Blessings in disguise

As an analytical sports nut whose life revolves around school, sleep and when the next nationally televised primetime matchup will be on, my experience watching games live can be slightly obsessive. If a team’s drive has stalled at its opponent’s 29-yard line and it lines up to kick a field goal? 46 yards. Just add seven yards for the snap, 10 for the endzone, and bingo.

That’s the type of processing that’s going on in my head, and sometimes being said out loud (sorry to the fans sitting next to me) even before fourth down arrives, as was the case when Cal kicker Matt Anderson jogged out to attempt just that — a 46-yard attempt — during the second quarter of the Bears’ 27-16 win Saturday evening. A makeable kick for Anderson, a preseason 2017 Lou Groza Award hopeful, presented to the best placekicker in college football, he pushed it wide left.

Two quarters later, near the halfway point of the fourth quarter of a one-point ballgame, Anderson missed again — this time from an even shorter distance, for his third miss in seven tries this season. Not a great start for a guy who made 22 out of 26 last year.

It’s no secret that Anderson has made his job harder for himself already this season. All three of Cal’s games have been decided in the fourth quarter, and although all three ended up in wins for his team, it’s only a matter of time before a missed kick really comes back to haunt the Bears.

Which is exactly why Anderson’s early-season misses are a gift more than a burden.

The fact that Cal is 3-0 despite a less-than-stellar start from its kicker is a huge mental boost to not just the kicker, but the special teams family as a whole. Missing kicks that Anderson has shown he has the ability to make during early-season victories is arguably the best case scenario for a guy that has proven that he is one of the better kickers in the country. Trust me, he’d much rather be pushing wide left against the likes of UNC and Ole Miss than against Stanford or UCLA late in the year with a bowl game on the line.

As someone who was named to the watch-list at the start of the year for a reason, Anderson will undoubtedly go back to the drawing board and re-evaluate his technique — something he might not be doing if he’d only missed one of his kicks thus far. In short, his screw-ups are likely to make him a smarter and better kicker in the end, and hopefully help him avoid a similar fate to that of Cade Foster or Jordan Williamson. Meanwhile, Cal’s record remains at an unblemished 3-0.

Another guy experiencing some (beneficial) added pressure because of ongoing struggles? That would be USC quarterback Sam Darnold — whose real byline is Heisman candidate, face of college football, likely NFL first-round pick, quarterback Sam Darnold. You think he’s feeling any added scrutiny yet?

Like Anderson, Darnold has been far from his standard, throwing two interceptions in each of USC’s first three games, all competitive contests in which the Trojans escaped with a win at home. With an upcoming road matchup against a much-improved Bears defense, Darnold doesn’t have the time and potential “technique” solution as a quarterback that Anderson does as a kicker. But similarly, Darnold’s miscues haven’t cost his team wins just yet, and while USC and Cal’s season-long goals are starkly different, they’ll meet in Berkeley with two great players who are ready to not just bounce back, but learn from their early-season struggles.

Every season, single mistakes in single games can make or break a team’s chances at achieving its goals. But that hasn’t been the case with the Trojans and Bears three games in. While Darnold and Anderson both can’t come out on top this weekend, they’ve both been blessed with the fact that their best is yet to come, and their teams are still undefeated.

Josh Yuen covers women’s tennis. Contact him at [email protected].