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Cal at Utah postgame thoughts

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Sorting through mixed feelings after a thrilling, gutty performance comes up short in Salt Lake City.

Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

I don't think I have the energy for a proper intro to this game. So many times I thought we had lost the game, then came back absolutely convinced we were going to win at the end. It's good to be in position to play games like these, good to feel like wins and losses matter. But that doesn't make it less painful as a fan.

Offense

Player of the Game: Stephen Anderson

With Cal's most explosive targets bottled up by Utah's excellent cornerbacks and/or making uncharacteristic mistakes, Stephen Anderson was his usual, reliable self. And one wonders if the outcome of the game might have been different if he hadn't been in and out of the game with an injury sustained in the 4th quarter. Watching him limp off the field, come back on, make a catch, then limp off, was inspiring stuff.

Your weekly reminder that Jared Goff is a mortal human being with unfair expectations

The thing is that we ask Jared Goff to be damn near perfect. It's not just that we expect him to avoid the types of awful decisions and throws that most college quarterbacks make frequently. We also ask him to always hit the right shoulder, always throw his receiver open, always call the right play, always know where to step to avoid the rush. It's an insane burden, but it's a burden that he has to shoulder because Cal just doesn't have the pure talent across the offense to do otherwise.

This game wasn't just about the interceptions. On the last play before his 5th pick, Goff threw to Tregg's wrong shoulder when he was open over the middle on what could have been a huge completion. On 3rd and five on the final drive, he had Treggs open again and maybe threw the ball just a bit too early, just a bit too fast.

Here's the thing, though: It's usually not that hard. What Utah did was take away the easy stuff. How many times does Goff hit a receiver running free over the middle? How many times does he find somebody on a crossing route and it turns into 30-40 yards after the catch? Those plays weren't there because Utah took away so many easy throws. Washington did something very similar, and in that game Goff hit on everything anyway because sometimes Jared Goff is a damn near perfect college quarterback. Against Utah, he needed to be that guy again and he wasn't. And the frustrating part is that it's not fair to have to ask that of him.

Turnover Credit/Blame

Turnover #1: Jared Goff hits Kenny Lawler in the hands, but it bounces off . . . right into the hands of Marcus Williams
Verdict: 100% a Cal mistake, with a dash of bad luck that the deflection happens to go right to a Utah defender.

Turnover #2: Daniel Lasco fumbles on a short gain.
Verdict: 30% a Cal mistake, 70% a good play by Utah. Linebacker Gionni Paul made a textbook hit, putting his helmet right on the ball. Ultimately any fumble carries some blame for the ball carrier, but this wasn't really a situation where the running back was being careless.

Turnover #3: Dominique Hatfield jumps a quick slant to Kenny Lawler
Verdict: 40% a Cal mistake, 60% a good play by Utah. Probably the biggest mistake here is ball placement - Goff leads Lawler too much. If he puts it right in Lawler's chest, it's probably a short gain, with Hatfield making the immediate tackle. But because the ball is in front of Lawler, it gives Hatfield the opportunity to jump the route. He does a spectacular job and makes a great catch. That's the type of mistake you see QBs make a ton, but most of the time it goes unnoticed because it's a simple incompletion because the CB doesn't anticipate as well as Hatfield does here.

Turnover #4: Jared Goff throws a deep pass to a well covered Bryce Treggs, Justin Thomas is right in front of him for the interception.
Verdict: 80% a Cal mistake, 20% a good play by Utah. Credit the Utes for having perfect coverage against Treggs downfield, but this is a throw Goff should never make, and there wasn't really much pressure to force a bad decision. There's speculation that Goff might have been throwing to Powe on a more shallow route over the middle and instead overthrew him badly. If so, then Goff made a different type of mistake with the overthrow. I'm pretty sure that Goff was going for Treggs, because he saw Treggs pull away from the cornerback . . . but never saw Thomas waiting in the middle of the field.

Turnover #5: Cal runs a screen, but Utah tips the ball and grabs the deflection
Verdict: 10% a Cal mistake, 90% a good play by Utah. The line didn't exactly execute well here (intended receiver Vic Enwere gets tripped up by Granado, who went down trying to get out to block for the screen, which helped Utah make the play) but it took a spectacular, full extension leap from a Utah lineman who sniffed out the play call to barely tip the pass, then another impressive dive to catch it (if it was, in fact, a legit catch).

Turnover #6: Goff pulls the ball away on a run/pass option and immediately finds two defenders in his face because Utah has called an outside linebacker blitz at the perfect time. With nowhere to go he throws a ball up for grabs to the right. Hatfield gets his 2nd pick.
Verdict: 50% a Cal mistake, 50% a good play by Utah. The Utes had the perfect play call, they got the pressure, and they had a cornerback right on Kenny Lawler to take advantage of the mistake. Goff shouldn't have checked away from the run, and he should have thrown the ball away, but Utah deserves credit for making his decision making very hard and being in position to take advantage.

In total: If you happen to agree with my takes, and add up the percentages, then you get a roughly 50/50 split of blame and credit. And I think that makes sense. For a good offense to turn the ball over 6 times, it's going to take an unusual combination of excellent defense and poor offensive decision making/mistakes.

How much should Cal be running the ball?

Cal handed off to running backs 27 times, and dropped back to pass 56 times, which is obviously unusual. After Cal's passing game finished with 5 turnovers, it's natural to wonder if Cal should have handed off more frequently. That tendency to second guess was only inflamed when ESPN spent time criticizing Jared Goff for not choosing the run option on the final interception of the night.

On my end, I'm OK with the run/pass balance against Utah. While the Cal run game wasn't bad, it wasn't particularly explosive. Even with Goff having, as he described, his worst ever game, Cal still averaged more yards per dropback (6.7, including Goff scrambles) than per designed run (5.3). If you knew ahead of the game that Jared Goff might throw five interceptions, then you would probably hand off more, but that's an outcome that nobody would have ever reasonably predicted.

Defense

Player of the game: Kyle Kragen

Kragen was again the most disruptive pass rusher on the field for Cal, with a sack and a few other instances in which he disrupted the pocket. But I was more impressed by his work rate on run plays. As you were reminded of constantly, Devontae Booker is perhaps the best running back in the country after contact. It takes multiple dudes to bring him down. Kyle Kragen was one of those dudes most of the game. Either Kragen got there first to slow down Booker to give teammates time to get in on the tackle, or he was responding quickly to bring Booker down when somebody else got to him first. Kragen's effort symbolized the defense's gutty, tireless performance.

WE DON'T GET TIRED

On that note: Holy smokes, no they don't. The Cal offense put the defense in horrible positions constantly in the first half, and the defense 'allowed' 24 points. Most came on two explosive plays: Booker's 40 yard touchdown scamper (his only run longer than 18 yards, pretty good considering he got 34 carries) and a 54 yard bomb to Cory Butler-Byrd.

So after such an exhausting, stressful 1st half, you could perhaps forgive a defense if they broke down a little, gave in somehow. Instead they played their best half of the season, holding Utah to 6 points, forcing one turnover, allowing only 4.1(!!!) yards/play and giving the offense opportunity after opportunity to take the lead. They did all that at altitude, at times without Damariay Drew. Wow.

A different kind of defensive success

We've talked a lot about how Cal has been creating havoc, and it has masked the tendency to otherwise give up lots of yards. But against Utah, Cal didn't really create much havoc - only 6 plays out of 77 offensive snaps by my count. That's a 2014 defense kind of number, but it didn't lead to a 2014 defense kind of performance. How?

Being in the right place. Dudes are covered downfield. Quarterback decisions are harder. Running backs have to break their first tackle at the line of scrimmage rather than five-ten yards downfield. Better tackling, both individually and as a group. The difference really is night and day. For all of the great runs he had, Devontae Booker was still tackled for a gain of 3 yards or less 13 times, and that's what sets up a defense to get off the field.

Don't get me wrong - Utah helped out. They don't test teams downfield much, and I don't think Travis Wilson had his best game. They got a little conservative in the 4th quarter as well. Still, Wilson's sub-par game was caused at least in part by a Cal defense that is making QB decision making so many times more difficult than last year.

Special Teams

Making special teams a wash

I think it's safe to say that Utah has a great special teams unit. How do you take what should be a big advantage and neutralize it? One good way is to play at altitude. The kickoff game didn't matter much because 8 of the 12 total kickoffs were touchbacks with no returns. Utah only actually had one normal return that was snuffed out by Daniel Lasco.

Another way to make it a wash? Avoid punting by ending every drive with either points or a turnover! Wait, no, that's not right . . . Well, thanks to unusual circumstances, Cal only had to punt three times. One led to a pretty nifty 20 yard Utah return, one had solid hang time and was unreturnable, and the 3rd was a brilliant formation trick that led to Harry Adolphus rugby kicking with nobody back to return. It was a trick that gained Cal 57 yards of field position and cost Utah a timeout. Now that opponents know what Adophus can do, I don't know if the trick will work again, but it's always fun to watch the opponents nervously decide if they want to give Goff a 10 on 11 or simply cede 50 yards.

Game Theory Errata

Brilliant clock management

Kudos all around Cal's coaching staff for their clock management at the end of halves. Cal got a critical touchdown at the end of the 2nd quarter and ran the drive perfectly to avoid needing to rush at all, but still didn't give Utah enough time to do anything with the final few seconds of the half.

Then, Cal ran a great drive that ate up 4:26 of clock. The coaches knew, starting from the 5 yard line, that they weren't going to get a 2nd chance to score, so better to run the drive so that Utah would not have any time to respond with a game winning field goal drive if the Bears succeeded. If Cal had gotten the final 21 yards to cap it off it would have rightly been remembered as one of the greatest drives in Cal history.

Excuse me, I'm going to head back to bed, I just found more tears.

To kick or not to kick?

Cal elected to kick a field goal on 4th and 8 from the Utah 23 yard line, trailing by 10 early in the 3rd quarter. The kick was no good. Should Cal have gone for it?

That's a tough call. Cal hadn't exactly been great so far in the game in obvious passing downs, but they had been averaging a solid number of yards/completion. Against Utah's defense, I think Cal is more likely to kick a 40 yard field goal than convert a 4th-8, but giving up the possibility of scoring a touchdown needs to be considered as well.

4th down calculator (set to NFL parameters) suggests that kicking is the right call. We don't have an NFL kicker, so I think the decision was more marginal. All I know is that when we get down that far, drives need to end in points. The end of the game looks a lot different with either a field goal or a touchdown on that drive.

Big Picture

So here's where I have mixed feelings.

Utah is the team that beat back a physically dominant Michigan, then obliterated Oregon's air of invincibility, then forced one of the better offenses in the country into six turnovers. After beating Cal, they have risen to 13th in S&P. This is an understandable loss.

Utah is clearly a very good team, and a very tough team to beat. I don't feel bad about losing to them in isolation. The problem is that I'm not convinced that Utah is a tougher team to beat than multiple teams left on Cal's schedule. By objective methods, UCLA, USC, and Stanford are all about in the same range as the Utes, and Arizona State isn't too far behind.

I suppose it depends on your goals for this team. If all you want is to see Cal get to a bowl game, then you don't need to worry - this team will reach that mark easily. But if you want Cal to win the Pac-12 North, then this was a massive missed opportunity. And that's because Stanford is looking really, really good, has already beaten USC, and gets Colorado rather than Utah.

Rooting against Stanford is always a given, but this year it has the added dimension of helping Cal in a very specific way. We're the world's biggest UCLA fans for the next four days. After that I'd happily bow down to Washington and their excellent defense for a week if they can knock off the Cardinal. Just one or two Stanford losses gives Cal back their margin for error and opens the door to a Pac-12 championship game appearance in the sunny South Bay.

Cal hasn't had a legitimate opportunity to challenge for a Pac title since 2006. And as much as those types of expectations don't seem fair considering where this team has been over the last few years, the opportunity is here. It's here because Oregon is down, because WSU and OSU are still in the dumps, because Washington is probably still a year away. Like it or not, the window in the North, the window with Jared Goff on campus, is probably just this year. Losing to Utah has made the window that much tougher to squeeze through.

We know this team can beat anybody on their day. We just need them to have their day, a few times in a row. Saturday almost was, and I really hope we don't have to look back at it in regret.