SAN FRANCISCO — Two passes into Cal’s season, Zach Maynard went to the sideline and apologized to Jeff Tedford. Who wouldn’t, with a quarterback rating of -200?
His first incompletion erased by an illegal formation penalty, the Bears’ new starter walked away from his first series 0-of-1, with an interception and the weight of the world on his shoulders.
Except Zach Maynard turned into Atlas. The Buffalo transfer shook off the worst imaginable start in his new colors, giving 9,000-odd fans three first-quarter touchdown drives for braving the traffic to Candlestick. He started hitting big third-down passes. He picked up big yards on designed runs, and scrambled to extend plays. He didn’t fill fans with worry every time he lined up.
But this still wasn’t the making of a savior — not yet.
Maynard soberly rated his performance in the 36-21 win as “4 1/2 or 5 out of 10,” and he gets plenty of slack for his first bit of action in nearly two years. But how good was Fresno State, really? It won’t be the worst team Cal plays this season — circle Sept. 17 for that one — but the Bulldogs didn’t show much bite in the so-called Battle of the Bay.
It didn’t feel nearly that bad, but Maynard finished with an ugly 16-of-35 showing against a team that lost its last game 40-17 — to Northern Illinois in the Humanitarian Bowl. He floated passes that would have been easy picks for better squads, and he had the benefit of two wideouts that completely outclassed the Bulldogs’ defensive backs.
Sure, he’s dangerously quick on the ground and was able to unleash those few weapons in a way his immediate predecessors never did, turning Marvin Jones and Keenan Allen into the program’s first duo to top 100 receiving yards each since 2006.
But there’s the rub: Cal’s armory still looks dangerously sparse. Allen is a star in the waiting and Jones is a solid No. 1 wide receiver, but who’s behind them? Somewhat stunningly, only four different players caught balls on Saturday. Last season, the only time so few Bears recorded receptions was at Oregon State — also known as Brock Mansion’s debut.
One caveat is that Cal left several plays on the field, and right tackle Matt Summers-Gavin proclaimed that his team could have doubled its score had it not looked so rusty. Another is that redshirt freshman Kaelin Clay, one of the fastest players on the roster, sat out nearly all of fall camp with a torn meniscus.
But seniors Michael Calvin and Coleman Edmond round out the top five, and neither has shown signs of emerging after underachieving in 2010. Calvin — a 6-foot-3, 215-pound target who has had an injury-plagued career — was limited to a four-yard catch, while Edmond made his only contributions as a kick returner.
What does bode well for Maynard is the way this team has rallied around him. Being named a starter two weeks after spring gave him a chance to quickly grow into the leadership role, and he’s seized control of what several players say is the most “together” team they’ve seen.
Less than a year ago, the team looked frustratingly uninspired (i.e. Washington State, Washington). And when Maynard gave the ball away on Cal’s own 16-yard line, the Bears could have folded and surprised no one. Instead, they trusted each other.
“I usually get mad when quarterbacks throw picks,” running back Isi Sofele said. “But when Zach threw it, I just dusted it off … I have a lot of faith in Zach.”
Faith — maybe he hasn’t quite earned the fans’, but for now, he has the team’s.