Cal played 13 games last season and scored on its first possession just four times.
New offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave wants to change that.
“We look to be difficult to defend early in the game,” he said recently. “We’re definitely an offense that we want to start fast. We don’t want to just dip our toe in the water. Start fast and do a good job for our defense by gaining the lead and maintain that speed and escalate it throughout the game.”
The Bears’ offense sputtered for a variety of reasons last season, including injury, inexperience and lack of continuity.
It finally began to come together late in the season when Cal averaged 29 points in wins over Stanford, UCLA and Illinois to close out an 8-5 campaign. The Bears could have been better still offensively in those three games but didn’t score on their opening drive in any of them.
Musgrave, the one-time Oregon quarterback, has spent much of his career coaching in the NFL. He is installing a more versatile, pro-style offense that will utilize the tight end and even fullbacks at times.
But in his only previous college stop — at Virginia in 2001 and ’02 — he worked for Al Groh, who had a long-time association with NFL coaching legend Bill Parcells. They won Super Bowl XXV together with the New York Giants.
“One of the sayings that those gentlemen would always preach is, `Confidence comes from one thing and one thing only: Demonstrated performance,’ “ Musgrave said. “You’re not going to get confidence by somebody telling you you’re great or stroking you or visualizing or dreaming about something.
“So it is important for us to start fast, do it, have that demonstrated performance and then, of course, the confidence will follow suit.”
That didn’t happen early in games very often for the Bears in 2019. Here’s the weekly breakdown, with starting quarterback, opening-drive result, and final score:
Week 1 — vs. UC Davis (Chase Garbers): The Bears fumbled away the opening kickoff, punted on their first offensive series and trailed 10-0 after first quarter. Final score: Cal 27, UC Davis 13.
Week 2 — at Washington (CG): The Bears punted after their first series and were scoreless in the first quarter. Final score: Cal 20, Washington 19.
Week 3 — vs. North Texas (CG): The Bears’ best start of the season. They went 75 yards for a touchdown on their first possession and led 20-0 after the first quarter. Then they went to sleep offensively. Final score: Cal 23, North Texas 17.
Week 4 — at Ole Miss (CG): Cal drove 70 yards for a TD on its first chance with the ball and improved to 4-0 with the Pac-12’s first road win over an SEC team in nine years. Final score: Cal 28, Ole Miss 20.
Week 5 — vs. Arizona State (CG): The Bears punted on their first possession, then scored a touchdown the next time it had the ball. But Garbers broke his collarbone in the second quarter and would miss the next four games. Final score: ASU 24, Cal 17.
Week 6 — at Oregon (Devon Modster): The Bears punted on their first possession, then got on the board when Modster threw a a 22-yard TD pass to Christopher Brown Jr. Cal led 7-0 at halftime but did not score again. Final score: Oregon 17, Cal 7.
Week 7 — vs. Oregon State (DM): With the UCLA transfer operating the offense, the Bears punted on their only two first-quarter possessions. Modster was banged up and didn’t finish the game. The Bears’ most disappointing outcome of the season. Final score: Oregon State 21, Cal 17.
Week 8 — at Utah (Spencer Brasch): The Bears had almost no chance. A true freshman at QB against a ferocious defense in a hostile atmosphere. Cal punted 9 times and had just 83 yards of offense and 6 first downs. For the sixth time in eight games, needless to say, the Bears didn’t score on their opening series. Final score: Utah 35, Cal 0.
Week 9 — vs. Washington State (DM): Brown scored on a 27-yard run on the Bears’ first play from scrimmage after a Jaylen Hawkins pick. Modster was back and threw three touchdowns. Final score: Cal 33, WSU 20.
Week 10 — USC (CG): Garbers returned and directed the Bears to a 75-yard TD drive on the game’s opening possession. But Garbers didn’t last long, leaving after a concussion in the second quarter. Final score: USC 41, Cal 17.
Week 11 — at Stanford (CG): Garbers was back, although the Bears punted on their first possession. Garbers delivered a Big Game moments Cal fans will long remember when he scrambled 16 yards for a TD with 1:19 left, snapping the Bears’ nine-year drought in the series. Final score: Cal 24, Stanford 20.
Week 12 — at UCLA (CG): No opening-series magic, but the offense got humming and the Bears clinching a winning season. Final score: Cal 28, UCLA 18.
Week 13 — vs. Illinois (CG): Cal chose the Redbox Bowl for its best offensive performance of the season, even if it couldn’t cash in on its opening drive. Five different Cal players scored touchdowns. Final score: Cal 35, Illinois 20.
Here’s how it all added up:
— Cal scored on its first possession four times in nine games where Garbers started, just once in four games with Modster or Brasch at the helm
— Cal was 3-1 when it scored on its first series, 5-4 when it did not
In other words, the Bears were better with the starting quarterback on the field and more successful when they scored on their first possession. No surprise there, especially given that Cal is 13-2 when Garbers starts and finishes a game and was 7-0 last year when he played more than half the contest.
Musgrave said the Bears will design their opening possession differently for each opponent, possibly scripting plays to begin certain games. They may go no-huddle or may slow the pace.
“We want to tailor it to the specific defense. It’s going to be customized, tailored, engineered, week by week based on our plan and how we feel we can best get after the defense early on,” Musgrave said.
“We’d like to do some things to make sure we get our quarterbacks in a rhythm from the get-go so they can get comfortable and keep getting better quarter by quarter.”
Musgrave said Garbers is looking sharp, both on the practice field and in the quarterback meeting room.
“He’s answering the questions before I can pose them to the group,” Musgrave said. “I think he’s ready to roll. You can sense that he is getting into his battle rhythm and we’re getting close to game time and he’s going to rise to the top like he’s done time and time again.”
Follow Jeff Faraudo of Cal Sports Report on Twitter: @jefffaraudo
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