The Bears entered Tucson short-handed and left holding nothing but a loss.
It has been dominating the news cycle over the past two weeks, so you might have already heard, but Cal football has an ongoing COVID-19 problem. That problem ultimately led to the blue and gold missing 24 players and five staff members against Arizona on Nov. 6. Despite the loss of key talents such as fourth-year starter Chase Garbers, who entered last weekend as the Pac-12’s leader in total offense, many pundits expected the Bears to top the Wildcats for no reason other than the fact Arizona was struggling — to put it lightly.
Under head coach Jedd Fisch, the Wildcats were riding a 20-game losing streak heading into their clash with Cal. It was the longest such streak in the nation, and before Arizona’s unprecedented 10-3 win over the blue and gold, the Wildcats had not won a game since Oct. 5, 2019. So, where did it all go wrong for Cal?
Well, the lack of points scored can mostly be attributed to the Bears’ depleted roster. But Cal’s lack of preparedness brings up a bigger question: How are the Bears going to fill the void left behind when Garbers decides to move on from college football? Granted an extra year of eligibility due to the pandemic, Garbers can either return for another season in Berkeley or try his luck in the NFL draft at season’s end. Whether or not he returns, Cal needs to have a plan of action moving forward.
Graduate transfer Ryan Glover got the starting nod for the Bears in Tucson, making his first career start at Cal since joining the team this past summer. Glover struggled, completing 11 of 29 passing attempts for just 94 yards and rushing for -12 yards. To be clear, Glover was put into an extremely difficult situation: On short notice, he was asked to find receivers with whom he hadn’t gotten a chance to practice or build a rapport. But one play in particular highlighted Cal’s lack of immediate quarterback depth.
Standing 12 yards away from the end zone on third-and-10, the Bears took a shot. Cal had just converted its first third down of the afternoon a few plays earlier on a short run from sophomore Damien Moore, and down 3-0, the team had a chance to seize control of what was shaping up to be a defensive battle. The blue and gold’s offense had been stagnant all day, so it was hard to expect the unit to string together another drive.
Arizona’s defense knew that this, coupled with the distance, meant the Bears would probably be passing on what would end up being their last trip to the red zone. In the red zone, everything gets tighter, and the defense has less ground to cover, so play-callers such as Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave must get creative. But when you’re without your usual starters and younger players such as receiver Justin Richard Baker are inserted into the starting lineup, you can only be so creative.
The third-and-10 play began with Glover starting from the shotgun formation and Moore set to his left. It was a three-receiver set, with tight end Jake Tonges lined up just underneath the right tackle, an indication that he’d probably be providing extra blocking. With the lone receiver on the left side running a streak to the end zone but facing strong press coverage from the Wildcats, Glover immediately turned to his right side upon taking the snap.
Glover had three potential targets to his right, but with the outside receiver and Moore both running short out routes, it quickly became clear that this play was designed for Baker to get open. Moore’s out route into the flat created a moment of hesitation for Arizona cornerback Isaiah Mays, which meant that Baker — who was running a deep post route to the right corner of the end zone — only had to get by safety Jaxen Turner. Baker’s swift stutter step bought him some space from Turner, allowing for Glover to loft an over-the-shoulder dime into Baker’s outstretched arms.
Or at least that was what was supposed to happen.
Unfortunately for Cal, Glover put too much weight into the throw, and it sailed a few feet beyond Baker’s reach. So close. It’s a play that should have resulted in a touchdown, and more importantly, a throw that Garbers likely would have made. Certainly it was just one misfire, but it was one that could not afford to happen, especially given how much Cal’s offense was struggling against Arizona.
Turned to fourth down, the blue and gold were forced to kick a field goal and tie the game — not an ideal situation when they could have put the pressure on a Wildcats’ offense that itself faced problems with pushing the ball downfield. What might have been a game-changing play ended in a murmur, and Cal never saw another opportunity to reach the end zone.