Cal football is one heckuva drug, eh? Let's set the stage: Coming off an embarrassing loss in Reno, our Bears travel to the desert to face a ranked team coming off a decisive upset of a top 10 team. They have one of the best offenses in the Pac-10, one of the top QB's, dangerous special teams, and a fast, aggressive defense. Absolutely all of the experts, media, and pundits expect us to lose. Let's be honest - false bravado aside, we all thought this one was going to be an L...and a potentially ugly one, at that. Instead, we went toe to toe with a tough team, acquitted ourselves well, and came within inches of pulling the upset. I'm not happy, but I'm not upset, or down on our team. As far as I'm concerned, the guys fought hard and played well enough to earn respect for their effort. Here are some post-game thoughts following a painful re-watch:
1) Their DE's caused trouble all game long. Although AZ would frequently stack the box with 8, they rarely blitzed. They were getting pressure and collapsing the pocket with just their base 4 guys. On the two plays in the 1st half where we split Shane Vereen out wide to get a mismatch w/ an LB, Kevin Riley had throw both of them away because he either Ricky Elmore or Brooks Reed in his face. Their CB's were very fast and sure with run support. Even though they played off the line of scrimmage, we were never really able to take advantage of that with quick screen passes. Give credit to AZ - they have a fast, tough, well-coached defense.
2) After re-watching the game, I have fewer issues with the offensive playcalling than I did live. Mike Stoops and Andy Ludwig had a chess match going all game long. You have to give credit to AZ. They have two great DE's, plenty of speed, and two solid corners. They mixed up plenty of looks...sometimes moving a safety up late into the box, or starting with a stacked box and dropping out. But, we countered with misdirection, reverses, and roll-outs. It was like a high-stakes poker game with football players. Some of our best runs came when we caught them in a base look (7 in the box). Some of our losses came from when they guessed right and had guys moving up. Or, they would simply beat some of our guys and come in unblocked. (like prior to the FG at the end of the 1st half) One play that may need to take some time off is lining Vereen up for the out n' up matched up on a LB. They had that one scouted cold.
3) Why no throws to Anthony Miller? Answer: He's not getting open. When he's releasing, he's not out-running LB's in coverage. Miller doesn't seem to be moving as well as I remember. He looks significantly bulked up relative to previous years. In fairness, AZ has a really fast group of LB's.
4) Why didn't we throw as often to our wideouts? Was our game-plan designed to avoid challenging their corners? I heard a story on the radio last week: When Mike Shanahan took over, he told all the wide receivers, "If you can't win your one on one battles, you're going to work at one of Elway's car dealerships instead of catching passes from him." From the poor camera angles available to me, it seemed their corners did a good job sticking our guys and had plenty of safety help. Especially in the 2nd half, it looked liked Stoops channeled his inner Bob Gregory and played a lot of bend, but don't break. He was able to get pressure with just his base 4, had his safeties deeper, and kept everything in front. However, this did open things up for our running game and may be one of the reasons Ludwig didn't call for as many passes. Like Hydro alluded to earlier, I think having Keenan Allen out or limited really hurts our playbook. Having him as a reliable outlet, or a playmaking threat really adds to the versatility of our offense. None of the other receivers can come close to replicating what he brings to the table.
5) Was Riley missing reads, slow to make reads, or was everyone covered? I'm not qualified to say. Perhaps someone with superior football knowledge and actual game film can provide an answer. From what I could see, it looked like receivers were often covered. I'm okay with him throwing it away, or even taking a sack instead of forcing it. But like I said, the television typically only showed the pocket and not whether the receivers were open or not. To make any assumptions based on the tv footage would be exactly that; baseless assumptions.
6) Welcome to Cal, Mr. Michael Calvin. I was happy to see him have his best game as a Bear. Maybe this will be the shot of confidence he needs to be a solid contributor from here on.
7) Mr. Riley: 13-26, 113 yards. Five drops on very catchable balls (Marvin Jones - 2, Jeremy Ross - 1, Miller - 1, Isi Sofele -1) -> 18 -26, 170+ yds. (not including the one where Loggy didn't get his feet in or the leaping attempt by Vereen which would have been an incredible catch) That would be a 69% completion rate. (which does include at least two throwaways because no one was open)
Three really bad passes. Near pick-six at the beginning of the game. Short-hop to KA on 3rd and 3, middle of the 3rd quarter. Short hop to Vereen, 3rd and 4, end of the 3rd.
Draw your own conclusions.
8) This is the D we've been waiting to see. Not a lot of blitzes, but we were also able to get pressure with our front four, especially off of stunts. I liked seeing the corners up and disrupting their routes. I think some of Foles incompletions were because we re-routed their guys and screwed up their timing. Our secondary really stepped up. Unlike last week where our CB's and S's were consistently taking bad angles or getting blocked out of the play, the guys were fighting through blocks to limit their YAC. Nnabuife and Conte both had the best games that I've ever seen either of them play. Not sure if Hill was hurt or just demoted, but I saw a lot of DJ Campbell - and he played very well.
9) Can I just say how much I loved not seeing us try to cover a 3 WR bunch with just two guys? And that we actually limited their bubble screen, slip screen, and swing pass game? Also, I know that special teams gaffes were part of the difference in this game (Ross fair-catch on the 5 + Anger shank, 2 missed FG's), but I thought our coverage teams were much improved.
10) Some people asked if there were any statistics which support the decision-making in the 4th quarter. I'm not a stats guy, but I did find some interesting links. For those of you with better math skills (almost all of you, I hope), have at it:
A) 4th and 1. Kick it or go?
Odds of converting 4th and 1 - 65%
4th Down Percentages
A FG from 40yds has about a 70% success rate. (*As many astute commenters have pointed out, the kicking percentages for the NFL likely do not translate to the NCAA because of the talent disparity. The true projected success rate for a college kicker is probably less than 70% at 40 yds.)
Odds of scoring FG or TD, final two minutes - 40%.
Odds of scoring a TD, final two minutes (starting from own 20) - 20%
Odds of scoring both a TD and FG, final two minutes - 8%
Two Minute Drill Scoring Odds
So, forcing them to score a TD instead of a FG reduces their chances of winning by 20%. On the other hand, scoring a TD and forcing them to score twice reduces their chances of winning by 32%. I'd take the 65% 4th down try over a 70% FG in this scenario.
Another look at a similar scenario: They went for it and lost.
4th and Goal Discussion
B) 3rd and 8, 2nd to last drive of the game. Run clock, or throw for the 1st?
Why not throw? Interestingly, the success rate for 1011 different 3rd and 7 scenarios featured equal success for running or passing. (38%) Because defenses are expecting the pass (teams only run 12% on 3rd and 7+), runs seem to have more than their fair share of success. When assessing risk, a run obviously has a lot less risk than a throw. In looking back, I actually don't see this as "conservative" coaching - if that were the case, why not call a run that just centers the ball? Instead, I see this as a calculated gamble trying to catch them over-playing the pass while also forcing them to burn their last timeout. I would have thrown for it...but I don't know much about offensive football.
3rd Down Percentages
Also, with about 3 minutes to go, the odds of winning with a 3 point lead are almost identical to the odds of winning with a 7 pt lead. (approx 92%)
End Game Analysis
By this math, kicking a FG doesn't really help your odds of winning.
If running clock and settling for a FG = 92% chance of winning,
but throwing for it (38% success rate) and making a 1st Down = 100% chance of winning,
then the math says you throw for the 1st Down...If you can accept the risk that comes with throwing.
Final thoughts: As I mentioned in my pre-season preview, I feel like Tedford's decision-making has been different these past few years than from his first few. "I almost think that something changed that day Riley didn't spike the ball against OSU and made Tedford throw his clipboard. Ever since then, it almost feels like we've been playing the odds; playing more not to lose than playing for the win. Statistically, many of the decisions are probably sound. But this game is played by young men. In college sports, morale and spirit are arguably more important than the athletes themselves. I think that it may have been forgotten that the right football decision is sometimes the wrong decision for a leader of young men."
Can I play arm-chair coach and question recruiting, hiring, and game management decisions? Of course. I'm utterly unqualified, but it's still my right to second-guess, grumble, and moan; even if most of my judgments are knee-jerk and uninformed. Criticizing his decisions is fair. Calling for his head after losing a road game by the margin of a football off the uprights that we were supposed to lose? Seriously?
I don't have any special football knowledge or insight beyond that of the casual fan. However, I do have some perspective that comes from watching 30 years of Cal football. We're not in the South. Our fanbase and alumni don't live and breathe football. We actually have some semblance of academic standards and the cost of living in the Bay Area makes it difficult to retain top assistants. Except for a hiccup from Russell White/Mike Pawlawski, the pre-Tedford years were pretty darn bleak. Let's not kid ourselves. We don't have a rich football tradition or culture to attract the very best recruits or big-name coaches. Instead, we have a solid coach who emphasizes academics, represents himself and the university with class, and consistently puts a competitive product on the field. Is he the guy to lead us to the Rose Bowl? I have no idea. But I do know that he's the type of man that I don't mind supporting and the same goes for the team of young men he has put together.
They made plays when it counted and we didn't. It's that simple. Our guys fought for the inches they needed and came up a little short. No shame in that - I'm still proud of our guys.
The time for hand-wringing is over. Let's use the bye week to get healthy, re-focus, and get ready to lay the smack down on ucla in two weeks.