shoulder in the first half, and was replaced by Nathan Broussard, who's a redshirt freshman and Dan Camporeale.
McCain injured his shoulder and will get an MRI on Saturday. Tight end Richard Rodgers suffered a foot injury and was scheduled to get x-rays.
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Because Southern Utah's offense featured three receivers, the Bears went with a lot of nickel defense, with Marc Anthony, Josh Hill, Alex Logan, and Steve Williams forming the starting secondary and Michael Lowe coming in as the fifth defensive back. Lowe replaced Kameron Jackson who was the nickel back the previous week.
In years past, the Bears would often bring in the fifth defense back in place of a linebacker, but against Southern Utah, Cal would substitute out a defensive linemen, leaving them with a 2-4-5 set-up. Yet often, linebackers lined up in the gaps between the offensive linemen, so while the personnel might not have followed something that the Bears might often have used, the lineups on the field weren't all that unconventional.
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Anybody who's followed Cal football under Cal head coach Jeff Tedford is well aware that part of the plan to try to keep defenses off-balance is to always try to vary the formations. Sometimes they'll use a fullback and a tight end, sometimes they'll use two tight ends, sometimes they'll a tight end and three receivers and every now and then they'll run an empty backfield and have five receivers.
One tactic that's been rarely employed is using two tailbacks together. Last year, the Bears rarely used tailbacks Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson together, but against Southern Utah, Cal used them together fairly often. On Sofele's 9-yard touchdown run in the second quarter, Anderson was lined up as a receiver, and both backs were also in the game for Maynard's 19-yard touchdown pass to Keenan Allen.
"I thought Isi ran really hard and CJ got in there for a few runs and did a nice job," said Tedford. "I don't know how many carries each of them had but both of those guys are good backs and hard runners and dependable."
Sofele bounced back from a 5-carry, 22-yard debut against Nevada to finish with 19 carries for 104 yards and a touchdown, while Anderson finished with five carries for 46 yards and a touchdown.
"I felt really good," said Sofele. "I think that the running game was getting upfield and getting positive yards. It put the offense in a good situation. I feel that the run game helped out a lot to open it up for the receivers as well."
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A trio of big touchdown plays helped break the game wide open for the Bears in the fourth quarter. Southern Utah had narrowed the deficit to three at 20-17 in the third quarter, and while the Bears did stretch the lead out to 10, the Thunderbirds were driving the ball on the Bears and making the crowd of 57,745 more than a little bit uneasy.
But then a 61-yard interception return by Marc Anthony, a 69-yard punt return by Keenan Allen, and a 77-yard run by Daniel Lasco helped put the fans, coaches and players at ease.
"I thought it was a great interception by Marc," said Tedford. He read it really well. It was great that he kept his feet because he was stumbling there for while, but that was obviously a very good play. We all know what Keenan can do, it was an unbelieveable return. He dropped the ball picked it up and make some people miss, we all know what he can do, he's a special player without a doubt. Then Lasco, you could see what we've been talking about with (him with) the speed, once he hit it you could see the burst there."
On the Anthony interception, Southern Utah was facing a 2nd-and-10 from the Cal 42 when quarterback Brad Sorensen aimed a pass on the right side toward receiver Cameron Morgan. Morgan hadn't yet come out of his break, when Anthony jumped the pattern. He stumbled, regained his feet and had a convoy of blockers up the left side. Sorensen was chasing after Anthony, but also sensed Todd Barr closing in on him and decided that there are some battles in life that aren't worth fighting.
"There's a lot of adrenaline going," said Anthony who also had two tackles and a pass break-up. "You're trying to think (about what move to make. The quarterback took a nice angle on me. I was trying to pick up a blocker so I could score. (There was) definitely a lot of adrenaline and everybody screaming sort of pumps you up."
Although Allen's punt return was listed at 69 yards, he might have run for closer to 100. He attempted to catch the punt at the Cal 31, dropped the ball, chased after it heading back towards his own end zone, picked it up, wheeled around and headed up field. On one hand, he was heading back towards his own end zone, but the muffed punt also had the effect of pulling the punt return defense further up the field.
Using the speed and vision that have marked his three years as a Bear, he headed upfield, made one cut and was end zone bound.
"(It was) one of those plays where I was trying to make the play too fast before I caught the ball I was trying to make a move," said Allen, who finished with 94 yards on punt returns along with five catches for 69 yards and a touchdown. "I had my hands in the wrong place and a guy hit me and caused me to lose the ball. I managed to keep my composure, keep the ball and some guys made some great blocks and I broke free. I kind of got scared for a minute when I dropped (the ball) but when I got it together my eyes lit up and I heard the crowd, and that felt good."
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While next week's game against Ohio State at Columbus figures to be a big test, it will be a challenge to see if the Bears can raise their level of play. The Buckeyes raised their record to 2-0 with a 31-16 win over Central Florida on Saturday, and everything, from their athletic ability to their home field advantage will be substantially different from anything they've ever faced before.
And for years any time reporters have asked players whether an upcoming game has any special meaning, the players say to a man that it's one game as a time, and every game is simply the next challenge.
But still. Ohio State? 100,000 people? The Horseshoe?
"It's something I've been looking forward since I've seen the schedule," said Allen. "(I'm) definitely excited to get out there and play with those guys I know they're a great team. We just have to come out and execute and score. We definitely can play with these guys."
For Sofele, it's business as usual.
"I'm juiced," Sofele said. "It's another game. That's how we have to treat it."