Rodgers’ breakout key to Cal’s turnaround

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Did that just happen?

Did the Bears just blow out a ranked opponent?

Is this real life?

Cal walked into this game with bloodied noses and the antithesis of momentum on its back.

Fans were taking to the message boards solely to yell “Fire Tedford” at the top of their lungs. Talking points centered around potential head coaching replacements or whether Zach “Sack” Maynard was the worst quarterback in Cal history.

This team was buried and dead.

Damn, how one game can change everything.

Richard Rodgers’ emergence had to be the biggest “Where did that come from?” moment of the contest.

In the press box before the game, many joked about head coach Jeff Tedford calling Rodgers “the best tight end in the country” in the preseason.

The jokes were not without justification. Rodgers had no catches against Nevada and then suffered an injury against Southern Utah, which kept him out of action until the Arizona State tilt. Thus far, Rodgers has looked far from a superstar.

Until last night, that is.

He picked up seven catches for 129 yards, finding massive seams in the UCLA secondary and opening up the middle of the field for Maynard’s passing attack.

“He wasn’t healthy before this week,” Tedford said. “That’s more what you expected of him.”

Rodgers’ ability to create passing lanes in the middle of the field has opened up all different dimensions of the offense. Because Rodgers runs routes like a wideout, the opposing defensive coordinator can’t just stick a linebacker on him.

Rodgers’ pass catching ability requires the safety to keep constant attention, creating many more opportunities for Keenan Allen to get single coverage. And everybody knows what happens when Allen only needs to beat one cornerback.

Rodgers’ size and blocking ability lend to his versatility in the running game as well. Maynard noted after the game that Rodgers made some “big blocks” for the running backs.

The Rodgers factor might be just what Cal needs to compete at the pre-season expectations before the Nevada debacle.

Since that first game, it felt like the Bears have been stuck playing in second gear, never competing up to their true talent. Players have been repeating slightly differing variations of the same theme for the past few weeks: the Bears have the talent, but the team just needs to put it all together.

Saturday night showed what can happen if Cal puts it all together. The passing game is efficient, the defense is forcing turnovers and the run game keeps the defense honest.

And Rodgers was the one who broke it all open.

With Rodgers in the game, the defense can’t key in on any particular offense. Load up the box, and Rodgers runs a quick slant and burns the upcoming blitz. Line up three wideouts with Rodgers on the line, and a cover two defensive scheme will get shredded by C.J. Anderson or Isi Sofele in the backfield.

Granted, the UCLA bout wasn’t sheer perfection. The Bears gave the ball away three times, and the offensive line allowed steady pressure from the Bruins to get to Maynard. The run defense still looked pretty atrocious.

But a win like this gives all of the fans who want nothing more than Tedford’s head a reason to keep tuning in.

Clinging to slivers of hope may be a pathetic way to approach the rest of the season; but at least now after the victory, there’s a piece of wood to hang onto.

Michael Rosen covers football. Contact him at [email protected]