Cal football must stop the bleeding

It wasn’t too long ago that Justin Wilcox led Cal football to a 3-0 start through what was generally ranked as the hardest schedule in FBS football. It’s hardly been a week since the Bears were leading a top-five team at home! But all of a sudden, the promising start to the season seems to be quickly slipping out of the team’s hands. Having to dig their way out of a 0-2 conference record, the Bears don’t have a lot of time to stop the bleeding and get back on track.

Let’s start with turnovers. Winning the battle of mental errors was key to Cal’s hot start, as was an aggressive defense that made its own luck in taking advantage of deflections and fumbles. But all of that means squat without ball control on your own side, and Ross Bowers has managed to regress in that area without even having started off particularly well.

Bowers made two horrendous decisions on interceptions in the Bears’ win over UNC in week one, but it was his first start, and the massive plays he made went a long way towards forgiving the errors. Similarly, his three fumbles through the first two weeks could be explained as largely being the fault of a porous offensive line and pocket presence that was sure to improve.

Well, now with a 9:8 touchdown-to-interception ratio, along with an eye-popping eight fumbles, the excuses have run out for Cal’s signal caller. It’s one thing to to overextend yourself trying to upset a better opponent, it’s another to account for six turnovers on your own. It’s one thing to play like a gunslinger, it’s another to have completed less than 50 percent of your passes over the last three games.

Some of this falls on offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin as well. He’s been dealt a tough hand of cards with star receiver Demetris Robertson and senior running back Tre Watson both unavailable for the rest of the season. A poor offensive line that is completely reliant on freshmen doesn’t make things any easier. I’m not expecting the inflated offensive numbers of the Sonny Dykes era, but eight total rushing yards, as Cal put up Saturday night, won’t get the deal done against anyone.

Baldwin will need to react to all the particularities of his personnel soon. Oregon was the first team to take advantage of these facts: they were totally aware that Bowers can’t function from under center, Vic Enwere struggles in shotgun formations, and Patrick Laird can only play in shotgun. The Ducks were able to diagnose plays from personnel alone, and when that’s the case, offenses simply can’t survive.

It’s fair to ask why I’m picking on the offense after the defense gave up 45 points to Oregon. Well honestly, after the Ducks ran over them to the tune of 328 yards, it genuinely feels almost cruel to criticize them.

The defense played well in the second half of the first few games, but that’s largely because they were able to force opposing teams into passing situations, and subsequently generate turnovers. And put quite simply — after falling into an early deficit, defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter’s side of the ball didn’t stand a chance. I trust Wilcox and DeRuyter to overhaul that unit in the long-term, but I expected it to take quite a bit of time to recover from the damage that Dykes did. The second-half shutouts were nice, but these sorts of defensive efforts will be the norm for a while now.

Next week’s matchup against No. 6 Washington is simply a write-off, if they keep it within three scores of the Huskies on their home field, that’ll be enough to consider it a moral win. No. 11 Washington State comes to Memorial Stadium the week after, but that’s one the Bears should be able to at least hang in for. The Cougars are a pass heavy team Cal has played well against the past few years. If the offense doesn’t start showing signs of new life around then, the current offensive mindset will simply have to be scrapped.

Andrew Wild is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.