By Gary Peterson
It would be a mistake to overemphasize any one facet of Cal's 35-27 loss to Maryland on Saturday — the long trip, the early kickoff, Jahvid Best losing his lunch on the playing field. Especially that last part. The Bears started slowly, lost the battle of third downs, didn't turn up the intensity until it was too late and had red zone issues. They lost five points on a field goal try that hit the upright and a safety that should have been called but wasn't. But for long-term ramifications, no single part of Cal's portfolio is as telling, beguiling and potentially confounding as its passing game. It was ruinously inert during Saturday's first half, which ended with Maryland up, 21-6. Quarterback Kevin Riley was unusually harried and uncharacteristically erratic. His fleet of young receivers had trouble getting open. At least one of them had trouble staying upright. Sean Young slipped on Cal's third pass attempt of the game, leading to an interception and, ultimately, Maryland's second touchdown. "We had a couple blown assignments out there," coach Jeff Tedford said. "A situation where we lined up two guys on the line of scrimmage. A blown route going into the end zone. So there are some growing pains there."
Late in the game, with Cal employing a nothing-to-lose strategy of pitch and catch, those same receivers began breaking free. Riley was more aggressive trying to fit passes into tight spots, as opposed to holding the ball until he found himself nose-deep in the grass. The pass blocking improved, and the stat sheet sang like a cash register. Riley's final line: 33-of-55 for 423 yards, the third-best total in school history. LaReylle Cunningham had a career day with seven catches for 138 yards.
"Being in the situation we were in, we had to throw the ball every play," Tedford said. "It did get the receivers a great opportunity. I'm sure that will help them." So here's the question as the sun rises on the first of Cal's three bye weeks this season: Is this a bad thing, given that Maryland provided a template for beating the Bears by overplaying the run and daring them to pass? Or is this a chance for growth, given that the 10 Cal players who caught Riley's 33 completions Saturday had a combined 37 college catches coming into the season?
It matters, because to win Cal is going to have to run the ball. And to run the ball, Cal is going to have to pass the ball — unless Washington State can be sweet-talked into a rematch or three. Jahvid Best rushed for 200 yards at Washington State eight days ago, padding his numbers with touchdown runs of 80 and 86 yards. He was held to 25 yards in 10 carries Saturday. "They were loaded up in the box," he said of Maryland's defenders. "They came with a lot of blitzes." Corner Kevin Barnes came with a rockin' big hit, devastating Best as he reached for a swing pass late in the first half. Best remained on the field for a couple minutes before discharging the contents of his stomach, then hopping to his feet. "Probably the hardest hit I've ever taken in my life," he said. Maryland could afford to play fearlessly. Even when Riley had time to throw, he frequently a) failed to find an open receiver, or b) threw high, low or to either side. "(It was) a little bit of everything," Tedford said. "Certain times he maybe was holding it too long, waiting for things to come alive. We didn't protect the passer real well early. I think we protected the passer fine down the stretch, but too little, too late at that point." "I've got to know when to throw the ball away, and when to run," Riley acknowledged. To what extent Cal can build upon its fast (if artificially enhanced) finish will go a long way in determining where the Bears go from here. "The good news," Tedford said, "is there are a lot of lessons to be learned." Starting with: The lighter the pregame fare, the better.