PASADENA, Calif. -- M.O. It can stand for missed opportunities.
On Thursday, the No. 19 Cal football team had three potential picks that wound up as pass breakups. They had two deep balls to normally-sure-handed Bryce Treggs fall incomplete. Cal was just 3-for-16 on third downs after the first drive of the game, which put them up, 3-0 on a UCLA team that had lost each of its past two games after going down early.
M.O. It can stand for Missing Out.
After a stellar start for junior quarterback Jared Goff, he's now been as inaccurate as ever he has in his career, going 57-for-100 over his last two games, and has largely fallen out of the Heisman conversation, and now, he's just trying to keep his team afloat.
"We got punched in the mouth two weeks in a row now, and we're going to have to respond, one way or another," Goff said. "I think we're going to respond the correct way ... Getting punched in the mouth twice, it hurts. I can't lie to you: It hurts. It's not fun, but we're going to respond well. I guarantee that."
But, for Cal fans, what M.O. stands for -- after a 40-24 loss to the Bruins -- is Modus Operandi. Same Cal. Different year. The Bears have now not won in Los Angeles since 2009, and Cal has just one win in the City of Angels since the turn of the century.
"They had lost two straight. They came out and played a very aggressive and physical brand of football. Their coaches did a good job of getting their guys ready. We didn't perform as well as we needed to. That starts with us, and with getting our guys ready," said head coach Sonny Dykes, whose teams are now 0-4 after a bye week. "We had 12 days to prepare for that game and we didn’t do a very good job of getting our guys ready to play. We didn't start fast, and never really got into a flow.
“I felt we had a great week of practice. We felt like we were as ready to play as we had been all year. I thought our guys were fresh and excited to play, and clearly that wasn’t the case.”
So, let's get on to the analysis.
Hit in the Mouth
"They came out hitting," linebacker Hardy Nickerson said of UCLA. Paul Perkins was a big part of that, running hard between the tackles, and drawing the attention of the linebackers on the run-pass combos, which, eventually, started going the way of the pass, while Nickerson and the rest of the Bears were still keeping an eye on the run game.
Two weeks ago, Cal forced three turnovers against Utah, and, despite the offense clearly being not up-to-snuff, the Bears able to finish only six points worse than the then-No. 5 Utes, even with five interceptions thrown by Goff. Goff didn't throw a single pick on Thursday, and the Bears didn't turn the ball over a single time, but despite having 12 days to prepare for a UCLA team that had fallen out of the rankings with two straight double-digit losses, looked lost and overwhelmed against the Bruins, and despite taking an early 3-0 lead, Goff and tight end Stephen Anderson both said the Bears came out flat.
"We didn't execute well," said Dykes. "We didn't protect Jared very well -- he got sacked five times. That's where it starts with us. We did not do a good job on first down. We got behind the chains too much on first down. We didn't run the ball particularly well. We had a lot of second- and third-and-longs. That put a lot of pressure on our offensive line and our quarterback. We've got to be able to run better, and just execute better."
Part of the issue protecting Goff was the lack of a run game. Cal rushed for 131 net yards, and were it not for five sacks, Goff would have been the rushing leader (10 carries for 38 yards, 29 sack-loss yardage).
"When you can't run the ball effectively, it doesn't tend to help," Goff said. "In order to open up some stuff in the pass game, you've got to run the ball, and we weren't able to do that as well as we'd like to, tonight, but, again, we're going to fix it. I promise you that: We're going to fix it. We're going to be a different team, come next Saturday."
Because of the lack of a run game, UCLA was able to stick to Cal's receiving corps like glue. Goff said that the Bruins didn't do anything they didn't show on tape, but the Bears receivers were unable to find seams, particularly after offensive coordinator Tony Franklin largely abandoned several unique tight end looks (double tights attached to the line, tight ends in motion -- very evocative of what Stanford did last week) he showed on the first two drives.
"They manned us a lot, and that just in general is going to lead to some smaller windows for Jared," Anderson said. "With the pass rush that they had, that gave us a couple problems."
"They mixed it up well," Goff said. "They mixed it up, were able to stop our run, and once they did that, they could pass rush pretty well, and they could drop a bunch of guys. It all just, domino effect from there, and they were able to play pretty well downfield with their corners and DBs."
UCLA's run game certainly opened things up for Josh Rosen, thanks to early success by Perkins, who rushed for 73 yards on 11 carries until he went down with a knee injury with just under seven minutes to go in the first half. He still out-rushed every single Cal ball carrier.
The Bruins' 40 points were the most the Bruins have scored against Cal since 2005 (a 47-40 win for UCLA). While we're in the Way Back Machine, the Bears' defense looked almost as bad as it had in 2013, during their last trip down to Pasadena, allowing 573 yards of total offense (second-highest total of the season to the Texas game), including 399 yards passing to freshman quarterback Rosen -- a season-worst for Cal, and a season-best for Rosen, who finished 34-for-47 (setting a program record for single-game completions) with three touchdowns.
The team that came into the game with 21 turnovers gained on the season -- best in the Football Bowl Subdivision -- didn't record their first turnover until there were 6:22 left in the fourth quarter. The defense that had 21 sacks on the season didn't record one until there were just over nine minutes left in the third quarter.
So, the question must be asked: How much of Cal's defensive stinginess this year has been predicated on gaining turnovers? Turnovers are momentum killers for an opposing offense, but are a hot shot of espresso for the offense that benefits from that turnover, and when the Bear Raid has sputtered, those turnovers have indeed given it new life. The two units feed off of one another.
On the very first drive of the game, Goff missed a wide-open Kenny Lawler in the end zone after a scramble inside the 40-yard line of UCLA. Missed Opportunity Count: 1.
With the game tied at 3-3, Rosen marched the Bruins 24 yards up field, and then took aim at the end zone from the Cal 46. On play-action, he looked for Jordan Payton over the middle, and Darius Allensworth scored the first of his four breakups on the day. Rosen then looked for Payton deep on the next play, but overthrew on third-and-10. With the Bears' defensive line bringing rare pressure on Rosen, and with James Looney nipping at his heels, the freshman escaped Looney's grasp on his feet, scrambled right and found Payton for a 12-yard gain. Missed Opportunity Count: 2.
“He had tight coverage most of the night," Dykes said of Allensworth. "It comes down to making plays when you have opportunities, and Darius had a couple of chances to intercept balls and he normally makes those interceptions. We’ve done that all year defensively. That’s part of the reason we have had turnovers. You look at opportunities we had and dropped really on both sides of the ball, we’ve got to perform better.”
"They ran a lot of combo plays at us early, and really, the whole game. With their running scheme up front, and then passing off of it, they're getting quick gains, and we've got to work on that." -- Cal LB Hardy Nickerson
Rosen completed three straight passes, with a Perkins run thrown in. Cal was on its heels, but on first-and-goal at the seven-yard line, Allensworth had a chance on a play action fade to the back of the end zone. He got both of his hands on it, but the ball fell to the turf. He had to settle for a breakup. A pick there and maybe the game changes. Maybe the Bears respond. Maybe. Missed Opportunity Count: 3.
With 9:47 left in the first half, UCLA once again marched down the field. On first-and-20, Perkins took the handoff at his own 31, stiff-armed Allensworth out of the way, and gained two. The Bears rushed four on the next play, but Rosen completed a 10-yard pass to Devin Fuller, with Stefan McClure binally bringing him down. McClure would leave the game, and not return, and Dykes said he has an unspecified shoulder injury.
A false start for UCLA -- the Bruins' fourth penalty of the day -- knocked them back to third-and-13, but Rosen found Perkins on an inside screen for a gain of 13, bringing up fourth-and-one. Missed Opportunity Count: 4.
UCLA again put the ball in Perkins's capable hands, and on fourth-and-inches, at the 50, he exploded up the middle for 12 yards, and the Bruins' 15th first down. Missed Opportunity Count: 5.
The Bears, though, still had a chance to swing momentum, when Rosen went for a deep pass off a play-action on first-and-10 at the Cal 28, with Allensworth leaping high into the air for what also could have, on another night, been an interception. Missed Opportunity Count: 6.
The Hits Keep on Not Coming
After Perkins was shaken up on a hit by Cameron Walker, the Bears had a chance. With as many injuries as the Bruins have suffered this year, that one could have been the most back-breaking of all. UCLA tallied a field goal to take a 20-3 lead, but the fact that the Bears had missed so many chances to swing momentum their way clearly affected not just the defense, but the offense.
On the next drive, Goff threw behind Trevor Davis on a simple drag. Khalfani Muhammad then dropped a dump-off pass. Goff didn't see Isaako Savaiinaea flying out of the middle to break up a pass to Davis over the middle, and nealry intercept it.
That drive culminated in a fake punt direct snap to Harry Adolphus -- a Cal rugby player -- who ran for just four yards, six yards short of a first down, giving the Bruins the ball on the 29.
“Bad call on my part," Dykes said. "I called it. Anytime something like that doesn’t work it’s a bad call. They forced with one guy, that’s what they do. We had three to block one and didn’t get it done.”
Even with that inauspicious fake, Cal still had chances to turn the tide. Rosen nearly threw yet another interception to Allensworth, who broke up a pass intended for Fuller. It was Rosen's third straight incompletion. Then, he handed the ball off to Sotonye Jamabo for eight yards, and then to Bolu Olorunfunmi for six, for UCLA's 18th first down of the first half. On the very next snap, Rosen stood absolutely still in the pocket -- completely still -- in the face of a three-man pass rush, and completed yet another slant to Duarte, who finished with 10 catches for 141 yards. Even with Perkins out, the Cal linebackers could not account for Duarte.
Still, though, the Bruins settled for a 20-yard field goal.
Even after breaking the streak of five straight UCLA scores with an acrobatic grab from Kenny Lawler, the Bears gave UCLA enough time to hit a 55-yard field goal before the half. That Ka'imi Fairbairn boot, though, was wiped away with a false start. So, what does he do, backed up for a 60-yard attempt? He sets the school record, easily.
The Missed Opportunity Counter skyrockets when you consider that the Bears allowed the Bruins to convert on 9 of 16 third downs.
At the half, UCLA had 21 first downs to Cal's nine. The final count? 31-25.
"We played pretty well in the second half," Goff said, "but the first half is not where it needs to be to beat a good team like that."
At the end of the third quarter, the Bears looked to perhaps get something going, with solid runs from Myhammad and a first-down pass to Lawler, but on second-and-seven, Goff looked deep for Treggs, and the senior wide receiver -- who finished with just two catches for 19 yards -- dropped a very catchable ball on the dive. The drive ended with back-to-back sacks of Goff, effectively serving as the dagger.
"We didn't do a good job of getting off the field," Dykes said. "We had opportunities to intercept passes early in the ballgame, and we didn't make those plays. We had opportunities to make contested plays early on, and we didn't."
Treggs had another missed opportunity on third-and-one at the Cal 34, with Goff going up top with his eyes on the Bruins' 30, but the ball was a shade too far for Treggs, who did not dive. The next play was a punt, with just over 5:00 to go in the first quarter. Does a catch by Treggs there change the complexion of the game? Does an Allensworth pick? That's a question that can and should haunt the Bears, because for the second time in two games, Cal wilted in the spotlight, inviting comparisons to last year's second-half collapse.
“This is a different team," Dykes said. "Every year is different. Heck, every week is different, so we just got to pick up the pieces, learn from the mistakes we made and improve.”
"We're a good team, but we just didn't play that way tonight," said Nickerson. "We're better than what we played today. We had too many missed tackles, too many lost leverages, too many missed assignments, too many missed alignments."
Too many missed opportunities.