Cal Bears: Bowers Not Perfect, but Quite Impressive in First Start


Cal Bears’ new quarterback Ross Bowers put early-game jitters behind him and turned in an impressive game in his first collegiate start.

Saturday was the start of a new era for the Cal Bears. Under new head coach Justin Wilcox, with an entirely new coaching staff, and a new quarterback under center, the Bears opened the 2017 season in North Carolina. Facing a Tar Heels team that also featured a ton of roster turnover, the Bears put on a strong performance, beating UNC 35-30 in a game that featured plenty of back-and-forth action and a fourth-quarter comeback.

Redshirt sophomore Ross Bowers made his first start as a Golden Bear in Chapel Hill, winning the job with a strong training camp leading up to the season. Given the vote of confidence by the coaching staff, Bowers needed to make the most of his opportunity.

Bowers wasn’t perfect in his first start, which shouldn’t be surprising. The positives, however, far outweigh the negatives from opening week. The overall numbers are quite impressive, as Bowers completed 24 of 38 attempts for 363 yards, and four touchdowns.

Early in the game, Bowers looked like what he is: a player with very little game experience. He had never attempted a pass in a game before, having sat behind quarterbacks Jared Goff and Davis Webb in his first two seasons. He was a bit jumpy in the pocket, and when the pocket collapsed, he sometimes appeared to not have a clear idea of what he wanted to do with the ball.

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His mind seemed to be working a bit too fast early on, and his body couldn’t keep up. Instead of letting plays develop in front of him, giving his receivers a chance to run their routes, he tried to get rid of the ball as quick as possible. That led to off target throws, and throws into coverage. Early in the second quarter, it also led to a fumble. On a designed roll-out play, Bowers started running to his right before receiving the snap. It resulted in a loose ball, but luckily Bowers was able to jump on the ball and keep possession.

Bowers threw a pair of interceptions on Saturday, both coming from plays where he tried to make something out of nothing. The first came on a rollout to his left, and Bowers made a bad pass into double coverage. On the second, the pocket collapsed and Bowers tried to step up to avoid the sack. He threw over the middle to a receiver that was blanketed, resulting in another turnover.

As the game went on, though, Bowers slowed things down and let his natural ability take over. He began to look more and more comfortable in the pocket, not looking to force a play at the first sign of danger. He showed off his arm strength more than once, proving he has an arm that will definitely play in this Bears’ offense.

Just before halftime, Bowers threw a 30-yard strike in the air to find Vic Wharton (who became Bowers’ favorite target on the day with five catches for 156 yards) open between a pair of Tar Heel defenders. Bowers stood tall in the pocket, absorbing a hit just after releasing the ball. The throw hit the target in stride, and Wharton just had to outrace the pair for a score.

In the third quarter, Bowers made an impressive escape, spinning away from pressure and rolling to his left. He made an off balance throw on the run, and threw right on target to running back Patrick Laird 15 yards downfield. Laird took it the rest of the way, using a combination of solid blocking and nifty footwork to finish off the 54-yard touchdown scamper.

Bowers started making throws into tighter windows, putting the ball where only his guys could make catches. That was on display on the drive after his second interception. North Carolina was able to turn that turnover into a score and take the lead, and Bowers was back on the field and ready to lead the way.

On a fourth-and-one play, Bowers made a great play fake and threw a perfect floating pass to his fullback, Malik McMorris. The 290-pound back had some coverage on him, but Bowers put it in a great spot, allowing McMorris to make the catch and run for the first down. On the very next play, Bowers threw a beautiful ball over the middle, finding Jordan Duncan 20 yards away in the endzone for what turned out to be the game-winning touchdown.

Later in the quarter, Bowers showed a bit of growth when the pocket collapsed again. Rather than try to force a play when there was no play to be forced, he moved to his right and away from the pressure. He took what the defense gave him, tucking and running through the open grass in front of him for 11 yards, converting a big third-and-eight situation.

These all turned out to be big plays. A fourth-down conversion. A go-ahead touchdown. A key third-down conversion on a drive that would seal the game. Bowers kept his poise and composure in big spots, despite making some mistakes earlier in the game.

The offensive line in front of Bowers held up pretty well, considering it’s a rather inexperienced group playing together. They weren’t as successful blocking for the run, as Cal averaged just over three yards per carry (106 yards on 35 carries). If that trend continues deeper into the season, Bowers will have to continue to shoulder a heavy load down the road.

Next: Cal Names Starting Quarterback

There are still things that need to be worked on before Bowers makes his first state at Memorial Stadium next weekend against Weber State. After watching how Bowers bounced back from mistakes in his first start, there’s plenty to be encouraged by. A lot of concerns about the position should be eased with this performance, and if Bowers can continue to learn and grow, Cal might have their next great quarterback on their hands.