After two game cancellations and the UCLA game scheduled just two days before it was to be played, Cal’s sloppy play could not be called surprising. It was still, perhaps, sobering for many Bears fans.
Despite a quick start with an interception and a blocked punt, Cal was never able to get going on offense or defense, a result of miscues and generally sloppy play. It would take at least two hands to count the Bears’ misplaced passes and dropped balls. It would take several hands to count the number of missed tackles, a feature of this game that will surely leave head coach Justin Wilcox fuming.
That defense gave up uncharacteristically big plays and was unable to stop the Bruins on the ground, as UCLA running back Demetric Felton and quarterback Dorian Thompson-Robinson busted through tackles for 159 yards on the ground. Cal registered five quarterback hurries but was unable to create any sacks as Thompson-Robinson created big play after big play. UCLA averaged 14 yards per reception and just eight plays per touchdown drive while Thompson-Robinson lit up the Cal secondary for 196 yards and three touchdowns through the air.
Cal’s defense failed to keep up with a rapid-fire Chip Kelly-led attack, as did the Bears’ offense. Redshirt junior quarterback Chase Garbers was tasked with implementing a novel offensive scheme under a new offensive coordinator, and the growing pains were on display for all to see.
Garbers was 18-33 for 122 yards. He threw one interception, which felt extraordinarily fortunate considering the multitude of tipped passes and near-picks that the Bruins registered. With little to no passing game, UCLA was able to stack the box and slow Cal’s running backs.
Cal’s game MVP
The Bears were missing both players and plays Sunday morning. Cal’s offense failed to stand out, but after a brutal first half in which UCLA scored 20 points during the second quarter alone, Cal’s defense battened down the hatches and managed to hold Thompson-Robinson to just 28 yards through the air.
Granted, UCLA put the ball on the ground after halftime, putting up 147 rushing yards on 28 carries, but Cal’s secondary was still productive. Ultimately, the Bears’ standout player was Camryn Bynum. The cornerback, who opted out of this season before opting back in when the new schedule was announced, was everywhere. Whether he was closing in to stop runners or making plays in the secondary, Bynum’s leadership and experience were on full display as he nabbed Cal’s best play of the game: an interception on UCLA’s second drive.
Three of the Bears’ top five tacklers came from the defensive backs group. The blue and gold’s two new starting safeties were up for the job. Redshirt junior Daniel Scott registered 11 total tackles, while his partner in crime, senior Elijah Hicks, rallied for two pass breakups and seven tackles of his own.
Cal’s play was far from perfect, but Bynum still showed why his talent is NFL-caliber and why the Bears’ defense is always a force to be reckoned with.
The stark difference between the two teams’ yards per completion and yards per play epitomized Cal’s struggles Sunday morning. It’s difficult to put mistakes and slips into stats, but comparing the two teams’ plays shows where the Bears struggled and where the Bruins profited.
Thompson-Robinson made the quarterback position look simple, averaging 14 yards per completion while his offense had more than 5 yards per play. Garbers had less than half of his opponent’s yards per completion, putting up just 6.8 yards per reception. The Bears’ ground game was unable to help, and the blue and gold had a minuscule 2.8 yards per play.
Cal was unable to create big plays, whereas UCLA had plenty. The Bears had just one play of more than 15 yards. The Bruins had seven.
There is hope yet for Cal fans. Despite a brutal opener against the Bruins, things will likely get better for the blue and gold.
Consider how the deck was stacked against the Bears. Two key defensive linemen were announced as missing before the game’s start. After a positive COVID-19 test resulted in that entire position group quarantining, the rest of the defensive line returned to the team for the first time Sunday.
Offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave, who joined the Cal coaching staff this year, has been tasked with implementing a new offense in a shortened camp amid a pandemic. There were bound to be struggles in Cal’s first game, struggles that the Bears failed to overcome after a tumultuous week.
The simple fact that this game was scheduled just two days prior compounds these difficulties. Cal had no time to prepare while facing pandemic-related challenges, specifically in its limited ability to run a full practice. Cal’s season opener was always going to be a difficult game influenced by factors both on and off the field.
The Bears will only get better. With the defensive line returning to practice and a week to prepare for a (hopefully) sure game against Oregon State, Cal will be able to settle into this season in ways it sorely lacked Sunday. The offense will improve as Garbers gets more comfortable and builds chemistry with his wide receivers, and it’s likely the Bears will refine their tackling and shore up their defense.
The best thing about starting at the bottom is that the only way to go is up.
Jasper Kenzo Sundeen covers football and is the deputy special issues editor. Contact him at [email protected].