After a promising 3-0 start to the 2017 campaign, the Bears have regressed since entering conference play, losing all three of their games against Pac-12 opponents and seemingly bottoming out with a 38-7 blowout loss to Washington this past weekend. Fair or not, much of the blame has been laid at the feet of starting quarterback Ross Bowers, whose play has followed the same trajectory as the team. Bowers’ performances have been uneven, and his lack of experience has reared its ugly head at times during the Bears losing streak. In his defense, the offensive line has performed poorly, and the receiving corps has been hit hard by injuries, not to mention the absence of Tre Watson in the backfield. It’s important that Cal football fans keep in mind that this is Bowers’ first year starting and that his poor play as of late was not without precedent. Young quarterbacks need time to develop, and Bowers has shown enough promise that he should be shown a little leeway to make mistakes and get a feel for the game before fans start calling for his head.
Against Oregon in a loss two weeks ago, Bowers actually had a decent game, throwing for three touchdowns and 255 yards, good for his second-highest adjusted QBR for the season at 35.8. On a night where Cal struggled to move the ball consistently, Bowers flashed his tantalizing potential with just one play.
A 75-yard touchdown pass to wideout Kanawai Noa early in the third quarter showed what smart play-calling, a stout pocket and crisp execution can do for a young signal-caller like Bowers. It was the biggest play the Bears would convert that night in Eugene and the longest throw on the season for Bowers.
Let’s break down this touchdown in detail.
There’s about 10 minutes left in the third quarter, and the Cal defense has just given up yet another touchdown to the Ducks. The score is now 24-7, favoring Oregon, and the Bears need to respond with at least a sustained drive at this point to give their exhausted defense a breather. On their last offensive possession, the Bears went 3-and-out to open the second half. That can’t happen again.
Cal takes the ball at the Oregon 25-yard line and line up in a shotgun formation. The Bears have two receivers lined up on the left side of the formation, with Noa (9) in the inside slot position off the ball and Jordan Veasy (15) occupying the boundary. Tight end Gavin Reinwald (84) is also off the ball and tucked in just a few yards behind left tackle Patrick Mekari. Running back Vic Enwere is lined up on Bowers’ right shoulder, and Vic Wharton III is out wide on that same side of the formation.
It’s first-and-10, and the Oregon defense is clearly expecting the run — it’s dropped its safety Mattrell McGraw (21) down into the box to help out and clearly doesn’t fear a Bowers throw over the top.
The ball is snapped, and Oregon rushes four, with its linebackers hanging back. Bowers surveys the defense and sees that McGraw has crept up even further into the box and is now caught flat-footed as Reinwald shoots toward him. The two receivers at the top of the screen are being defended with man-to-man coverage, and the nickel corner, Juwaan Williams (17) of Oregon has begun to retreat, clearly expecting a vertical route based on Noa’s body position.
Instead of zigging, Noa zags to his left and catches the nickel corner by surprise, sprinting toward the sideline as Veasy runs a pick play for his teammate, engaging the corner defending him, Arrion Springs (1), and getting in the way of Williams, thereby creating separation for Noa to take advantage of. This type of play, referred to as either a “pick play” or “rub route,” functions much like an off-the-ball screen in basketball, with one player dragging his defender away from the action while simultaneously setting a screen on the defender guarding his teammate, thus allowing said teammate to catch the ball with space to score. Notice also that the safety, McGraw, is now tasked with shadowing Reinwald, which negates any safety help for Oregon’s defensive backs.
Meanwhile, the Bears’ offensive line has held firm against the Oregon pass rush, creating plenty of space for Bowers to operate and affording him time to see that Williams has his head turned and has taken a bad angle as he chases after the speedy Noa, who has suddenly turned his route back up field and toward the end zone. Bowers can now step up in the pocket and make a confident throw to his receiver with plenty of touch in order to allow Noa to get under the pass.
Bowers delivers a perfect pass to his target, and Noa catches it right in the breadbasket of his secure hands, extending his strides as he speeds away from Williams. The Ducks safety, McGraw, was drawn away from the play because he had to defend Reinwald and can now only attempt to limit the damage as he makes his way for Noa. Unfortunately for McGraw and the Ducks, Noa flies down the sideline for a 75-yard touchdown.
The Bears may have lost this game, but even in a loss, coaches can always find some bright spots and positive evidence that the team is improving.
Despite Bowers’ declining play, head coach Justin Wilcox and offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin have stuck by the redshirt sophomore because he’s continued to demonstrate a penchant for making tough throws and the courage to stay in the pocket and deliver the pass, even when he knows he’s going to get crushed. These are rare qualities to find in a young quarterback and suggest a solid foundation that the coaching staff can build upon as the season progresses. The key now is to instill their young QB with some confidence and keep a “big picture” perspective. Bowers is young and inexperienced, he’s going to make mistakes along the way, but he’ll also be gaining priceless in game experience and building chemistry with his teammates as he moves along through the season.
Cal’s matchup with No. 8 Washington State is probably going to be another stinker for the Bears and Bowers, but it’s important that Bears fans don’t overreact. Keep an eye on the future, trust the process and remember that sometimes, all it takes is one play.
Rory O’Toole writes for Bear Bytes, the Daily Californian’s sports blog. Contact him at [email protected].