Three things have been Kryptonite to Cal head coach Jeff Tedford’s program during his nine years at the helm: road games, ranked opponents, and the month of November.
Clinging to a six-point lead with 2:47 and the ball, last night would have been the perfect elixir for the first two ailments, especially with the sting from a three-touchdown loss on national television to Nevada still only eight days fresh.
Unfortunately, the Bears snatched defeat from the jaws of victory.
A 27-carry, 109-yard performance by Shane Vereen was excruciatingly wasted in a 10-9 loss at Arizona where the Wildcats never led until 1:26 was left in the game.
However, before you assume that I’m going to criticize our defense and kicker Giorgio Tavecchio for what transpired over the last two drives, think again.
In a resilient effort after giving up six touchdowns and 497 total yards to Nevada last Friday in Reno, the Bear defense conceded only 10 points on the road against an attack led by one of the top quarterbacks in the conference. I would even go as far to say that Mike Mohamed and Co. dominated the game for almost 58 minutes. They were outstanding.
Yes, Tavecchio’s gaffe was absolutely crucial. This article would not exist but for him missing a 40-yard field goal to put the Bears ahead by two scores, which would have iced the game and given the Bears a much needed pick-me-up in the form of a win over a ranked conference foe.
But for Cal head coach Jeff Tedford to put the game in the hands of a walk-on kicker—one who had already missed a field goal only a quarter earlier—the questionable decision definitely falls in the category of “Buyer Beware.”
Where am I going with this? Here it goes: While there were plenty of factors that led to the Bears’ second loss in two games, the main reason for this loss falls squarely on the shoulders of the man in charge.
I’m talking about Tedford. His “play not to lose” mentality finally came back to bite his team in the worst way.
Overall, to go into detail, I thought there were six aspects of the game that exemplified the Bears’ troubles in Tuscon.
With the Bear defense pitching a 6-0 shutout and the final seconds of the third quarter ticking off the clock, the Wildcats found themselves in fourth down territory and sent in their special teams unit to give the ball back to California.
Then calamity followed.
Arizona punter Keenyn Crier’s 41-yard effort, seemingly headed for the end zone for a touchback and possession at the 20, was inexplicably fair caught by Ross on the Cal 4-yard line.
That decision led to a three-and-out by the Cal offense to open the fourth quarter where Bryan Anger was forced to punt out of his own end zone. The usually reliable All-Pac-10 performer had boomed a 64-yard punt in the first quarter, and more of the same was expected.
Not this time. Anger shanked the kick for 19 yards, giving Arizona’s offense a short field at the Cal 29-yard line.
Luckily, the defense held the sputtering Arizona offense to only three points, but with the final margin being one point, every mistake was magnified. The senior return man’s error was no different.
Shane Vereen may be the heart and soul of the offense, but Allen is the Bears’ gamebreaker. Every time he touches the ball, he’s a threat to score.
In his first two games from scrimmage, Allen had 14 touches for 230 yards and three touchdowns.
Last week, in a 52-31 blowout loss to Nevada, the true freshman had one catch for eight yards in a performance where Tedford explained to the media that Allen was fighting a knee injury.
So now that he was healthy, would Tedford and offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig get their most explosive receiver involved?
Last night, Allen’s number was called just twice for 15 yards.
If there’s more to this story, I’m all ears, but common sense dictates that if a guy scores a touchdown roughly every five times he touches the ball, he should get more than two opportunities to show what he can do, especially in a low-scoring affair.
But I’m no math major.
All game long, Cal defensive coordinator (and Arizona alum) Clancy Pendergast had called a commendable game. His unit had bottled up the Arizona attack to the tune of two turnovers and three points.
Senior cornerback Darian Hagan, a topic of my last article, had done his part, putting the clamps on Arizona’s top receiver, Juron Criner, who was battling a turf toe injury all week.
For the first 57:23 of the game, Criner had two catches for only nine yards.
With the game on the line, however, he got the best of Hagan, who was featured in my last article as one of the fulcrums on which this season would turn.
Three plays following a ho-hum five-yard reception from Arizona quarterback Nick Foles deep in Wildcat territory to open the drive, Criner streaked downfield and hauled in a 51-yard bomb in front of a helpless Hagan, who could only tackle him.
Another three plays later, Hagan bit on a feint to the outside, and Criner made a move toward the post, catching the game-winning touchdown as the cornerback looked on in disappointment.
The box score under Riley’s name reads an unimpressive 13 of 26 passes completed for 116 yards, one interception, and zero touchdowns.
Granted, his counterpart at Arizona, Nick Foles, didn’t exactly light up the field either (25-of-39 for 212 yards, one TD, one INT), but it was the way Riley arrived at his final statistics that is cause for alarm.
He overthrew a sure touchdown to Alex Lagemann that forced the receiver to land out of bounds. He underthrew screen passes and dumpoffs to his tailbacks. Riley wasn’t forced to thread the needle through double coverage with regularity last night, yet he still struggled with the easy throws.
What is also lost in the play-by-play is that Riley’s first throw from scrimmage should have been his second pick-six in two weeks, but it was dropped by the hard-charging Arizona defender in the flat.
And then there were the choices he made at crucial junctures of the game.
Whether it was drawing Tedford’s ire after burning a timeout on first down at the Arizona 15 at the beginning of the fourth quarter or later bouncing a pass in front of Allen’s feet on a 3rd-and-4 at his own 10 where there was enough open real estate to run for a first down, Riley’s choices were unbecoming of a fifth-year senior.
In my last article, I referred to Riley’s inconsistency being a major question in deciding the fate of this year’s team. After watching him play the last two weeks, I’m convinced that he’s a player the fans will have to take as is.
In other words, when he’s on, he’s brilliant. But when he’s off, the ship will go down with him, and when he drops back to pass, holding your breath is routine.
In almost a carbon copy of last week, Vereen, bruised and battered after a heroic 27-carry yeoman-like outing, deserved more support from his quarterback than the completion of only half his passes and an inability to get things done in the red zone.
Another question I posed in my last article centered on special teams becoming a point of strength rather than a liability this season.
While last year’s woefully paltry kickoffs have been remedied, new special teams coordinator Jeff Genyk still has yet to solve the puzzle of finding a dependable placekicker.
After making his first five field goals this season, including his first two last night, Tavecchio, a junior walk-on, was on a roll.
With a lifetime success rate of 68 percent, however, the law of averages would cruelly come into play during the most important period of last night’s contest.
Tavecchio would miss two out of his final three field goals, with the first one being a chip shot from 33 yards that fruitlessly ricocheted off the right upright around the 1:30 mark of the third quarter.
Still, following a 23-yarder that put the Bears up 9-3 with over 11 minutes to play, Tedford would call on him one more time with under three minutes left in hopes that he would extend the Cal lead to nine, one that would be insurmountable for Arizona to overcome.
Tavecchio hooked the kick wide right, setting the stage for the Wildcat offense’s 77-yard game-winning drive.
“Marty Ball,” which typified former NFL coach Marty Schottenheimer, requires playing everything by the book, even at one’s peril.
This ethos of “playing not to lose” is alive and well in the spirit of Jeff Tedford. This time, it’s arguable that the coach’s conservative philosophy with the game on the line finally cost the Bears in the win column.
Last year’s momentous victory at Stanford, a game that re-energized the fanbase, almost swayed the Cardinal’s way when Tedford decided to take a third down kneel-down to center a field goal to put the Bears in position to extend their three-point lead to six.
Unfortunately, the move also gave Stanford one last shot to march downfield for the win because of the six-point deficit; a Cal touchdown would have put the Bears up by 10, and save a Mike Mohamed interception, the outcome might have played out differently.
An eerily similar situation arose twice in last night’s game. Facing a 4th-and-1 at the Arizona 6-yard line with a little over 11 minutes left, up 6-3, Tedford opted for the field goal rather than going for it. Although Tavecchio calmly nailed it, the deficit remained only one possession.
While in retrospect it was a defendable choice given the grind-it-out narrative of this particular game, what occurred on the Bears’ final drive with a 9-3 lead caused much head-scratching among Cal fans.
With the Bears looking at 3rd-and-8 from the Arizona 25 with 2:47 to play, it was obvious that Tedford had his mind set on another three points to put the game away.
Instead of taking to the air and going for a first down that would have ended the game since the Wildcats had only one timeout remaining, Tedford conceded the down and called a running play for Vereen, who ran for three yards to the right.
Although it is understandable that a running play would assuredly force the opponent to burn their final timeout, for Tedford to not even explore the idea of moving the sticks with a trio of talented targets like Marvin Jones, Keenan Allen, or Anthony Miller communicates a lack of faith in his senior quarterback.
Also keep in mind that Tavecchio had already missed from 33 yards in the third quarter.
Worst of all, the running play didn’t even serve its purpose of putting Tavecchio in the best position to be successful, as Vereen was not tackled in the middle of the field. Sure enough, the ball was placed off-center to the right, and the kicker misfired, resulting in the ensuing disaster in the desert.
This is Tedford’s ninth year on the Cal sideline, and after watching this game unfold, it makes a fan wonder if he is the man to end the Golden Bears’ 41-year Rose Bowl drought, improved facilities or not.
After a bye week to regroup, Cal gets a resurgent UCLA for Homecoming on October 9.
A third consecutive loss would put the Bears under .500 this late in a season for the first time since 2003, Tedford’s second year in charge.
But that was then, and this is now.