Oh, how fast expectations fall. Cal had a turbulent week of practice leading up to a last-minute season opener against UCLA, and it showed. Neither side of the ball was able to execute, leading to a 34-10 beatdown that saw the Bears outgained by 264 total yards in the Sunday morning clash.
Under new offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, the Bears’ offense was expected to take some time to get in sync, but apart from a single second-quarter drive, the unit was scarily ineffective.
Nothing was clicking in the first quarter, which ended with Cal being outperformed 115-13 in total yards. Veteran quarterback Chase Garbers looked uncomfortable making his reads, and the run game did not step up to spell his struggles. The Bears averaged just 0.4 yards on the ground over the course of the team’s first three drives, as UCLA’s defensive line consistently got strong penetration and shut down plays near the line of scrimmage.
After a phenomenal opening drive that saw Cal’s defense force a three-and-out, the Bears’ morning got even better when safety Craig Woodson came barreling in for a block on UCLA’s punt, giving the Bears’ offense the ball at the 17-yard line. Still, the unit was unable to capitalize, coming away with just 3 points despite the fantastic field position.
“We had some chances in the pass game and the run game where we were just a bit off,” said Cal head coach Justin Wilcox. “I would expect us to continue to fix those things and get better moving forward.”
It wasn’t long, though, before Garbers got a chance at redemption: New starting safety Daniel Scott got his hands on a deep throw from UCLA quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson, tipping the ball to cornerback Camryn Bynum for the Takers’ first interception of the season.
But from there, the defense’s dominance dissipated rather quickly. A slew of missed tackles allowed Thompson-Robinson to scamper away for several first-down runs before capping off an electric drive with a fourth-down goal-line quarterback keeper into the end zone.
The run was the first of three straight touchdown drives for the Bruins, who utilized head coach Chip Kelly’s signature high-tempo offense to keep the underprepared Cal defense on its toes. Thompson-Robinson repeatedly found gaps in the Bears’ zone defense, carving up the secondary as UCLA marched forward.
UCLA tight end Greg Dulcich had his way in the middle of the field, putting up 80 first-half yards after his breakout game against Colorado. His third-and-eight catch set up another touchdown from Thompson-Robinson, who found receiver Charles Njoku to put UCLA up 14-3.
The Bears were able to answer on the next drive behind Garbers, who began using his feet to keep Cal’s offense alive. Musgrave also got him into a bit of a rhythm passing the ball, utilizing plenty of quick throws and screens with the aim of garnering yards after the catch. A Big Game-esque scramble from Garbers was able to bring the Bears back within 4 points, but the glimmer of hope proved to be just that — a glimmer.
The Bears had no answer for Thompson-Robinson, who commanded the Bruins 67 yards downfield in just 1 minute and 14 seconds, capping off an explosive drive with a 6-yard pass to Chase Cota while rolling out of the pocket. UCLA was unable to hit the extra point, but when special teams is a team’s only struggling unit, that’s generally a good sign.
With Cal again unable to get its offense going on the following two drives, Thompson-Robinson capped off his dominant half with a touchdown pass to Kyle Philips, putting the Bruins up 27-10 heading into the break.
In a game for which both teams had under 48 hours to prepare, halftime adjustments were going to be absolutely crucial to a Cal comeback. When the offense took the field to begin the third quarter, however, nothing seemed to change. The Bears again failed to notch a first down, quickly forcing their defense back onto the field.
The offensive line looked sloppy across the board, which can be partially attributed to lacking a defensive line — a unit that was in quarantine for the past two weeks — to practice against leading up to the game. Garbers found himself under constant pressure in the pocket, drawing multiple roughing-the-passer penalties as a byproduct of UCLA’s five sacks.
“It’s easy to drop every excuse in the book right now,” said Cal team captain and center Michael Saffell. “Of course 2020 is a weird year, but it’s no excuse for how we played today. Today was as hard as it gets, and we didn’t show up like we usually do.”
Even when Cal was successful passing the ball, though, Garbers was unable to connect with his receivers downfield, averaging an abysmal 6.8 yards per attempt on the game. It was clear that he was uncomfortable in the new scheme, and it may take the offense longer than originally expected to build chemistry. The signal-caller missed open receivers throughout the game, but that should naturally improve as the season progresses.
“We always want to create explosive plays. When you look at scoring, it’s retaining the ball and creating explosive plays,” Wilcox said. “We’ve got some guys who can do that, and we’ve got to help them clean up what the mistakes were today.”
Neither team was able to score in the third quarter, with the Bears’ defense notching a key fourth-down stop with the Bruins in the red zone. Even though Cal running back Christopher Brown Jr. tore through UCLA in 2019, he was forced out of the game plan in the second half with the Bears being down multiple possessions.
On defense, open-field tackling must be a priority for Cal moving forward. When they didn’t manage to make defenders completely whiff, the Bruins frequently broke through contact and exploded for major gains. The trend was exacerbated at the start of the fourth quarter when UCLA running back Brittain Brown barreled past multiple white jerseys en route to a 31-yard touchdown and put the final dagger in any hopes of a comeback.
The Bruins hammered the Bears’ defense in both facets of the game, rushing for 244 yards and heavily relying on the ground game after building up an early lead. Thompson-Robinson showed his dual-threat capabilities throughout the morning, racking up four total touchdowns in the first half alone.
Expectations for Cal coming into this season were the highest they’ve been in years, but a combination of external factors and a lack of execution will quickly temper those hopes in what projects to be an extraordinarily strange season.
“All of us, starting with me, just got to do a better job,” Wilcox said. “Everybody understands that, and we look forward to getting back to work.”
It remains to be seen how having a full week to form a game plan will affect Cal’s success, but some major adjustments need to be made if the Bears still want to contend in the Pac-12 this year.
Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].