Out came Zach Maynard's first pass under a heavy press, and almost immediately when it left his hands everyone knew it didn't have a prayer. UCLA had its first interception, they scored a few plays later, and everyone had to be wondering if Maynard's days as Cal's starting quarterback were numbered.
If Cal was going to beat UCLA, Maynard was going to have to perform much better than he showed the previous few weeks. After a solid performance in Columbus, Maynard looked unsteady, hurried, and generally exasperated in trying to figure out how to handle the USC and Arizona State coverage packages and pass rush. The performance would have to improve exponentially or the Bears would have trouble winning more than a game or two on the remainder of their schedule.
Facing immense criticism through six games, Maynard stepped up in every way last Saturday, and Cal managed a surprisingly comfortable win against the 25th-ranked Bruins.
Maynard can be a great game manager if he's moving quickly and making quick decisions. It's when the pressure comes and the play develops that he begins to struggle. Most of Maynard's best decision-making comes before the snap, when either he or the playcaller recognize advantages that can be taken care of and they look to strike. During the play though, his awareness isn't quite the best, and the longer the play goes on the harder it is for him to figure out what to do.
Maynard was mainly acting rather than deliberating. There were no five-step drops or even many 3rd and long situations that exacerbated issues. It was lots of one read and go offense that was generally low risk but high reward for the Cal offense. Keenan Allen shook off his dropping issues and caught every football that came his way, including two critical touchdowns to keep the distance between the Bears and the Bruins.
There's no denying he had help. The Cal gameplan seemed to rely on far more of a quick-hitting pass attack that spread the offense out into four or five wide receiver sets and let Maynard or the Cal offensive staff identify the mismatch on the field, and attack it accordingly. This simplified approach worked perfectly for the entire offense, as the entire team seemed a lot more focused and proactive.
The return of Richard Rodgers to full health was a welcome asset, and Maynard finding Rodgers alleviated a lot of the pressure. Rodgers provides Maynard with a great safety valve that's different from Allen, because it's unlikely double coverage can just as easily blanket the tight end. Also no one on defense other than maybe a speedy outside linebacker can really cover the tight end one-on-one, and that linebacker going back into coverage simplifies life for a besieged offensive line that has one less blitzer to worry about.
Brendan Bigelow being a vital component of the lineup also helped the Bears out. He didn't make a huge difference between the tackles, but his huge touchdown catch on the outside to start the second half put Cal in a commanding position and gave the Bears a third big play threat along with Allen and Rodgers.
Add in the bulldozing C.J. Anderson and the shifty Isi Sofele, and the UCLA defense seemed to have trouble figuring out who to watch out for on every play. Maynard found Anderson for a touchdown and also connected with Bryce Treggs a couple of times and Eric Stevens on flat patterns to keep the Bruins on their heels.
But in the end, it all starts with an active Maynard making quick, positive decisions. Having the resiliency and confidence to bounce back from early mistakes and bring the offense back changes the entire tenor of the game. It seemed as if it even changed how the entire Bears team handled adversity, and they looked like a totally different unit on Saturday night. If Maynard can continue to make quick decisions with the football in the subsequent games without worrying about the rush, it might be enough for Cal to start turning their season around.
Of course, the caveat, this is probably the best Cal will ever get out of Maynard, which probably means there could be clunkers to follow. The inconsistency in his performances has probably always been the most maddening aspect of his time as Cal's starting quarterback, so there's still a lot to worry about going forward. The Bears cannot breathe easy until they see this same Maynard show up on the road in Pullman, and at home in the Big Game against a pretty intimidating front seven, and so on and so forth. Consistency will be key.
But at least we know he can do it. And for a Cal team that was on the brink, having a viable quarterback might be the spark they need to pull them right back into the 2012 season.