BERKELEY -- Last season, Cal went 4-1 to start the year, before winning just one more game the rest of the way. Players and coaches alike ahve all sung the same tune -- 'We got ahead of ourselves. We got cocky.' The Bears were 5-0 to start this season, ranked No. 19 in the country, even after dropping a six-point loss at Utah. But, starting with that loss to the Utes, the Bears have now lost three games in a row.
"Winning and losing has a lot to do with who you play," said head coach Sonny Dykes after Saturday's 27-12 loss to USC. "It's easier to beat Grambling than it is to beat 'SC. Our schedule's been backloaded the last two years. We've played really good people. We're trying to get to the point where we can beat really good people, but good people are harder to beat than bad people."
For Cal, at this point, it's becoming very easy to beat itself, and, quarterback Jared Goff says, he's been the one doing it. Goff has thrown eight interceptions in his last four games (seven in his last three), after throwing just three over the first four of the season.
"Stalled drives, shooting ourselves in the foot sometimes, them making plays, us not making as many plays as we should, myself not doing as well as I should -- a lot of it comes back to me, I think," Goff said. "When you win a bunch of games, they say that the quarterback gets praise, and [when you lose] criticism, and I'm totally fine with that. I'll take it. It's my fault."
"I think we're all frustrated," said Dykes. "We should be playing better than we're playing on offense. There's no question about it. We've got to get it figured out and play better, without a doubt."
"We're very frustrated," Goff said. "We let some games slip away from us. We started off hot, but haven't been able to finish a game here in the last three games."
Cal churned out a 13-play, 87-yard drive that chewed up over five minutes of clock to score on a six-yard touchdown pass, marking the second time in two games the Bears scored first, and the third this season, but they would have just two more sustained drives -- one of 10 plays, and one of nine, both leading to touchdowns. On that first drive, Cal had eight runs and Goff went 5-for-5 passing.
"He did a good job," Goff said of tailback Daniel Lasco. "He started off hot. They started making plays. Their defense started adjusting, so we had to make some adjustments, as well, and they started playing the run a little bit better. We had to adjust, and maybe not do it so much, and maybe we should have done it more. You don't know until you watch the film. I thought he did a good job and added a lot to our offense."
Goff went 23-of-31 for 272 yards (becoming the 92nd player in FBS history to tally at least 10,000 passing yards in his career) with two interceptions and two touchdowns, but had a lot of time in the pocket over the course of the day, thanks to the return of Lasco, who picked up several blitzes and allowed Goff more time to read through his progressions. That time, though, didn't mean much, given the press-man coverage that USC employed, which threw off routes by just enough tha the timing-based attack of the Bear Raid couldn't find any purchase.
"We're seeing a little bit more press coverage than we've seen," said Dykes, who also coaches the wide receivers, along with graduate assistant David Gru. "That's one thing that we've seen. They're walking their corners down, playing a bit more man. We've just got to do a better job of executing. It does make you execute at a higher level, because when people play zone, there's a lot of grass. When people play man, there's not much grass. We've got to do a better job of making those plays when there's less grass."
"Every time we lose, it's an opportunity that slips away," Goff said. "Today, we had a great chance to win. The defense played pretty well, special teams played pretty well, but we couldn't score more points than them. Had we gotten the ball back there, late, we might have had a chance, but USC played well, and they deserved to win that game."
For the third straight game, the Golden Bears' offense -- what was supposed to be the crown jewel of the team -- has sputtered. The defense, though it gave up 185 rushing yards and 220 passing yards, was fairly stout, forcing two field goals, four punts and one turnover on downs, with two three-and-outs. They looked stout, until a third-and-six play with just over two minutes left in the game.
After looking like they had stopped Justin Davis for a loss, the Bears allowed him to slip free, with Hardy Nickerson unable to finish wrapping him up from behind. He gained seven yards, effectively ending the game.
"I thought we played well enough two win, defensively, for sure," Dykes said, though his defense, for the first time this season, recorded not a single turnover. "They scored an offensive touchdown, we gave them field position all night. I think our defense played veyr hard, and I thought they played good, sound football. We let them get out on a couple of screens, but USC's got some really good wide receivers. I thought, overall, our defensive performance was really good."
Not having those turnovers "takes away any margin for error that you have," Dykes said. "We were getting all of those turnovers earlier in the year, and it was getting us off the field a bunch. Today, we didn't get them. We just haven't gotten them the past three weeks. That's been probably the biggest difference."
Even if the offense got the ball off of turnovers, it hasn't shown much spunk, outside of the second drive against the Trojans.
Granted, they were starting with poor field position -- average starts for Cal drives was the 15.8 yard line -- and that most certainly falls on the head of special teams, but the offense failed at multiple points to adjust to the USC defense.
"I don't think it bothers our offense too much," Goff said of the starting spots. "We practice a lot of stuff, backed up against our own end zone, so it's not really too much of an issue for us. We'd obviously love great field position, but when we get backed up inside the 20, we've gone 90 yards and scored before. We've gone 95 and scored before. It's definitely not preferred, but it's not going to throw us off our tempo too much."
Cal averaged 8.0 yards on first down plays in the first quarter -- with eight of the nine plays being runs. The play-action had been working, and the Bears had the Trojans on their heels. Cal took a 7-0 lead after the first stanza -- the first time Cal had led the Trojans since the second quarter of 2007's match-up.
"We ran it good early in the game, and the first two series of the game," Dykes said. "We turned it over one time, and we were moving the ball pretty well our second series, and Khalfani [Muhammad] fumbled, but we were running it pretty well. Then, we ran into three or four series in a row where we had a hard time getting much going in the run game."
After Brian Treggs -- Bryce Treggs's father -- was inducted into the Cal Athletics Hall of Fame during a break in the first quarter, Goff found the younger Treggs for his 11th career touchdown (he's now four shy of Brian), while the elder Treggs was still on the field. It was a bright moment in what would be an otherwise frustrating afternoon.
"It was definitely much improved, and there was a lot more fire," Goff said, comparing the UCLA loss to the first quarter of Saturday. "It was a little bit of a lull, and we had more fire otu of us this week, offensively, defensively, special teams, and we executed pretty well except for the offense. But, there was a lot more fire and energy ont he sidelines, I think."
That fire can easily get taken away by emotional momentum swings, and there were two of those for the Bears: Both Goff interceptions.
"USC, they played hard-nosed," said Lasco. "They have a bunch of athletes all over the field, on offense and defense, and I wouldn't say that they were throwing anything at us that we couldn't pick up. We just weren't executing on offense. It came down to that. There were good play calls, and there were times when we needed somebody to make a play, and I hate trying to rely on one person to go up and make that, to climb the ladder and make the catch, or put all the pressure on Jared to make a good throw and things like that, but we had playmakers all over the field. When their number is called, people have to step up and make plays, myself included. We just didn't get the job done on offense."
In the second quarter, Cal averaged just 3.0 yards per first down, and failed to score, splitting their six first down plays evenly between run and pass, gaining a average of one yard on the rush, and five yards on the pass.
"We needed to run it against them," Dykes said. "We have to be able to run the football to give our quarterback time and to be able to protect, and be able to throw the football. I thought we ran it OK -- not as well as we needed to, but I thought we ran it OK."
With less than a minute left, which set up an odd Hail Mary play, where Goff rolled right and, seeing no one open (two receivers ran towards the USC sideline, downfield, in front of the end zone), threw the ball out of bounds.
In the third quarter, the first, first down the Bears had resulted in a pick six thrown by Goff, intended for Bryce Treggs, which was returned 46 yards for a touchdown by Adoree Jackson, his first career interception, and first career touchdown.
Goff said that his hand was jostled as he threw, but replays of the play are inconclusive.What it looked like, from the press box, was that Goff threw right, and Treggs turned left.
"I had Bryce pretty open, and they got their arms up and got a piece of my arm on the way out, and it fluttered towards him," Goff said.
After USC had marched down and scored on the first possession of the second half, that pick six was an emotional turning point in the game, and a crucial point of leverage.
During that third quarter, Cal averaged 9.3 yards per first down, though that included a 43-yard pass from Goff to Treggs.
"Our offense," Dykes said, "has the potential to be explosive when we make big plays. They played a lot of two-deep, dared us to run the ball, that's why we kept trying to run the football, because they were in a lot of two-deep, two-safety looks, where we had numbers in the box, so we had to be able to run it a little bit and generate some run game. When we got them out of the two-safety looks, we had an opportunity to make some plays in the passing game. We've just got to make more."
The median first down play was 6 yards in the third quarter, and the 10 first-down plays the Bears ran included one rushing play for -2 yards and Goff's pick. Those 10 plays were split between five passes and five runs.
To start the fourth quarter, with the Bears rolling, on third-and-three at the USC 30, Goff rolled left, then threw back right to Lasco on a screen, where he was tackled for a loss. Maybe Cal saw something on film with that call, but given how well Lasco had been running -- even if, as he says, he had one guy to beat, at times, and couldn't make him miss -- that seems like a spot to call the run. As it stands, the Bears lost seven yards. On fourth-and-10, Goff stepped up, tried to find Lawler on the Cal sideline, and was picked off. As Lawler ran down field, it appeared as though there was some contact between Lawler and Kevon Seymour, and afterwards, both Goff and Dykes were livid.
"I was upset, but I'm not going to talk about why, because I'm not going to talk about the officiating," Goff said, tersely.
"I'm not saying anything either," Dykes said. "You guys see them every week. You guys draw your own conclusions. I'm not going to get into talking about it. I think it's pretty obvious."
That said, Goff did try to fit the ball into a small window, for one, and secondly, Lawler didn't fight much against Seymour to try and rip the ball out. Offensive coordinator Tony Franklin said this week that Lawler had been in a bit of a funk for the past three weeks, and it certainly looked like that today. He caught three balls for 30 yards, while the resurgent Trevor Davis caught five balls (a career high) for 52 yards.
In the fourth quarter, Cal ran just six plays on first down, again, split between the run and the pass, evenly (though one first-down play resulted in a holding call against Steven Moore, pulling the Bears back to first-and-20).
Lasco, for his part, took blame on himself for Cal's inability to make any hay on first downs, despite getting in his most action since going down with an injury against San Diego State in the second game of the season. Lasco led the Bears with 64 yards on 15 carries, only losing one yard, and scoring one touchdown. Goff ran four times for 26 yards, and took no sacks.
"I still don't feel like I'm there, yet," Lasco said. "There's a lot of times that I had one person to beat, and I didn't get the job done. I've just got to go back in the lab and continue to work hard, because we have four games left. It's all up in the air."
Perhaps most interesting out of Lasco's comments was this: "Any time when it's under two minutes, in the second quarter, the fourth quarter, it doesn't matter; when we have two minutes left, our offense raises its level of play. The defense played lights-out all night. They played great. We just didn't do enough on offense."
If this offense can, when the pressure is on at the ends of games or halves, find that extra gear, what's preventing that from happening in the first quarter? The first half? On first downs?
Had Nickerson not missed that tackle on a dead-to-rights Davis, Dykes would have liked to have seen what would have happened, though Lasco said, "I don't think about what-ifs."
"We had him hemmed in on that third at the end of the game, and I would have liked to have seen what would have happened if we were able to get him on the ground," Dykes said. "We had great penetration, we stuffed the line of scrimmage, and he bounced out and made a critical first down and they ran the clock out. Wish we could have gotten him down, but certainly, we played well enough to win on defense, without a doubt."
The defense did take a big blow, as linebacker Jalen Jefferson -- who tallied his second sack of the season -- left the game with his arm in a sling. He had six tackles on the day.
"The mood's not good right now," Dykes said. "We're disappointed. We felt like we've played good enough to win two games [of the last three]. We did not play well against UCLA. We've hashed that over a thousand times. We know we didn't play well, but we certainly have played well enough against two teams -- being Utah and USC -- that, at one time or another, have been in the top-10 this year. So, for us to go into the fourth quarter with those teams and have opportunities to win games, we want to do it. We need to do it. We want to win. That's the next step for us."