It hurts to admit, but Saturday was a very, very telling loss, and not only because it further dimmed our already slim bowl hopes.
Wazzu was the first time this season Cal faced off with an opponent of arguably similar quality and talent - and like many unfortunate souls who have found themselves on the wrong side of a Chem 1A curve, they failed.
Spectacularly and definitively.
Yes, this team is very, very raw, and it is now clear that it will take a substantially better effort than what we've seen thus far if they want to stand with even the lower tier Pac-12 teams. A bowl bid looks very much out of reach. That doesn't rule out the possibility of them winning a few more games before the end of the year, though, and in the best case scenario, the Bears would do exactly that, to enter 2014 knowing that they can at least compete.
I do not think this is worse than last year's team, and I am willing to stand by that statement even if they win three or less games. Some of that feeling is due to the insane schedule this 2013 squad has faced so far, but more of it is due to the feeling that these guys are heading somewhere, that these losses aren't simply them going through the motions the way they did toward the end of last season.
Plus, there's that whole really young group of guys who will almost all return and enter next year with a whole lot more experience under their belt thing, or as I've taken to calling it, R.Y.G.O.G.W.W.A.A.L.A.E.N.Y.W.A.W.L.M.E.U.T.B.T for short. Rolls right off the tongue, doesn't it?
But really, with no postseason in sight, all we can try to be is patient, taking comfort in whatever progress we can get. That's something you'll hear repeatedly in the weeks to come, and not just from me. My good friend Ethan Novak - who has no Cal affiliation whatsoever, beyond being friends with me - has some similar thoughts, if you'd like to read those. They're certainly much shorter than what is to follow here.
As far as the staff goes...despite how much we might want it to be true, there's no accurate way to tell for sure how suited Sonny Dykes is or isn't to this job just yet. He might be the guy to lead us to greatness - and I believe he is - but nobody knows for sure either way at this point.
If we were all so quick to declare a coach inept after his first five games, none of the following names would have made it, and the case could have been made that all of them were "unqualified" for their head coaching job the way some might be tempted to whisper about Dykes now:
1-4 in first five games at USC. No college head coaching experience previous.
2-3 in first five games at SDSU, with losses to Idaho and Air Force. 34-38 record at Ball State previous.
2-3 in first five games at Stanford. Upset win over USC, though.
2-3 in first five games at Vanderbilt. No head coaching experience previous.
2-3 in first five games at Oregon State. 40-32 record in CFL previous.
0-5 in first five games at UNC. 1-4 to start the next season. Finished 2-20 those first two years.
3-2 in first five games at OKState. Wins over Montana State, Florida Atlantic, Arkansas State. Finished 4-7.
2-3 in first five games at Baylor. 34-28 record at Houston previous.
I realize none of these coaches are perfect analogies for our current situation. I also understand that none of these coaches are proof that Dykes will one day join them. They still serve as examples of how foolish it is to write off someone after such a small sample size.
The curious case of the 2013 Cal Bears
Amazingly enough, these Bears have managed a feat few thought possible - a team that started as the second youngest in the country is only getting younger every single week. It's a genuine pity F. Scott Fitzgerald never got to see this Cal team play. I think he might have gotten a kick out of watching us live the story he so artfully imagined.
The last seven days have been downright absurd, even by previous standards. First, news of Alex Logan's injury retirement broke on Friday, and a mere 24 hours after that, things somehow managed to get even worse, with five more players on the two-deep getting injured: Jalen Jefferson, Kam Jackson, Stefan McClure, Joel Willis and Chris Adcock.
Several of those names may still return - and I'm clutching a four leaf clover and furiously rubbing a rabbit's foot as I type this - but you get the idea. Cal is being forced to press players into action that otherwise should not be playing, and any reasonable evaluation of their performance must account for this.
To recap just how thin we are:
- The Bears ended the game with Cedric Dozier and Adrian Lee at cornerback. They are our fifth and sixth corners, respectively, and neither of them are on the two-deep. This is after losing a cornerback who was a converted wide receiver already. A converted wide receiver.
- More on cornerbacks - Bryce Treggs and Chris Harper practiced there this week for emergency purposes. Yep. That happened. If there's a button that we have to press to activate them for defense, let's make sure to enclose it in glass that says DO NOT BREAK IN ANY CASE WHATSOEVER.
- We ran our third string center out there. How many teams do you know that have had to use their third string center...ever?
- Depending on how you projected the defensive starters for this season, Cal ended this game with anywhere between two and four of those guys still healthy - Fortt, Coleman, Moala, and Lowe.
- Basically, this .gif says it all. All credit to Redonkulous.
How much of this is under our control and preventable? I don't know.
How much of it has just been freak occurrence? Again, I don't know. [I would, however, give it at least another season before anyone starts blaming it on strength and conditioning coach Damon Harrington. He has, for example, gotten Viliami Moala on the field, which Blasquez couldn't.]
In any case, there seems to be only one legitimate course of action.
Like, lots of it, and to every deity we can think of.
CGB clearly needs to collectively sacrifice a goat, a wild duck, something - anything - to appease the injury gods.
There is talent and athleticism on this team - do not misunderstand that. But there is a severe lack of it at the lower end of the depth chart, as well as at certain positions, like defensive end and throughout the secondary. That's what we're seeing now.
Last note before we get into the usual game observations - I am using the Harry Potter grading scale this week, and might continue changing scales each week as a regular gimmick. Feel free to sound off on that. For those who need a refresher, the grades are as follows:
- O - Outstanding
- E - Exceeds Expectations
- A - Acceptable
- P - Poor
- D - Dreadful
- T - Troll
Tough times never last. Tough bears do.— Trigga (@BryceTreggs) October 6, 2013
In which there is more discussion and debate about defense
Simply put, dreadful. You can make the case that they were troll-worthy, but I am factoring in the loss of several starters - on top of the ones that are already out. This grade is more for their overall level of play, and not for the run defense, which was stout and exceeded expectations.
In stark contrast to last week's questionable efforts, I do not think these guys rolled over and laid down in this one - the two fourth quarter goal line stands were proof enough of that. Mustering the willpower to stop the opposing offense late - especially mere moments after a critical turnover on kickoff return - takes quite a bit of determination and pride. It was very encouraging to see in a day that was otherwise very, very awful.
Buh is using his base 4-3 personnel (3 LBs 4 DBs) to defend the Pirate's #AirRaid spread - because we have zero secondary depth— GoldenBlogs (@GoldenBlogs) October 5, 2013
At this point, a large amount of the pass rush situation relies on the guys up front beating their blockers. Normally, you'd want to try to blitz and send a few more rushers than normal, but I think the staff's logic is that we can't afford to take any more bodies out of coverage, even temporarily. Not with a secondary that is held together by some duct tape and chewing gum.
I would very much like to see more active hands by the linemen, though. If they're not going to get to the QB, at least do a better job of getting in the passing lanes. That part is coaching related.
Furthermore, with the amount of backups playing, Buh had his hands tied as to which blitzes and pressure packages he could call, because those players have far less game experience and practice reps - to say nothing of the fact that they may not be as well equipped to execute said playcalls. He did try some more blitzes/stunts toward the fourth quarter, even though they didn't all get home. I've asked Scott to sound off more specifically on the d-line play, though. We'll see what he has to say on Tuesday.
But really, I'd argue that missed tackles and poor cornerback play were more responsible than anything scheme related:
- 35 yard touchdown pass to Vincent Mayle (9:26, first quarter) - Lapite is simply beat in coverage on the first outside receiver, which is his guy, because Cameron Walker has responsibility for the inside receiver. If you want to make the case that Walker should have shaded to Lapite, then you're stuck with a linebacker - it looks like Jefferson - on a receiver, which is a highly disadvantageous matchup in itself. This goes back to the point up top about defensive back depth/proper matching.
- 41 yard pass to Marcus Mason (7:27, first quarter) - Halladay dumps it off to Mason immediately in the left flat, and you can see Jalen Jefferson reading and reacts as soon as the play begins. He comes up and tries to make the tackle through a blocker, but can't quite get his hands on Mason, so that's one missed tackle. Cameron Walker has a chance to catch Mason at the 39, but takes a bad angle, allowing him to run by for extra yards. That's a second one. I can't see this one as a scheme issue, as we had the play snuffed out immediately. Jalen has to make that play - and if he does, it's a loss, not a 41 yard gain.
- 5 yard touchdown run by Jeremiah Laufasa (4:21, first quarter) - With only five yards to defend, perhaps Buh could have been more aggressive here and sent Walker into the box from the start, I guess? Maybe played more down linemen? You tell me. It looks to me like Jefferson is late getting over and Hardy is hung up trying to avoid the block from #84. Neither make the play in time.
- 68 yard touchdown pass to Marcus Mason (1:19, second quarter) - Possibly outschemed here, since no one is covering Mason out of the backfield, although it does look like King was responsible for the area. I think he's supposed to bump the inside receiver if he travels up the seam, then turn around and watch that part of the field...but by the time he turns around, Mason has about eight to ten yards of open green, which is when Halladay finds him. Still, this play doesn't go for 68 yards without a missed tackle from Camporeale, who compounds the issue by taking out two other guys as well.
- 10 yard touchdown run by Teondray Caldwell (7:16, third quarter) - Coleman has his shot, then misses. The linebacker who appears responsible for that gap is then blocked, allowing Caldwell to sneak right through.
- 72 yard touchdown pass to Vince Mayle (4:30, third quarter) - Okay, of all these plays, I'm really not sure what we could do differently on this one. Lapite - surprise - trips coming out of the route, which isn't the worst thing, since he has safety help specifically shaded to his side...but then Walker bounces off of Mayle on the tackle, and there's fifty more yards. Awesome. I don't know where Andy Buh keeps his play call for "safety needs to miss a tackle here", but I'm willing to bet he didn't call it right then.
As far as the repeated swing passes WSU ran, I think we did a mediocre job covering those, but it wasn't for lack of trying, Save for the one Mason touchdown, we had a guy in the area each time. Perhaps with more experienced and athletic linebackers out there, they react faster, and suddenly those short gains passes are losses instead.
The RB trio of Laufasa, Caldwell and Mason recorded 10 receptions for 152 yards. When you factor in that 68 of them came on one play, an 8.4 yards per catch average seems a bit more palatable, even if it still isn't very good.
I also feel that it could have been a lot worse. Luckily, Connor Halladay is not particularly talented, in my opinion. He left a very good number of throws out there - one sure touchdown that I can remember, when a guy got five yards behind Hardy Nickerson - and his running backs had hands coated in some substance allergic to footballs, which prevented several more gains.
Isaac Lapite was abused repeatedly in this one - being well-aware of his limitations, Washington State attacked him from the first play, and kept doing so until Andy Buh was finally forced to remove him mid-way through the third quarter. Coverage did not matter - whether in off, normal, press, or zone, Lapite simply could not keep up with receivers downfield and was forced to commit several penalties to compensate.
I went ahead and tracked Lapite's day, and you're not going to like this. By my unofficial count, Halladay was 5 of 8 when throwing in his direction for 157 yards and two TDs. 115 of these yards were totaled in the second half, and 68 of them came on yards after catch.
The above does not include the two PIs he committed, a third PI called on Mayle, and an incompletion that was negated due to an offsides penalty.
To their credit, the replacement corners, Lee and Dozier, were very respectable in their game action. Lee even recorded a nice pass defensed when it looked like he had been beat down field.
And some didn't, but were out there too long. RT @CalRivals: Buh: "I thought some of the guys that were thrown out there did a nice job"— Marc Tausend (@ManBearCal) October 6, 2013
Cameron Walker saw his first start at free safety on Saturday, and there were some good things from his Saturday. He diagnosed plays relatively quickly and even closed fast enough to help on some deeper passes. I do not think I am too wrong in saying that he is already far more developed in pass coverage than Avery Sebastian, although not at all near as good at tackling.
And as it is with most young players, there was some not to like, as well - Walker looks like he is still struggling a bit with angles from his new safety position, and his aforementioned missed tackle on Mayle directly led to seven points. I would imagine that some of this will take care of itself once he has a chance to put on more weight. So far, though, Walker has been tremendously promising.
Quietly, I'm wondering if there's any future for Sebastian at linebacker next year.
Lucas King led the team in tackles yesterday and played pretty well at times for someone who was pressed into duty. A large majority of his afternoon was spent chasing down guys in the flat, and it looked to me he was in the right position much of the time - he just wasn't able to break on the ball any faster.
The same assessment can't really be said about his linebacking counterpart, Hardy Nickerson, though. Because Nickerson isn't particularly fast or quick, the Cougars were able to attack him with crossing routes. The loss of Nick Forbes is very glaring when you see Nickerson out there, as he often looks a step too slow and at times, physically overmatched. He'll get better as he gets more experience, but there's a reason why he wasn't projected to play this season.
This team is going to really, really miss Deandre Coleman after graduation. It might be a position that doesn't show up much on the stats sheet, but he and Moala look really solid out there in the middle. Plus, he scored two points pretty much by himself.
In which we discuss various Bear Raid related topics
The disparity in performance for these respective units warranted different grades.
Passing offense: Acceptable
One quibble I have with the Hogwarts administrators - the fact that when you're so consistently excellent, it's nearly impossible to exceed expectations. I wonder what Goff would have to do to qualify.
Anyway, our Bear Raid Commander was his usual prolific self, despite last week's benching. I had doubted that it would do anything to his performance, and was glad to see that it didn't.
How long did it take Goff to get confidence back? "First play. I felt fine." Completed first 6 passes— Ryan Gorcey (@RGBearTerritory) October 6, 2013
Goff was aided tremendously by the staff's decision to move Chris Harper into the slot, where he can be an even bigger mismatch than usual. Generally, teams have their less talented defensive backs there, or sometimes, linebackers. Big mistake. That's exactly how Harper recorded a 50 yard catch early in the 2nd quarter - by facing off against Wazzu linebacker Cyrus Coen, who tried to run with Harper from the slot. I think the responsibility for Harper switched off to the safety once he got down field, but even then, Harper was able to cut across on the post to come open. That's just not fair.
Credit to Eric Keisau. Chris Harper, Bryce Treggs, Darius Powe, Kenny Lawler was a heck of a recruiting pull. Doing solid work at UW too.— avinashkunnath (@avinashkunnath) October 5, 2013
For someone who was under pressure all afternoon, Goff just about as well as you could have hoped for, save for the head-scratching interception and perhaps the early long ball that missed a wide open Harper.
It's also apparent that he has one easily overlooked trait that all good quarterbacks must have - the sense to throw it up for grabs on a free play. Aaron Rodgers is famous for this.
Against offenses that prize getting the ball out quickly and efficiently, defenses often key in on the quarterback's eyes and get their hands up into the passing lane. Northwestern's defensive line did this to great effect, and Washington State joined them. In another year, I'm betting Goff develops enough to look into the open receiver, rather than stare at him the entire way. It clearly bit him on a 4th and 1 in the third quarter, where his pass to Lawler was batted down at the line. This continued, but hopefully fixable flaw in his game and his interception were just about the only bad things about his Saturday, though.
Play Kline— C.J. Anderson (@CjAndersonRB9) October 5, 2013
I am sure CJ Anderson is not alone in this opinion, but if there was a small case for sitting Goff after Oregon, I would think it's pretty much gone after Wazzu. The Bear Raid Commander broke his own career high in passing yards, and threw for over 400 for the third time this season. Oh, and he broke the single game passing record too. In his fifth career game. As a true freshman. With no running game to speak of. What more do people want from him, exactly?
Kline got his chance at the end of the game. What did he show to convince anyone he would be more effective - and would a quarterback change necessarily improve the line's ability to open up holes in the run game?
This next tweet, however, is far more interesting, and speaks volumes. In an alternate universe somewhere, we kept Tedford, who would have gotten to unleash the pro-style QB he was so meticulously and carefully preparing...and...well, we'll never know how that story ends. Sucks.
@atomsareenough yea I've seen Kline shoulda played when I was their— C.J. Anderson (@CjAndersonRB9) October 5, 2013
A couple of new looks that debuted: single back Pistol set, with Gingold at H back, and a five wide look with five wide receivers. In the past, we have slotted the running back at right inside receiver.
Another turnover, another deep shot down field, although Chris Harper's 89 yard touchdown was made possible mostly by a blown coverage.
James Grisom has been a very, very pleasant surprise this year. His three touchdowns tie Chris Harper for the team lead. Goff threw a magnificently placed ball before safety help arrived.
Remember last year when Tedford said Richard Rodgers was just about as good as any tight end in the country? Well, he still might not be, but he's been really, really fun to watch. He also put a huge hit on the defensive back who returned Goff's interception.
Seeing as Goff is consistently excellent, though, the game ball goes to Harper.
Rushing offense & pass protection: Troll
With all due respect to Jared Goff - who I understand is obligated not to throw his teammates under the bus - I do not think Mark Brazinski played very well. Even with a loose definition of the term "high snap", Braz forced his quarterback to jump on far too many plays. I stopped counting late in the first quarter of my re-watch, but he had to have recorded somewhere upwards of ten in this category.
In addition, a large amount of the pressure generated in the second half came right from the A gap, which he is largely responsible for, although losing Matt Cochran certainly did not help things here either. [Get well soon, Matt. Seriously.]
Brazinski is not the only offensive lineman who did not play well, though. None of them did.
Freddie Tagaloa has had a miserable couple of weeks at left tackle, and didn't fare much better in this one. The man-child of a sophomore gave up consistent pressure off the edge, at least one sack, and had two penalties.
The same criticisms hold true for Steven Moore, as well. On the first play of the game, Wazzu rushed only three, but Goff is flushed from the pocket because Moore gets pushed back by Xavier Cooper. Moore also had a hold called on him that Wazzu declined later.
Wazzu sacked Goff three times in the first half with a three man rush. A fourth sack was definitely prevented because Goff was able to throw the ball away. He faced pressure up the middle pretty much every pass attempt in the second half, and it's surprising he actually didn't get sacked more.
There is nobody whose redshirt is waiting to be burned in this category, no superstar waiting to get his first crack. The only thing we can do is hope that things improve throughout the season, and that there is some payoff in experience next year.
Yes, the two red-zone fumbles hurt, taking away 14 points the Bears desperately needed, although the data shows that it should be a bit less than that - the expected value of a first down from the four yard-line is 5.51 points, while a first down from the one yard-line is 5.96 points. It of course stands to reason that the game might have looked extremely different with one of those scores, let alone both. Wazzu scored a touchdown after the first fumble, making it essentially a 14 point swing, and although a safety lessened the blow of that second one, the Bears weren't able to fully profit off of it, scoring only five out of a possible nine points.
Despite a running attack headed by more talented backs, the blocks simply just haven't been there this season. No one is getting to the second level, and some of the guys are having trouble even handling the first defender they're blocking. Remember, one of the benefits of having a multiple wide receiver/spread-type offense like the Bear Raid is to draw defenders out of the box. Even then, the line is not dominating, and on Saturday, the line regularly lost in situations where Washington State rushed only three or four.
On the rare occasions when Bigelow or Lasco is meeting only a linebacker or safety, they are not winning their matchup either. They're getting dangerously, tantalizingly close, but it's often that last guy that prevents them from really breaking a big one. They have to win. They're too talented not to.
Obviously the coaches are working on it with him, but neither Gould nor Ingram has had any real success getting Bigelow to hang onto the ball. He is quickly becoming a liability out there, and it's getting to the point where I actually hold my breath every time he gets touches. With the way this has gone, the starting running back job will no longer be up for grabs the second anyone looks consistently competent. My hypothesis - again, just a guess - is that he's not really used to taking contact, due to a variety of injuries, a lack of touches in recent years, and him being pretty much untouchable in the speed department for most of his life.
Knowing Bigelow - I wouldn't say we're close friends, but he was my student for Summer Bridge and we do know each other - I don't think that his reactions post-carries are anything to worry about. He just wants to succeed, really, really badly, probably to the point of even trying too hard, and I'm sure his struggles are weighing on him more than anyone.
On the flip side, the chances of him leaving for the NFL look pretty slim right now.
Jeffrey Coprich may not be able to wow anybody, but at least he isn't a constant fumble risk so far. I guess that puts him in the lead, since he took most of the second half snaps?
For whatever reason, the staff doesn't seem to trust Lucas Gingold as the short yardage back. Why? No idea - and it's not like he's been listed as injured at all so far...
Following up on that last point, this is where Devante Downs might see time starting next season.
Special teams: Acceptable
Some numbers behind this grade:
- D'Amato hit all his field goal attempts.
- Cole Leininger punted for a 44.0 average, which was his second best this season.
- Washington State returned those punts for a paltry 5.3 yards on average. This figure is directly in the middle of the data through five games - Northwestern and Portland State did not return a punt of any kind, while Ohio State and Oregon averaged 46.7 yards per return, respectively.
- Cal allowed just 16.3 yards per kickoff return, which was their best effort in this category all year.
Return game: Poor
This grade is due to several questionable returns by Treggs and Bigelow, who were obviously in the game due to Muhammad's absence. Bigelow's fumble in the fourth quarter was an obvious killer and a large part of why this grade is as low as it is.
One bright spot - Harper's day as punt returner was our most effective in that area to date, although I felt he fair caught one he could have returned early in the first quarter.
In which I close with a fantastic quotable I received
"People want instant gratification. Go hit the bubble gum machine." - postgame tweet to me from Diana George (@CalAlumni81)