PULLMAN, Wash. – The knock on California quarterback Zach Maynard had been that when he made one mistake, he would compound it by making another and another. When things went bad for the redshirt senior, they went really bad, especially on the road.
His performances at Oregon and UCLA last season and at USC earlier this year were textbook examples of a quarterback being unable to shake off a bad throw or turnover, letting it fester and resulting in more bad decisions.
But based on his play the last two weeks, it might be time to update the scouting report on Maynard.
His first pass at Washington State was intercepted, just as it was last week against UCLA. This ball hit freshman wide receiver Darius Powe right in the hands, only to bounce right to Cougars linebacker Cyrus Coen.
Later in the first quarter Maynard’s attempt at a middle screen, one of the staple plays of the Washington State offense, was picked off by corner Anthony Carpenter in the red zone. The change in possession accounted for at least a six-point swing, as Anthony Furney’s subsequent 20-yard field goal would cut the Golden Bears’ lead to 7-3.
Whereas the old Maynard might have made things worse, he was able to settle in and play solidly the rest of the way, and Cal rolled to a 31-17 win.
It wasn’t an impressive stat line, going 14-of-23 for 189 yards, one touchdown and those two interceptions. Nor did it help perceptions that a wide receiver other than junior Keenan Allen did not catch a pass until there was 6:26 left in the game – tight ends Richard Rodgers and Jacob Wark also had one reception each – but Maynard was in control.
“It was nice to bounce back from that, especially the one down deep,” Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said. “I thought Zach made good decisions all night and didn’t force the football.”
His best throw was midway through the first quarter, coming after the first turnover and a three-and-out on the next drive, when Maynard hit Allen coming across the field and setting up his half-brother where he could embarrass two Washington State defenders in the open field and pull away for a 69-yard score.
“Zach found the first read,” Allen said. “It was definitely hot, they were bringing the blitz. I made a couple guys miss and then off to the races.”
Beyond that, what stood out about the rest of Maynard’s game was what didn’t happen, as in not taking a sack for the first time this season. Against a pass rush that came into the game averaging 3.17 takedowns per game and the Pac-12 leader in getting to the quarterback in relentless defensive end Travis Long, Maynard took what was there, scrambled for positive yardage, or threw the ball away.
“When I say make good decisions, he didn’t force it,” Tedford said. “That’s his job when things aren’t there or he doesn’t see them clearly to protect the ball and pull it down and go what he can do.”
That approach allowed the dominant running game to take control, but Maynard was able to help out on the option, adding 78 yards and a touchdown on 10 carries. Cal rushed for a season-high 318 rushing yards, most in nearly two years, in part because the defense had to at least consider the possibility of the quarterback slipping out the back side with ball.
“When the running back is out there having fun and gaining big yards when we run our zone reads, the D-end always want to stick his nose in,” running back C.J. Anderson said. “They have to account for the quarterback, and Zach did a great job reading and pulling it, getting up field and taking what he could get.”
It wasn’t flashy, but it worked well enough for Cal to climb back to .500 in conference play and a fighting chance at bowl eligibility. It worked well enough to give the team a two-game winning streak and momentum headed into the rivalry game with Stanford. It worked well enough to at least reconsider one of the main criticisms of the often-embattled quarterback.
Now the knock on Maynard will be that he has never defeated a truly quality opponent. He can change that in the Big Game next Saturday.
Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.