Cal has one game to get act together

Jonathan Kuperberg

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The Buckeyes don’t turn the ball over on kick returns. Certainly not in the Horseshoe.

The Trojans don’t squander red zone opportunities. Especially not in the Coliseum.

And as good as Cody Fajardo was for Nevada last Saturday, Ohio State’s Braxton Miller is probably better. USC’s Matt Barkley definitely is.

The Cal football team’s noon contest Saturday against Southern Utah is a tune-up game in all respects, the kind of tilt for which the Cal Student Store will make bank the Monday after.

In last Saturday’s seven-point loss to the Wolf Pack, Cal’s offense was rarely in rhythm. Yes, Zach Maynard looked good on touchdown passes to freshmen Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper — and getting Keenan Allen the ball in the open field is always a good idea — but for the most part, the offense was stagnant.

The running game never got going, with C.J. Anderson’s 66 yards tops on the team, and many of Maynard’s passes were well behind or above his intended receivers.

On the other side of the ball, the defense seemed lost. Fajardo was not often under pressure, and the Nevada receivers had plenty of room to catch the ball before Cal’s defensive backs would wrap them up (or simply miss the tackle).

Cal has one game to get its act together, or the Bears won’t just lose to the Buckeyes and Trojans the following two games — they’ll be battered, broken and beaten. It will be woeful and miserable, embarrassing to the utmost degree.

Southern Utah did not put up much of a fight in last Thursday’s 34-3 squashing by Utah State — despite the Aggies turning the ball over twice and racking up 120 yards in penalties.

The Thunderbirds may not be Presbyterian — though on paper the teams don’t look all that different — but Saturday’s result should ring similar to last year’s 63-12 dismantling of the Blue Hose. Despite the 51-point margin, Cal was not even close to perfect. Presbyterian scored two touchdowns — on a blocked punt and a Zach Maynard pick 6.

The Bears need to avoid even just a few errors. They need to take advantage of what should be a glorified practice.

It’s not about making up for last week’s disappointing loss to the Wolf Pack. Cal needs to do more than just take out its anger on an FCS opponent.

There should be no boasting, no over-celebrating, no referencing anything other than what’s going on on the field.

The Bears have to play against Southern Utah like it really matters. They have to play as if the opponent is Ohio State or USC. The defense needs to be a step ahead, not behind. The receivers need to catch the balls cleanly; the running backs need to hit the holes harder. Zach Maynard needs to make the right reads and accurate throws.

Most of all, Cal needs to not turn the ball over. Because while the Bears could play another mistake-filled game and still beat Southern Utah by a few scores, that won’t be the case the following two games. It won’t even be the case against the Pac-12 cellar dwellers. Two fumbles, a defense looking lost and an offense out of sync — that’s going to equate to losses to the Washington States and Oregon States of the world.

A shutout would work. So would 100-yard performances from a running back and a wide receiver. But Cal’s improvement won’t be measured just in numbers and statistics. The Bears have to look like the Cal of old, play like the Cal of old and win like the Cal of old.

The Bears need to forget about Nevada and follow their own motto of playing one game at a time. Cal can start fresh.

Saturday may be a throwaway game in the minds of fans — but it shouldn’t be for the players.

Jonathan Kuperberg covers football. Contact him at jkuperberg@[email protected]

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