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Cal Football: The Bears Are Improving, But The Big Game Determines How Far They Go

Jeff Tedford, Zach Maynard, Keenan Allen, C.J. Anderson and the California Golden Bears are rediscovering their stride after beating UCLA and Washington State. Beating Stanford in the Big Game is vital to keeping the momentum going.

William Mancebo - Getty Images

The California Golden Bears looked all but lost two weeks ago. Cal was 1-4 and staring up at a schedule of formidables. Cal had not only lost to Ohio State and USC, but had been shocked by Nevada on opening day and got battered around by Arizona State. There was nothing to look forward to, and morale throughout Bear Territory was at an all-time low.

Then the Bears rallied together for a must-win game against UCLA. Zach Maynard played the game the Bears needed him to play, pretty much nailing every possible throw they needed him to make. The Cal defense forced the needed turnovers, and the Bears staved off a completely lost season.

Cal then went up to Washington State this past week, and although Maynard was hardly the same quarterback, he was efficient and move the Bears down the field. Keenan Allen got plenty of single coverage, and Maynard was happy to target his brother over and over again.

That was all that was needed from the passing game. The Bears run game did the rest. C.J. Anderson piled up another 100 yard game, averaging seven yards per carry. Isi Sofele wasn't quite as reliable, but even he managed over four yards per carry. Brendan Bigelow got some run too, and he piled on the yards. The running back platoon did what they always did against the Cougars, piling up the yards and keeping Washington State's offense from getting any sort of rhythm going.

Other than the reestablishing of the run, there have been significant developments that seem to really have helped Cal push their way back to respectability.

Schedule has turned around. Cal's start to the season was absolutely brutal. The Bears had to play a feisty Nevada team that is difficult to deal with schematically, then had to start the game without their starting quarterback. They had the absolutely brutal Ohio State-USC stretch where they nearly came out with a split, but ended up just short. Arizona State might end up being the second or third best team in the Pac-12, and they seem to be executing on all cylinders.

Now things have eased up. UCLA is clearly talented, but they still look a bit green, and they got roughed up on the road in Berkeley. Washington State is probably the easiest game for Cal on their schedule. Stanford, at Utah, and Washington looked like a murderer's row before the season began, but now might be a bit easier than originally anticipated.

Suddenly, the Bears have a decent shot at six wins. Everything hinges on Saturday's result though.

Offense has figured out their identity. It looked as if the first few weeks the Bears didn't seem to realize what their strengths were. Steady run game with game management by Maynard seemed far more essential to winning, yet Cal kept on throwing on way too many occasions and ran way too much traditional dropback passing for a below-average dropback passer. Obviously the Bears were trailing for much of each game, but it'd have been interesting to see if Cal would have had more success if they committed to the run and had a better sense of the strengths of their offense.

The Cal offensive coaching seems to be a bit more organized. Quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo has always been in the booth this season with offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik patrolling the sidelines, but it seemed like Arroyo took more of an active role in calling plays this week, as the adjustments looked much sharper play-by-play as opposed to recent weeks.

More 11 on 11 football. Maynard acting instead of thinking has made all the difference. For whatever reason, Cal's offense never committed to Maynard running the football the first few weeks and letting him decide when and where to go with the football. This is despite the fact that Maynard's mobility would be one of the main advantages he won the starting job ahead of the bevy of talented signal-callers sitting on Cal's bench. They forced him to stand back there and get sacked. Now that they're utilizing his running skills better, Cal is moving the football with greater regularity.

Getting Maynard the runner is such a crucial development for Cal's offense. It forces a linebacker or safety to always account for the quarterback on the field. It opens up bigger holes for the running game as one more defender always has to worry about where Maynard is going on the field. It provide a quick counter to aggressive blitzers, as Maynard can just try and scramble for yards when coverage is blanketed or the pass rush over-pursues.

Maynard will never be mistaken for one of Oregon's option quarterbacks (watching him try to slide for the ground is a bit of an adventure), but he does a passable impression. He was the second leading rush in Cal's win over WSU, and had some solid runs against UCLA to negate some of the sacks. Cal's offense has moved the football a lot better with Maynard running a bit more than usual. It's crucial that it continues.

Tight ends and fullbacks are being used. Richard Rodgers had a monster game against UCLA, and he pretty much was a difference maker in ripping off huge gain after huge gain. The Cal offense just is so much more versatile with a productive tight end, since you never know what he might do on every play. Add in Jacob Wark to do traditional tight end things, and Eric Stevens ripping off a few runs and running out into the flats and grabbing a few catches, and suddenly a defense has to worry about a lot more than Allen, Sofele and Anderson.

4-2-5 defensive split. This is where Cal plays two outside linebackers at defensive end spots and rotated two of the defensive tackles in playing essentially interior linemen. This makes sense since Kendrick Payne, DeAndre Coleman, Mustafa Jalil, Vei Moala, and Aaron Tipoti are all big guys that are more suited for occupying space rather than generating pass rush. The OLBs take care of generating rush, and suddenly Cal has gotten more pressure the past couple of weeks.

Cal has committed to it, and it makes perfect sense. The Bears have played a lot of spread teams this year, and they've generally limited the big plays the past few weeks as a result. It remains to be seen if Cal can afford to go 4-2-5 against Stanford, a team that will happily run the ball down the throats of a smaller team. Expect to see some of the bigger defensive linemen get some run to open up holes for the linebackers.

Youngsters are getting seasoned. Rodgers, Bigelow, Bryce Treggs, Chris Harper and Darius Powe on offense, with Brennan Scarlett, Kameron Jackson, Nick Forbes, Avery Sebastian, Jalen Jefferson, Nathan Broussard, Vei Moala and Todd Barr all stepping in. The next generation is stepping up before their time, and they're learning on the job. Hopefully they're getting better.

It remains to be seen if these fixes are cosmetic. Of course, this could all be for naught if Cal just hit a lull in their schedule, which is entirely possible. Their rivalry game with Stanford (a legitimate opponent that has upset USC and played Notre Dame tough) will determine how far they can go this year, and whether these improvements have been primarily a function of internal or external variables.

The Cardinal have a front seven that will test one of the most brutalized offensive lines in the country and has plugged up the run in nearly every game. The Cardinal defense has forced killer turnovers in almost every game they've played against every opponent they've played. They have an offensive line that could take advantage of the 4-2-5. They have two killer tight ends that can really make life difficult for Cal defenders.

The Big Game generally has been the final thing to determine whether Cal's season is at least somewhat of a success. The Big Game this year might be the game that determines whether Cal has any chance of success this year at all.