Disclaimer: Sonny Dykes will return for the 2015 season, and barring some drastic collapse next season, I believe he should be here at least through 2016. Installing new systems takes time, and last year wasn't really a season as it was a detox, so I'm willing to give him the benefit of the doubt in getting things in order. This is a post meant to express concerns going forward and things that need to be cleaned up and improved between this year and future seasons, preferably next year.
Let's credit Sonny for many things this season.
This program has extinguished the fire. They are no long a disaster, which is great. We don't have to worry about this team being an embarrassment to watch game in, game out. They are competitive, they will generally be exciting to watch, and they will never stop fighting. They won't quit and they won't die. The new strength and conditioning program has generally kept players healthy. And despite the various talent disparities between us and many other schools, we've kept ourselves in the majority of games even against quality competition.
Sonny also gets Cal in a way few other coaches ever have. He embraces tradition. He gets his athletes to buy into the program. He has academics headed in the right direction and is recruiting the right type of player that will fit in and excel both academically and athletically at Cal. As someone who always bristled at the way our former head coach kept himself at arm's length from all of the spirit that is a part of Cal tradition, I appreciate that and am rooting that he keeps things rolling that way in future years.
Now, the bad.
After a promising start, I'm very underwhelmed by what the Bears have shown us on gameday the past two months. Cal has shot themselves in the foot with penalties, turnovers, strange playcalling, and slow starts. They have not been able to gameplan a way to get their best quarterback going against an even above-average defense. They've had plenty of chances at a signature victory the past two months and fallen flat half the time, including several winnable contests at home. Their defense has actually been fairly impressive given the talent they've had to work with, and it's been the offense has been a bit more disappointing. They will be the fourth best program in California for the third year in a row.
There are plenty of things that need to improve between this season and next before we can safely be assured we've found the right guy to be the long-term solution for our sturdy Golden Bears.
We lost by 21 points. So I'll give 21 things that really worry me about this coaching staff going into next season.
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1. Outscored 101-30 in Big Games. I don't care how banged up you are, how many players get hurt, or even if your strong safety gets suspended on the first play of the game. It's very difficult to justify faith in a coach who has been outcoached two years a row in the most important game of any Cal fan's season. Walt Harris, Buddy Teevens, Tom Holmoe...none of these coaches lost two Big Games in a row by three touchdowns or more.
Remember that 7 game losing streak during the dark years? The margin of defeat in those games was a combined 65 points. Dykes has been outscored by 71 points in two matchups against David Shaw, Master of Ceremonies at the Heritage Foundation of Coaching. This is the biggest game of the season when Cal is not competing for a Pac-12 title, and two years in a row the Cal coaching staff has been schooled by a pretty bland and conservative Stanford staff that knows how to execute come Saturdays.
For Cal fans, many of them would accept a losing season if it meant having the Axe. The fact that Cal had a chance at The Axe AND a bowl game on the same day, then went out and laid a flat-out egg is very disconcerting. Getting outcoached by Shaw and his crew two years running (especially to this lurching wreck of an offense) does not lend much confidence that you'll be a long-term solution for the Bears, and leaves us with plenty of doubts if we'll even be ready for an even less talented Stanford team next season.
Tom Holmoe has performed better in Big Games than Sonny Dykes, and Holmoe set the bar very, very low. I feel like opening the Ark of the Covenant reading this stat.
Barring winning the Pac-12 North or finishing with nine wins or more, next year feels like a must-win. Losing the Axe three years in a row under Sonny and six year in a row overall is intolerable, especially when it looks like Stanford's best years are behind them.
2. 0-14. That is Sonny's record against winning FBS teams at Cal (If you're a Sonny-side up personality, Northwestern has a chance at 7-6, so he might get one during bowl season retroactively, and hey Stanford might still go 6-7, so he might get one of these lossses taken off too!). If you extend it back to his time at Louisiana Tech, the record improves to a slightly better 4-28 (and those four wins came against 6-4 UTSA, 7-6 Rice, 7-6 Utah State, and 7-6 Nevada).
By contrast, Jeff Tedford put up four wins against winning FBS teams in his first year at Cal.
Dykes has a chance to end that streak of futility this week against BYU. I suggest he take advantage of it. It's very likely the Pac-12 will produce eight or nine winning teams a year, and with UCLA and USC always on the slate, we will probably end up playing at least seven of them.
3. 1-11 against FBS opponents at Memorial. During the heyday of Tedford, Memorial Stadium was a fortress. During one stretch from 2004 to 2010, Cal went 35-6. This can be a tough place to play if we have the right team ready to go.
Sonny Dykes is 1-11 at home. Our two worst performances this season (against very beatable opponents) came at home, including the Big Game. If you want a reason for our recent attendance woes, this is a big part of it. Cal fans are still very fickle about returning to Memorial, regardless of the spirit and fight of our players. No many of us want to wake up and head to Berkeley and believe they're more likely to lose rather than win. Right now there is still a lot of trust that must be earned by this staff before the fans return and fill the stadium up to even 70% capacity.
Defend homefield next year Sonny. Grambling State, San Diego State, Arizona State, USC, Oregon State, Washington State--this is at the very least a 4-2/5-1 slate next year. Restore the roar in Strawberry Canyon.
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4. A few too many moral victories for my liking. Arguably the best performances authored by Dykes's teams came in losing performances. Losing to Arizona on the Hill Mary after giving up 36 points in the 4th quarter. Losing to likely Pac-12 South Champion UCLA because the Bears decided to go all-or-nothing when they probably could've played for a go-ahead field goal. Sonny's best win at Cal is probably against Northwestern, and they may not make a bowl.
Eventually, the stigma will build. Can you close a game against a good team? Dykes has had his chances and so far not impressed. BYU is decent enough, so hopefully things turn around this week.
5. 0-6 in rivalry games. Five of them weren't really that close, and the sixth happened because UCLA was still doing their Jekyll and Hyde act where they hand you chance after chance to take the game. We decided not to take it.
Now, there is some hope here. Bruce Snyder went 0-5-1 in his first six games against our rivals, and Snyder's Year 2 was probably far tougher to endure than Dykes's. But Snyder also beat a few winning teams in the Pac-10 in Oregon and Arizona State. Dykes has beaten the three worst teams in the Pac-12, probably should have lost one of those games, and one of those games was essentially a coin flip.
6. The USC/Stanford problem. Let me be clear. I don't mind a team that loses to USC and Stanford regularly. I do mind that we don't show up prepared, play stupid ball, and end up playing from behind for 60 minutes.
Dykes's teams have been outscored 72-23 in first halves to USC and 66-20 in first halves to Stanford. That's absurdly bad.
And eventually, if Dykes plans on winning the Pac-12 while he's here, he's going to have to beat both of those teams. In four games against the Trojans and Cardinal, his squads have been blasted off the field. Even if we're much improved next year, I'm very concerned about our ability to beat either team in the near future. Considering those are the programs most of us measure ourselves against and care the most about beating, I find it very important that we bring our A-game against them.
So far, Dykes has had four bad performances. It needs to change.
7. The two point stance and vertical set pass protection. The issue in being outmatched on the lines, where USC and Stanford have historically outrecruited us. The Trojans and Cardinal have opted for big, physical and imposing--we've gone for smaller and speedier. The results have borne out who has gotten the better hand from their approaches.
This leads me to the offensive line play, and our poor production with the Tony Franklin System against the best defensive fronts. The two point stance dictates upright offensive linemen, which means the linemen are up on their feet a lot and will struggle to maintain leverage. Vertical set pass protection (thanks Scott Chong, you gentleman and scholar) requires defenders to back up If your linemen aren't strong or agile enough, you're going to put an inordinate amount of pressure. (HT berk18 for this explanation, which you can read here).
Against Washington, UCLA, USC, Stanford, the story was the same--the defensive tackles would blow back our guards, or one of our tackles would totally miss the blitzing end or safety back end. The pocket would collapse on Jared Goff, and he'd have no space to step up and throw, and the offense would stall and punt. Both of Goff's interceptions came out of an inability to find space in the pocket, which lead to tipped balls by active defenders and picks. Most defenses have swarmed Goff's throws at the line of scrimmage, and he has just had no time to get footballs out.
I do not trust this system yet. I'll learn next year whether more reps will end up making a considerable difference.
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8. Can we beat elite defenses? With the Pac-12 season over, I'm still skeptical at how successful we can be without elite offensive linemen in this system. The hope is that experience and reps will be enough to get these linemen operating at an elite level next season, and enough defenders will be leaving the Pac-12 that they won't have to worry about battling too many loaded defenses.
The big problem is that (8) ties into (5): UCLA, USC, and Stanford are likely to have three of the five best defenses in the Pac-12 next season. We don't want to end up wasting Goff's talents behind poor pass protection.
9. Slow starts. Cal has started strong in three FBS games this year: Arizona, Oregon State, and Northwestern. Here are the first half performances in the remaining Pac-12 performances.
Colorado: Trailing 28-14
Washington State: Trailing 24-13
Washington: Trailing 28-0
UCLA: Trailing 24-14
Oregon: Trailing 38-28 (not so bad, but man, 38...)
USC: Trailing 31-9
Stanford: Trailing 24-7
It's not that we were expecting any complete games after getting torched last season, but getting outplayed like this from the opening snap is starting to feel symptomatic. I'm glad we're showing some comeback ability in some of these games, but it'd be nice to be able to come out and prove we're capable of executing at a high level to start a football game.
10. Complete games. Even in the games where we started strong, we did not finish strong. The 4th quarter collapse in Arizona might end up defining the season if the Bears don't win this week--Cal would have known they'd have been bowling several weeks ago and maybe they don't come in unfocused for USC and Stanford. Cal had what seemed like a dominant 17 point lead against Oregon State, only to give up all of it in a horrid eight minute stretch. Northwestern was probably our most complete performance, and even that required some late heroics from our defense as our offense stagnated in the final 25 minutes.
A wire-to-wire performance would be nice to see to close the season against BYU or (if we get there) a bowl game. It'd be a positive way to end the season and might rebuild the momentum.
11. The Tony Franklin dynamic. Franklin generally has 95% of the control over what happens with the offense on gameday, so Dykes really has minimal input on what's happening on the field. So some of the gameplanning falls on Franklin's shoulders.
Franklin hasn't really had a great game in two months and it needs to be called out at this point. Everytime an opponent makes a mistake, he calls a bomb or a trick play to try and capitalize, and it's usually immediately blown up.
And he most recently has made decisions that have actively cost the Bears points, particularly in the Big Game. For example, the fact that this conversation didn't happen...
Tony: "1st and 10 from our own 5. Let's let Luke try and pass!"
Sonny: "The hell is wrong with you? You're going to make Luke throw against that secondary and test his diminutive frame against that front seven? Give me that headset the rest of the half."
Or this conversation didn't happen...
(3rd quarter after the onside kick)
Tony: "2nd and 20. Send Luke out there to throw."
Sonny: "The hell is wrong with you? You're going to make Luke throw against that secondary and test his diminutive frame against that front seven? Give me that headset the rest of the half."
It's weird that we've gone from a coach who was very much involved in the day-to-day management of running the offense to a coach who only has occasional input and no real control over what was happening up front. And sometimes it feels like it shows on Saturday.
With Kaufman handling the defense and Franklin handling the offense, Sonny's constant refrain of "I'll have to review the tape" indicates that even he isn't quite clear sometimes on what we're doing on gameday. It's worrisome how this dynamic will work out. I'm worried it might lose us games we should win in the future.
12. Game management. The sample size is growing, and what we're seeing is a bit strange. When Sonny faces adversity, he does strange things.
He didn't run out the clock fast enough against Arizona--it's really hard to imagine you can give up 36 points in one quarter. He burned timeouts against UCLA that could have been useful down the stretch, including one in a situation where he brought out the kicking them when the Bears had to go for 2. He attempted a hideous fake punt against USC that gifted the Trojans what turned out to be some crucial points. And on that dreadful officiating sequence with the Bears down 24 and needing three scores and three two point conversions, three times Dykes sent out the field goal kicker to cut it to a 17 point game.
(Personal opinion that might or might have not borne out differently: Dykes chose to defer possession until the second half against a Stanford offense that has generally only been good at scoring on the first possession, and has NEVER come back this season after falling behind by any margin. The Cardinal proceeded to take the lead on the first drive and never looked back. How different does this game look if Cal gets the ball first and scores first?)
13. Where's the up-tempo? Remember the fast pace that we were supposed to employ to try and drive even the best defenses off the field? It's been gone for much of the second half of the season. Cal has been moving much slower on offense, even after first downs, and (shocker) the Bears look much more sluggish and methodical on offense. Defenses have been able to adjust and substitute fresh defenders, sit back with two safety coverage, and let the front seven do plenty of work.
The one second-half drive in which Cal ran tempo in the Big Game, they got points. Then we were done with it for the rest of the game. I don't get it.
14. The deployment of Luke Rubenzer. I do like Luke. He was instrumental in winning the Northwestern game. He brought a nice change-of-pace early on in the Oregon game. He's a gamer and he's going to be very important in the Bears taking that next leap.
But the way the coaches have used him game-to-game? Far more questionable.
The idea of utilizing Rubenzer is a good one. He's a better runner at this stage in his career. It gives Cal an extra running presence. But he pretty much has only one play drawn up for him--designed quarterback keeper. Not much zone-read action or additional spread concepts that might really test a defense side-to-side (it would be nice to see Rubenzer do a little Arizona/ASU style offense, with zone-read concepts that involve passing to the wide receiver like the pop pass). The blocking looks in front of him change, but everyone knows that if Rubenzer gets that ball, it's likely he will be giving a go at it downfield.
And then the Big Game. I agree that against this Stanford defense, throwing a few wrinkles every now and then is warranted. Using Rubenzer sometime in the first quarter when Cal was clearly struggling to move the football would work perfectly into an overall strategic gameplan. This is what Cal did against Oregon, and the Bears were generally competitive with the Ducks for a quarter before Super Mariota whipped out his Heisman cape and took them home. Why not try the same thing against a confused Stanford offense.
Why wait until the 3rd quarter down 24 to deploy that? Shouldn't that have been part of your overall strategy? Aren't you conceding defeat by running the football that much at a time when you need a lot of points in a hurry?
It's these little things that bother me about Sonny & Tony. They still have a lot of trouble figuring out situational awareness, down and distance playcalls (2nd and 20 is not a good time to call a Rubenzer pass play of any sort, Tony, nor is a 1st and 10 in the shadow of your own end zone), and when to put their players in favorable position. I want them to get much better at it by next year.
15. The Andy Buh hire. I hate bringing us back to this, but this decision has ramifications spanning beyond 2013. Hiring Buh was a disastrous decision, short-term and long-term. Half of our upperclassmen chose early entry and training camp squads rather than returning to play for Buh, and there were plenty more transfers that crippled our depth. I hardly think that we would be doing better withou thim.
Seeing Cal with a competent defensive coordinator like Art Kaufman coaching up walk-ons and converted tight ends and wide receivers to something resembling a passable defense only emphasizes how much of a waste 2013 is with Buh back there. Aside from maybe two games, he did not seem to have a clue how to adapt to tough circumstances, and our players felt the same way. I'm just happy to see opponents being held regularly under 40 points after occasionally giving up that total by halftime a few times last season.
I will give credit to Sonny for pulling the plug on Buh one year in. That isn't easy. But man, did hiring him ever set us back.
16. Defensive recruiting. The long-term ramifications regarding Buh are on recruiting. I'm not sure how much those players would help us now, but there is a deep stigma around this program right now that we are not a good place for defensive recruits to go--who would want to play for a team that remains near the bottom of most defensive metrics, common and advanced? It might not go away unless the Bears rip off a 10-2 season and prove that they have an offense that will be a friendly place for defenders to come in and take recruits.
Cal has a few good defensive recruits in this class, but half of them are from out-of-state. From 2010 to 2012, Cal's defense was by far its overriding strength, and they were fairly solid during the Bob Gregory years. In 2014, I don't see one NFL-caliber player on this roster. That's a shocking devolution from where we once stood in the Pac-12 pecking order.
17. Recruiting in general. There were big concerns that Sonny and his crew might have trouble securing California with their lack of regional ties. This includes fighting with the UCLA/USC juggernauts, the encroachment of the Arizona schools, Oregon and Washington extending their claws from the north, and plenty of other eastern powers trying to get into the L.A. scene. Cal has work to do.
You could say Cal is maybe the 7th or 8th best program in the Pac-12 in recruiting California right now, and their class might be in the bottom two right now of the conference. We have some quality recruits, but we are a long ways away from filling our program with the depth it needs to be a powerhouse.
The Bears need to get back in the picture soon--the talent is too good in this state, particularly at our biggest position needs of safety, offensive line, defensive line, etc. We need to build up our depth as quickly as possible, and I don't know if we can do that by just using talent like walk-ons.
18. Building for the long haul. There does seem to be this feeling that Dykes and Franklin are really building for 2015, when the pieces fall into place for Cal to make a big leap in the Pac-12. That means that 2014 is a bit more of an experimentation year, which would explain why things have looked a bit haphazard on the field this season as we try new stuff out (Rubenzer experiment, exotic formations like heavy power) to get things going for next season. In some ways I understand this; Cal was not competing for anything important this year
At the same time, it's frustrating to spend a year just tinkering around and trying to play the long con when there are winnable games on the schedule. I guess when you have little chance at victory like vs. Oregon it makes sense, but experimentation in the Big Game? Spend 60 minutes trying to win the damn thing.
19. Lack of discipline. It's the Pac-12, I know, we're always going to be near the bottom, but Cal is on pace to finish in the bottom five of FBS in penalties per game and penalty yards per game. Cal has been getting too many personal foul penalties, an epidemic that we also beared witness to during the final Tedford days. Some of these were obviously questionable, but we've been getting more than our fair share the past few weeks and many did deserve to be called. These penalties have killed plenty of Cal drives the second half of the year.
(This is more of a theory than an observation regarding the numerous calls: Do officials not like the way Sonny is treating them? He's been clearly agitated with some of the officiating this year and has been very emotional about it on the sidelines. Now, the officials are getting a lot of calls wrong and Sonny is sticking up for his guys. But you have to wonder if they are becoming less likely to give Cal the benefit of the doubt on their calls because of the treatment they get from their coach. Pac-12 refs aren't the brightest boys out there anyway, so maybe it might be best to just let a bad call go rather than go crazy everytime.)
20. The management of Jared Goff. A few days have passed and I'm still disappointed in how Goff was treated on Saturday. You have the third best quarterback in the Pac-12, the best quarterback coming back to the Pac-12 next season, and you practically bench him for the entire second half of our rivalry game. I understand using Luke for a drive, but he should've been used much earlier to really soften Stanford's defense up, and he was a net negative on the next two drives. The Goff-Rubenzer-Goff-Rubenzer switching strategy really seemed to throw us off after the first drive we employed it.
Goff is your quarterback when you're down by that much. Ride or die with him.
21. What does the future hold post-Goff? And this is the biggest concern I have with Dykes. Without this giant leap by Goff in his second season, Cal is probably at best a two or three win team and Dykes is definitely on the hot seat. With Cal likely to get only one more season of him at quarterback, the Bears could be in dire straits if a contender doesn't emerge to fill the coffers. Rubenzer has proven to be a good runner but needs a lot of work passing the football. We need depth here.
Dykes was correct to choose Goff over Zach Kline--it's definitely his best coaching decision since getting here--and he deserves a lot of credit for that. However, since Goff started struggling due to poor protection, inability by our wide receivers to get open, and defenders realizing he can't really scramble, the Bears have not been able to win.
Cal's chances of winning in the Pac-12 rely on Goff being exceptional every week. I'm not sure if that's fair to him. The Bears have to get better at every other aspect of the game by next season, or we're going to look back at the Goff years with a fair amount of regret.
Again, I have to reiterate: This is not a "FIRE EVERYONE" column. Dykes should be here next year, his coaching staff should return next year, and in all likelihood should get a 4th season too regardless of what happens next season. I think he's done a good job this season getting the Bears ready to play most weeks, and this team has shown relative improvement compared to last year. I want to see what he does with the players they recruit for their system before deciding whether we need a new coach.
But I believe it's fair to address concerns and worries about a coaching staff who's gone 4-17 against FBS teams, 0-14 against winning teams, 0-6 against our rivals, outclassed in the Big Game two years running, etc. There is still a lot this staff has to prove before we can be satisfied with what we're seeing on the field.
Prove us all wrong Sonny. Start this week with BYU, take it to the bowl game, then unleash hell next year. We're starved for a contender. Give us one.