Cal football fans can be a funny bunch with the whole expectations thing. If the Bears start their season 3-0, they become national championship contenders, Heisman Trophy finalists, Nobel Prize winners (oh wait, that always happens). If Cal loses an early game though, the sun will not rise for the next 20 years.
So the Bears are 1-1, haven't looked that great, and are probably going to struggle the rest of the way. Surprise! Cal is flawed team, like many of us expected they would be. No need to start lighting torches and burning books, even if Cal gets lit up like a bonfire the next two weeks. The Bears have issues that need addressing and no quick fixes anywhere. They are a football team with the capacity to be good, but haven't found that sweet spot yet.
That doesn't mean you, unnamed Cal fan, should give up. Just realign your expectations and hope things start clicking.
Here are some overarching reasons why Cal hasn't been up to the task lately,
1. The Golden Bears are the walking wounded.
Dominic Galas, starting right guard, out. Matt Summers-Gavin, starting right tackle, out. Mark Brazinski, backup center, out. Cecil Whiteside, pass-rushing linebacker, out. Dave Wilkerson, starting inside linebacker, out. Khairi Fortt, Penn State transfer who's a contender to start at inside linebacker, out. Jason Gibson, another potential starter at inside linebacker, out. Stefan McClure, top-notch cover corner, out.
Mustafa Jaili, starting defensive end, has been out (although he might return any week). Then add starting tight end Richard Rodgers and starting outside linebacker Chris McCain to the list of the injured (they're probable, but based on previous injury lists we can't count on them playing quite yet).
That isn't an injury report. That's a casualty list.
I noted Cal's incredible string of health last year, and was worried about regression this season. So ask yourself this: If your favorite pro football team suffered injuries that took out half the offensive line and half the front seven, wouldn't they drop a few more games? How can we expect the Bears to look sharp if guys keep on getting hurt at the most critical spots?
Let guys like Summers-Gavin, Fortt and Jalil get healthy. Those could be valuable contributors down the line, and we'll be a lot better when they get back. Things might get a little rough without them, but it just underscores their value to our team. They're not sexy names like Keenan Allen, but they're every bit as valuable.
2. Cal wasn't the most experienced team to begin with.
It's about the point where I bang the broken record: Cal lost six starters on offense last season and six starters on defense, not to mention one of our best punters ever and a solid enough kicker. You can't just replace those guys overnight and expect to not miss a beat.
So if you're counting, we have four new offensive linemen starting. We have three new linebackers starting. We have two new defensive ends and safeties. We have a new tight end (who's good, but young). Only the receivers seem to have avoided missing a beat between this season and last season.
When you look at the two-deep, it's littered with freshmen and sophomores, and the youth movement will almost certainly continue into next season. You might consider some of those guys irreplacable, but experience means a lot to combat every offense we're tasked with facing.
Where'd all the experience go?
3. The 2009 recruiting class was an unequivocal disaster
This was the last class before the promise of an SAHPC seemed clear and present and there were still plenty of treesitters hanging around). So obviously it was a tough sell to get the players we wanted. Still, it was a pretty bleak class.
Of the 21 players signed, we have only six starters from the group, with only two others cracking the two-deep. I count seven to eight who barely contributed or never even played. Many of these guys were supposed to be the players who would technically be transitioning into the program now. Instead, only one new starter emerged from this group--our new kicker, Vince D'Amato.
So we have a few seniors who haven't played many significant offensive or defensive snaps seeing plenty of action, including at both inside linebacking and offensive tackle spots. That's kind of a big deal.
4. The injuries impair our schemes
Cal wants to be flexible in their defensive alignments. Clancy Pendergast has emphasized regular substitution patterns to keep the defense fresh but also increase our defensive diversity. That's why our defense gave the Furd and the Trojans so much trouble last year--an ability to vary up our fronts thanks to our depth in personnel
With all the losses due to graduation and injury, the results are a bit more varied than in previous seasons. For example, we have Aaron Tipoti playing defensive end when he's probably better off hitting the inside--he's got good energy but not enough pass rush ability to challenge tackles on every plays. But it's by necessity with Jalil out. Ditto, DeAndre Coleman, who we've been moving a lot more to the inside at his natural spot at DT, while placing an OLB at DE.
However, you can see that pass rush has become an instant problem with our linebacking woes. Linebackers are supposed to be Cal's blitzers in a 3-4, but there are way too many times where the quarterback is allowed to stand back and fire. The Bears have started to put the run defense back in order, but the pass defense is still a trouble spot. Given we're down about three defensive ends and six linebackers, it's not too shocking.
For almost the entire second half on Saturday, Cal was playing with their second-string linebackers: Dan Camporeale, Nick Forbes, Jalen Jefferson and Nathan Broussard. They struggled, giving up three touchdowns. That's probably not going to fly against the Buckeyes
And we haven't even talked about the offensive line, which is sporting four new faces. They've actually been pretty good (we're back to top 20 in the country in running YPC), but they've made some costly mistakes here and there, particularly in pass protection. I feel that they'll get it together over time, although it might not happen against two of the best defensive lines in the country.
5. If I started writing a list of things wrong with 2012 Cal football, Zach Maynard is way down the list.
Okay, so the "missing a tutoring session" thing was weird. Obviously Maynard did something wrong and got punished for it, and our team got punished. Strange decision-making all around. That wasn't cool.
That being said, it's become fashionable to bash the quarterback because it's so easy. "Hey he ain't Aaron Rodgers. Why he still playing? PULL HIM" has been the credo of Cal nation for about seven years, and it gets more annoying every season (a columnist actually compared Joe Ayoob to Nate Longshore yesterday, and I felt like I had failed the world).
No, Maynard is not an elite quarterback. Goodie. He fits in with about 105 other college football quarterbacks. He's going to miss a pass or two you'll wish you can get back. He's not going to hit receivers on the numbers or in stride most of the time. I just wish we would acknowledge that when the offense struggles, it's as much a function of the rest of the players as it is the quarterback.
Because Maynard does good things too. He can game-manage, he can move the offense down the field when the run is working, he's completing passes with greater regularity and he clearly seems invested in the football team. That's all you can really ask from him. Perfection is absurd, and yet that seems to be all we ever ask from our QBs.
I do wish Cal would turn Maynard loose on run plays more and get him more involved on 11-on-11 football, but I can see why they'd be antsy putting him out in the field of play. And that's more a coaching thing than a Maynard thing. He's doing fine.
So give the Bears a break for their inconsistency. They're playing with a team they didn't expect to play with at the start of camp, and as Cal players keep on getting injured they had to keep on adjusting at an alarming rate. I really think the youngsters on our team are going to be some real good players for us as they grow and develop. But they're having to grow as they go.
It's going to take time though, and we might not see the results until next season. We're just going to have to be patient.
This is a talented but inexperienced and unhealthy team that is constantly adapting and adjusting. Let them grow. That's part of the fun of being a college football fan too: Watching boys become men.