BERKELEY — From the outside, Cal’s recent unraveling after a 3-0 start was predictable, if not inevitable. Simply put, the schedule got tough. Very tough.
But the Bears won’t lay the blame for three straight defeats and declining offensive output on successive games against USC, Oregon and Washington, the latter two in loud stadiums on the road.
They cannot afford to take that approach, not with No. 8 Washington State visiting Friday night. That would be giving themselves an escape hatch in the event of another defeat.
From first-year coach Justin Wilcox to the players, the Bears point the finger at themselves.
“We’re just trying to come back,” quarterback Ross Bowers said. “Whatever bad habits we’ve formed these last three weeks, we’re trying to get out of them.”
It’s all about execution, they say. Clean that up, and the outcome can be different. Well, maybe.
This four-game stretch loomed as a minefield months ago. Co-leader with rival Washington in the Pac-12 North, Washington State (6-0, 3-0) is better than expected, especially on defense. It adds up to a quartet of opponents with a combined record so far of 21-3.
The Bears (3-3, 0-3) have made strides on defense after four porous seasons under Sonny Dykes. But the offense has regressed since the start of Pac-12 play.
Cal failed to score an offensive touchdown in its 38-7 loss at Washington, where Bowers passed for only 80 yards and absorbed seven of the eight sacks the Huskies accumulated.
Wilcox — after initially hinting at changes in personnel, and specifically at quarterback — has since said Bowers remains the starter. Instead, the emphasis this week was finding improvement.
“I haven’t been my best,” said Bowers, who has completed only 51 percent of his passes the past four games. “I haven’t been doing my job to the highest of execution. That’s something I’ve got to look in the mirror and fix, and I think all the other 10 guys do, too.”
Bowers said he needs to do a better job reading the defense and functioning in the pocket. “Last game I really put the O-line in a really bad spot,” he said.
Offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin said Bowers was more comfortable in the pocket early in the season, and thus more productive. The line does not shoulder all the blame for 18 sacks the past three games.
“He has to again trust being in that cocoon of a pocket,” Baldwin said. “Just step up or slide, or a lot of times just stay right where you’re at. Sometimes you can almost move into it.”
It hasn’t helped that the run game has skidded to a halt. In college football, sacks count toward net rushing totals, but the Bears have totaled 81 rushing yards in three Pac-12 games. That’s less than half of Patrick Laird’s total of 191 yards against Weber State last month.
Now Laird apparently is banged up. He carried the ball twice at Washington, and barely played in the second half. The Bears already are without senior running back Tre Watson, and productive Kanawai Noa last week joined fellow wideout Demetris Robertson on the injury shelf.
Using any of that as an excuse misses the larger point, Baldwin said. “We have to find different ways to put a defense on their heels.”
Washington State’s defense presents its own set of problems. The Cougars are smaller but quicker up front than Washington, and feature one of the country’s most disruptive defensive linemen. Hercules Mata’afa has made 10 tackles behind the line of scrimmage and this week earned a spot on ESPN’s midseason All-America team.
Bowers said the Bears aren’t backing down from the assignment.
“Everybody’s talking bad about us but it doesn’t really matter,” he said. “It’s going to be a challenge, but we’re up for it and excited for another opportunity Friday.”
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