BERKELEY -- Cal is focusing on nothing beyond Saturday's game against Arizona State at Memorial Stadium, as the sense of urgency is real and necessary.
Only one Cal team (2003) has rebounded from a 1-3 start to reach a bowl game. Said Bears' senior safety Josh Hill, "If we don't win the next one, the 10th one doesn't even matter."
Realistically, the Bears are perhaps just one game worse than most observers would have anticipated, a consequence of losing their opener at home to Nevada. Have they perhaps crossed a scheduling threshold after back-to-back road losses to top-25 opponents Ohio State and USC?
"We can't say, 'Whew, we just got done with that,' " coach Jeff Tedford said. "It's not going to get any easier."
In ASU (3-1, 1-0 in Pac-12), the Bears face the first in a series of teams playing better than expected. Upcoming opponents UCLA, Oregon State and Washington are a combined 8-2. Oregon and Stanford began this week as top-10 teams.
Cal must win five of its final eight games to become bowl eligible.
Under first-year coach Todd Graham, the Sun Devils rank first in the conference in scoring defense (12.8 points per game) and second in scoring offense (41.2). They lead the nation in tackles for loss, have intercepted eight passes and are the least-penalized team in the Pac-12.
ASU is playing efficient, confident football.
Here's what the Bears must do to become that kind of team: Start faster. Cal has not finished games well, but its chronically poor starts have been a bigger issue. The Bears have been outscored 37-7 in the first quarter. Better starts will allow Cal to keep opponents off balance by mixing its offense. Find consistency. The Bears most often have been plagued by random errors -- an untimely penalty, blown coverage, overthrown pass -- and missed opportunities. "It's not rocket science on how we fix this," linebacker Robert Mullins said. "It's simple. Consistency is a talent. We have to make that talent better." Maximize the red zone. This is where consistency pays big dividends. Cal has scored on 11 of 15 drives inside the opponent's 20-yard line, but just six of those have gone for touchdowns. The Bears are averaging just 2.7 yards per rush in the red zone, have thrown an interception, been penalized twice and missed two field goals. "It's still football," Tedford said. "We just have to execute." Get bullish up front. Cal's offensive line paved the way for more than 500 yards at Ohio State but has allowed 13 sacks the past two games. "When the pressure starts happening you can't panic, and we have too many guys panicking instead of trusting their technique," offensive coordinator Jim Michalczik said. "We're really working to get our brains back to fundamentals." Unleash Bigelow. Sophomore Brendan Bigelow is not a finished product, but he's the Bears' most explosive back. His eight carries vs. Ohio State and USC produced seven first downs or touchdowns, an impressive batting average. The coaching staff must accelerate the learning curve and get him on the field. Solve the spread. The spread offense has been a thorn for the Bears defense for several years, and this season more than half their opponents use some variation of the offense. Cal will try to combat ASU's attack with quickness and discipline. Tedford is counting on familiarity as an ally. "I hope there's some recall on how to defend it," he said.
For more on Cal sports, see the Bear Talk blog at ibabuzz.com/beartalk. Follow Jeff Faraudo on Twitter at Twitter.com/CalBearsBANG.
San Jose State (3-1) at Navy (1-2), 12:30 p.m., CBSSN
Arizona State (3-1, 1-0 Pac-12) at Cal (1-3, 0-1), 1 p.m., FX
Young quarterbacks making an impact in the Pac-12.w