By Jon Wilner
Here’s the link.
Cal’s eight-day plunge from No. 2 in the country to the middle of the Pac has left Old and Young Blues alike — not to mention your friendly neighborhood Hotline scribe — wondering what the heck happened. Where was the team that thumped Tennessee and made the big plays at Oregon? How could the Bears lose at home to Oregon State? How could they lose to a team that lost to Notre Dame? What’s up with all the turnovers? Why couldn’t Justin Forsett run effectively? Where was downfield passing game? Where was the pass rush? Did the Bears manage the clock properly? And then there this: Did the playcalling get conservative in crunch time Saturday? The answer to that last question, based on my research, is an absolute, indisputable YES! From the final play of the third quarter through the interception that gave UCLA a 30-21 lead — that’s my definition of crunch time, as opposed to the post-INT desperation time — the Bears had four first downs.
They ran on first and second down every time. This included runs on second-and-eight, second-and-18, third-and-18 and second-and-six. And it contrasts dramatically with the run-pass split in the first three quarters. That doesn’t mean the playcalling cost Cal the game. You could make a case that it was the right thing to do under the circumstances, that it gave Cal the best chance to win (and I’ll make that case in a minute). But if you’re an Old or Young Blue who sat there wondering, Have they gotten conservative, or is it my imagination? — the answer is that it wasn’t your imagination. Consider these stats an unofficial, not-100-percent reflection of what happened because 1) I have no idea when quarterback Nate Longshore checked off, and 2) I don’t know what was called when penalties stopped play. Through the first three quarters:
First down: 11 runs, 12 passes
Second down: 10 runs, 6 passes
Third down: 1 run, 10 passes
In crunch time (as defined above):
First down: 4 runs, 0 passes
Second down: 4 runs, 0 passes
Third down: 1 run, 2 passes
The four first-down runs netted 15 yards.
The four second-down runs netted 15 yards.
And lest we forget, this was coming against a UCLA defense that ranked 10th nationally against the run. It’s worth noting (again, unofficially) that when Cal passed on first down during the first three quarters, Longshore was 10-of-12. And when Cal passed on second down during the first three quarters, he was 4-of-6. Then, starting with 24 seconds left in the third quarter, the first- and second-down passing came to a halt. Now, to the second issue here: Was the run-oriented playcalling the right thing to do?
* The first thing to consider is the nature of the man calling the plays. For all the points and highlights his team has produced this season and any season, Jeff Tedford is a conservative guy. He loves to run the ball, think it’s the key to success, and he has built Cal into a top-10 top-20 program by using the running game to set up the downfield passes. Running the ball is who Tedford is, and he’s been pretty good for Cal.
* It looked like the crunch-time running plays were designed, at least in part, to take the pressure off Longshore, who played on a sprained ankle. Tedford could have been so worried about his quarterback’s even-worse-than-usual mobility — and the chances of Longshore getting sacked or fumbling in a crucial situation — that he felt it was better to be safe than sorry. That’s a tough call, if it was indeed a call at all: Do you go with a severely-limited veteran quarterback or a mobile freshman (Kevin Riley) on the road, in the fourth quarter, in a must-win game, against a very good defense?
* One of the fourth-quarter drives started at the Cal 11 yardline. With a 21-20 lead, you have to play conservatively in that situation. The Bears ran on first down (Forsett for 7) and second down (Forsett for 1), then threw on third-and-two … to Jahvid Best for one yard. If you ask me, that missed third down was a critical play. The Bears were forced to punt from the 20, and Andrew Larson’s 32-yarder gave UCLA possession near midfield — an optimal situation for the Bruins that ended in the go-ahead field goal.
* Despite the run-oriented playcalling, Cal was still in position to win thanks to Best’s 54-yard kickoff return. Isn’t that what the Bears wanted in the first place? Put themselves in position to win, and then let one of their playmakers make a play? Down 23-21 with just under three minutes left, they had first down on the UCLA 35. Had you offered that situation to Tedford before the game — his offense needing 10 yards for the possible winning field goal — I bet he’d have taken it.
Then again, after running unsuccessfully on first and second down (five yards total) on that drive, the Bears were forced into an obvious passing situation. UCLA’s defense was ready to hop the short routes when Longshore unloaded his ill-fated throw. … So there you have it: A look at the playcalling stats and my thoughts on the matter. Now let me turn this over to Old and Young Blues and Hotline readers with an opinion. What sayeth you? (See above link to read comments to the article.)