Cal heads into its most critical game of the season against Washington State on Nov. 5 at AT&T Park without knowing who its quarterback will be.
That's never a good thing. It might be incumbent Zach Maynard, who has struggled mightily in two of his past three games, or it might be Allan Bridgford, who would be making his first career start.
Whoever wins the job must produce a win. The game is critical because a loss to the Cougars puts the Golden Bears alone in last place in the Pac-12 North, an embarrassing place to be, especially when it's behind the Cougars, who have been the conference's laughingstock the past several years.
More critical is the fact that a loss would make it difficult for the Golden Bears to finish with a winning record and get to a bowl. Cal needs to beat Washington State and win the following week's home game against Oregon State, because the Bears finish the regular season with road games against Stanford and Arizona State. Not only are Stanford and ASU both nationally ranked, but Cal has played poorly on the road the past two seasons -- especially defensively -- and there is no particular reason to believe that will change.
The Bears played probably their worst game of the season in their most recent road game, an embarrassing 31-14 loss to a UCLA team that isn't very good and was reeling. The Cal defense did not play well, but it played better than the Cal offense, which came up with a terribly disappointing performance against a Bruins defense that is pretty bad.
That's why there is a quarterback issue. Jeff Tedford said the day after the loss to UCLA that Maynard, the unquestioned No. 1 quarterback until he threw four interceptions against UCLA, will compete with his backup, Bridgford, for the starting job for the Washington State game.
Bridgford is a completely different kind of quarterback from Maynard. While Maynard is a nimble quarterback capable of running the option and far more effective throwing the ball on the move instead of standing in the pocket, Bridgford is a classic drop-back passer who is not much of a running threat.
Bridgford has not blown anyone's socks off with his play in practices or in scrimmages, so it's not like he is going to turn the Cal offense into a juggernaut if he wins the job this week. How he would react in a game situation is anyone's guess. Some players perform much better in games; some fold under game pressure.
In any case, the Bears have to cut down their mistakes after turning the ball over five times last week.
Avoiding mistakes may be enough to beat the Cougars, who were 3-1 at one point, but have lost four in a row. They are clearly better than they have been the past few years, and if the game were in Pullman, Wash., the Cougars probably would be favored. But at home, the Bears' defense has been infinitely more effective than it has been on the road since the start of the 2010 season, so there is every reason to believe the Bears will be able to prevent the Cougars' strong passing game, led by QB Marshall Loebbestael, from dominating the game.
SERIES HISTORY: Cal leads 42-25-5 (Last meeting, 2010, 20-13 Cal).
SCOUTING THE OFFENSE: Cal's offense had perhaps its best game of the season against Utah on Oct. 22, and probably had its worst game the next week in the 31-14 loss to UCLA seven days later. Both of Cal's touchdowns in that game came on short drives -- one of 30 yards, the other of 15 -- and the Bears did not do much on the ground and even less through the air. Isi Sofele seems to be an adequate back and is capable of big plays, but the passing game has been terribly erratic. Zach Maynard can look good while rolling out on one play, then throw an inexplicable interception out of the pocket on the next. Cal ranks 11th in the Pac-12 in pass efficiency and has the lowest completion percentage in the conference. The only starting Pac-12 quarterback with a lower pass-efficiency rating than Maynard is Utah's Jon Hays, who is playing only because No. 1 QB Jordan Wynn is injured.
SCOUTING THE DEFENSE: The Golden Bears' defense was outstanding in the Oct. 22 game against Utah, completely shutting down the Utes' running game. But the Cal defense was mediocre against UCLA on Oct. 29, being unable to stop the option and QB Kevin Prince. Cal's defense has been markedly and inexplicably better at home than on the road, and it should benefit from the fact that Washington State QB Marshall Loebbestael is not much of a runner. Having ILB Mychal Kendricks back should help after he was suspended for the first quarter of the UCLA game for a team-rules violation and was limited thereafter because he was recovering from thumb surgery earlier in the week. Presumably, he will have a full week of practice this week. Cal ranks third in the Pac-12 in total defense and first in pass defense, although the latter is somewhat misleading because opponents tend to pass a lot more against other teams. Cal is only fifth in the conference in pass-efficiency defense, which is a better gauge.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "I feel like I'd be ready to play in a game, no matter what. I know the playbook inside and out." -- Allan Bridgford, to the Oakland Tribune, on the possibility that he'll make his first collegiate start on Nov. 5 against Washington State.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
THIS WEEK'S GAME: Washington State at Cal (at AT&T Park in San Francisco), Nov. 5 -- Cal is 4-4 overall and 1-4 in the Pac-12, tied for last in the Pac-12 North with Washington State, which is 3-5 overall and has lost four in a row. Cal has beaten WSU six times in a row.
KEYS TO THE GAME: Cal needs to avoid mistakes on offense. On defense, the Bears must apply pressure to Washington State QB Marshall Loebbestael and prevent Marquess Wilson from beating them. Rickey Galvin, who is from Berkeley, is Washington State's best runner, but the Cougars don't have a great running game. They do have a good passing offense, though. QB Marshall Loebbestael has a good, accurate arm, but unlike Jeff Tuel, he is not particularly nimble. WSU quarterbacks have been sacked 25 times, and that's a lot, so Cal should be able to get to him. The Cougars' lone big-play threat is Wilson, a wide receiver, and Cal must prevent him for getting behind the defense. Offensively, Cal needs to run the ball effectively against a WSU defense that is susceptible to both the run and the pass. If Cal can run the ball well, it should be able to move the ball with relative ease, whether Zach Maynard or Allan Bridgford is the Bears' quarterback.
PLAYERS TO WATCH:
WR Keenan Allen -- Allen is sixth nationally in receiving yardage, and he probably will be used in a variety of ways against a Washington State defense that is vulnerable to the run and pass. Look for Allen to get the ball on some running plays.
ILB Mychal Kendricks -- He did little against UCLA, partly because he was suspended for the first quarter and partly because he had missed much of the week leading up to the game after thumb surgery. But he is the Bears' big-play defender, and he is capable of making a game-changing play. Look for him to get a sack or two.
QB Zach Maynard or Allan Bridgford -- Whichever quarterback starts the game against Washington State needs to avoid mistakes and make a few plays. Unfair or not, quarterback play usually determines the winner in Pac-12 games, and how the Cal quarterback performs is likely to determine the outcome.
TB Isi Sofele -- He has 701 rushing yards this season, and he could have a career day against Washington State. He is likely to get plenty of chances to spring a long run, because Cal would like to control the game with its running attack.