It's gotten to the point in the Jeff Tedford era where California seems pretty content with coming up with a competitive effort rather than the higher baseline of winning a football game. That's not a good sign for the future of your coaching tenure, particularly if they don't eventually get accompanied by wins.
Still, the Bears are clearly trying to figure out who they are, and for the first time they put it together in one coherent effort in a 35-28 loss to a top-25 ranked Ohio State team that also seems to be finding its own way. Cal still clearly has tinkering to do and obvious glaring holes (hint: kicker), but they made the most of what they had, which is not something the Bears have been able to capitalize on in recent years. For the first time it feels as if the program has a chance to trend upward.
Cal's gameplan looked sharp. They got promising performances from freshmen wideouts, redshirt freshmen on defense, and sophomores all over the place. After an early error the defense managed to pretty much contain Braxton Miller. The capacity for growth and development with this group is right there for them to seize.
The big question with Cal: Will they seize it?
The Bears have proven in multiple efforts in past seasons (against national champion finalist Oregon in 2010, against BCS finalist Stanford in 2011) that they're capable of hanging with the big boys, but then it's eventually followed with a dud (2010 Big Game, 2011 Holiday Bowl). Obviously the Ohio State effort is every encouraging, but college football isn't just about giving your best; you have to win the game too.
The stats aren't encouraging: Against winning teams the previous two seasons, Tedford's Bears are 1-11. And there are going to be a lot of winning teams in the Pac-12.
An angry USC team with diminished expectations now comes their way and figures to be their toughest test of the season. Will the Bears be able to best the Trojans, finally? It's been a painful and exhausting decade since the last win, and it doesn't look much better with a refocused Trojan squad ready to get things back in focus. Although Cal put together a strong offensive performance, it's hard to imagine any other result than 1-3.
If Cal can provide a second solid effort in two weeks, things will have to start looking up entering conference play, particularly with five of their next seven games at home. It doesn't have to be a win. The Bears just have to compete and give themselves a chance to win and crack at that ceiling. Eventually, when they return home, things might start breaking their way.
Time is running low on Tedford. Maybe this year and possibly next, but he's running out of chances to finally deliver the Bears more than just average.
SB Nation Snippets
Part of my postgame recap at the California Golden Blogs:
College football is a funny thing when you overachieve and come up short. You sort of feel mad that you didn't grab the win, you're kind of irritated at the questionable decisions, but in the end you brush it off and move on because things look better today than they did yesterday. I'm really more encouraged that we can get back to bowl eligibility than I was last week, and feel real better about out future considering how many youngsters are contributing and producing already.
A CGB roundtable on the critical 4th-and-1 decision to kick (and miss) a field goal that could have cost Cal the game.
unclesam22: I think it's a defensible move to go for the FG, but ultimately the wrong one given the circumstances. On the road, tied late and driving against a heavily favored team, I think you have to go for it. D'Amato hadn't shown that he was money or anything, so it was much more of a gamble than Giorgio would have been. Not that the Oline was blocking amazingly well either, but I think you call a timeout, get your team over to the sideline and fire them up, and then send them out there to finish the job and win the game.
Further post-game analysis from Kodiak at CGB.
The game planning was sound and the coaches didn't panic. In the past, it's appeared that the staff would quickly ditch their plans and almost overcompensate with changes too early in the game. Yesterday, they showed a lot of confidence in their players. Despite the fact that Ohio State is known for a stout run defense with question marks in the secondary, we leaned on our strengths instead of trying to avoid theirs. We leaned on our running game to set up play-action and plenty of quick, controlled passes. And we stuck with the run even when we fell behind by two scores. On defense, we didn't let a few deep passes and one missed tackle take us out of scheme designed to maintain gaps and to contain Miller as a runner.
All in all, Cal has a lot to like, but they have a lot to work on before next week.