Half-baked turnovers: loss to USC shows Cal football still needs to adjust

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Well, the fairytale is over, folks. The Cal football team’s 3-0 start was as wondrous as it was unforeseen, but we learned Saturday that when the best teams in the conference decide to take Cal seriously — which is, impressively, now necessary — they can quickly make the Bears look like the team we all thought they would be.

The No. 5 Trojans let Cal hang around for just a little too long, and as soon as the upstart Bears faltered, missing a field goal that would have given them a late lead, USC thundered to a 17-7 4th quarter (which was really 17-0 before garbage time).

After the game, head coach Justin Wilcox said that “everyone in that locker room is disappointed, but we can’t get discouraged.”

Well, a one-game disappointment can quickly turn into a two-, three- or four-game losing streak before you can finish saying “discouraged.” Wilcox has shown promise thus far, but some things need to change if his first season in Berkeley is to be chalked up a success.

It’s unacceptable for Ross Bowers to continue to play worse and worse in each individual game. In his first two contests, as a complete collegiate newbie, he had four touchdowns, two interceptions, a completion percentage of over 66 percent and an average quarterback rating of nearly 150. In the following two games, both at home, as he should have grown more accustomed to the offense and his pass attempts per game nearly doubled, he’s thrown two touchdowns, six picks, and completed less than half of his passes. Not a good look for the passer once ceremoniously dubbed “Boss Rowers”.

And as a coaching staff, the aggressive 4th down attempts are fun and sexy, and definitely show an air of confidence that’s been sorely lacking on the Cal sideline for quite some time, but Wilcox needs to understand that his team won’t convert 77 percent of its 4th downs forever. Regression to the mean always seems unlikely when you’re sailing well above the curve, but opponents are going to start smelling that Malik McMorris gut-run from a mile away.

This is not to suggest, by any means, that all is lost for the 3-1 Bears. In fact, I’d say things have been progressing at a far faster rate than I ever anticipated. My arrogant $5 bet that the Bears would only win two games this year came far before I knew how good Wilcox was at alchemizing talent (Good on you, coach). In a season where the finances of Cal athletics have been laid bare like never before, Cal Memorial Stadium was more full on Saturday than I’d ever seen it. My colleague, also a senior, echoed the same sentiment as a USC offensive lineman jumped a little too early pre-snap during a particularly vociferous first half.

The defense played exceptionally for nearly the entire game, but faltered a few times late when put into tricky spot after tricky spot by Bowers and company. I fully believe the Bears win that game if the offense plays even half as well as the defense.

Damn, I never thought I would type that sentence about Cal.

I’m not calling for Bowers’ job. Yet. He’s supposed to be the leader of the offense, and has done well relative to preseason expectations. But if more four-interception games follow against a schedule that will simply not let up, a scrapped season could soon become the perfect time for the coaching staff to try new things: especially with a veteran quarterback waiting in the wings. Bowers obviously has talent, arm strength and the ability to lead his team to improbable upsets, but a rebuilding program must prioritize sure things, and wild inconsistency will grow less acceptable as the weather grows colder.

Austin Isaacsohn covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @austinisaacsohn.