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2011 Cal @ Washington Post-Game Thoughts

(1)  Close Games Come Down to the Small Things.  This was a pretty close game -- score-wise -- at least.  And when it comes down to close games, every small thing matters.  A dropped pass could mean the difference of a drive surviving and resulting in a score.  One bad block and a run is stuffed putting the offense in a third and long.  One missed sack on the defense can allow the opposing QB to complete a pass down the field.  One penalty can give the other team another set of downs when you thought you just had them go three-n-out.  For the most part, I feel like the loss was mostly due to a large accumulation of small errors here and there. 

The TV broadcast had an interesting stat during the game.  Tedford is like 48-4 (or something like that) when the team wins the turnover battle.  Cal won the turnover battle this game but didn't win the game.  How can this happen?  Those small things.

(2)  Credit to Washington for Holding Cal Out of the Endzone.  Cal had to settle for multiple field goals throughout the game -- three to be exact.  If Cal scores touchdowns on one or two of those drives, Cal might win the game.  Despite Cal being held out of the endzone, some props is due for at least coming away with some points on those drives and to Tavecchio for nailing those field goals. I know field goals aren't the ideal scenario but at least Cal was getting points.

(3)  Maynard Racks Up the Passing Yardage, But Was Still Hit and Miss.  So he was 23/43 (53.5%).  I think there was only one easy drop during the game by a receiver (Allen).  Unfortunately, while Maynard did pass for 349 yards on the day, it's those yards he didn't get which hurt Cal the most.  It seemed like for every great throw to Jones or Allen, there was another throw where he missed Jones or Allen.  Maynard specifically seems to have problems with his down-field sideline "go" route passes.  He tends to under-throw those balls, and also isn't putting the ball over the outside shoulder of the receivers -- instead the balls are inside.  The receivers are thus forced to put on the brakes, dive inwards, and try to play the ball through the defender.  On some occasions, Cal gets a pass interference call.  On other occasions, Cal doesn't.  And there were a few occasions this game where Cal didn't get those calls -- but of course the problem isn't so much that Cal didn't get those calls but that the throws weren't there.

I think the one throw which was just crazy bad was the final pass on 4th and goal to give Cal the chance to tie the game (way to state the obvious, HydroTech!).  That ball was just way overthrown.  Not really sure what happened there.  I guess Marynard's nerves just got to him.  What's interesting about that play was it was essentially the same playcall which won the game for Cal against Colorado.  Perhaps that's why that play was called.  The coaches had confidence the players could execute it.  Also, Washington's cornerbacks seemed to be playing inside leverage quite a bit during the game so it made sense to call up a play containing outside routes ... hence that corner route. 

It seems like a lot of Cal fans are loving Maynard after this game due to his 300+ yards, but I'm still not there yet.  He's just too inconsistent for my complete liking.  He's not as inconsistent as Riley though.

(4)  Maynard Needs Some QB Polish.  In my post-game thoughts for the Fresno game, I said Maynard was a bit of a sandlot/streetball player.  I think that attitude and swagger gives him some confidence, but at other times it also hurts him.  For example, Maynard still has a tendency to bolt from the pocket when it isn't necessary.  One such play was in the fourth quarter when he bolted out to the left and threw the ball away.  On that play, the protection seemed pretty good.  He's got to manipulate the pocket protection and step up into it.  Instead, he ran off to the left and gave himself up to defensive end pursuit which forced him to then throw the ball away.  A polished QB will step up into the pocket, have faith in his OL to protect him, keep his eyes down the field, and make a pass. 

Speaking of Maynard's tendency to bolt from the pocket, he also flees to the offense's left.  It's a tendency that defensive coordinators probably have noticed and take into account when they game plan.  One thing I would like to see is Maynard scramble for yardage up through the middle of the pocket if he can.  If a QB can show he's a threat to run up the middle and not just to his passing side then it can really put stress on defenders.  As for doing that against Washington, the defense seemed to be playing a lot of their linebackers in zone which can make it hard for scrambling up the middle since those linebackers in zone essentially act as QB spies.

Another thing Maynard needs some polish on is ball protection.  Against Washington, he almost lost a fumble because he decided to scramble (which was justifiable since protection was breaking down) but was holding the ball away from his body.  Got to hold that ball close to your body or with both hands. 

(4)  Fairly Good Run Blocking... Until the End.  Sofele (Cal RB #20) had some good runs today thanks to some decently large running lanes.  Unfortunately, run blocking really took a nose dive on that final drive when Cal was 1st and goal from the 3 yard line.  I know a lot of people have issue with the fact that Sofele was in the game instead of Anderson (Cal RB #9).  And I get it -- Sofele is 190 pounds and Anderson is like 4,974 pounds.  But when your runningback can't get one or two yards ... it's usually because there just wasn't good blocking.  In other words, the problem was the offensive line and not the RB.  So I'm not particularly pissed or anything about the fact that Sofele was in the game during Cal's goalline runs; my frustration is directed more at the offensive line. 

In particular, on that 3rd and Goal (Cal's second to last play of the game), Cal ran the ball with Sofele.  Sofele didn't gain any yardage.  It looked like Galas (Cal center #65) fell off his block or thought he was passing off his defender to someone else.  His defender then ended up in the face of Sofele causing Sofele to bounce the ball outside and thus for no gain.  If the defender whom Galas was blocking was actually blocked more, then I think Sofele gets that touchdown.  The backside of that the offensive line on that play executed beautiful cut blocks on Washington leaving a huge cutback lane for Sofele.  And of course, Sofele couldn't get there since the Washington nose guard was all up in Sofele's face real fast.  Looks like there was either a mental error or execution error there and it cost Cal a touchdown.  That's one of those little mistakes which prevents teams from winning close games. 

(5)  Ridiculous Game For Jones and Allen.  The statistics alone pretty much speak for themselves.  Allen (Cal WR #21) had 10 receptions for 197 yards.  Jones (Cal WR #1) had 6 receptions for 79 yards which included two ridiculously clutch toe-dragging catches.  One thing I noticed was that the coaches seem to trust the WRs.  When Allen dropped that easy scramble pass from Maynard, the very next play the coaches went back to Allen.  It's as if for Allen, when he makes a mistake, he actually gets better because it forces him to concentrate and become more clutch. 

It seems like when Maynard does pass to Jones and Allen on those post routes, it usually requires that the WRs jump to catch the ball.  This is a little concerning because it leaves the WRs vulnerable to huge safety hits, and also because it doesn't really allow the WRs to get YAC (yards after the catch).  I think part of this reason is that the defenses are putting their linebackers in zone which requires Maynard putting that ball over them.  It is what it is.  Cal is doing a pretty good job completing them. 

(6)  Special Teams Was Okay.  The good: nailed all the field goals; no blocked PATs; punts were good; kickoff depth seemed adequate.  The bad: kickoff out of bounds; kickoff coverage allowing big return; and kick returner Bigelow (Cal RB #5) was very underwhelming. 

I think everyone was just waiting for Bigelow to rip off a huge kickoff return, right?  Maybe the running lanes weren't there, but it was very disappointing to not see him do more.  His kickoff return average was 18.6  yards per return.  On one instance, I think he ran into the back of one of his blockers.  I feel like it's been forever since I've seen a decent 50+ yard Cal kickoff return (I'm not counting the one last week by Bigelow against Presbyterian).  Seems like Cal always has bad starting field position due to a penalty on the kickoff return, or a poor kickoff return run back.

(7)  Cal Offensive Playcalling Was Making Washington Respect the Weakside Run.  I just happened to notice Cal was doing a lot of weakside runs against Washington.  Doing this breaks up Cal's tendency to run towards the strongside and forces the defense to respect both sides of the defense.  I like it.  It seemed to have a decent success rate too.

(8)  I Like Tedford Going for It on the Fourth Downs Instead of Punting/Kicking Field Goal.  I know I'm a big critic of that Berkeley Statistics Professor who said college football coaches need to go for it more on 4th down.  I am a big critic because there are so many other factors which need to be taken into account than merely the down and yardage.  For example, field position, momentum, score, weather, etc.  Thus, I really don't like it when people are always like "Go for it on fourth down because that Berkeley Statistics Professor said so!"  I think every situation requires a unique analysis of whether you should or not.

When Cal was facing a 4th and 4 from Washington's 37 yardline in the second quarter, I didn't mind the decision to go for it.  A field goal from that range is 51 yards.  Can Tavecchio hit a FG from that range?  Sure.  What's the probability he does that?  Well, considering he's had some problems with his kick height which has led to blocked PATs, maybe there's only a 25% chance.  If that be the case, I'd agree with just going for it.  Run blocking was fairly good for the most part during the game.  Cal was passing alright too.  Punting is out of the option.  Field position was favorable to Cal even if they don't convert.  Momentum was on Cal's side due to the fact that Cal got that possession from a Washington lost fumble.  Seems like a good "play to win the game" decision to me.

I also like the decision to go for it on 4th and 3 from Cal's own 20 yardline late in the fourth quarter.  Cal had two timeouts at the time with about... 3 minutes left on the clock.  Punting is an option, but considering that the Cal defense was having some problems fully stopping Washington, if you punt the ball then you might never get it back.  Again, seems like another good "play to win the game" decision to me. 

(9)  Cal Defense Disappoints.  Let's get to the obvious first.  Cal gives up 292 yards through the air.  Washington's QB deserves some credit here because he made passing plays happen by buying time with his feet.  Which some of leads me to my next point.  How many times have a Cal linebacker whiffed on a QB sack?  Seems like at least a dozen times so far this season.  I've noticed our linebackers tend to whiff on those easy sacks because they are attempting to tackle the QB with their up-field shoulder (the shoulder more towards the endzone they are defending).  I think it might be better to tackle the QB with their back-field shoulder (the shoulder more towards the endzone that the defense is trying to score into).  Why?  Because QBs very typically step up into the pocket when they sense pressure from the outside edge.  When the QB does step up into the pocket, if a linebacker leads with his up-field shoulder, then the QB's up-field movement is enough to make the linebacker miss.  Alternatively, if the LB leads with his back-field shoulder, it causes him to be aiming slightly in front of the QB so when the QB does step up into the pocket he ends up stepping right into the very line that the LB is taking to sack him.   This was also a problem against Colorado too. 

Cal defensive Coordinator Clancy Pendergast was making adjustments out there for Washington QB's mobility.  There were some DE/DT twists (DEs twisting in behind the DTs to put pressure up the middle of the pocket where the Washington QB was stepping up into), and there was more blitzing up the middle to pressure the QB in his face.   Why not blitz off the edge?  Well, when facing mobile QBs, if you blitz off the edge you often rush yourself upfield too far and you're now behind the QB ... who then is probably running down the field untouched on a scramble.  So it was nice to see the defense taking steps to try and stop the mobility of the Washington QB... but generally it just seemed like it wasn't enough. 

On the positive side, Cal's rush defense was generally pretty good.  Washington's RB, Polk, was fairly well neutralized.  He only averaged 3.0 yards per rush on 20 attempts.  Cal was doing a great job controlling the line of scrimmage.  If only the Cal passing defense was a little better...

(10)  Downgrading My Season Prediction Despite a 51 Point Win Over Presbyterian (two weeks ago).  I have to admit, I was actually pretty surprised with the amount of criticism I got from my downgrading of Cal's season outlook from 8-4 to 6-6 despite Cal's 51 point win over Presbyterian.  I can understand how crazy it can seem to ding a team for a win -- especially a 51 point win.  But let me try and explain where I'm coming from.  I don't care too much about how many points Cal scored.  Or how many points Cal scored in three quarters -- yes, I am well aware Cal scored 63 points in three quarters.  Those statistics don't really matter to me.  I'm looking at *how* Cal scored.  I'm looking at *how* the players performed.  I'm looking at how Cal *didn't* score.  I think those factors are more indicative of how good a team is rather than looking at how many points Cal won by, or how many points Cal scored in a quarter.  After all, if you were to only judge a team based on how many points Cal scored in three quarters, or how many points Cal wins by, you'd think Cal was a top ten team nationally based on its win over Presbyterian.  I think we can all agree that Cal isn't that (yet, at least).  

When I was watching the Presbyterian game, I actually was thinking how Cal was seemingly having trouble on offense passing the ball.  Again, I am aware that Maynard was 15/25 for the day with three EASY and uncontested drops his receivers.  But what concerned me was that I saw some inaccurate throws, some bad QB decisions, mental lapses by the OL and receivers.  Not to mention some busted strong-side toss sweep blocking (or slot WR on crackbacks was also taking out our pulling playside guard), a blocked punt, a large run by the opponent against our kickoff coverage unit, excessive penalties, and a Presbyterian pass which easily could have been a touchdown against our defense if the pass had been on the money.  

I mean, if you're a fairly happy-go-lucky Cal fan, then the Presbyterian game was a fun game to watch and there's no reason to really be concerned because ... "it's just Presbyterian."  I get the feeling that a lot of Cal fans seem to think that not too much should be taken away from the Presby game because they were so bad, and it's hard for a team to be really focused when they know (or think they know) that they are going to smash the opponent.  I guess I'm different; I don't really think that way.  I feel like there is plenty to take away from the Presbyterian game, and that the team should be focused.  If the team can't focus and execute against an opponent one week, then can you really expect for them to focus and execute another week?  I'm not sure how I got this way, but I'm thinking it's partly because I've heard the coaches push the players week in and week out.  There is always room to get better.  You may never be perfect, but that doesn't mean you shouldn't try to achieve it.  Winners aren't satisfied with just a positive outcome of the play, winners are satisfied when they know they did the best they could, they didn't mess up their assignment, and the play had a positive outcome.  If you let your guard down, then you'll get popped; if you let it down enough then you'll lose.  

I think that line of thinking is something which is more prevalent in the coaching ranks, than it is with the fans.  Coaches are always push, push, push.  Never stop.  Grind.  Get better.  It's not okay to make mistakes just because the opponent is inferior.  Treat this cupcake opponent like they're the #1 team in the nation.  Fans tend to be more happy-go-lucky.  Do you think Tedford was actually happy with the way the team performed against Presbyterian?  No, he wasn't.  He didn't really outright say anything to hint that since so much focus that week was on him being the winningest coach in Cal Football history, but he was probably disappointed in the lack of focus, the penalties, and individual player errors on the field.  

So I apologize if I offended you for being critical of the team despite its 51 point win against Presbyterian.  I apologize for being a Debbie Downer and downgrading my season prediction back down to 6-6.  But I at least hope that anyone who thought I was being crazy has a bit better understanding of where I'm coming from.  No, I'm not crazy -- at least I don't think so.  But I do like to see the team play well, and I just didn't think it was actually playing that well against Presbyterian.  

And also, a lot of people had issues with the fact that I was dinging Cal for not winning by enough while I wasn't dinging Oregon for its win against Missouri State (by the tune of 56-7 nonetheless).  After all, Oregon allowed an actual offensive touchdown (Cal didn't).  Oregon allowed Missouri State to actually get 17 first downs (Cal only allowed 3).  Oregon "only" put up 681 yards of total offense on Missouri State (Cal only put up 581).  And Oregon allowed 289 yards of offense (Cal only allowed 48 yards).  Point taken.  But that last post-game thoughts post was about Cal and not Oregon.  If I was writing about Oregon, then I'd talk about Oregon's game.  But I wasn't.  And of course, I know that projecting Cal's season outlook requires evaluating how Cal's future opponents are also fairing.  But I don't think it's necessary that I micro-analyze every game Cal's future opponents play.  A basic bottom-line level of performance can be assumed of every future Cal opponent.  And my season prediction was based on a basic bottom-line level of performance from Cal's future opponents.  

And one more thing.  Some people thought it was unreasonable to readjust a season prediction based on one game.  Point taken.  But I don't see why that one game should be ignored either.  It's new data.  The best way to predict a future performance by a team is to look at its past performance.  The best way to predict a future performance by a team is to evaluate all available data.  This is what people do when they make their Associated Press Top-25 ballots.  This is what people do in the stock market.  It may be crazy, but it's what people do.  I just don't think the Presbyterian game can be ignored.  

So I hope this answers some of the questions and criticisms that a lot of you all had for me two weeks ago.  

As for how this week's loss against Washington bodes for my season prediction ... nah, I won't go there again.  But I will say this: we clearly should have won 105-0.