Some random thoughts after Saturday night's loss to Oregon.
Allan Bridgford, playing in the place of the injured Zach Maynard, did not put up impressive numbers and threw a couple of painful interceptions. Nevertheless he did enough right to keep the starting role for this next weekend's season finale against Oregon State - should Maynard still be unavailable.
Bridgford, a junior from Mission Viejo who four years ago was one of the most highly-recruited high school quarterbacks, completed just nine of 21 passes for a mere 133 yards and a couple of interceptions in his most extensive playing time to date.
The interception that turned the game around in the third quarter was the result of a fierce rush on a third down. A more experienced quarterback probably would either have taken the sack or retreated far enough toward the sidelines to just throw the ball away. Punting the ball back to the Ducks at that point, while a disappointing ending to the drive with Cal down by just seven points, would not have been the worst thing in the world for the Bears.
On a few other occasions Bridgford and his inexperienced receiving corps had some communication problems. Nevertheless for the most part he was poised and professional, looking the part of a Division I QB.
“I thought Allan did a good job,” coach Jeff Tedford said. “For starting against that team, he managed it well. He kept his composure; he didn't panic. He tried to put some balls in places; he threw on time and anticipated. On a couple of them, the timing was a little ahead - on both of the picks. He was trying to make something happen, because we needed to make something happen.”
Assuming he starts and does another adequate job this next weekend, Bridgford is setting up an interesting battle for the No. 1 job next year. As the incumbent he probably has a leg up, but his status is not assured.
Austin Hinder, who will be a redshirt junior next year and lost the duel with Bridgford to be Maynard's backup, returns a year older. And waiting in the wings is freshman Zach Kline, who graduated from high school early so he could be around for spring drills last April. He is a talent and will have had a full year in the program when practice begins this spring. It should be a lively battle that will probably extend into fall training camp.
Offensive line helps
After dealing with injuries and inconsistent performances most of the year, the Cal offensive line probably had its best game aganst Oregon. Bridgford was sacked just once, that in the opening drive, and the blitz by Arik Armstead that led to the crucial interception was a rare breakdown.
For the most part the Cal linemen reacted well to Oregon's blitzes and kept the defenders out of Bridgford's hair. In fairness Oregon sustained some losses to its defensive front both before and during the game – at one point all four starters were out. Yet the replacements are capable and the Bears did well against them.
Cal went into the game intent on stopping Oregon's running attack, and for the most part were successful, holding the high-power Duck offense to just 203 yards rushing. That is about half of the ground yardage Oregon is used to accumulating.
But it came at a cost. Marcus Mariota, who might be the fastest quarterback in the conference, also proved he is among the better throwers. Denied the run the Ducks passed for 349 yards and seven touchdowns, six by Mariota.
With a team such as Oregon, which has so many weapons, the strategy is hard to argue with. But asking your defensive backs to cover the receivers one-on-one is a risky option, too, as the Bears found out.
Into the night
Cal and its fans are quickly learning the consequences of the new Pac-12 mega-dollar television deal. And it is not going down well. The Bears played the Big Game in October, a Friday night game, and twice on Saturdays kicked off at about the time they would be sitting down to a post-game dinner.
The 7:30 p.m. kickoff for the Oregon game, at first glance, did not hold the crowd size down. The attendance was 57,672, a fine crowed considering how the Cal season has gone. But a sizeable contingent of traveling Ducks, who filled the streets during the day, provided a considerable attendance boost.
Not all Cal fans are thrilled with the late starts; some chose to stay home. Cal does not have a single “super” booster along the lines of Nike owner Phil Knight, whose swoosh bankrolls the Oregon program. In Berkeley the reliance is on several deep-pocketed boosters, whose commitment, while substantial, is not on the scale of a Knight. Cal cannot afford to lose any of them.
At least one major donor has not attended any of the late starting games. While he has made no indication he will lessen his contributions, his attitude is symptomatic of general dissatisfaction with the current system. With the uncertain and inconvenient starting times, college football could evolve into a studio game, a television production with a meager live attendance.
And that would be an uninspiring show, with ratings that might not justify the big checks the networks are writing. They might not be willing to re-up next time at the same level. That would be the worst of all worlds for the Pac-12, the fan/alumni base weakened, empty stadiums and diminished TV money.
It won't happen in Tuscaloosa, Ala., or Norman, Ok., but it could happen here.
College football can't hope to match the appeal of the NFL game, but what it does have is tradition and alumni loyalty. Those are now at risk.