Cal vs UCLA postgame thoughts

Stephen Dunn

I'm sure you'll be dismayed to find out this column clocks in at a paltry 3200 words.

Due to transit time and general travel fatigue, I wasn't able to spend as much time on this as I would have liked. Apologies in advance if this one doesn't match previous standards.

Also, I'm busy playing Pokemon, which doesn't help.

In which we talk about the game in context. Yes, we have to.

With all due respect, Andre, I think I now know what Roses really smell like.

If what I watched in Pasadena this weekend is any indication, that fragrance should be marketed as a distinct aroma of pain, disappointment, frustration, and hope - four buzzwords that have long been staples in the Cal vocabulary, and figure to be for at least a little while longer.

Yes, the Bears dropped another one, and fell to 1-5 on the season in doing so.

For the 10th straight game they did not cover the spread, a span in which they have ranged from 1.5 point underdogs (Wazzu) to 38.5 point ones (Oregon).

Oh, and for the 10th straight time, they lost to an FBS opponent. Putting that in perspective, the last time Cal beat another FBS team, most of America had yet to learn what twerking was.

None of these are anything to be proud of - especially that last one - but they do indicate the reality of the situation. We are very much on our way to a second consecutive losing, bowlless season. Two more defeats will make official what seems to be mere formality at this point.

Fine.

Even with that admission, some encouraging things did begin to emerge out of this one. Yes, it is incredibly weird to type that after a 37-10 defeat, but there were clear small steps forward and signs of progress. Really. That alone made it less harrowing than the Oregon and Washington State games put together, and at this point, it's pretty much all that's left to play for. Improvement.

Besides, I'm still on the hook for this post game column, win or lose.

Let's get into it.

In which the defense plays its best game yet

The grades, as always: Outstanding, Exceeds Expectations, Acceptable, Poor, Dreadful, Troll. They say quite a bit more than A, B, C, D and F do, and they're more fun to assign.

Overall grade: Acceptable

I was tempted to give this group an E, for exceeds expectations, seeing as most people figured the Bruins would drop over 50 points - or at least set a myriad of school records or something. By the sheer fact of holding UCLA below those benchmarks, I admit that a reasonable case could be made for an E.

Still, let's not set the bar that low.

While you all may know what made this an acceptable game by the defense, let's go ahead and name some of the things they did well, shall we?

The yardage totals were still a bit out of control, but there was no first drive touchdown, for one, and no massive, insurmountable deficit early on, either, even after having the offense fail again and again to pick up a first down early.

There was also some very inspired play in the red zone to hold UCLA to several field goals. Despite the Bruins ruining some of those opportunities themselves - and I'm thinking here of Shaq Evans tripping over himself as one example - that is always good to see. As I wrote last week, some of that takes pride, which continued to show despite the long odds and the lack of depth.

And for the third straight week, Cal's points allowed total dropped. So there's that.

The best part, though, was not seeing anyone run completely free through the secondary, as has been the norm in recent memory.

Progress is in the little things just as much as the major ones. All in all, I'll take it.

I also thought Michael Lowe played reasonably well, although the stats sheet doesn't really show it. He looked to be in good position all evening and tackled solidly, including several nice open field stops of Hundley. Of course, if Hundley hits that deep pass to Thigpen in the second quarter, I probably wouldn't be writing about him, since he was beat badly. He did give up a touchdown to Thomas Duarte, but that might have been the only real negative of his night.

And now for some bad things.

Tackling continues to be a problem for the team, although it wasn't as terrible as it was in recent weeks. As mentioned before, Walker should pick up in this category once he no longer weighs 175 pounds. Everybody else has no real excuse. It wasn't any one offender - if you name anyone on defense, they probably whiffed at some point. Secondary, linebackers, line, everybody. The NCAA doesn't track YAC, but if they did, I'm willing to bet that a good half of Hundley's night came from it.

Deandre Coleman was called for two very, very costly - and very, very stupid - personal fouls, although only one of them ended up actually costing the Bears any points.

He has been playing much better as of late, though - UCLA marked his fifth consecutive game with a tackle for loss, and with a total of 5.5that would put him at 17th in the conference. Feel free to lament the fact that Cal's leading tackler for loss is only 17th in the conference.

Even more alarming is that Coleman is almost tied for the team lead in sacks, too.

Run defense grade: Outstanding

Some numbers to consider here, before proceeding to general observations about the run defense:

  • Cal held UCLA to 78 total rushing yards. Their previous season low in this category had been 186, set against Utah.
  • UCLA took 34 carries to accumulate that yardage, meaning an average UCLA run went for 2.3 yards.
  • Granted, some - but not all - of those attempts were unplanned scrambles on behalf of Brett Hundley. Take him out of the equation, and the numbers are still about the same - 60 yards on 25 carries (2.5 YPC).
  • UCLA's longest run of the game went for 11 yards, which was the second to last play of regulation. Their previous longest run was 10 yards.

Mobile quarterbacks have given the Bears trouble all year, but they displayed very, very good discipline by surrounding Brett Hundley and not letting him get loose, the way Keiran McDonough and Kenny Guiton were able to. Credit is due where it is due - that is one area in which the Bears have clearly improved.

What was more impressive here was Cal's ability to gather defenders to the football, especially in the run game. All night long, Paul Perkins and Malcolm Jones had nowhere to go. The line of scrimmage was packed with white jerseys.

Remember, Cal did this without either of their starting ends, and without two of their starting linebackers. That is an immensely positive development and the coaches deserve credit for getting those guys ready. Also a coaching point - I saw a lot more hands up for passes this week. They didn't actually deflect anything, but it's a start.

Hardy Nickerson deserves mention for keying the improvement here. He has struggled at times this season, but this was his finest game by far, largely because he reacted much faster than in previous weeks. Perhaps this is a function of his increasing experience.

Yes you did, Hardy.

Pass defense: Poor

410 yards on 10.0 yards per attempt. That one speaks for itself.

Still, Brett Hundley shredded the Bears more due to their inability to tackle, than anything. This was not a game where we had trouble staying with receivers downfield, save for one or two occasions. UCLA's success in the pass game was mostly due to Cal defenders not making the first play, particularly on the motion/bubble screen action you saw run repeatedly. Berkelium covered this in an article last week, and one of the reasons they do this is to give them a 3 on 2 advantage on the perimeter, while taking a defender out of the box so they can have an easier time running the ball.

Well, one of those things, we stopped pretty definitively, even with the numbers disadvantage. The other...not so much.

I think that Cal had its best success against this play when running their safety with/directly at the motion guy, rather than a linebacker. Doing so leaves only three potential deep defenders and does limit your possible coverage shells, but the tradeoff is getting a more athletic player out to matchup in space, which we needed badly.

It should be noted that UCLA took advantage of Cameron Walker in this role early on, because while he was fast enough to help and close on the motion, he often got blocked into oblivion or was unable to actually secure the tackle. I believe Andy Buh opted to go with Drew and Lowe at safety for a good period of time after that, since Drew is a full 20 pounds heavier.

Lucas King slid out in coverage against this play as well, and results were mixed at best. A couple times he was sealed off inside and unable to get around his man, a couple of times he got proper leverage to let someone else make the play, but he didn't exactly put a stop to it. All in all, so so night from him, with very limited success overall against the pass. I don't think I'd be wrong in saying having Jalen Jefferson would have been much preferred, though. King lacks some of the prerequisite athleticism required to be an effective defender in space.

Kam Jackson allowed his first catch on the season, but it was a serious killer - on third and 12, Shaq Evans ran a comeback route just far out enough to get the first down, allowing the Bruins to continue the drive and take a two score lead into halftime. That would prove to be one of the turning points of this one, if not the turning point.

One other key play came on UCLA's 3rd and 9 conversion with 4:11 in the third quarter, when Devin Fuller wasn't picked up on a drag route - it might have been Hardy Nickerson's responsibility - and outran Lucas King for 35 yards. UCLA would end up with a field goal on that possession, which made it 30-10. With the way the offense was moving the ball, three touchdowns seemed a bit too much to ask.

There were some fantastic moments on behalf of this group, though - the coverage downfield from Lee, Jackson and company was good enough to force Hundley to scramble several times. That hadn't happened very much, if at all, through the season's first five games. To see it at all now is better than not at all, right?

Adrian Lee looked okay in his first start at cornerback. Not perfect by any means, but at the very least, he wasn't getting destroyed play after play. The most notable play he was involved in: a long completion on UCLA's second play, which was thrown by Hundley into pretty tight coverage. Lee actually was running with Jordan Payton stride for stride and had a decent shot at breaking it up.

In which we shift our attention over to the Bear Raid

While not related to either offensive unit, I thought we could have been a little more aggressive and gone for it on some of the shorter 4th downs. Cal punted on 4th and 4 or less three different times.

Of those three occasions, I thought two were worth a fake or a 4th down attempt - 4th and 3 from the Cal 38, with the score 10-0 at 3:09 in the first quarter, and 4th and 4 at the Cal 42, with the score 17-0 at 13:29 in the 2nd.

An onside kick coming out of the half might have been a good option as well, although UCLA ended up punting on that possession.

Passing offense: Poor

It took a while, but Jared Goff finally showed his age and inexperience in a night that would be the worst of his career to date. [The Oregon game doesn't really count, seeing as he didn't even stay in the game long enough to do anything.] He looked rattled and out of rhythm, not to mention late on a number of passes. Some even skipped into the dirt.

While his play was obviously ineffective, I'm not sure exactly how much blame he can - or should - take for this one, seeing as he was once again harassed all night, and sacked three times in total. Protection didn't hold up well enough for him to try much downfield, and every quarterback is going to look bad without time to throw.

Let's not forget, Goff's struggles, confusion and discomfort came against an extremely athletic UCLA defense that was had just recorded six interceptions. They left Treggs and Harper very little room to operate whatsoever, and it might have been telling from the start, really - this band of Bruins swarmed from the first play from scrimmage, when Myles Jack snuffed out a screen to Treggs to hold him to just a yard. That's a play that usually goes for at least a couple more, at least against opponents who are less equipped to deal with our speed on the edge.

Well, UCLA was equipped - so much so that losing Cassius Marsh to an ejection did little to hurt their actual production.

Unlike several other of his interceptions, the one he threw Saturday night was definitely all on Goff - Randall Goforth read his eyes the whole way and cut the route, a comebacker to Treggs.

There were good moments to build on, too - a perfectly thrown fade to Treggs for 15 yards, a couple impressive passes in to Richard Rodgers - but overall, it wasn't a night to remember for the freshman.

The most concerning takeaway is Goff's and the offense's inability to get drives started early, for me. We know the line is a work in progress, and will continue to be so until next season. The more immediate and pressing need is for first downs. The no-huddle won't be effective without those first ten yards, and recently, we haven't been able to produce even that.

At 11:15 in the first quarter, Barr struck for his first and only sack of the night, blowing by Freddie Tagaloa, ducking both of his hands and busting right in there for the take down. To their credit, Cal did not leave Freddie alone with Barr very often after that, having a back to help out on every time he was on the field.

It should take several more performances like this - and arguably, worse ones - before we should really even think about taking the job away from him, although the debate will assuredly rage on regardless.

Rushing offense: Poor

Subtract Jared Goff's sack totals out, and the Bears collectively rushed for 128 yards on 4.1 yards per, which is just about in line with their best - and by that, I mean mediocre - efforts this year. Combine that with a failure to get into the end zone on four consecutive attempts from the three yard line, and it's hard to award the group any better than than a P.

It didn't look much better than it did in weeks previous, to me.

Now, let's dig a little deeper - when sliced up, the numbers will show that Khalfani Muhammad and Daniel Lasco combined for over 100 yards on a 5.6 yards per carry average, which would be pretty darn good. That won't tell you how the two really played on Saturday, though, which I don't think was particularly well.

A good chunk of that total - 30 yards, to be exact - came during the 21 play, 81 yard drive that spanned about eight minutes, when UCLA was all too happy to see the ball in Muhammad's hands. That drive ended up being a disaster for how oddly it was called, how much time it ate up, and how unsuccessful it ultimately ended up being, but it also made this group's night look quite a bit better than it actually was.

From my vantage point, Muhammad missed many opportunities for yardage in favor of stretching his runs outside, or because he tried to make a move instead of trying to take what was already available to him. He is playing much better than he did in camp, but there's a ways for him to go in this category. It also plagued him on a couple of the kickoff returns, as well.

Last weekend, I wrote that Richard Rodgers needed more touches. I did not anticipate them coming in in the running game, with him as our designated short yardage back - but that being said, it was a delightfully savvy move by the staff to deploy him there. That same package - whatever Bone variety you want to call it - was clearly overexposed in the fourth quarter, but having it is in the arsenal is certainly interesting. It could prove useful moving forward for a play or two a game.

Rodgers really needs to work on his blocking, though. Seems like he gets called for a hold every week.

A thing to keep an eye on - during pre-game, I noticed that Bigelow did not participate in the running back meeting with Gingold, Muhammad, Lasco and company. He did not line up with them as the team went through warmups, he did not receive a carry of any kind, and he worked out of the slot on all the plays he did participate in.

If he has been moved - and this is speculation based on what we saw Saturday - I don't think it would be the worst thing in the world. In fact, in many ways, it could be pretty beneficial. Moving Bigelow outside means:

  • No mesh points - and less potential fumbles - to worry about. I'm not sure his job can get easier than "catch ball, run with ball", really.
  • A variety of future playcalling options and wrinkles, including wide receiver handoffs, end arounds and things of that nature.
  • Less bodies to deal with than when he has to run the ball inside. Following this same point, possibly less blockers to read, too, since we usually have only one on those outside screens.

Special teams grade: Acceptable

No major returns given up and a 51 yarder made by D'Amato - who, coincidentally, should make All-Pac 12 first team again this year - means Tommerdahl's unit passes.

The punt return game continues to give us trouble, though - there hasn't yet been a major one all year.

Khalfani had a chance to take one of his kickoffs to the house, but in what has been a continuing theme for our running backs, wasn't able to get past the last guy.

It was that kind of night.

It's been that kind of season, really.

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