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Cal vs. Stanfurd Post-Game Thoughts (114th Big Game)

(1)  Luck Gives Cal a Chance.  It was just shocking how ... off ... Luck looked during that first quarter.  He missed some ridiculously easy passes.  Ridiculously easy.  For a guy who has been toted as the shoe-in Heisman winner from the first day of the season, his performance was horrible.  It was as if the stars were aligning and the Football gods were giving Cal a chance.  Throw in some ridiculously easy drops by the Furd receivers and tight ends, it was like the Football gods were just begging Cal to steal this game... if only Cal could. 

(2)  Cal Offense Can't Go All the Way.  Cal starts the game with a beautiful 42 yard pass.  And then the very next play?  A fumble, recovered by the defense.  Stanfurd would score a touchdown three plays later.  Next drive, Cal gets the ball and drives from their own 25 yard line to the Furd 8 yard line, and settles for a field goal.  Cal does manage to score a touchdown on a short field thanks to an interception by Steve Williams (Cal CB #1).  But when it came to driving the field on the next possession, Cal could only go from their own 17 yard line to the Furd 2 yard line -- again settling for a field goal. 

And then... that's where the Cal offense stalled.  The next drive?  Three and out.  The next drive?  Three and out.  The next drive?  Six and out.  The next drive?  Three plays and then a lost fumble. 

In that span, Furd put up 14 points.  It wasn't a lot, but I think everyone know the way the Cal offense was struggling, it was probably enough. 

It's so cliche to say it, but you have to score touchdowns and not field goals.  Red zone efficiency matters.  If Cal scores two touchdowns instead of field goals, Cal could have had 21 points and been neck and neck with Stanfurd. 

So why couldn't Cal's offense go all the way?...

(3)  Turnovers DOOM the Bears.  2nd play of the game.  Maynard (Cal QB #15) tosses the ball to Sofele (Cal RB) when the play was apparently a handoff.  Stanfurd scores a touchdown on the short field and momentum swing. 

Later, Sofele also fumbles the ball.  Furd isn't able to score on the resulting possession, but still... you have to wonder what Cal might have done with that drive if it weren't interrupted by that momentum shift, and loss of 1 minute and 35 seconds of the clock. 

But it's that first turnover which really DOOMED the Bears.  Stanfurd scored a touchdown off of that short field.  If Cal doesn't turn the ball over and maybe scores a touchdown on that opening drive, Cal is looking at a 7-0 lead from the start.  If the rest of the game plays out more or less the same, then Cal is then looking at a 20-21 game or a 21-21 game (Cal has 7 or 8 more points throughout most of the game, and Stanfurd has 7 less points). 

But it wasn't just turnovers that doomed the Bears...

(4)  Cal's Run Game Falls Flat.  A lot of fuss has been made this week about how if Sofele rushes for 18 or more times a game, Cal is undefeated on the season.  I don't think I have to really say how meaningless that stat really is.  I mean, I think we all know the number of carries a guy gets has absolutely NO impact on whether a team will win the game or not.  The reason why Cal is (was) undefeated when Sofele rushes more than 18 times a game is because if Sofele is getting that many carries, it's because the run game is working, and Cal just keeps rushing the ball.  In other words, it's not the number of carries which affects Cal's chances to win the game, it's the effectiveness of Cal's running game which affects Cal's chances to win the game.

So I think a lot of us were expecting Cal to run run run the ball this game.  I wasn't.  Prior to the game, I was thinking Cal needed to pass the ball to win the game.  Why?  Stanfurd's defense is the #17 rush defense in the nation in least yards allowed per rush attempt. 

What are the chances that Cal is able to win this game by grinding out yards against the #17 rush defense in the nation?  Pretty slim.  Cal needed to pass the ball because Stanfurd's pass defense was weaker (#68 pass defense in the nation based on QB rating). 

Remember that whole Nash Equilibrium concept?  It's that concept which says a team should determine whether they should run or pass based on their average yards gained per rush or attempt.  If a team is averaging 6.0 yards a rush, and 3.0 yards per pass attempt, then the team should rush more.  If a team is averaging 4.0 yards a rush, and 9.0 yards per pass attempt, the team should pass more. 

What were Cal's numbers this game?  Sofele was averaging 3.8 yards per rush.  Maynard was averaging 9.3 yards per pass attempt!  To put things in perspective, an average yards per pass attempt over 7.0 yards per pass attempt is good.  Anything over 9.0 yards per pass attempt pretty much puts you in the top 5% of the nation's passers.  So in other words, Maynard's yards per pass attempt was just... flat... ridiculous.

Cal should have passed more.  I was tweeting that they should do so.  Unfortunately, Cal didn't pass enough.  Instead, Sofele rushed the ball 22 times... and Cal lost. 

I'm not saying Cal should have passed more because of the whole 9.3 yards vs. 3.8 yards Nash Equilibrium thing.  That's just evidence supporting the conclusion.  But Cal should have passed more because Cal has a pair of excellent WRs (Jones and Allen).  Those two were showing the ability to beat the Furd defenders.  They were getting separation.  When they couldn't they were drawing pass interference penalties.  They were making FANTASTIC catches.  Why run the ball against that great rush defense?  To me... it didn't quite make that much sense.  So I have to disagree a bit with the playcalling.  I would have liked to see more passing.  To me, it seemed like Stanfurd wouldn't have been able to keep up with Cal if Cal passed more.

(5)  This Game Was Winnable.  I already outlined all the reasons why Cal lost and how Cal could have won, above.  But to summarize, if Cal doesn't fumble on that opening drive, If Cal can then score a touchdown on that opening drive, if Cal can score one touchdown on one of those two drives where Cal settled for a field goal (or score two touchdowns instead) ... Cal leads the game.  Cal might even win the game. 

Execution, execution, execution.  It was good, but it wasn't enough.

(6)  Maynard has a Very Good Game.  It wasn't great though.  Let's just quickly point out the bad.  The fumble on the second play of the game was Maynard's fault

That was just a bonehead play by me, just overlooking a run play. I didn't read it as well as I should have and I pitched the ball and Isi (Sofele) wasn't even looking at me, he was looking at his read off the tackle. I pitched the ball right to him and hit him in the hands. That's all my fault.

Maynard doesn't see early enough a wide open Jones (Cal WR #1) in the endzone for what could have been a touchdown.  Maynard throws a late pass which is deflected and almost intercepted.  Cal is forced to kick a field goal on that drive. 

Maynard gets sacked on Cal's final drive which causes Cal to burn a very precious timeout. 

Again, on Cal's final drive, Maynard misses a wide open Allen (Cal WR #21) in the endzone for what could have been a touchdown.  If he made that throw, Cal scores quicker and has more time left on the clock for their game-typing drive (assuming they recover the onside kick). 

The first two errors were the biggest (the fumble, and missing Jones for a touchdown).  If Maynard hadn't made those mistakes, this could have been his best game of the season by light years. 

Instead, this game is only just his best game of the season.  Over all, Maynard played very well.  He was 20/30 on the night (66.67% completion rate)!  His yards per attempt were a ridiculous 9.3 yard average.  He didn't throw a single interception!  He made some RIDICULOUS throws (first play of the game, 2 pt. conversion, passes to Anderson [Cal RB #9]).  He ran for a crucial first down late in the third quarter on a 3rd and 11 (the play right before Sofele fumbled). 

This was definitely Maynard's best performance of the year, and he should be proud of it. 

(7)  Cal's Coaching Shows Some Good, Questionable and Bad. 

The Good:  Did anyone happen to notice that Luck didn't rush for any large gains against Cal's defense?  This is because Cal was making a CONSCIOUS effort to prevent this.  Cal was very disciplined in their pass rush to not give up inside rushing lanes to the QB.  This was a very good job by the Cal defensive line. 

But not just that, Cal was stunting linemen inwards -- into the interior of the offensive line -- to clog up the middle lanes in anticipation of Luck stepping up into the pocket and/or running.  This was a great counter-measure by Pendergast (Cal's defensive coordinator).

But not just that, Cal was also bringing delayed blitzes.  The purpose of a delayed blitz was to again, provide a pass rush, but more as a "spy" against the QB to prevent him from scrambling.  These delayed blitzes also force the offensive line to identify the late blitz, allow for more opportunity for the offensive line to be confused, and allow the pass rushers to pick their pass rush holes if something does open up down the middle.  Again, another great counter-measure by Pendergast. 

The Questionable: Tedford decides to go for a 2 point conversion when they were just down 13-28.   When you're down 15, you need two touchdowns and one two point conversion off of one of those touchdowns.  Most coaches say that you don't go for the 2 point conversion until you really need it, and thus you take the 7 points now and wory about the 2 point conversion on the second touchdown.  The rationale there being that the game could always change down the line and you don't want to risk giving up a (pretty much) free point unless you really have to. 

But in reality, the order in which you get that 7 and then 8 points doesn't really matter.  It could be 7 then 8.  Or 8 then 7.  Either way, I'm not sure it makes much difference.  If you fail the 2 point conversion on the first touchdown, you're down 19-28, and you still need two scores (a touchdown and field goal -- a two possession game) to win.  If you get the 2 point conversion on the first touchdown, you're only down 21-28, but if you fail the 2 point conversion on the second touchdown, you still need another field goal to win the game (because you're down 27-28).  The end results are still the same -- you need one 7-point touchdown, one 6 point touchdown, and one field goal (all this, assuming that your defense shuts out the opposing team the rest of the game). 

I guess with going for the 2 point conversion first and you fail, you at least know you need two more possessions and can plan out the rest of the game accordingly.  On the other hand, if you get the touchdown first (7 points), and then wind down the clock getting that second touchdown but fail on the 2 point conversion (thus down 27-28) you basically could have little to no time to try for that last desperate game-winning field goal. 

The Bad:  The Cal Defense Gives Up Some Easy Plays.  This maybe isn't quite on the coach's shoulder here, but more so on the individual players.  There were some egregious errors by Cal defenders who let Stanfurd receivers get by them.  I'm betting the coaches warned them and coached them up on how Stanfurd was going to do it.  But some Cal defenders just still couldn't handle their assignment.  On one notable play, I remember Holt (Cal linebacker) peeking into the backfield too long and letting one of the many Stanfurd TEs get behind him.  Assuming that was his assignment, and there wasn't supposed to be safety help, he messed up.  Luckily, on that very play I'm speaking of, the Furd TE dropped the ball.  But still.  On Luck's last touchdown pass of the night, there was a blown coverage allowing for a completely uncontested touchdown reception.  There wasn't a Cal defender within a 15 yard radius of the receiver. 

The Bad:  Cal's Coaches Have Taken Out the Quick 2-Minute Drill Playcalls Installed by Ludwig.  Last year I noted how Ludwig installed a quick 2-Minute Drill playcall system.  This system was very easy.  The offense had 9 plays it would use in hurry-up situations.  Every member on offense had those plays memorized.  When Cal wanted to hurry up, they just signaled the hurry-up from the sidelines, and which play of the nine plays they wanted to run.  The players would then run to their positions and execute the play.  But now, Cal's two-minute drill is long and complicated.  Plays are signaled in from the sidelines seemingly IN WHOLE.  Meaning, they're not signaling in "play #3".  They're signaling in "this formation, this play".  It's a long process.  The QB has to read the signals quickly and accurately from the sidelines.  He then has to yell it to the players who are basically waiting for the QB to translate the signals for them.  We saw this happening in Cal's final drive.  Cal was quickly burning precious seconds off of the clock with this slow cumbersome system.  This system does have its advantages in that it allows the offense to pretty much call any play in the book, whereas the 1-9 system only allows you to call 9 plays.  But still... I think the coaches have to think up some new method which strikes a balance between efficiency and diversity. 

(8)  Refs Make an Impact.  Everyone has an opinion on these guys.  Some say their calls sucked.  Indeed some did.  But I think they were correct in ruling that Sofele fumbled along the sidelines.  But then again, I think it was wrong to give the ball to Stanfurd because the play was whistled dead, and thus that's why Sofele wasn't fighting for the ball. How can you fault one player for not continuing the play when you whistled the play dead?

The block in the back penalty on Williams' (Cal CB #1) interception return for a touchdown (thus negating the touchdown) was pure bullshit.  I can see why it might have *looked* like a block in the back or whatever the hell they called it (because Luck belly-flopped which gives the appearance of him getting pushed in the back) but Luck clearly just stumbled over his big clown face Geico cave man stupid self and fell down.  This is moot though, since Cal did go on and score a touchdown anyways... but still, it as a bad call.

One of the PI calls on Anthony (Cal CB #2) was horrible.  I mean, I admit, from the live TV feed it (again) *looked* like it was pass interference based on how the WR moved.  But a subsequently replay from a different camera showed that there was ABSOLUTELY NO contact by Anthony on the WR.  Again, another horrible call.  Another instance of a ref calling a penalty not because he actually saw an offense, but because he saw something which seemingly indicated an offense.

The personal foul call called against Cal for a defender hitting Luck as he was sliding was fairly bogus too.  Luck slide late.  QBs who slide late are still going to get hit a little bit by defenders who have already committed their momentum to a tackle.  Unfortunately, too many refs seem to interpret the rule as "if the QB slides he can't be touched at all" which is just not the reality of the situation at all.

(9)  An Effort to Be Proud Of.  Despite the loss, I think most Cal fans aren't pissed.  And for the most part, I think there is quite a bit to be proud of.  Most of us were probably just hoping not to get blown out.  We didn't.  That was a pleasant surprise.  But what we can be proud of is the fact that Cal played hard.  The players cared.  They didn't quit.  They wanted to win, and that was obvious.  Maynard put up his best performance of the season yet.  You could see him willing things out there, and pushing himself to the max to make those plays.  Yeah, Luck didn't play his best game (nor did his receivers) which left the door open for Cal and made things easier for us.  But nevertheless, for just about four straight quarters, Cal played neck to neck with the #9 team in the nation and their Heisman-worthy QB.  Not bad.  A loss is a loss, but I think there can be a moral victory to be found in a loss -- and I think the 114th Big Game was just exactly the case.