BY JON WILNER
Knight Ridder Newspapers
SAN JOSE, Calif. - (KRT) - To the special-teams breakdowns we knew about, add one we didn't: 10 men on the field. On the most important play of the most important game of Cal's season - a fake punt that kept UCLA alive last Saturday - the Bears were one body short. It's the mother of all football gaffes. And yes, the missing player, whom Coach Jeff Tedford refused to name, was supposed to fill the hole that UCLA's Jarrad Page ran through for 38 game-changing yards. "It was a youthful mistake, but it needs to be recognized by the coaches involved," Tedford said Tuesday, three days after the Bears blew a 12-point fourth-quarter lead at the Rose Bowl and lost, 47-40. "It's very disappointing. But it's not just the kid's fault. It's also the coaches' fault." And as the Blues (both Old and Young) are agonizingly aware, Cal's special teams tend to perform worst in big games in Los Angeles. Last year, with the Pacific-10 title, the Rose Bowl and a spot in the national championship game potentially at stake, the Bears dominated top-ranked USC but lost 23-17 because of a bad snap on a punt, a fumbled punt return and two missed field-goal tries.
A victory Saturday would have put Cal on a collision course with the Trojans for conference supremacy, but the Bears let UCLA's Maurice Drew get loose for two long returns - he scored on one, set up a touchdown on the other - and then played a man down at the worst possible time. If you're scoring at home, that's two games with Bowl Championship Series implications, two gut-wrenching losses and too many special-teams snafus. The man in charge of the unit is Pete Alamar, a third-year assistant. During his tenure, the Bears have performed well in certain areas - they're second in the Pac-10 and fifth nationally in punt returns with a 21.4-yard average - and poorly in others. Sitting in his office Tuesday afternoon, Alamar was accountable but subdued. He had not slept much since Saturday night, when he walked out of the Rose Bowl shaken to his core. "It's been a long week, but we just have to keep working and get it fixed, and we will," he said. "It's a prideful bunch of guys. As disappointed as I am, they feel even worse." What went wrong Saturday? Let us count the plays.
Yes, David Lonie was instructed to kick away from Drew, one of the best punt returners in the country. Apparently, that's tougher than it appears - especially, Tedford explained, when a right-footed kicker such as Lonie must punt from the right hash mark, because there's a chance of shanking the ball out of bounds to the near sideline. "But it's something that, at this level, we should be able to master," Tedford said. The end result: Drew got his hands on three of Lonie's five punts.
The punt returns.
Drew took the first one back 69 yards to set up UCLA's first touchdown. The second went for 81 yards and a touchdown that gave the Bruins a 28-27 lead. "On the first one, I thought we could have hustled better," Tedford said. "We had one or two guys that got held up a little bit, and as they were going down they probably could have ran a little harder to where they didn't get caught in the wall. Once they got caught in the wall, it was all over. "The second one, it was an overreaction to the wall. They were seeing the wall form and they are not going to get caught in the wall...so they start overcompensating. And then he hits it right behind him."
The fake punt.
Trailing 40-28 with nine minutes remaining, UCLA faced a fourth-and-two from its 42. It was an obvious fake situation, and sure enough, the Bruins handed the ball to Page, the up-back, who ran through an opening on the left side for 38 yards. Three plays later, UCLA scored to close to within 40-35. Cal expected the fake and had its "safe" unit on the field. It just didn't have enough players to execute.
"It's one you could chalk up to youth," Tedford said. "As one of our young guys was going onto the field, one of our team leaders yelled `Get back' so we wouldn't have a sideline penalty. So he hears `Get back' and doesn't go on the field. "To hear how it happened...we should have noticed that and called timeout." They'd be undefeated if they had.