Running in to the ground
The Bears lost their second game in a row on Saturday, a crushing 30-21 defeat to UCLA, where Cal was on the threshold of taking the lead at the end of the game and yet again fell short. Instead of time expiring on the Bears, this time it was an interception thrown by Nate Longshore that was run back for a touchdown that did the Bears in.
When a team that was slated to take over the No. 1 spot in the polls and considered to have an inside track at the BCS Championship game loses two in a row, people will start asking questions.
What was it that put the Bears in this situation? Were the Bears not nearly as good as people thought or have they just made too many mistakes for how good they are capable of playing?
Watching the UCLA game film and reviewing the statistics, it seems that the Bears failure was in both play calling and in execution, not talent or even mistakes. There were mistakes to be sure. On one play the defense, particularly linebackers Worrell Williams and Anthony Felder, over pursued on a simple up the middle run play that resulted in a 64 gain down to the Cal 2 yard line. On another play, the safeties bit on a fake reverse, turned into a wide receiver pass play, giving up an easy touchdown. And that's just to name a couple of breakdowns.
Despite these mistakes, Cal found themselves with the lead at many points throughout the game and perfectly positioned to re-take the lead at the end of the game. They could have easily survived their mistakes had the offense had any consistency. After analysis, that lack of consistency was the result of bad play-calling.
UCLA took a page out of Oregon State's defensive playbook and played the Bears very aggressively. On the majority of Cal's plays, particularly those that were not obvious passing situations, the safeties and linebackers for UCLA were keying on the run, playing very close to the line of scrimmage. The Bruins were daring the Bears to beat them through the air.
When the Bears chose to pass the ball, they did beat the Bruins. Not including the possession after the game sealing interception, Longshore was 22 for 30 for 232 yards and 3 touchdowns. On the 3 touchdown drives, of 71, 47 and 67 yards (185 total yards) Longshore was 14 of 15 and passed for 155 yards. On those same drives, the Bears were only able to run for 30 yards. The Bears clearly found their success through the air on those drives.
Furthermore, it was not as if the passing game came to life during those drives and was less effective elsewhere. Cal averaged 11.1 yards per completion on their touchdown drives and 10.5 overall throughout the game. Similarly, the rushing game had similar results, 3.3 yards per carry on the touchdown drives versus 2.2 yards per carry overall.
The difference was not effectiveness of the run or pass, it was the balance. On those touchdown drives, 15 of the 24 plays were pass plays (62.5%). On Cal's remaining drives, excluding the post-interception desperation passes, only 15 of the 36 plays were pass plays (41.7%). There is no debating that when the Bears passed, they moved the ball but when they stubbornly stuck to their ineffective run game - a run game that was being keyed on by the UCLA defense - the Bears were unable to move the ball.
The most troubling aspect of this stubborn play-calling was that despite the growing evidence throughout the game of this trend, the Bears stuck to this strategy right up until the game sealing interception. On Cal's final 3 possessions before the interception, the Bears ran the ball 9 times and only passed twice. Both of those passes were on third down after having been unsuccessful in moving the ball on 1st and 2nd down.
Whatever the reason for the play-calling balance, if the Bears are to rebound from these two losses, they will likely have to change their run-pass ratio. It is safe to expect that Cal's future opponents will have thoroughly analyzed these two games and will likely choose a similar strategy until the Cal offense takes up the opposition's offer to beat them through the air on a consistent basis.
Luckily for Cal fans, with Longshore behind center and his talented arsenal of receivers, fans should have any reason to believe that they can get the job done.
Ken Crawford is a sportswriter for BearTerritory. A lifelong Cal football observer, Crawford covered the Bears during the 2006 season, and will continue to handle both Cal football and basketball assignments during the 2007-08 season.