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Cal vs Arizona postgame thoughts

Progress is not always linear.


Both section grades were a bit of a struggle to figure out, seeing as both technically played well enough to win, but were marred again by spurts of inconsistency. Such is the nature of youth, I suppose.

The scale, as always: Outstanding, Exceeds Expectations, Acceptable, Poor, Dreadful, Troll.

Let's get into it.

In which we discuss the offense

Unit grade: Acceptable-

Nobody better exemplified the above note on Saturday than Goff, who alternatively fluctuated between fantastic and infuriating.

Between 8:12 of the first quarter and 11:21 of the second, Cal went three and out four times and gave up a safety on its only other drive. In that timeframe, Jared Goff was 1 of 10 passing for -4 yards.

Here are those plays in question:

  • 8:12, first quarter - 1st and 10, Cal 20 - Goff has plenty of protection, but can't find anyone open down field on four verticals. Because the Air Raid version of this play allows receivers to modify their routes on the fly, you see both Treggs and Harper on the outside turn around after six yards and then go back deep. That doesn't fool anyone, though. Bigelow and what looks like Richard Rodgers do not get free either. An attempted dumpoff pass to Darren Ervin hits the dirt.
  • 7:41, first quarter - 3rd and 5, Cal 25 - Same drive, a deep shot to Rodgers on a wheel route falls incomplete. Arizona has only one deep safety here and plays what I believe is Cover 1, with man across the board. The idea behind throwing deep to Rodgers here is because one, you think he'll beat his man, which he does, and two, with only one safety in the middle of the field, you think that the throw gets there before he can. Just a bit strong there. Punt.
  • 5:35, first quarter - 1st and 10, Cal 9 - Goff drops back out of the Bone formation, no pressure at all, but can't get it in to Treggs on a hook/curl.
  • 5:32, first quarter - 2nd and 10, Cal 9 - Bad snap, Goff does the veteran move and manages to throw it incomplete, preventing a safety. No help from the refs here, who, in their incompetence, nearly rule it a safety anyway.
  • 5:25, first quarter - 3rd and 10, Cal 9 - Three man rush, Goff steps up but has the pass batted away on a crossing route to Rodgers. Arizona dropped eight here, and it was unlikely to be a first down anyway. Punt.
  • 0:39, first quarter - 1st and 10, Cal 22 - Quick three step drop to Treggs on a hitch is read the whole way by the Arizona defensive end Justin Washington, who swats it down.
  • 0:36, first quarter - 2nd and 10, Cal 22 - Khalfani Muhammad rushes up the seam for a perfectly thrown pass, but he can't hang on. This one's all on Khalfani.
  • 0:31, first quarter - 3rd and 10, Cal 22 - Empty back field and five wide, Jared Goff scrambles right and tosses a little lob pass to Rodgers, who can't hang on. Defensive back got in there with a hand, as well. Catchable, but not nearly as much as the previous play. Punt.
  • 12:45, second quarter - 1st and 10, Cal 25 - Quick throw out to Bigelow, who is tackled for a loss. Bondurant hangs onto Bigelow's shoe to allow for help to get there.
  • 12:22, second quarter - 2nd and 14, Cal 22 - Goff trying to hit Rodgers on the seam, but the ball is knocked away. Rodgers is bracketed here, with a defender above and below him. Announcers are quick to point out that this is a pretty odd decision as well.
  • 12:14 second quarter - 3rd and 14, Cal 22 - Not a throw, but there's 10 yards on the Jared Goff scramble, who didn't see anybody open. Good for him to pull the trigger on the run. Keeps them off guard a bit, at least.

All in all, there were two drops that should have been caught in this sequence, and a couple other plays that probably shouldn't have been made. Frustrating, to be sure, but inconsistency is to be expected from a freshman quarterback. He's young. He will get better, not to mention this was the worst stretch of the entire game for him.

If you remember the bye week post about freshman quarterbacks, he still leads the other two statistically. Baker Mayfield has not played for a month now, having sat with a knee injury, but racked up a majority of his statistics against far worse competition than Goff has played.

A side note, regarding Goff's leadership:

"You guys were talking about the mood on the Cal sideline, and let me tell you - after that last touchdown, there was reinvigoration of energy. Jared Goff was pumping up his teammates, jumping up and down, giving everyone high fives, saying 'we can win this, we are in this game to win this.' Then he turned to the student section, waved his hands in the air and tried to get them to go louder. This speaks exactly to what Sonny Dykes told us yesterday, Ted - that he wants Jared Goff to be a leader and he's looking for leaders no matter what class they are. [Goff's] showing that right now."

-Drea Evans, sideline reporter.

Kind of hoping that puts the whole GOFF ISN'T A GOOD LEADER thing to rest a tad.

And yes, the second interception was a killer. Without it, the Bears might have strolled out with a much needed win. The first was definitely a mix-up in communications, as Harper and Goff clearly were expecting different things from the other. The second, though, probably didn't need to happen, especially with the team needing only a yard for the first. The camera angles make it hard to tell what's going on, but I think he just didn't see the guy there waiting in robber zone.

Still too many three and outs though. Hope this is something that we get away from next year with another offseason full of reps.

A lot of attention is going to be made about how improved the line looked, and while I agree with that assessment, it's important to realize that it occurred only to an extent. A 5.0 YPC is fantastic considering that number has middled along in the mid 3's all year, but to say they were significantly better in pass protection is a tad deceptive. Jared's mobility was probably better against Arizona than it had been all year, which helped prevent some sacks all by himself.

Still, to see good protection and some actual threat posed by our backs was very, very encouraging. A year or two from now, when this front five comes back with more experience, we might actually have something. Maybe. Everybody is young as hell here.

Offensive lines rely very heavily on game action and returning starts, which we'll have a bunch more of those in the future. Remember, we opened with three brand new starters. Of those three new starters, only one - Moore - is still standing.

Jordan Rigsbee is probably not going to be our center next year, though. His snapping isn't particularly reliable, although I respect the effort he plays with all the time, as well as the fact that he is moving there on the fly.

New wrinkles this week: a lot of trips bunch - I don't know if that's the technically correct name for it, but we lined up with three wide receivers very close together a good amount of the time, with some variations on which guy would be on the line of scrimmage. Yes, we have several 3x1 sets, but this was the first time I can remember those three wide receivers being squeezed in together, rather than spread out as usual.

Also new: one play out of the Oregon "stack" formation, which was a handoff to Muhammad. More on that from FishDuck.

Also new: Richard Rodgers lined up as a traditional tight end, with his hand on the ground a few times. I believe we've seen this look previously, but can't remember for sure. Anyway, this showed up first on the opening drive, and he caught a ball for a gain out of the formation. Hunter Hewitt informed me that this occurred more than once, which I didn't notice, so all credit to him.

One immediate advantage I can think of with this formation is that he won't have to try to get his hands on someone significantly faster than him, which may help reduce holding calls.

We've shown the throwback only once or twice this season, to devastating effect both times.

Kenny "The King" - there, you happy, Ric? - Lawler called his one handed catch routine for him, and he's not wrong. Throughout spring and fall, he showed off a lot of what we've been seeing this season, particularly with the same impressive hands and body control. His lengthy frame has come in handy a couple times as well. With Chris Harper out during the spring, a lot of people thought he would be a factor this year - myself included - and while that hasn't been exactly true due to superior depth ahead of him, he is certainly rounding into a solid player. We haven't seen much of James Grisom lately, which I assume is in part related to Lawler's growth. Bahgawd, have yourself a game, kid!

Which brings me to another wide receiver related point - of all the disappointingly wrong things with this season, Brendan Bigelow has to be atop the list. Since moving to inside receiver a couple weeks ago, his role has gradually increased, with Arizona being his largest amount of action to date. Even so, he did little of note, getting smothered nearly immediately on each catch. Some of that can be blamed on the blocking, sure, but Bigelow has played this way essentially all season, rarely able to make any man miss at all. Baffling.

It could also be argued that Bigelow hurt the comeback effort more than anything. You probably know about the penalty he drew late in the fourth quarter for trying to punch an Arizona defender, and while he was held, he's gotta be smarter than this. On the play immediately before, he was already jawing with the same guy. Just unacceptable.

That same defender - Grandon - intercepted a pass intended for Bigelow. Perhaps it went back further than what I noticed.

I am convinced that the staff was attempting to run a trick play on 3rd and 1 early in the fourth quarter. This came out of one of the aforementioned trips bunch sets, with Harper coming underneath for a quick pass, but he dropped it. Live, you could see Bryce Treggs continuing to run a route far down the field - it looked to me like a set up for some sort of wide receiver pass.

A few plays after this, they did run a trick play, with Harper on a reverse. Bigelow had a very nice block to spring him for the first down.

Wondering if at some point the staff might want to move Harper inside in place of Bigelow, and start Lawler out at Z. Still, this position group continued to do what it has all season, which has carried the offense.

Welcome back, Daniel Lasco. Very clearly the best back Cal has had all year. Wondered earlier this year about why he couldn't be the starter - and now we know he damn well will be.

Game ball still goes for Lawler, though.

In which we discuss the defense

Unit grade: Acceptable-

Once again, some good stuff, some bad stuff, and a long stretch where they were not helped by the offense at all, same as against UCLA and Washington. They get an A- here - and to be clear ATOMS, not a standard A-, but an Acceptable- - because it was a pretty decent performance. Arizona's yardage came very much due to the amount of plays they ran and save for one 60 yard mistake, the Bears did a fantastic job limiting big plays of any kind.

B.J. Denker very clearly favors his left side, and Arizona designed their passing game to accentuate that, giving him many easy reads there, particularly with curls and hitches. You might have noticed this yourself - with Kam Jackson playing not to get beat deep, the Wildcats had repeated success attacking this area of the field for short gains.

Still, Andy Buh isn't blind - noticing this tendency, he freely sent pressure to try to force Denker right and to keep him contained. Jalen Jefferson and Hardy Nickerson were two of the players he regularly threw at Denker from that direction. This worked to a pretty decent degree. Also saw him call some zones where the outside backers would drop right into the flats, trying to swallow up those hitches/curls that Denker so favored.

Following up on that previous point, I believe this is the most aggressive and blitz-heavy the defense has played all season, which is certainly encouraging. Decent pressure from the ends, especially Camporeale.

On one of those occasions - 2nd and 9 with about 8:30 to go in the 4th - we forced Denker right as intended, but lost containment of the cutback lane, which allowed him to rush for 17. That totally sucked. Luckily Arizona ended up punting on that drive.

Didn't like the way the defense unfolded right before the half, which might have been a tad too conservative. We basically allowed a free field goal attempt because we were so worried about getting beat deep.

There have been a bunch of games this year when Hardy Nickerson has very clearly struggled - not struggled in an "oh, he's hopeless and will never get better" kind of way, but struggled in a "young player who is being pressed into early service" kind of way. Saturday did not fall in either category for the younger Nickerson, who played tremendously, as he did against UCLA. Two tackles for loss among his eight, plus several pressures. Perhaps uncoincidentally, those are two of the better games this defense has played all year.

Still not great in pass coverage, though. That PI hurt.

I was pretty impressed with Cameron Walker's tackling this week, as he was much more decisive coming up on edge runs. No, he's not perfect there, but he looks more comfortable at safety for sure. In fact, the defense held up relatively well in the back end, between Lowe's multiple passes broken up and Walker's tackling. Hats off to those guys. If it weren't for one or two missed tackles on the screen to Miller, the secondary's play would have just been tremendous overall.

Cedric Dozier was probably the best replacement corner we trotted out there this year. Don't ask me why it took so long for him to play. I don't know. He didn't really catch my eye in camp, but was substantially better than Lapite and about on par with Lee.

Though Kadeem Carey ran for 152 yards, he was relatively contained in comparison to last week's Bishop Sankey related disaster. No, it wasn't that great, but it was a lot better than last week, and in fact, giving up only 4.8 yards per carry to Carey makes it one of the best performances any team has had against him this year. Give the two tackles - Moala and Coleman - a bunch of credit for that.

Heartbreaking final touch for Carey, though. Nobody is able to get a hand on him. Lopa dives and misses, Hardy is blocked, and that's the ball game.

Watching the game live, I thought that this was the best I had ever seen out of Viliami Moala, who even showed a little athleticism in getting out to the flats on a screen. That definitely made me laugh.

A lot of defensive end looks with our guys standing up.

Sarcastic applause for three and outs makes me feel bad. There was also at least one paper-bag wearing fellow in QQ yesterday, to which I would like to say - really? It's too fucking early in the Sonny Dykes era for your bullshit.

Despite all the positives I named up top, it wasn't enough. A handful of moments would be the difference, as it usually is with young teams, who lose focus just briefly or make one mistake that proves too costly. Think back to the Northwestern game for proof of that.

In which we look more closely at some defensive things and at B.J. Denker

I don't have a way to create gifs since the game isn't on Youtube or anything, so crappy photos taken from my DVR'd copy of the game will have to do. As per usual, I don't usually break down tape since Liffey and Scott do that better than me, but here we go anyway.

The first Denker touchdown run in the first quarter came on what I believe is a zone bluff, or Samurai. More on that concept from Chris Brown, here.

Found out later after putting this all together that the game announcers did break down this play, but screw it, here it is anyway for people who want a little more depth or didn't catch the broadcast. I spent a good half hour on this, I'll be damned if I'm not gonna use it!

Here's how the play begins, with Arizona in "11" personnel, meaning 1 TE (#18), 1 RB (#25, Kadeem Carey), 3 WR. I have also denoted relevant Cal defenders to this play - #14 Cameron Walker, #11 Khairi Fortt, and #43 Dan Camporeale.


If you don't feel like reading the whole article, in essence, the zone bluff is the zone read, with one added wrinkle - the quarterback has a blocker who "arcs" around to blow up any defender trying to get a clean shot on him. Those are denoted in yellow.

Denker reads an unblocked Camporeale here and decids to pull the ball, which was the correct call on his part. Camporeale crashes down the line of scrimmage - his assignment is to attack the running back, which is the red portion of the play.This means that the threat of a running Denker - the yellow section - falls to the other defenders.

That leaves two guys to the offense's two - Khairi Fortt and Cam Walker versus Denker and his blocker, #18, Terrence Miller. In theory, this should work.

Except it doesn't, and here's why - whether by the play's design or by his own instinct, I cannot tell, but Khairi Fortt also goes into the box, which leaves him too far inside to help out on Denker.


Now Cam Walker is stuck in a difficult situation - with Fortt too far inside to help, the freshman has a massive tight end barreling down on him, plus a two on one disadvantage, to boot. It would take a tremendous individual effort to both beat this block and tackle Denker, so to expect that he will is a bit unreasonable.

Fortt and Camporeale try to get back outside, but it's already too late. Touchdown, Wildcats.


Denker's touchdown to open the second half is a zone read off the right side, this time. Khairi Fortt - who looks like he's responsible for the outside gap - is blocked out by the tight end, forcing Michael Lowe to head back outside at a very, very difficult angle. He can't make the play, and Denker gets in for the score. Really good block by Miller, though. Fortt had nowhere to go.

Third Denker rushing touchdown is another zone read with some pass options built in. Denker chooses to keep the ball with Campo crashing, and then sneaks around Kyle Kragen, a play that most assuredly wouldn't have happened with either Chris McCain or Brennan Scarlett still in the picture. Alas, that is what you lose when your most athletic defensive end is dismissed for conduct detrimental, and the other to a lingering hand issue. Cam Walker can't get over to make the play in time either.

In which I wonder if I am cursed

Maybe the problem isn't with the defense or anything. Maybe it's me. I started realizing this during the 15 minutes in which we went without a first down Saturday, as it occurred pretty much as soon as I arrived from my teaching exam.

This led me to do some digging, and you won't like what follows.

2011, our year in AT&T Park, was the first time I ever started going to games. Since then, I have missed no home games, and when I have been in the building, Cal is a total of 7-15, with four of those victories occurring in 2011. This includes three road trips - one at Ohio State, this year at UCLA, and the 2011 Big Game. [The football record is even worse when you count games I've watched, which is every single one since Colorado in 2011.]

So, um, sorry if I am at all involved.

It's not any better for basketball, either. The Bears were 1-5 in games I went to last season, although the one we won was pretty awesome - Valentine's Day against UCLA.

In which we talk about the game next week

I found out the hard way that it is unpopular to say this, but screw it.

Beating USC matters a whole lot more to me than beating Stanford does, and in my mind, next week's home finale remains incredibly, incredibly important, despite the dismal 1-8 record.

Yes, everything indicates we should be completely and thoroughly beaten, as it has too often in recent Cal - USC matchups.

I do not care.

It has been far, far too long since we emerged victorious over the red and gold wearing heathens from down south - the last time was September 27th, 2003, a date that has lived a decade in isolation. Year after year since then, our Cal Bears have tried in vain to duplicate the efforts of that triple overtime epic, falling short by blowout and heartbreaker.

Months ago, I felt very, very sure that 2013 would be the end of the Streak, and I was planning to dedicate a longer column this week justifying those thoughts. Granted, the arc of this season has admittedly made me less confident of that than I was before, but I still think it is very much possible that we get the job done anyway.

This year's Trojan team remains talented as ever, but is certainly not invulnerable, headed by Ed Orgeron, a defensive coordinator who has struggled with stopping spread attacks, and of course, questionable depth everywhere. They will bring with a quarterback much less talented than the one we have behind center now, although his targets are probably a shade better than ours.

With Sonny Dykes still looking for a signature win for his first season, this is a good - and probably the best - place to try to get it, given the rest of the schedule. Beating USC would quell a lot of ill will and provide more definitive proof that the team is progressing from rock bottom. They've gotten better in recent weeks and continue to do so, but wins would help the case much more strongly.

God, I hope we win. I hate USC.