1. That voodoo that you do …
OK, clearly, someone, somewhere has a blue and gold voodoo doll, because on Saturday, California lost not one, not two, but three defenders, including starting corner Stefan McClure with 6:23 left in the first quarter, starting SAM linebacker Jalen Jefferson on the same drive, just under two minutes later, and cornerback Joel Willis on the opening kickoff of the second half. Willis was taken off the field on a body board on the injury cart, and was hospitalized with a "head/neck" issue, according to head coach Sonny Dykes, while both McClure and Jefferson were helped off the field.
[UPDATE ON WILLIS]
Add to that the fact that starting corner Kameron Jackson -- who injured his ankle against Oregon – only played sparsely in the first half before he just couldn't go anymore, and that's four players going down in the same game.
"That was a game-time decision," defensive coordinator Andy Buh said of Jackson. "We were kind of hoping Kam would be ready, and it just wasn't right. He tried to step in there and give us a few reps, but he couldn't put enough pressure on it for him to play at a high level."
As if that weren't enough, it was announced that starting center Chris Adcock would miss the rest of the season with a knee injury suffered on Wednesday during practice.
On defense alone, the Bears have now lost eight projected starters: McClure, Jackson, Jefferson, Brennan Scarlett, Mustafa Jalil, Nick Forbes, Avery Sebastian and finally Chris McCain, who was dismissed from the program last Sunday due to conduct detrimental to the team. That's seven out of 11.
McClure came down hard on his right knee – the same one that he tore in the final regular season game against Arizona State in 2011, and the same knee that kept him out of football for 20 months – with 1:32 left in the first half, defending a pass.
By the end of the game, only Adrian Lee (one breakup and one pass defended), Lapite and Cedric Dozier were left in the cornerback rotation.
"I don't know what to say about the injuries," said an exasperated head coach Sonny Dykes. "I've never seen anything like it. We lose at least five or six guys every game; another five or six today. That's something we can't control. What we can control is the way we play and the way we coach, and we have to do better … Nobody cares about the excuses. I could sit up here and give you a litany of excuses, but I'm not going to. We've just got to play better. We've got to coach better. That falls on us."
2. These Colors Don't Run
With Adcock and Cochran out, a bit of a drop-off in the already anemic running game could have been expected. But with speedster Khalfani Muhammad dressed but seeing no action (head), Brendan Bigelow, Daniel Lasco and Jeffrey Coprich, Jr., carried the load, and it wasn't pretty. Even taking out the three sacks the Cougars got on Goff for 23 yards, the Bears still would have only run for 102 yards, averaging 3.9 yards per carry. Bigelow was wholly ineffective running the ball (41 yards on 12 carries), despite looking the best he has all season this week in practice, sans-knee brace.
"Poor kid just doesn't have a lot of confidence, right now," Dykes said. "We've got to figure out a way to get him some. It's tough right now to play him, honestly. We'll see what happens."
The fact that Cal is averaging 3.0 yards per rush and just 116.0 yards per game on the season was one of the reasons that Chris Harper -- who finished the game with 216 yards on 13 catches and became the fifth Bears receiver to record 200 receiving yards in a game – was moved back to the slot position he played last season.
"We are trying to get our best guys on the field," Dykes said. "We are struggling at running back, so it's important to make some plays with inside receivers. We thought we were not getting the production out of the group that we needed, and we thought we could get some more production if we moved Chris inside. I thought he played well. For his first time inside, he did really well. He will need to improve, but he was very productive."
3. Fumbling, Bumbling, Stumbling
Cal fumbled three times and lost all three, and unlike last week, where the Bears had the rainy conditions as an excuse for four fumbles (all lost), the weather was clear and warm in Strawberry Canyon.
Lasco fumbled once on the first drive of the game, choking off a promising roll by Goff, who completed his first seven passes in a row to drive Cal to the five-yard line, but on second-and-goal, Lasco took five steps after a Goff handoff and then bobbled the ball mid-stride. The Cougars recovered and then proceeded to drive 92 yards on seven plays to take a 7-0 lead.
"When you are a very fragile team without a lot of confidence, it probably has a big impact on you," Dykes said of the early fumble. "The disappointing thing is that if you look at our team against Northwestern, and our team now, we haven't played as good as we have in that game since then. Obviously, we have had a lot of personnel injured. I think we had seven guys on defense who started that [Northwestern] game who don't start anymore due to injury. We have several more on offense; our center and right guard are both out. We have no confidence right now, and we are a fragile football team.
"When you are a fragile football team, and you fumble your first possession of the game after putting a decent drive together, it takes a toll on you. If you are a seasoned football team with guys who have been through a lot of battles together, it's no big deal. But, with our group, it is a big deal."
At the start of the second quarter, it was Bigelow's turn with the fumble demons, as he coughed up the ball at the goal line on third-and-goal, but fortunately, the Bears defense chose the very next play to step up and deliver a safety to put Cal on the board.
Bigelow's rough day was not over. His second fumble of the game – on a questionable call to return a kickoff from five yards deep in the end zone – necessitated a goal-line stand by an already-beleaguered defense. To the Bears' credit, they stopped the Cougars cold on four straight plays, finishing the Washington State drive with a tackle for loss by Cameron Walker and Lucas King.
"I thought our defense played really well at times, with our backs against the wall," Dykes said. "We turned it over, gave them a short field and they stopped them on fourth down right at the one-yard line. Quite frankly, I think we probably played good enough defense to win the game. We just, again, gave them a bunch of short fields offensively, and five turnovers."
How long did it take freshman quarterback Jared Goff to regain his confidence after a 15-snap abortive effort in Eugene a week ago?
"First play," said Goff, who completed his first seven passes.
With the running game stalled out yet again, offensive coordinator Tony Franklin once again turned to Goff on Saturday, and that resulted in the young signal-caller becoming the third Pac-12 player ever to record three games of 450 or more passing yards on Saturday, completing 32 of 58 passes for 489 yards and two touchdowns, with one interception, for a passer rating of 133.9.
"He did some good things today," Dykes said. "I don't think he ever really got comfortable. He didn't seem like he was playing with maybe the same level of confidence he played with prior to the Oregon game. I think part of it is natural. You have what happened against Oregon happen to you, I think it shakes you a little bit when you're an 18-year old freshman. Obviously, I don't think we protected him well, up front."
Left tackle Freddie Tagaloa was regularly abused by both the BUCK linebackers and defensive ends, and the offensive line as a whole allowed three sacks on Goff, and he escaped from two more, although he was only hurried one time, officially, there were roughly 10 drop-backs on which he was noticeably rushed in his delivery, and four more passes tipped at the line.
While Goff was under siege for most of the afternoon, he did get good blocking by center Mark Brazinski, who, in the absence of Cochran, took over for the injured Adcock and only delivered one questionable snap, and even that was corralled by Goff.
"Mark did a great job," Goff said. "He stepped in earlier this week when Chris went down, and did a great job today, I thought. I thought he did fabulous. His snaps, he had been struggling earlier in the week with the snaps, but we fixed that really fast and his snaps were all in the right area, and I think he blocked well, too."
After a would-be pick-six by safety Michael Lowe was called back, and the offense backed up 15 yards because of an ill-advised flip into the end zone by Lowe (a move he said he regrets) with 7:39 left in the first half, Goff did get ample time to sit back and find Harper wide open against blown coverage by Jeremiah Allison along the sideline for an 89-yard touchdown – the second-longest passing play in program history.
"I was just trying to do my job and run my route as quickly as I could," Harper said. "I was hoping the ball would be there, and it [was]. I was just trying to get the ball and put points on the board."
Goff – who went 6-for-13 on passing attempts of over 15 yards – had missed Harper on a similar route earlier in the game.
"I overthrew him early in the game, and I just didn't want that to happen again," Goff said. "He made a great route and was wide open."
5. Flipping Out
With just three healthy cornerbacks left, the Bears are going to have to dig deep to find depth over the final seven games of the season.
"Obviously, we've lifted Cameron Walker's already," Dykes said. "It's tough to do, right now, because we have some guys that just didn't get much done through fall camp. Trey Cheek had a hamstring and didn't really practice much, and Darius Allensworth's coming off of an ACL, and really isn't full-speed yet. I don't think those are possibilities. We've got to get the bunch better that we've got."
According to Buh, improving the young defensive backs is a matter of reps. 1,000, to be exact.
"Some of those things are just fundamental things, things that we work on every day," said Buh, who's defense gave up 570 yards of total offense. "To get a DB prepared for this level of competition takes 1,000 reps. Defense is reactionary, so you've got to give them tons and tons and tons of repetitions to execute at a high level, and we're behind that. There's no way of replicating the amount of reps they would need in this short period of time."
What can be done to build depth, outside of burning redshirts prematurely? Cal will have to get creative.
"We'll start practicing players on both sides of the ball," Dykes said. "We did Wednesday and Thursday. We practiced Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper at corner, just in case of emergency, and we considered using them both, at times, today. We just didn't feel like they had enough practice. We'll probably end up practicing some running backs maybe at linebacker, as well. We're kind of out of linebackers."
Harper did not play cornerback in his final two prep seasons at Encino (Calif.) Crespi, though Treggs played on both sides of the ball his entire senior season at Bellflower (Calif.) St. John Bosco, racking up 41 total tackles and one interception.
"It's just a situation thing, where if we run the dime package, and one of our DBs get hurt, we don't have a lot of depth, so they said they were going to throw us in there if something like that happened," Harper said. "It's whatever we need to do for the team."
FIFTH QUARTER: Some Kind of Witchcraft
BearTerritory.net Top Stories
BTTV: Practice UpdateUpdates on Cal practice from Memorial Stadium as Vic Wharton returns.
Go Premium With BearTerritoryMany visitors are surprised with just how much they get with a BearTerritory.net subscription. Here's the low-down...
Dykes: We Wore DownBERKELEY -- Cal head Coach Sonny Dykes says the Bears wore down in the second half against Arizona State.
By the Numbers: Cal vs. UtahHow do Cal and Utah match up against one another according to the numbers? We take a deep dive.