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Cal vs USC postgame notebook


Kirby Lee-USA TODAY Sports

I. In which we try to put this one in some perspective

No need to worry. I've returned from the hellish pit they refer to as the Coliseum alive, with yet another Monday postgame in hand.

As for where to begin, I'll start here: some fans will be pleased at our fight, our ability to beat the two touchdown spread and our 28-7 run to end the game. This fan has been me a lot of the time in 2014 -- both after UCLA and Oregon, for example, I wrote something to that effect, viewing those losses with as much pride as one can have in defeat.

That is not how I feel this week.

Fight on as we did, this game never really was that close, no matter what the scoreboard indicated at the final. It was, as Avi so eloquently put it on Thursday evening, an 8 point blowout, and he's quite right. Personally, I think that had Sarkisian not put the game in the tank and continued to push the whole way -- or if the refs hadn't been so generous to take away three touchdowns -- they could have hit a #drop50 on us. Maybe even beat us by that actual amount.

That makes it hard to feel satisfied, to be honest, no matter how competitive the bottom line says we were.

And this was after a week of preparation. To have it end up like this, to fall behind by 29 points early on makes the frustration bubble a little hotter and a little higher than it might normally. We're past the point where we can feel satisfied with losing close this season. Knowing this offense can keep us in most match-ups, this is of increasingly diminishing comfort each time, especially because progressing further as a program means winning a game like this at some point: a game we have no business winning.

So still we sit, firmly positioned as the best of the bottom tier, unable to rise any higher just yet. It's a strange place to be, all things considered: there's room to feel encouraged, especially from where we came from a year ago, yet room also for a deep, deep dissatisfaction from where we could be, with just a few plays turning differently.

Both can be true at the same time, unfortunately.


There's also a second thought that I wanted to chime in about in this opener, from Avi:

I don't yet expect Coach Dykes to beat our rivals consistently -- or at all. Yes, the early results haven't been encouraging -- we are, as noted, winless against the triumvirate of California schools -- but I'm waiting for him to have a fully functional roster back online before I really start placing high value on those games in particular. That point will likely arrive as soon as the calendar turns over to 2015. This year, though? Nah. We're rebuilding.

A win over a rival to me is a bonus right now, a necessity for pride more than actual practicality. As we saw the last three weeks, the talent deficit between us and UCLA/USC is still quite wide, and even though it's smaller against the likes of Stanford, the Cardinal still far outmatch us in the area of line versus line.

In fact, it's that last reason why I could realistically see a loss against them this weekend. Playing at home won't suddenly make us be able to protect Goff enough against the number five defense in the country, and their weakness on offense isn't really as much of a minus as it might normally be, considering we've let teams pass all over us.

I really, really hope I'm wrong about both of those, by the way.

#DROPFIFTREES (or #CHOPFIFTREES, whichever you prefer this week)

II. In which I discuss the USC fan experience

Before we get into the actual notebook stuff, I have to share some anecdotes from a completely horrendous and hostile atmosphere, which I felt I did little to deserve.

You probably don't need any context to believe the above about USC fans, but I'll give it to you anyway. See, I scream instructions or complain loudly at games -- anyone who sits with me in QQ at CMS can attest to this -- but it's not often that I ever do so in a way that addresses the other team specifically. Example comment: "[X], OH MY GOD YOU NEED TO SET THE EDGE BETTER THERE", "OH, GODDAMMIT, [Y]" etc.

Nothing off base from a football standpoint, although maybe a bit grating after a while, because of my shrill, nasally voice.

The four grown men who sat in front of me in section 15, row 68 felt it acceptable to mock me the entire way by repeating everything I said, even though I explained to them that these comments were made not as someone who knows nothing about football and that I actually cover the team. I would have been happy to even substantiate or debate why/what I was saying had merit, had they actually decided to engage me in any sort of conversation that went beyond juvenile harassment.

They did not. Shame, really.

Then there were the people who sat behind my row of Cal friends, who threw some barbs of their own, none particularly clever. The choice highlight in this bunch:

Most of the stuff called out at us from behind, I responded to by holding a sarcastic thumbs up, which I felt was a warranted but relatively classy response. Still, considering that I never once on the evening said anything negative about USC's campus, team, or anything else, let alone directly ever addressed any USC fans, the behavior was kind of stunning to me.

A quick programming announcement: I skipped re-watching the tape this week, a luxury I give myself exactly once per season. I felt that this made sense -- I was definitely not in a great place to do any scouting, being so high up in the Coliseum I couldn't even read the personnel package numbers. Also, I drank a respectable amount and barely remember anything specific I wanted to say about the first half, plus with it being played Thursday, everyone's probably all done talking about the game by now.

Apologies if you were expecting a bit more, y'all. Resting up to get back in top form for Stanford. For your in-depth breakdown, wait for Scotty on Tuesday.

III. In which we discuss offense

Poor | Offensive line: Dreadful

For all the X's and O's and jargon and scheming and secrecy, football isn't a complex game sometimes.

If you don't have players who can run with theirs, you're going to have a bad time. (More on that in the next section.) If you can't block their linemen or bother their quarterback, you're going to have a bad time. If you don't convert third down, you're going to have a bad time.

Zero. For. Three.

  • I pointed out before the game to Ryan Gorcey that even though the USC pass defense ranked 105th in the country in yardage, the other advanced metrics and the YPA given up indicated that the unit as a whole was actually quite good overall. Then they went out and proved it, holding Jared to a sub six YPA on 47 attempts, with a long gain of 29 yards on the evening. We were, simply put, stifled at every turn, even once the offense got going.
  • Case in point: watching Adoree Jackson break up or stick close to our receivers on back to back passes, seeing S'ua Cravens and company cling to the slot men...the Trojan athletes are good enough to negate (or at least significantly close) the advantages our wideouts enjoy against worse teams.
  • Five consecutive punts to begin the game, a fumble, and a turnover on downs. We might be good -- we still scored 30, after all -- but we're not good enough to spot opponents six drives or a scoreless first quarter every single week. That kind of thing ends up punishing you against good teams, and it's something that absolutely needs to come to an end next season. Youth will not be an excuse at that point.
  • Jared was pretty mediocre and out of rhythm due to a general abundance of running for his life, and he still threw three touchdowns. Good lord.
  • That being said, we didn't exactly have a great time handling any of the front, especially Leonard Williams. Not surprising that they dominated our guys, nor is it a surprise that we haven't been able to match NFL talent. Let's wait one more year and see what happens with the offensive line. The improvement is slower than it has been with some of the other units on this side of the ball, but certainly there.
  • Not sure you can really completely give a grade to the rushing offense on Thursday, since we got down so early and so fast that it became nearly completely unfeasible to do so. In any case, largely okay effort from them statistically, although it is maybe only the second time this season I can write in this space that Daniel Lasco screwed up, but he did. You absolutely cannot fumble the ball back after just getting a turnover. Cannot do it.
  • Don't remember seeing a ton of Trevor Davis this week, who, if you look closely at the depth chart, is now second behind Chris Harper.

IV. In which we talk about the defense


  • Nelson Agholor made it into the Colin Kaepernick All-Stars after last season. Then he proceeded to remind us exactly why we put him there. All. Game. Long. Part of why I think Sarkisian let off the gas is the fact that Agholor got only four looks the second half, rather than the 15+ he got in the first 30:00 (and 6 in the first 15!). It wasn't like a player suddenly appeared capable of stopping him.
  • As with Oregon, I am not in the habit of demanding we should be able to tackle guys perfectly who are designed to be problem matchups, let alone guys who are among the most physically talented in all of college football. As a whole all year long, the effort and the results in this area have been much, much better, despite what we saw Thursday.
  • Michael Lowe had another pretty good game, going beyond the clear statistical impact he racked up (2 TFL, 12 tackles). He's been never anything below solid this season, and he's had more standout moments than he did in previous years as a starter, too. It sucks having him graduate next spring, because it will be yet another setback in the somehow always thin secondary, forcing us to run Stefan McClure and Avery Sebastian out there in 2015, neither of whom are as experienced as we would like, despite their upperclassmenship.
  • You will know the name Quentin Tartabull soon, though. I expect him to be in the rotation the way Griffin Piatt was this season.
  • This game was lost on the McClure penalty, pretty much, since it let USC score what would be the winning touchdown. Nick noted very much the same in his postgame recap, and the truth of it is that McClure simply has to know better, on a play that is largely uncharacteristic play from him generally. Sigh. Like I said after UCLA, the refs are a given each week. This one's on us, not them.
  • Also falling under the "we should know better" category: Borrayo and Rigsbee's 15 yarders as well. I have no doubt they've received the proper tongue lashings for that.
  • Scott will almost assuredly take a better look at the Hardy Nickerson interception, so I'll just mention it briefly what I saw: the previous few plays had involved Nelson Agholor shredding his defender with a deep cross, so it looked like Coach Kaufman countered this by dropping Hardy into the middle of the field, almost like a Tampa-2 coverage. Worked like a charm.
  • One of the sole bright spots was the team's run defense, though. Even after taking out Cody Kessler's 19 yard loss to end the game, we gave up 98 yards on 34 carries, which is a 2.8 yard average.

V. In which we crunch some numbers

Your unofficial numbers calculated by me are here








4.9 [1]


3rd Downs


3 of 15 (20%) [1]

9 of 16 (56%) [1]

Avg. Yards to go

9.35 [2]


Avg. 1st down gain

4.69 [2]


Power success rate (% of 3rd or 4th down runs with 2 or fewer yards to go that were successful)

1:39 2Q - LASCO - YES

3:38 4Q - LASCO - YES

2 of 2

4:34 1Q - DAVIS - YES

15:00 4Q - ALLEN -YES

2 of 2

Field Position

Avg. Starting F.P.

AVG: OWN 24.66

MED: OWN 22.5 [3]

AVG: OWN 35.84


Points Per Trip Inside 40

1:39 2Q - 7

15:00 3Q - 0 (punt)

8:31 3Q - 7

11:19 4Q - 7

3:38 4Q - 7

5.6 [4]

15:00 1Q - 7

8:32 1Q - 7

4:34 1Q - 7

10:56 2Q - 0

7:55 2Q - 7

5:15 2Q - 3

15:00 4Q - 7

1:36 4Q - 0

5.42 | 4.75


Havoc (percentage of disruptive plays - TFL, picks, PDs, FFs, sacks - divided by total plays. 15.9% was average in 2013, with Navy last in the country at 9.3%.)

10 (8 TFL, 1 INT, 1 PD)

77 plays faced

12.9% [5]

15 (7 TFL, 1 FF, 7 PD)

79 plays faced


Of note:

  • [1] The actual worst game we've played on first down all year. Even worse than Washington, actually. On average, we were behind schedule, offensively, which trickles down to the rest of how the offense operates. Granted, the Bear Raid can continue to move the ball after that, but netting less than a five yard gain on first down makes a big difference in how you can approach the rest of the series. Very, very surprised USC didn't win this category by a larger margin, but the data shows after the initial flood, we held them down relatively well on a per play basis, and they only scored 17 points in the last three quarters.
  • [1] Not really hard to see how we went 3 of 15 on 3rd down, then, since the average one we faced was almost 10 yards. At that point, it's almost always going to be a passing situation, and generally speaking, it gets much easier for an opponent to defend. The coaching cliches are cliches for a reason.
  • [1] You may be wondering with how we stayed in it. If we were so obviously terrible in these key areas. The answer this time was the penalties, an increased USC commitment to running the ball in the second half -- a win for us almost by default -- and a willingness to go for it on 4th down, where we were 5 of 6.
  • [1] I'm serious about the commitment to running the ball thing, by the way. Of the 29 Trojan offensive plays in the 2nd half, 19 (65%) of them were runs, which went for 72 yards, after taking out the final Kessler scramble here they were obviously trying to kill time.
  • [1] Meanwhile, they were 6 of 9 passing for 76 yards (7.88 YPA if you count the sack yardage; 8.4 if you don't), a touchdown, and a sack, which is still really good, although down from the first half totals of 25 of 33 for 295 (8.9 YPA). The point here is their passing game continued to be effective well into the final two quarters, and could have easily made this look worse had they not been dedicated to grinding clock.
  • [2] As more evidence of how badly the night went defensively, USC converted five different situations of 8 yards or more, and almost certainly was bailed out of a sixth when it received the Stefan McClure penalty.
  • [3] Another measure that tells me how the game was so heavily in Trojan favor: the consistent edge in field advantage over ten yards on an average drive -- this gap would have been even more pronounced if we hadn't downed the punt inside the one yard line. Zero drives began in opposing territory. They had four.
  • [4] Here's another place where the game stayed close -- when we did get chances, we scored touchdowns a large portion of the time, as has been the case all season long. All we happened to need was one more...which goes back to that whole surprise onside kick thing. I listed two different numbers for USC because their last trip into the Cal 40 occurred as they were kneeling the ball to end the game.
  • [5] This is one where it looks like we produced a ton of Havoc (at least to our standards this season), until you realize that almost none of it actually came in the area we needed it most -- only two of the tackles for loss came in the passing game; one when we snuffed out a pass to Telfer, and the other was the sack late by Devante Downs. In other words, don't be too fooled by this measure. Pressure and disruptiveness was very hard to come by, even though USC was already playing their backup left tackle.

VII. In which we discuss the special teams


  • NOT TRYING A SINGLE SURPRISE ONSIDE KICK!? Acknowledging my own penchant for loving aggressive special teams play, it's obvious that we came up one possession short. Yes, the defense got us a few stops, as we needed, but it was certainly unlikely as hell they would do enough to close the 29 point deficit, which was a shade too large. Guess what might have given us a better shot at getting that one possession, though? That's right...kicking not when they knew it was coming, but when they might not have.
  • Surprisingly, I think I'm very okay with the call for the fake punt. Well, kind of, anyway. At that point in the game, we needed a big play of some kind -- anything that would begin to stem the bleeding, and watching it backfire doesn't change the way that I perceive the result. Should we have brought the offense out? I don't know if it's that clear cut, considering we had gained over 12 yards exactly twice all game before this. At least with the fake, there was the element of surprise lurking...
  • Except Cole Leininger threw the damn thing in the dirt. I already didn't love the play design to begin with -- you're essentially running a tunnel screen here which is bad in itself, but the execution following a bye was even worse. Christ. David Seawright chimed in with some educated guesses as why we had the stomping motion and all of that, so I recommend you check this twitter thread out.
  • Once again, not a single special teams play of impact -- no great returns in either department. Trevor Davis was not yet ready to go as the kick returner, and Watson was kind of just okay. Indistinct.
  • Arthur Wainwright chipped in with not one, but two costly special teams penalties: a hold and a fair catch interference, with the latter giving the Trojans a 15 yard head start to their third touchdown. Terrible game from him.
  • The grade here remains somewhat buoyed due to an otherwise close to acceptable punting game. Nothing was returned, and one of the punts eventually turned into a safety, which we can directly trace back to the quick kick. Really great to get some gunners down the field without the threat of a return, actually.

VIII. In which there are notes (and the winner of your Big Game ticket contest):

With the closest guess to the actual number that Michael Rollins selected (326)...the winner is Michael Cheng! (I'll be sending you an email later if you didn't read this column.)

Thanks for the feedback and the general satisfaction with my work, everybody. I wanted to point out and respond to a couple of common themes that I got:

  • Lack of confidence leading to longer workIf you think about how long the disclaimers about what I know and don't used to be in my very first column (Northwestern 2013), I've shortened them by leaps and bounds. Still a work in progress, though. I didn't grow up with a ton of confidence, and still don't have it, so it's honestly a battle every single day.
  • Too long in general: Sorry! If skimming works for you, I genuinely won't be offended. Like most Novels, I appreciate the fact that you care enough to read at all, and I'm happy if you get from it what you can. This is also why the post is sectioned off -- so you can go straight to whatever interests you. Most of the length each week is due to me writing largely conversationally, and that's mostly for ease of editing more than anything else. The promos and the intros are much, much closer to what I consider my "real" writing voice, which I obviously don't use all the time.
  • Add helmet stickers for O/D/ST: Done. Although not this week. Nobody gets a sticker this week.
  • Call of the week/unsung moment: I do point these out sometimes, but will be more explicit about them in the future.
  • #BringBackNam for spring and fall camp in 2015: Sad face. Nothing I can do about that now, y'all.
  • You don't think beating Stanford is more important than USC: And I never will.
  • Throw in a randomly unfounded or completely wrong fact just to see if people are paying attention: *strokes imaginary beard thoughtfully*
  • Some suggestions for more lighthearted posts/NCAA 14 simulations: Might do a preseason series for the 2015 season. The former is in Avi's wheelhouse more, though, so I passed this one up the chain of command.
Okay. Actual other notes:
  • Shout out to the #tbros that were able to make it to the game: Dallas McMurry, and Josh Toyofuku, who were part of my group that attended and made the misery at least a little more bearable.
  • Shout out to Avi, too, whose tweets this week were definitely on the same mental wavelength as mine, which is why he ended up being referenced three times in this space, in some form or another.
  • I'm never not sitting in the Cal visiting section again. Man.
  • SC fans cheered about three times all game in section 15, by the way. Most never made an attempt to make noise at all, or stood up on third down, or anything of that nature. Objectively speaking, not a great home field advantage. Color me not impressed.
  • I am aware that Mike Silver and other people like to poke fun of the #drop50 tag during games sometimes. It doesn't bother me much. Shoot, I'm not above doing that myself at times. That's fine.

IX. In which the promo...well, you can read it for yourself

Thanks to everyone on Twitter (particularly @BayAreaFan2) who suggested this, which is inspired by some discussions we had pre-USC game.

In a time and a galaxy actually quite closely resembling ours...

It is an era of almost unprecedented misery in Berkeley.

The wins are beginning to come again, yet a lurking dissatisfaction remains, for an entire presidential term has elapsed in between Axes -- unthinkable since the dawn of Jeff Tedford.

This is a hard truth for us as citizens of Berklandia to face, but despite intense protest (and protest...and protest), it does remain: for four seasons, the greatest prize in the known universe has been held captive, even as it sits maddeningly close, sending constant distress signals from out of the fanless void that is Palo Alto, California.

Saturday, the Bears begin a rescue mission anew, led by the freshman Luke Skybenzer and Bear Raid Commander Jared Goff. Armed with an arsenal of lethal, precision-guided passes and a completely open playbook, they will aim to strike a critical blow over Darth Shaw and his Stanford Empire.

Goff and Skybenzer will need both those tools more than ever, in what will be the greatest challenge of their budding careers: defeating the eleven red and white guardians who stand between them, and Axe. No small task for our young heroes.

The holes in the Stanford zones will be no bigger than a starship exhaust port, and to get that far means avoiding the unending waves of oncoming strong-men, ogreish brutes who are lethal even without blasters, but may as well be clutching them. That's on top of having to navigate through a shifting series of coverage shells, blitz packages, and a maze of bodies from all sorts of angles.

With all those levels of defenses to clear, it is not particularly difficult to see why before the minds of Darths Fangio, Mason, and now, Anderson, offenses too often meet the same obliteration that befell Alderaan.

Cal's did just last season, in a 50 point loss that can never be wiped from the history books.

But this time will be different. A year more experienced and battle-hardened, the Bears will also be accompanied in this mission with fresh reinforcements: #60000allies, 60000 voices singing the battle cries of a proud fanbase, one that refuses to be silent in the face of collegiate evil and academic inferiority.

They'll be accompanied, then, by each of us. Do your part on Saturday, whether that's in front of the Twittersphere or at California Memorial Stadium, as we hack away at the final foundations of the already crumbling Stanford Empire.

Want the Axe, we do. Coming for the Axe, we are.

Expect us, you must.