Seven observations from Cal's 43-17 win over UCLA.
1. When Cal's offense gets its playmakers involved, it's something to behold.
For the Bears, the question's never been about offensive talent, it's been about getting it to perform coherently. Five games into the season, the Bears had managed to have good performances here and there, as well as the occasional sparkling play, but they hadn't found a way to put everything into concert.
While Saturday's game certainly wasn't perfect, it was a step in the right direction. Keenan Allen's eight catches for 79 yards were subdued by his standards, but he scored on a 34-yard touchdown pass where he made a move at the line of scrimmage to get past cornerback Sheldon Price, got past him, caught the ball, then warded off a tackle attempt enroute to the touchdown.
Brendan Bigelow scored on 32-yard touchdown catch where he took a simple slant, a play that most times will get you a decent five-to-eight yard gain, but broke it back outside and outran the defense.
And finally C.J. Anderson, who has very good speed for a 210-pound running back, showed power as well in racing for a late-game 68-yard touchdown.
With the maligned offensive line having one of its better performances in helping the Cal offense post 481 yards on the Bruins, if the Bears' offense can get that sort of output with any degree of consistency, they'll be well on their way to turning around this season's fortunes.
2. Richard Rodgers is alive and well.
Coming into the season, Rodgers appeared poised to be one of the potential breakthrough stars of the Bears offense. With seven catches for a team-high 129 yards, the sophomore tight end had easily his most productive game of the season.
After overcoming an early season injury, Rodgers is just now returning to full health, but for the first time in several weeks, the Bears have been able to use two tight ends. Besides Rodgers, the Bears have seen injuries to Spencer Hagan and Jacob Wark deplete the position to the point that Cal could only use one tight end - and largely had to do away with its two tight end sets. Max Espitia was used on occasion, but primarily as a receiver and wasn't called upon to do much blocking.
At 6-4, 265 pounds, Rodgers has good speed, and with teams shading a second defender over towards Keenan Allen, he was often in position to catch the ball with a decent amount of room to run in the middle of the field.
3. The Bears were able to get an effective pass rush with their inside linebackers.
For most of the game, the Bears went with a nickel defense featuring two down linemen and four linebackers. This meant that if the Bears were going to sustain any sort of pass rush on UCLA's Brett Hundley it was going to have to come from the linebackers. While the Bears were credited with five sacks, they were able to apply pressure on Hundley throughout the game. Consequently, he rarely strayed from the screen pass left/screen pass right that the UCLA offensive game plan designed for him.
Hundley was 31-of-47 for 253 yards, averaging just more than eight yards a completion. The Bears pressure played a role in Hundley throwing four interceptions and several other passes away.
Although Chris McCain was credited with a sack and a half, he and Brendan Scarlett were unfortunate to not have more sacks given that they spent much of Saturday evening chasing Hundley all over the field.
Against a sloppy tackling team, a lot of the Bruins' short passes could have gone for long gains, but the Bears were largely able to tackle well and keep UCLA from breaking anything longer than 28 yards.
4. Maynard was able to be proficient using an empty backfield.
With an inconsistent offensive line, the Cal coaching staff had to figure out something to make the game easier for quarterback Zach Maynard. By using an empty backfield on occasions combined with having him take short drops, UCLA's pass rush had a tough time getting to him even when they were able to get past the Cal offensive line.
Maynard had one of his most effective games as a starting quarterback, completing 25-of-30 passes for 295 yards and four touchdowns.
By using a variety of slants, short posts, and screens, it wasn't possible for UCLA's defense to match up with all of the Cal's receivers, and if Maynard was able to hit a receiver who was in stride, particularly Keenan Allen or Richard Rodgers, it was difficult for a first defender to bring either of them down.
5. There are far too many helmets flying off of Cal players' heads.
It seems like in every game this season, the Bears have needed at least five players to be pulled out of the game for a play because a helmet has come off during a play. Under the new rules, a player has to come out of the game for a play when his helmet comes off. If this were a universal problem, this would be happening with both teams – but during Cal's games, this seems to be primarily a Cal problem.
Whether it's a matter of tightening up the chin strap, getting players' helmets resized, or finding a way to resolve the problem, the Bears are going to find themselves in a position where they won't have a key player on the field because of a helmet issue. Now football is a game of collisions and helmets will come off, but for a team that needs every break it can get, they don't want to have outcomes effected because of equipment issues.
6. Jackson comes up big
For much of this season, one of Cal's defensive strengths has been the play of its cornerbacks – Steve Williams and Marc Anthony. When Anthony went down with an injury in the first quarter, Kameron Jackson replaced him and went on to have one of the great relief appearances in Cal football history - with three interceptions and four tackles.
Jackson was largely tasked with guarding UCLA's Shaquelle Evans. Evans finished with seven catches for 68 yards, but on each of Jackson's three interceptions he was guarding Evans. One interception came as a result of great coverage, one came when Evans gave up on the play, and another occurred on an overthrow.
Coming into the game, the Bears had four interceptions all season long. They equalled that on Saturday. Anthony's injury was described as a bruised knee and was a reaggravation of an injury that he'd been fighting through all week.
With Jackson's star turn on Saturday, he's certainly earned more playing time, and the coaching staff can afford to be patient with Anthony during his recovery.
7. During the first half it looked like Cal was playing a mirror image of itself.
Although UCLA came into the game with a 4-1 record and a victory over then 17th-ranked Nebraska, in the first half they looked a like, well, if you factor in the 61 yards of penalties, four turnovers, two sacks, and an passing game that consisted primarily of short passes left and right, they looked a lot like the 2012 Bears.
And while Cal had 65 yards in first-half penalties, they were able to generally give Maynard enough time to throw, limit the turnovers to one, sustain drive, get a key stop here and there, and look a little bit more like what people expected the Bears to look like this season.
It was far from a perfect half, but after a rough three-game stretch, any sign that the Bears looked like they could get the better of an opponent in the first half had to be a welcome sight. And taking a 16-7 lead into the locker room at halftime was a step in the positive direction.
With three turnovers and 100 yards in penalties, it's not like the Bears have completely turned over a new leaf, but against the Bruins, the Bears finally found an opponent that was more than willing to shoot itself in the foot.