Cal Claims Long Travels Played Little Role in Slow Start
Following a loss that his opponent’s game film never would have predicted, Worrell Williams bent over gingerly to pick up his three bags outside the visiting locker room at Byrd Stadium. The inscription printed on the back of the black dri-fit shirt stretched tightly across the Cal linebacker’s back summed up in four words the team’s stated reaction to the defeat Maryland had just handed them: No excuses. No explanations.
Williams slung one bag over his shoulder and carried the other two in his hands as he walked slowly to the team bus. Cal Coach Jeff Tedford defiantly stated that although his team flew into the area just 20 hours before game time – completing a six-hour, cross-country flight that spanned four time zones – the Bears’ lethargic start to Saturday’s game had nothing to do with any travel arrangements.
“We were full of energy in the locker room; we were bright-eyed when we got up this morning,” Tedford said following his team’s 35-20 loss. “I don’t think it had anything to do with coast-to-coast; I really don’t. The kids were up this morning ready to go. No excuses about that.”
And many of his charges echoed that sentiment. But while many of the Bears claimed playing a game that their biological clocks told them started at 9 a.m. did not explain their poor performance, some provided subtle hints to the contrary.
When Maryland kicker Obi Egekeze lofted the ball into the air at 12:05 p.m., the thermometer rested at 83 degrees, though the humidity made the heat much more palpable. That humidity, Cal linebacker Zack Follett said, many have led to his team’s slow start more than any other external factor.
The Bears offense ended its first two drives with a punt and an interception. Meanwhile, the defense allowed Da’Rel Scott to scamper for 49 yards and two touchdowns on the first pair of Maryland possessions. “Our offense wasn’t firing the first three quarters, and our defense was a little sluggish at the start,” Follett said.
It didn’t help Cal that the Maryland team they had watched on film all week was not the Maryland team that showed up to play three-fourths of the game Saturday afternoon. Where was the team that traveled to Middle Tennessee just one week earlier and got embarrassed by the Blue Raiders? The Bears got glimpses of that team during the fourth quarter, but by then, the Terrapins had established enough of a cushion that it didn’t matter.
“No, I’d have to say not,” Tedford said when asked if this was the Maryland team he saw on film. “We looked at them on tape and we knew that they had a lot of ability. I don’t think the first two weeks they played to their potential. I think they had a light lit under them after last week’s loss, and they were focused.”
The stat sheet indicates a decent enough showing by Cal’s passing attack. Quarterback Kevin Riley threw for 423 yards and three touchdowns on 33 of 58 passing. But Riley was erratic for most of a first half in which his unit squandered several scoring chances.
“We had three chances inside the 10 in the first half and we didn’t capitalize on any of them,” said Riley, before noting he didn’t think the team’s long travel had anything to do with its slow start.
Among the many aspects of Maryland’s defense Riley and the Bears were not counting on was an effective pass rush. The Terps sacked Riley five times Saturday. They had not recorded a single sack in their previous two games this season.
The physicality on display by Maryland’s defense also was not something Cal players said they picked up on while reviewing film of the Terps’ previous two performances. Cal running back Jahvid Best may have received the most violent surprise of them all.
With just over three minutes remaining in the first half, Riley called an audible on first and 10 at his team’s 19-yard line. Immediately following the snap, Riley threw a pass to Best, who was lined up out wide. As soon as he touched the ball, Best was drilled by Maryland cornerback Kevin Barnes, the sound of the collision more sickening than the hit itself.
Best lay prone on the field for several minutes before vomiting on the field. He went into the locker room and returned to the sidelines just before the end of the half.
“I’m feeling alright, a little sore,” said Best, who played in the second half and finished with 30 yards on 10 carries. “It was probably the hardest hit I’ve ever taken in my life. It knocked the wind out of me. I had a little trouble breathing the rest of the game.”
He wasn’t the only one. Several players followed Follett’s lead and commented on the effect the heat and humidity had on them. Others alluded to the wariness of traveling 2,800 miles the day before, though no one came out and explicitly said it.
After all, “even if it did matter,” Best said, “we can’t blame (the slow start) on that.”
California mounted a comeback in the fourth quarter, outscoring Maryland 21-7. Riley threw for 239 yards in the final 15 minutes of play, alone.
While the Bears did not have enough time to complete their charge, they now have plenty of it to reflect on opportunities missed.
“All that psychological stuff, subconsciously, it plays a factor,” Williams said when asked about the long distance traveled and the humid weather endured. “I don’t think it will linger too long. We’ve got a six-hour flight to get it out of our system.”
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