Starting inside linebacker Robert Mullins says that it was "the little things."
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Head coach Jeff Tedford calls it "execution."
"It's about us. It's about our execution," Tedford said on Sunday. "It's about not making mental mistakes or physical mistakes. It's about our execution. It's not so much about who's in the other uniform -- it's our execution which is important, and not just on game day, but in practice, right now."
Enough little things, it seems, add up to one big thing: A loss. At home. On the day you open a $321 million stadium. While giving 10 points in the spread.
"They're not very happy, understandably so," Tedford said of his team on Tuesday. "They're upset, mad about it. That's the thing: It's OK for us -- and I think it's very important -- to know that that's not OK, but there's no feeling sorry for ourselves. We can't keep looking backwards. We can't forget about that, but we need to take it and learn from it and continue to improve from it."
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Since winning a co-conference championship in 2006, the Bears have a 21-24 conference record, and a 36-28 overall mark. Cal has lost 14 games over that span by at least two touchdowns. On the road, the Bears are 10-18. Bowl games? Cal is 2-2, having missed out on the postseason in 2010 with a 5-7 overall record. The Big Game? The Bears are 2-3.
So when does "execution" stop being about the "little things" and start being about the big picture? What does a second straight loss to Nevada -- the first home opener Cal has dropped since 2001 -- mean for this week, and the rest of the season going forward?
"For this Saturday, it's definitely our technique," says starting outside linebacker Brennan Scarlett. "After coming off a loss like this where a team puts up 31 points, it's easy for the guys on the team to go out and do too much. Guys try to come out and do too much, rather than just do their own jobs. I think that our technique is our biggest thing."
"There's definitely anger," says starting corner Steve Williams. "Last time I remember losing the first game -- I don't remember losing the first game, because it doesn't happen here. It sucks, and it makes you want to go work hard. I think we're going to bounce back. We had a lot of good things happen, but we didn't come out with a victory, and that's what you really want. I think we're going to get back to the drawing board, and I think we're going to fight as a team this next game."
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Perhaps the most apt metaphor for this week would be a re-tooling, of sorts.
"Going into the game, we thought we had good preparation and we thought we had a good chance of beating these guys," says starting inside linebacker Robert Mullins. "Unfortunately, it didn't come out that way. We're ready to regroup, start next week on our next opponent.
"It's like an assembly line. If one guy doesn't do something on the assembly line, and 10 other guys do their jobs, then the product isn't perfect -- it's not right. So, every play, all 11 guys have to do their part in the assembly line. All 11 guys have to do their part on the defense. Unfortunately, yesterday, that didn't happen consistently. That's one thing that we're trying to fix. We want this defense to be a perfect assembly line -- a perfect defense."
That has to happen both on offense and on defense, and that was put in a harsh light against the pistol, which not only exaggerates execution problems, but exacerbates and feeds off of them. It's beyond just the 11 on the field on defense, as Mullins said. It's not just the machine shop that's not holding up its end of the bargain: This is a factory-wide issue.
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"It might wake us up to now, start fast and finish strong," says tailback C.J. Anderson. "We always start fast, have a funk in the midseason and finish strong. This year, it's not the fact that we're starting off fast -- we let one go [Saturday] and we know that was our fault -- but as a team, we're not panicking. We know what we have to do, and we can't wait to go out there and do it."
Anderson and others have said that they hope this is a wake-up call, that they'll get things fixed as time goes on. If it took an upset win in the home opener of a brand-spanking new stadium to wake them up, what was spring ball, then? Or fall camp?
Yes, it may get tiring to hear players and coaches say that this week is about looking inward, but Cal cannot afford to do anything else.
There were of course the weekly platitudes about respecting each opponent -- Tedford alluded to the fact that the Thunderbirds opened up against a Utah State team that pushed Auburn to the brink just last year in his weekly press conference -- and still, the looks on the faces were of bafflement. This loss is not going to be one the Bears just push through; this one stung.
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"We're going to have to play our best," Tedford says. "We're going to play to win and play well and this is not a game of us thinking we're going to do this and do that. We need to get better, and we made too many mistakes and didn't execute well enough this last week. We're going in with a lot of focus on us -- on us making sure we pay attention to details and get better."
So, what's the checklist for the Bears this weekend?
First: Establish the inside run game. Last week, Cal ran just 12 of 28 rushing plays between the tackles. That's what Anderson does best. That's what Brendan Bigelow has been working on all throughout the spring and the fall.
"We run it violently and we run hard -- we run very physical," says Anderson. "Yesterday, we didn't put that out there."
Second: Don't just win - demolish. Be violent and be aggressive on both sides of the ball. Cause turnovers.
"We got the ball on the ground six times, but we only got one of them," says Tedford. "We've got to get to the ball, get on it. We lost the turnover battle -- we lost two fumbles and they lost one, but the ball was on the ground six times, so we have to come up with more of those balls. We were trying to strip the ball. We were trying to cause turnovers."
"I think we can focus a little bit more on the little things," says Mullins. "We can harp more on the minor details. It's not that we don't do that, but we can turn it up even a notch more, and focus on the smallest things we can focus on. We can attack. We can attack more, attack these guys a little bit more than we did [Saturday]. We can focus on being a more aggressive defense and just attack."
Third: Be decisive. Through the course of the preseason, Tedford has trumpeted the game-changing play of tight ends like Richard Rodgers and the fact that having four viable options at the position -- including Jacob Wark, Spencer Hagan and freshman Maximo Espitia, Jr. -- will give a new look to the Cal offense.
"He had a few balls thrown to him," Tedford said of Rodgers. "He probably had four balls thrown his way, and another four or five that could have went his way, depending on the coverage. We had him on a seam route one time wide open, and missed him. Wark was in position to catch some of the balls, too, but yeah, there's no doubt that we'd like to get the ball in his hands. There was one in the back of the end zone where we threw to him on a scramble, there was a post-corner we missed him on and there was a flat route where they blitzed us and we threw short -- he was wide open on that one. There were probably a few."
If the tight ends are supposed to be such a big part of the offense, one cannot simply say "we just didn't see them, but we planned on it." You have to actually execute and be disciplined about that execution - and that falls on the staff. If they want to get the tight ends involved, then make sure that the starting quarterback -- Zach Maynard -- is put in positions to do that on a regular basis.
The assembly line Mullins referred to is designed to produce one product: Wins. Anything less is a failure, and that is certainly not a little thing.