Total systematic failure.
That’s really the only way to describe what happened to the Cal offense against Fresno State Saturday night. On the way to a discouraging 17-3 loss to the Bulldogs, the Bears had just about everything possible go wrong while in possesion of the ball.
Sophomore Kyle Boller took a step backward on the road to becoming a reliable signal-caller, firing balls above and behind his receivers and causing several delay-of-game penalties. When he threw catchable balls, his receivers couldn’t hang on to them or ran the wrong route. The offensive line imitated a leaky dam, allowing Fresno State’s defensive front to harrass Boller and get hits on running backs in the backfield. Those running backs, while making nice moves on several gains, couldn’t manage to break the big play the team needed. And offensive coordinator Steve Hagen showed little creativity in his play calls, allowing the Bulldog defense to constantly blitz without fear of a big play.
Both teams are 1-2 on the year.
As usual, the Bear defense did its part, holding the opposition scoreless through most of the first half. They stuffed the Fresno State ground game, allowing just 64 yards on the ground. But soft coverage in the secondary gave Bulldog quarterback David Carr some easy first downs on three scoring drives, which was more than enough to secure victory for the home team.
Early in the game, neither team looked capable of scoring. Cal’s James Bethea returned the opening kickoff to midfield, but the Bears managed just one first down before calling upon their best weapon, punter Nick Harris. As has been his custom this season, Harris buried the Bulldogs inside their own five-yard line. Fresno State couldn’t muster a first down on its first three possessions, but the Bears couldn’t take advantage of their outstanding field position, as kicker Mark Jensen pulled a 42-yard field goal attempt wide left.
Cal’s receivers were all off their games Saturday, none more than freshman Geoff McArthur. Despite a team-high three catches for 73 yards on the day, McArthur ran the wrong route several times, and one instance had disastrous consequences. Boller pump-faked an out pattern, expecting McArthur to head upfield. McArthur cut the route short, however, and Boller’s lob was picked off by cornerback Dante Marsh, killing the first-quarter drive.
Fresno State gave the ball right back, as Carr threw a shovel pass right to defensive tackle Jacob Waasdorp. The Bears ensuing drive was short-lived, with Boller fumbling a snap for an 11-yard loss on the way to another Harris punt.
That punt and its result turned out to by symbolic of Cal’s season so far. Fresno State’s return man, wideout Charles Smith, inexplicably turned around and let the ball hit him in the back. Cal’s John Klotsche recovered the ball inside the 20.
But Joseph Echema was stuffed for a one-yard loss, and Boller was sacked for an eight-yard loss, then threw an incomplete pass. Head coach Tom Holmoe declined a field goal try, and Boller made a great throw on fourth and 19 to freshman Chase Lyman for what could have been a crucial first down. But Lyman dropped the ball, and whatever momentum the Bears had built was wiped out.
Carr eventually solved the Bear secondary, and his two touchdown passes, both to Smith, showed how close the Bears are to success. The first came on a simple slant pattern, and Bear cornerback Harold Pearson broke on the ball about a half-second too late, then missed the tackle. On the second touchdown, Pearson had Smith wrapped up as safety Nnamdi Asomugha came over to finish off the receiver. But Asomugha instead slammed into Pearson, knocking Smith loose to glide into the end zone, sealing Fresno State’s victory.