It's difficult to determine whether Cal should be encouraged or discouraged by its 35-28 loss to No. 12 Ohio State on Sept. 15.
The Golden Bears played by far their best game of the young season, demonstrating capabilities that did not seem to be present in the first two games -- a home loss to Nevada and a victory over FCS school Southern Utah, which was very much in the game until the fourth quarter.
The Bears outplayed the nationally ranked Buckeyes in the second half and had a chance to pull off their biggest road win in years.
Quarterback Zach Maynard clearly played his best game of the season and probably the best game of his career, completing 26 of 37 passes with just one late interception despite facing constant pressure from the Ohio State defense.
And Brendan Bigelow emerged as the big-play back the Bears had been lacking, producing touchdown runs of 81 and 49 yards, the former being one of the most impressive runs by a Cal back in recent memory.
However, much of that good news was canceled by the fact that Cal failed to finish off the victory, falling to 1-2 with a road game next at USC, which lost to Stanford 21-14.
The final five minutes were particularly disappointing for the Golden Bears. First, they failed to score points after getting to the Ohio State 25-yard line in a tie game. Then they gave up the game-winning touchdown on a horribly blown coverage that allowed Buckeyes receiver Devin Smith to get 10 yards behind the closest Cal defender on his way to an easy 72-yard touchdown reception on a third-and-seven play with 3:26 left.
It's also difficult to determine whether the result eased or increased the pressure on Cal coach Jeff Tedford.
The Bears' overall improvement, which included just four penalties, suggested Tedford had not lost control of the team. It also indicated the Bears have improved significantly since the opener and are capable of competing against high-quality opponents on the road.
But being unable to get his team to finish off the big win and getting the wrong result on a tough decision he made late in the game will mean the critics will remain.
Facing a fourth-and-one at the Ohio State 25 with 4:26 left in a tie game, Tedford opted to attempt a 42-yard field goal, even though kicker Vince D'Amato had missed his two previous field-goal attempts -- of 40 and 42 yards, the former by a wide margin.
He missed this by an even wider margin, leaving the game tied and setting up the Buckeyes' game-winning score. D'Amato's three misses on makeable field goals played a major role in the loss.
--Cal had just four penalties for 40 yards, a significant improvement over the first two games, but one was a downfield holding call on tight end Jacob Wark that negated a 49-yard touchdown reception by C.J. Anderson. The penalty put the ball at the Ohio State 29-yard line and the Bears failed to score any points on the possession. It was a questionable call that television commentator Chris Spielman said should not have been called.
--Tailback Brendan Bigelow had just two carries for 15 yards in the first two games, but he had 160 yards on only four carries against the Buckeyes. He had touchdown runs of 81 yards and 49 yards, and on the former he twice broke tackles with spin moves, putting his hand on the ground to stay upright, then sprinting down the left sideline. Bigelow, a sophomore, is a speed back and he was not 100 percent last season after undergoing two anterior cruciate ligament surgeries in high school. "I'm still recovering from my injury, but I'm reaching that point. I'm close to it and I feel ready to add to this team," he said after the Ohio State game.
--The statistics suggest Cal outplayed Ohio State. The Bears had 512 yards to 412 for Ohio State, and they outgained Ohio State 195-25 in the third quarter. Cal had 22 first downs to the Buckeyes' 14 and had the ball more than 10 minutes longer than Ohio State. Cal's only turnover came on an interception late in the game, and Ohio State had 101 penalty yards to 40 for Cal. It's difficult to see how Cal lost.
--Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller rushed for 75 yards and threw for four touchdowns, but the Bears defense kept him under control in the second half for the most part. The game-winning 72-yard touchdown pass on a blown coverage was the notable exception.
WHAT'S AHEAD: Cal has a road games against USC on Sept. 22, and Cal coach Jeff Tedford has never beaten the Trojans on the road. The Trojans dropped from their No. 2 ranking after losing to Stanford 21-14 on Sept. 15. After USC is a home game against Arizona State, which seemed like easy prey for the Bears when the season began but now appears to be a significant challenge. Cal needs to play well in those two games to avoid being 1-5 and drifting into oblivion.
KEEP AN EYE ON: Brendan Bigelow is the third-string tailback behind Isi Sofele and C.J. Anderson, and even his third-string status is close with Daniel Lasco. But Bigelow rushed for 160 yards in four carries and his touchdown runs of 81 and 49 yards gave Cal a chance to win. He provides a breakaway speed back in the mold of Jahvid Best. You can expect Bigelow to get more carries in the coming games.
LOOKING GOOD: Quarterback Zach Maynard had perhaps his best day as a college quarterback in the loss to Ohio State. His performance in the loss to Stanford last season is the only one that comes close. He was 26 for 37 for 280 yards and one touchdown against the Buckeyes despite being under constant pressure. Four of his passes were dropped and a fifth, on which C.J. Anderson nearly made an outstanding catch on the sidelines, could have been ruled a catch but wasn't. He also caught a pass for eight yards. If he continues to play as well as he did against Ohio State, the Bears can have success.
STILL NEEDS WORK: The offensive line yielded six sacks to an Ohio State defense that had just one sack in the first two games combined. Two starters on the line -- Dominic Galas and Matt Summers-Gavin -- did not play because of injuries. Center Brian Schwenke, switched from tackle in the offseason, had numerous poor snaps in shotgun situations, forcing Maynard to grab the ball at his shoe-tops. The other problem was place-kicking. Vince D'Amato had made four of five field goals in the first two games, but missed all three against Ohio State -- from 42, 40 and 42 yards -- and two of them missed badly.
QUOTE TO NOTE: "It is very discouraging because we came here to win, and we played well enough to win, but the scoreboard just doesn't say that. No matter what the stats are, what the scoreboard says or what happened today, we proved we can play with the best of them." -- Cal coach Jeff Tedford, after the 35-28 loss to Ohio State.
STRATEGY AND PERSONNEL
--WR Keenan Allen had nine catches for 80 yards, but he had no touchdown catches and has just one TD reception for the season. He has yet to get more than 80 receiving yards in a game this year.
--QB Zach Maynard was 26 for 37 for 280 yards, one touchdown and one interception. Through three games, he's completed 64.5 percent of his passes for four touchdowns and two picks, much better numbers than last season.
--Sophomore TB Brendan Bigelow had 160 yards rushing on four carries and also had 74 yards on three kickoff returns. His 81-yard touchdown run in the second half was his second scoring run of more than 80 yards. He had an 88-yarder last season against Presbyterian.
--Freshman WR Darius Powe had his first two career receptions against Ohio State, gaining 44 yards. Three true freshmen have caught passes for Cal this season, with Chris Harper getting his second touchdown reception against the Buckeyes and Bryce Treggs catching three passes against Ohio State.
--LB Chris McCain had five tackles despite having a tough game physically. He was questionable early in the week because of a shoulder injury but was in the starting lineup against Ohio State. He then vomited early in the first quarter, claiming he had eaten too many oranges, then later had to leave the game more than once because of leg cramps.
--TE Richard Rodgers did not play in the Ohio State game because of a foot injury. He is questionable for the USC game.
--TE Spencer Hagan sustained what appeared to be a significant knee injury. He was taken off the field on a cart and is unlikely to play against USC.
--LB Jalen Jefferson replaced Robert Mullins as a starting inside linebacker, but Mullins played.
--OT Matt Summers-Gavin missed the game against Ohio State with a knee injury. He is questionable for USC.
--OLB Chris McCain left the Southern Utah game with a shoulder injury, but he played against Ohio State.
--LB Khairi Fortt, a transfer from Penn State, has not practiced since having knee surgery last spring. It's unclear whether he'll play this season.
--OG Dominic Galas missed the Ohio State game with a torn pectoral and is unlikely to play in the next few games as well.
--LB David Wilkerson missed the game with a foot injury.