Despite dominant defensive performances in their first two games, the California Golden Bears looks lost and confused facing the unorthodox pistol offense.
Nevada's senior quarterback Colin Kaepernick thwarted the Bears defense with simple zone reads and dive plays. When he needed to throw downfield, Kaepernick was accurate, particularly when his wide receivers ran corner routes that hit the soft spot of the Cal defense.
And just like that, the defense was exploited.
Six days prior, the defense was confident and aggressive. Against Nevada's pistol spread, Cal became passive – reacting more to Nevada's reads rather than dictating the pace of the game. As a result, Nevada – who came into the game with the nation's #1 offense – took full advantage and ran up the score.
However, despite missing linebacker Mike Mohamed, Jeff Tedford made it very clear why the Bears were dominated.
“[Nevada] gets all the credit,” said Tedford. “We didn't coach or play well enough... period. It had nothing to do with travel, or a short week, or altitude, or rankings, or any of that other stuff. They outplayed us... period.”
“This is a total team loss: coaches, players, the whole thing. Everybody's responsible for it.”
In the end, Kaepernick ran for 148 yards and three touchdowns, while throwing for 181 yards and two more scores. The Bears, meanwhile, went from the nation's No. 1 defense, to the perhaps the nation's biggest question mark.
The offense, meanwhile, had their success moving the ball, but was unable to capitalize in crucial moments of the game. Despite a subpar performance from senior quarterback Kevin Riley (23-of-37 for 277 yards, 0 TDs, 3 INTs), the Cal offense found themselves with opportunities to take the lead in the second half.
With the Bears down three and with all the momentum in the third quarter, Riley rushed an audible at the line, and tried to hit junior wide receiver Alex Lagemann on a quick hitch route. Instead, Nevada's Marlon Johnson stepped in front of Lagemann for the interception, and returned it 65 yards the other way for a Wolf Pack touchdown. The play put Nevada back up 31-21, but it also took out all of the air from Cal's sails.
“I was rushing the play,” said Riley. “I changed the play at the line, and I just saw the clock going down. I just tried to quick hitch it, and [Johnson] just completely jumped it. It was a good play by him, and a bad play by me.”
“That pick-six was really the game changer. That's why they call it those. It was a complete momentum shift.”
The Bears had a few offensive bright spots. Junior running back Shane Vereen had his best game of his career, rushing for 198 yards and three touchdowns. Junior wide receiver Marvin Jones finished with 12 catches for 161 yards. The offensive line had their best day of the season in terms of run blocking.
But all the positives were negated by the costly mistakes.
In addition to the pick-six, such plays such as freshman Keenan Allen's dropped pass resulted in a turnover – Riley did throw ball high and behind Allen, however. A late delay of game penalty on fourth down put the offense in tougher situations, which resulted in a turnover-on-downs. A slight overthrow here and there cost the Bears touchdowns.
As is the norm with every college team, the goal is to quickly put any game – win or lose – in the rearview mirror and look forward. For the Bears, it is no different, with a very important road contest against Pac-10 foe Arizona only a week away.
“Now, we get a chance to learn from some of the things that we should have or could have done,” said Tedford. “From there, we regroup and come back, and start conference play next week.”
The challenge for the Bears is if they can fight their past demons.
The Bears have lost their last two trips to Tucson, and they are a mere 7-14 in their last 21 road contests. In 2009, after suffering a devastating blowout loss to Oregon, the Bears did not recover in time before being blown out by USC the following week.
That stretch affected Cal's psyche for the rest of the season, as they stumbled their way to a disappointing 8-5 finish.
Now, after a blowout loss to the hands of Nevada, the Bears will see if their previous experiences can help them avoid a 0-1 start in conference play. They know they must recover, and fast.
“We have to go in there, watch film, and get better,” said Riley. “That's the only thing you can do.”
You can now follow Cal Sports Digest via Twitter.
Discuss in Cal Sports Digest Forums.
If you have not by now, subscribe to CalSportsDigest.com. Click HERE to get access to the members-only content from CSD and the nation-wide Scout.com network.
©Copyright 2010, CalSportsDigest.com and Scout.com. All rights reserved.