Cal puts its Best foot forward
About the time California’s Jahvid Best was weaving his way through what looked like powder blue pylons, slipping tackle after tackle against the UCLA defense, the idea that there was a problem should have crossed the Bruins’ minds.
Best’s 93-yard touchdown run underscored the Bears’ ability to make big plays -- and the Bruins’ inability to prevent them -- in Cal’s 45-26 victory Saturday in a Pacific 10 Conference game at the Rose Bowl.
By the time Cal linebacker Mychal Kendricks was sailing down field on a 68-yard interception return to polish off things, the Bruins probably realized their season was in critical condition.
All the feel-good giddiness of a 3-0 start has been spent after a third consecutive loss that left UCLA 0-3 in Pac-10 play. The Golden Bears (4-2, 1-2) tapped that account dry with three offensive touchdowns of 42 yards or more.
So where do the Bruins go from here?
Arizona, on Saturday.
“I’m glad we’re going to Arizona for this game,” defensive end Korey Bosworth said. “I’m glad we’re going away because a lot of people are just going to give up on us. We need to go down there and fix things.”
Before the season, Coach Rick Neuheisel’s bar for success was making a bowl game. That, now, seems a long shot, even though the season is only half over.
Just getting bowl eligible by winning six games will probably not be enough. It would leave the Bruins with a 3-6 conference record and almost certainly too far down in the standings to snag one of the Pac 10’s six bowl bids.
“In the preseason, you are always asked what your season goals are, so I said I would be disappointed if we didn’t get to the postseason,” Neuheisel said.
“That can’t be my concern now. My concern now is building back up the confidence of a bunch of young players. Making sure everybody understands that if we execute well, we can sing the fight song again.”
The Bruins heard their fight song plenty of times Saturday, but only because it is the same as the one used by Cal.
The Bears, who were held to a total of six points in lopsided losses to Oregon and USC, released some frustration with 494 yards, some of it coming in big chunks.
Best went for a tour of the Bruins’ defense, slipping five tackles early in the second quarter. The 93-yard touchdown run was the third longest in Bears history.
It was not an isolated incident.
Best also made a 51-yard touchdown reception in the first quarter. Shane Vereen, his back up, scored on a 42-yard run on Cal’s first series for a 7-0 lead. Kevin Riley threw three first-half touchdown passes, two going to Marvin Jones, who twice beat Alterraun Verner for 43- and 24-yard scoring plays.
By halftime, the Bears led, 35-20, and it was difficult to determine what was farther from the Bruins’ grasp -- the game or the next Cal ball carrier.
“Tackling?” Bosworth said. “That’s what you learn when you are 10.”
The Bruins seem in need of reliving some childhood memories. Tackling has become an issue since conference play began.
Stanford had 174 yards rushing. Oregon picked up 221. The Bears rolled up 289 and averaged 7.0 yards a carry despite the Bruins’ 10 tackles for losses. Vereen ran for 154 yards, Best for 102.
“They teach you to tackle when you start playing Pop Warner,” linebacker Reggie Carter said. “Just lay them on their back, blow the whistle and go.”
Defensive coordinator Chuck Bullough’s search for a solution was coach-speak: “We got to go back and make up more tackling drills.”
Carter was of a different mind-set.
“You can work on things in practice, but you got to fix what’s inside yourself,” he said. “Man up, grab your heart, grab what you can and make a tackle.”
The defensive woes ruined a minor breakout for the Bruins offense, which gained 418 yards. That included touchdown runs of seven and 74 yards by tailback Johnathan Franklin.
Quarterback Kevin Prince passed for 311 yards. He also fumbled and had a pass intercepted by Kendricks with five minutes left.
Kendricks, mimicking the Bears running backs, ran up field and the Bruins’ offense, matching its defense, couldn’t get a hold of him.
“It hurts to go 3 and 0 then 0-3,” Carter said. “We still have six games left, so 9-3 doesn’t look bad. But right now I just want to win that fourth game. We’ve been trying to do that for weeks.”