BERKELEY -- When asked this week whether quarterback Zach Maynard has the arm to find receivers down field, California head coach Jeff Tedford defended his senior signal-caller.
"Can he throw the ball 30 yards? Is that what you're asking me? I think he can hit the routes," Tedford said. "Of course he can hit the routes. If it's not in the read progression, you know, quarterbacks don't have six eyes. They've got two eyes and the read progression tells you to go here or here. If something happens when he's rolling to the right and the guy falls down over here and he's running over here and the read progression goes flat, you come back to shallow cross, way over here, you can't see the whole thing. If they're in his read progression, yeah, he'll see him and he'll throw it to him."
This is the first key to the game: Going deep.
They key to attacking UCLA's physical secondary -- which picked Maynard off three times last year in Los Angeles -- seems to be going deep. In the Bruins' one loss against Oregon State, the Beavers hit five passes of over 20 yards, 11 over 10 yards and 10 over 15.
The only time Maynard has hit at least five passes of over 20 yards in one game was the season opener against Nevada, which, through five games, has the 96th-rated passing defense in the Football Bowl Subdivision.
Of his 87 completions this year, 42 have gone for more than 10 yards, and Maynard has hit 13 for 20 yards or more, with two of his four interceptions coming on pass attempts of over 20 yards.
"I think our offense feeds off big plays," said Maynard's brother -- junior wide receiver Keenan Allen, who has turned many of Maynard's short passes into big catch-and-runs. "If we start taking shots, we wouldn't be in those [third-and-long] situations, because when we take shots, we move quicker."
Hey, what the big man says, goes. Allen is the most dangerous playmaker on the team right now, and if he's dissatisfied by the lack of big-play gambles, maybe it's time to change things around.
Part of the reason that Maynard isn't able to complete some down field passes is the fact that he's been under tremendous pressure, taking an FBS-worst 25 sacks on the season, but another part is that his arm strength is simply not a strength.
"That takes a long time to get to your fourth progression," Tedford said. "That doesn't typically happen. The one where he scrambled the other day and threw the interception at 'SC, [Bryce] Treggs was wide open in the back of the end zone. He ran a post and he peeled back and Zach's running and he sees C.J. [Anderson] instead of seeing a little bit deeper, but there are a lot of things going on in front of him. Zach's capable of making any throw on the field. I think we've all seen him make numerous throws that way. They've just got to be in his read progression."
Throwing long -- or rather, Cal's inability to do so -- is going to be key this evening when the Bears face a UCLA secondary which is tied for second in the nation in interceptions, with nine.
"Real opportunistic. The ball will get batted up in the air, and they're flying around and playing so hard and they believe in what they're doing that they're creating things," said offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik. "I think their pass rush is really solid, and I think that does a lot of it. They put some heat on the quarterback, and if you throw balls early, they're not the best balls."
That leads to the second key for the game: pass protection.
The Bears have allowed an FBS-worst 25 sacks this season. Six of those have come on third-and-long, exacerbating an already-difficult situation and delivering an even bigger blow in the field position battle. UCLA is second in the league in sacks with 18, with a lot of power up front on linebacker Anthony Barr and Datone Jones, who's looking to return to the form that had him as one of the most dangerous defensive linemen in the league over the first three games.
Cal has been put in 33 third-and-longs this season, with 'long' defined as 10 yards or more. On those plays, the Bears have been flagged four times, rushed 14 times for 21 yards and gone 6-for-15 passing for 54 yards. So, suffice it to say that once the Bears get into those situations, they rarely get out, and in fact, have only converted two third-and-longs.
The key will be to not get into those situations in the first place, and that means giving Maynard time to throw, and giving him the chance to try to hit Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper down field.
"We just have to start making plays, and by plays, I mean big plays," said Treggs. "Every team that we've played, they've made a big plays or two big plays to separate themselves late in the fourth quarter, so we need to come out and make plays in the fourth quarter, so we can put ourselves in a situation to win."
Veteran Bruins corners Aaron Hester and Sheldon Price are very physical in press, and are likely to jam youngsters Treggs and Harper off the line to try and get them off their game, and disrupt even further the razor-thin timing margin they'll have with Maynard under pressure.
"We just have to get open faster, because I like to think of myself as a down field threat, but he really hasn't that much time to drop back and really make an accurate throw down field," Treggs said. "That just motivates us to get open faster, because he has less time to throw accurate balls."
That passing game won't be anything close to what it can be unless the Bears can actually be a threat with the run, and that all falls on running backs coach Ron Gould and how he uses dynamic tailback Brendan Bigelow.
Tedford said earlier this week that he and Gould have had multiple conversations about getting the ball into Bigelow's hands, and at this point, Tedford's job may depend on it.
In those third-and-long situations, the Bears have averaged just 1.5 yards per rush. The only tailback on the roster who averages more than 10 yards per carry is Bigelow. Despite his pass protection issues, he's the only back who can get the needed yards if Cal insists on running on third-and-long.
The Bears own the fifth-best rushing offense in the league, and that's still with being unable to run through the A-gap. The Bruins are eighth in the circuit in rushing defense. That's going to be a soft spot that Cal needs to exploit.
And speaking of rushing, that brings us to our final key to the game: Defending the run.
Cal has been woeful in defending the spread or zone-read or option-based offenses for the entirety of defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast's career. At times it's been a lack of eye discipline by the outside linebackers, and at others, it's been safety play. Pendergast may have finally found an effective weapon last week in sophomore safety Avery Sebastian, who tallied a game-high 15 tackles in last week's contest.
Sebastian, safety Michael Lowe and cornerback Marc Anthony were the three leading tacklers for the Bears last week, but even though his defensive backs are making the bulk of the stops, Pendergast said that is not an indication of a porous defense at the college level.
"I think, when you look at college football, the secondary players are going to make a lot of tackles because in college football, because of the hash marks, the ball will distribute outside the numbers a lot," Pendergast said. "Your corners are going to have a lot of tackles, your safeties, your nickel backs, that type of thing. In the NFL, if your corners have to make a lot of tackles, that means they're throwing at them every down. It's a completely different game because the hash marks in the pro game, the ball's always in the middle, so it's hard to really use the field, one way or the other. In college, you have more room to one side or the other, so they distribute the ball."
Last season, it was Kevin Prince carving Cal for 163 yards on the ground, with Johnathan Franklin only accounting for 45 of UCLA's 294 yards on the ground. This year, Franklin is at the head of the Bruins rushing attack, which ranks second in the league only to Oregon. Franklin is first in the Pac-12 in rushing with 139.4 yards per game and a staggering 7.5 yards per rush -- second only to the Ducks' DeAnthony Thomas.
Redshirt freshman quarterback Brett Hundley is also very talented with his legs, but is not completely dependent on them. The task that the Cal defense has in front of it is to take advantage of a very young UCLA offensive line which features three freshmen and one sophomore. If the Bears can put Hundley on his back or at least make him think twice before taking off, they'll have eliminated one of his big weapons. However, Cal has not yet done that this season, totaling just 10 sacks -- ninth in the conference. If Hundley has time to get it in the air, watch out. The Bears are 11th in the conference in passer efficiency defense, allowing opposing QBs to notch a 139.8 rating against them.
Getting that pressure may be difficult without the injured Aaron Tipoti, who is likely to miss his second week with a knee injury. That means more time for youngsters Todd Barr and Mustafa Jalil on the ends, and perhaps another start for the run-plugging Viliami Moala in the middle of the defensive line.
Brennan Scarlett will also continue his run as starter at the outside linebacker position, opposite Chris McCain, despite a broken hand, and he's been one of the best at maintaining eye discipline and staying home to help seal off the edge against option teams.
If Cal can bottle up the run and as a consequence not bite on read plays, they'll be better able to defend the pass, and won't be nearly as hesitant to drop back into coverage.