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November 5, 2011
Cal returns home with questions under center
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BERKELEY -- Though California head coach Jeff Tedford has maintained all week that junior Zach Maynard will start Saturday's contest against Washington State (3-4, 1-4 in the Pac-12), fans and pundits alike have turned their eyes to sophomore quarterback Allan Bridgford as a possible replacement.
"Being a competitive guy like I am, I thrive off the competition and pressure situations," Bridgford said. "I love that kind of stuff."
Over the past three weeks, Maynard has played unevenly, throwing seven interceptions to just one touchdown pass.
"In practice, yeah, you can always see improvement in practice, but practice is not the game," Tedford said. "There's a lot of other things going on in the game. It's a lot more than, everybody thinks that it's just the quarterback, and there's a lot of moving parts that goes on, with receivers, depth, pass protection, tipped balls, whatever it may be, so there's a lot of things that go on. It's just that he happens to be the one pulling the trigger, and could he improve? Yes, he can improve, like everybody else can improve, like the guys blocking can improve, like the guys catching can improve, like the guys tackling can improve. Everyone can."
While the Cougars come in to this week's game at AT&T Park ranked eighth in the Pac-12 in total defense (412.2 yards per game) and ninth in scoring defense (32.0 points per game), last week's opponent -- UCLA -- came into that game ranked much worse.
The Bruins -- before downing the Bears 31-14 in Pasadena, Calif. -- were ranked 11th in scoring defense (34.4) and 11th in total defense (436.1).
"He's got to focus on what's important, and that's his preparation of mentally and physically, emotionally, all of that, and we've talked about that as a team; not just him, but everybody," Tedford said of Maynard. "But, unfortunately, the quarterback bears the focal point of everything, and it's part of the position. That's part of learning the position, to play quarterback, is that everyone's going to have an opinion. When a day doesn't go well, everybody has an opinion. It goes both ways. The Utah game, plays great, everybody wants to give him high praise, but we can't let that get over our head, either. We've got to keep everything even."
Of greater concern, though, is the fact that UCLA was ranked seventh in passing defense (244.3 yards per game). Now, Washington State is ranked 9th in that category, allowing 261.5 yards per game through the air -- similar numbers, and, if Maynard continues to misfire, perhaps, similar results.
"There's a lot of defense, nowadays. There is a lot that needs to be talked about, and worked through," said quarterbacks coach Marcus Arroyo. "Seven, eight games into your true freshman year or your first year in college football, is not going to be nearly enough for you to fine-tune what you need to be to be All-Pac-10 certified or NFL-certified. You're still breaking ground on a lot of things. You're still seeing things in game nine that you haven't seen in the season yet from defenses, and that's the first time that you're going to see them live, in a game against another opponent in another color. Anybody who's done that, and who's been in that circumstance can tell you that's the situation you're dealing with."
The Cougars are 11th in the Pac-12 in passing efficiency defense (153.9), but Cal (4-4, 1-4) is ranked 11th in passing efficiency (119.0), with Maynard ranking 81st in the nation in passer efficiency rating (121.3), 103rd in completion percentage (53.4) and is tied for the seventh-most interceptions in the Football Bowl Subdivision with 10.
"I don't think there's a quarterback in the nation that hasn't thrown an interception," Tedford said. "There are so many moving parts and there are so many different things going on
Against three common opponents -- Colorado, Oregon and UCLA -- Washington State has allowed 370 fewer yards and gained 138 more yards than the Bears. The Cougars allowed 454 yards of offense to the Ducks, while Cal allowed 563. Washington State fell to Oregon 43-28, while the Bears scored just 15 points -- all in the first half -- in a 43-15 loss in Eugene.
The Buffaloes (1-8, 0-5) gained 582 yards against Cal -- highlighted by 474 yards through the air courtesy of quarterback Tyler Hansen -- in a 36-33 overtime loss, while gaining just 336 total yards in a 31-27 loss to the Cougars.
"They gave up a lot to Oregon, which everybody pretty much does," Tedford said. "Then, Oregon State (551 yards). But, we want to move the football and make first downs, protect the ball, score when we get in the red zone, all the things that you typically want to do against everyone."
While the Bears may want to be efficient in the red zone, they have been far from it through eight games. Cal ranks seventh in the league inside the 20, scoring on 29 of 35 trips, with 20 touchdowns and nine field goals. Of those 20 TDs, 13 have come on the ground and seven have come through the air.
Washington State is fifth in the conference in red zone defense (24-for-29, 82.8 percent), allowing 20 touchdowns. Opponents have scored 10 touchdowns on the ground, and 10 through the air inside the Cougars' red zone, but Washington State has forced one fumble and -- more importantly -- picked off two passes when backed up deep.
"They try to do a lot of things. They're kind of a hectic defense," Maynard said. "They like to move a lot, so you've got to upset them as an offense. They're a very good team, very athletic, and they get after it. They try to [disguise]. We have to make sure we have a good understanding of what we're doing."
Maynard has been hitting the books and the film room hard this week, studying not just the Cal offense, but NFL quarterbacks, in an effort to improve.
"It's all about research. You look at other good quarterbacks and see what they do," Maynard said. "A lot of great quarterbacks do the same thing: their off hand is tight to the body and their head is straight -- it's not all off -- and just try to stay more poised, I guess, instead of having happy feet, trying to throw the ball when you're off-balance. It's all about balance, really.
"[I've looked at] Tom Brady, we've got some film of Andrew Luck this week, so I got to see what he's doing on a couple throws, Drew Brees -- a lot of guys with high postures, that stand up tall and deliver the ball. They're predominantly pocket passers, more so, and that's what I need to work on the most: being in the pocket and staying poised."
Maynard has had to be a quicker study than most, given his limited experience with Tedford's complicated offense.
"The first year's got to be the biggest learning curve, coming from if you haven't had a college system or a pro system, absolutely," Arroyo said. "There are intricacies of protections to progressions, and that's just on your side. We've got to remember, on that side of the ball, there's a whole 'nother facet that you need to understand defensively with each one of those things, minus what you need to do, just to get your job better on air. I think that maxim is something, unless you've been out there, you can't put it in words.
"Cognitively, he's done a very good job. We go through our games every week and from what we know, mentally, about the game, he's done a great job. He studies really well, picks up things fast, he sees things fast, his reactions are good, he understands the ball, he's got a good instinct. He's a real good guy."
In three games of limited action, Bridgford -- now in his third year in the program -- has completed 12 of 29 passes (41.4 percent) for 179 yards and no interceptions, for a 93.23 passer rating.
"I feel like I have a really good feel for the game and I understand what's going on," Bridgford said. "I feel like I'm good at recognizing things in the defense and just getting the ball to the playmakers and making plays, making all the throws.
"The situations where I've come in have been against Oregon, where they knew we were throwing the ball every time and against Presbyterian in my first collegiate action. We were up by a lot of points obviously, so we were throwing the ball mostly on third down to get the chains moving and keep the drives going with the back-up guys in. I would say that the most I've gained has been -- especially Oregon, playing in a tough situation where we're behind in a game and trying to come back, so they know we're throwing the ball, no secret there, they drop eight into coverage and stuff like that -- but I feel like, if it was a close game in the first half of the game or something, it'd be easier, because there'd be a run threat there. The play-action stuff would be there."
One of the main concerns that likely led to Maynard being named the starter after spring camp was his mobility, particularly with question marks along the offensive line.
That offensive front, however, has proven to be one of the most improved units on the team, with the five starters -- Mitchell Schwartz, Brian Schwenke, Dominic Galas, Justin Cheadle and Matt Summers-Gavin playing together in all eight games, and have allowed just 22 sacks -- fourth-fewest in the Pac-12.
"I think our offensive line is great," Bridgford said. "We have a few leaders up front who know what they're doing, and they always seem to be on point with the point calls and getting everything protected up and that makes it easy on a quarterback to have that."
Maynard's mobility -- when measured against Bridgford's lengthy delivery -- was supposed to provide a better chance to win. Instead, the Bears have lost four of their past five games. Maynard has only really been let off the chain three times, rushing for 36 yards against Utah, 52 against Fresno State and 39 against the Bruins. This week in practice, though, Maynard has focused on his throwing.
"I'm trying to stay more focused on my feet and my off arm, just trying to stay more accurate with my throws and make sure me and my receivers are on the same page," Maynard said.
While Cal ranks third in the conference in total defense in the conference -- allowing 417.0 yards per game -- in their four losses, opponents have taken possession on Cal's side of the field on 10 of 56 drives. In the Bears' four wins, opponents took possession in Bear territory five of 57 times.
Of the 10 times that opposing teams have taken over possession in Cal territory, eight of those drives have resulted in points -- 40 in total. Eight of the Bears' interceptions have resulted in scores, with five touchdowns and three field goals. In total, opposing teams have scored 44 points off of Cal turnovers.
"We have a great defense, but it's hard to be a good defense if you aren't staying on the field and giving them some time to rest and scoring points," Bridgford said.
Washington State defensive back Damante Horton leads the Pac-12 in interceptions with four, and has returned one for a touchdown. Deone Bucannon is tied for 18th in the conference in tackles per game (6.0, 48 overall), tied for 13th with Horton for most passes defended (6) and is tied for fourth in the league with three picks.
"They're definitely physical," said sophomore wide receiver Keenan Allen. "They try to press the outside guys, they try to get physical with us at the line, so we'll come out there and we're going to fight with them. I like being pressed. It's kind of my advantage. I can press back."
Senior Washington State linebacker Alex Hoffman-Ellis is sixth in the conference with 7.1 tackles per game, and fifth with 57 stops overall. Hoffman is also tied for fourth in the Pac-12 with eight tackles for loss, with defensive end Travis Long tied for 13th with 6.0. If the Cougars can shut down the run, and take away Maynard's legs, they could force him into being a pocket passer. Turning Maynard into a pocket passer has seemed to be the perfect strategy to force him into turnovers, which could very well give Washington State possession down deep.
When the Cougars do get down into the red zone, they are the sixth-best offense in the conference, converting 25 of 30 opportunities (83.3 percent). Of those 25 scores, 18 have been touchdowns, with nine coming on the ground and nine through the air. When it comes to third down, Washington State is fifth in the Pac-12 with a 44.7 percent success rate.
"We have to handle our business," said Bears defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast. "We've got to go out there and make stops regardless of when and where we take the field, that's our job. We've got to continue to get better at that and play the different situations that come up during the course of a game."
Once one of the top rushing defenses in the conference, the Bears were gashed for 163 rushing yards by UCLA quarterback Kevin Prince last week.
"Any time you have a game like we had, and didn't tackle very good, then we're looking forward to getting back out there and trying to redeem ourselves a little bit," Pendergast said. "It's something that we work on every week, so I come back a lot of times after the games and watch the practice film, and when you work on certain things and you've got to find different ways to work on them to get them better at them, and we clearly, the number of yards after initial contact last week -- particularly with the quarterback -- was somewhere around 80 to 90 yards, and when you have somebody dedicated to that guy, you expect them to carry their job out."
While Cougars QB Marshall Lobbestael isn't as mobile as the injured Jeff Tuel, at this point, he is a more dangerous quarterback than Maynard through the air.
"Same offense, it's just that Tuel pulls it down a little bit more," Tedford said. "[Lobbestael is] a drop-back guy. He's a drop-back guy all the way. Tuel was a guy who ran quite a bit, pulled it down and ran, and this guy's more of a pocket guy. He can pull it down and make a few yards, but Tuel was a very good runner. This guy is adequate in running and making yards, if you leave him space and don't honor him."
Lobbestael is sixth in the league in passing yards per game (259.5), while Maynard is seventh with 254.9. Lobbestael is seventh in passing efficiency (145.2) while Maynard is 11th. Lobbestael completes 62.9 percent of his passes, and Maynard, 53.4.
Maynard does have two big, dangerous receiving on the outside in Marvin Jones and Allen, but the Cougars aren't exactly lacking in that department, either.
While Allen is second in the Pac-12 with 8.4 catches per game, Washington State's Marquess Wilson is fifth with 6.5, and Isiah Barton is tied for seventh with Jones with 5.1 receptions per game. Wilson is also third in the league -- right behind Allen -- with 111.1 receiving yards per game. The Cougars will be more of a threat in the passing game than a depleted UCLA, which had four wide receivers suspended for last week's game.
"Last week, I felt good about last week's game plan, but this week will be different," Pendergast said. "It's college football. You're shifting gears. In the college game, you're constantly changing between different styles of offense, so you've got to shift gears in a hurry."
Getting to Lobbestael will be a big focus for the Bears, particularly having senior inside linebacker Mychal Kendricks -- fifth in the Pac-12 in tackles per game (7.4) and fourth overall with 59 stops -- back for an entire game, after he was suspended for the first quarter against UCLA due to a violation of team rules, in addition to a surgery on his left thumb.
"He missed work last week, and just like I said after the game, when you deal with their style of offense, the type of misdirection that they give you, it's important that you get the looks down during the week at a full-speed tempo, and feel comfortable to go out there and play," Pendergast said. "It happens really fast, and it's assignment football when you play that style offense, and so, the more reps you get throughout the week, the better off you're going to play on game day."
Last Saturday, Cal surrendered 386 yards of total offense, including 294 on the ground. Washington State averages 121 yards per game on the ground (ninth in the Pac-12) and 437.1 yards of total offense (fifth).
"They do a very nice job of mixing up different personnel groups and they do a lot of no-huddle," Pendergast said. "The quarterback does a lot of things at the line of scrimmage, where he makes changes based on what you're doing, and they are very balanced in what they do, and I think they're second in the Pac-12 in passing, so we'll have our hands full with their offense. They've got a really good team. I think that they've got some very good skill players and I think they're very well coached. I'm very impressed with what they've done this year."
While the Cougars have won more games this season than the past two combined, those three wins have come against Idaho State, UNLV and Colorado. Tedford, however, still maintains that they are better than their 3-5 record, and have improved from years past.
"Every phase. Every phase. Their offensive line has been, I would say they've improved with their offensive line," Tedford said. "They've always been pretty good with skill positions, their quarterbacks, their receivers, their running backs, I think their line is better, I think their defense, collectively, is much better. Better cover guys, better up front, it seems like those guys have been there for a long time, too. I looked to see how many seniors, and it's all juniors. It seems like they've been playing for a long time. Their linebackers play really hard, so they're much, much improved. Their personnel is much different."
Conventional wisdom would dictate that Bridgford would enter the game in one of two ways: Maynard struggles early, or Cal is up late. Either way, he knows he has one duty.
"Win the game," Bridgford said. "Do whatever it takes to win the game, keep the chains moving, put points on the board and help our defense out … My number one duty is to win the game, whatever it takes."