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Cal at UCLA postgame thoughts

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Calculating a course correct and enjoying a season in spite of missed opportunities.

Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

So, the correction came, and we probably should have seen it coming. Probably, most of us did, even if we didn't want to acknowledge it before hand. And in a weird way, I wouldn't have it any different, because as sports fans you're always dealing with two different realities that can exist at the same time.

Reality #1? Cal is 5-1, and they'd have beaten Utah with better turnover luck or if our future NFL quarterback didn't have his worst game that particular night. This offense is inches away from breaking into the elite, the defense has turned the corner, the coaches have figured out how to scheme around our special teams deficiencies, and everybody but Stanford in the Pac-12 North is down. We're just one Big Game win away from the Pac-12 title game. This is the year!

Reality #2? Our Bears are two years removed from perhaps the single worst year in program history, and that's saying something. This team is one year removed from a defense that was 107th in the country in yards/play. True, we have Jared Goff - but the offensive line and running game are still just OK, and special teams are likely going to be a major handicap. We would do well to improve upon last year's win total by two or three games. This isn't the year, but we're moving in the right direction.

Reality #2 was the correct reality, but nobody roots for it. Nobody hopes for it, spends time thinking about it. Annoying jerks like me who spend time saying 'but so-and-so number based projection system says that Cal only has a 1.53% chance to win the North!' are boring killjoys anyway. Fandom is about dreaming.

The thing about college football is that it takes forever to find out which reality you're living in. First you play a meaningless FCS game. Then you play against a bad SDSU team. Then you play Texas, who might be awful or might be great. Washington might have a great defense or they might have no offense at all. Is Washington State just a crummy team that lost to Portland State, or the only team that can stop Stanford from winning the North? The first 6 games of most college football seasons are Schrödinger's Boxes - the season is both dead and alive at the same time. Can we get a Cal physics professor to write some Cal football string theory? I mean, those guys haven't discovered any new elements in, like, years. They probably have free time, right?

So we watched and analyzed the first half of the season looking for signs that this season could be a special season, despite mounting evidence to the contrary. And now, after a humbling, revealing loss to UCLA, we have to confront certain realities. The Bears no longer control their Pac-12 destiny, and barring extremely unlikely events, Cal will not win the Pac-12 North. If Stanford beats Washington State next week, the race for the North is over anyway. Cal is not going to the Rose Bowl this year. Crap.

Those weren't fair expectations for this team, even though, for the briefest period of time, you could squint and see that scenario coming true.

The Rose Bowl experience

I happened to be down in Southern California for work last week and grabbed tickets late, full of both excitement and foreboding. I really dislike watching Cal lose (duh) on the road, and I knew that the Bears were 1-14 in their last 15 games in L.A. But how glorious would it be to see the Bears turn it around in person?

My experience? Mostly it's interesting to see a game from the other side. As much as Cal fans complain about pumped in music, UCLA fans have it much worse. I hear the Cal band play way more in Memorial than I heard the UCLA band play on Thursday. The entire experience seemed overproduced in the most L.A. way possible. Overwrought pre-game intro with goofy animated Bruin? Check. Flyover erasing the end of the national anthem? Check. Absurdly loud bell on 3rd downs? Check. Las Vegas Cirque du Soliel promos all over the place? Check. Stadium food even more overpriced than usual? Double check.

Oh yeah - that band thing that everybody freaked out over? I mean, I laughed. If you can't laugh at a bunch of 19 year olds wack each other with wooden sticks, then what can you laugh at? I'm only annoyed that the UCLA/Cal band members dressed up as Greeks didn't mime killing all of the Trojans after piercing the Trojan wall. If you're going to reenact history, I want to see the horrible, bloody end too.

This is going to be a somewhat abbreviated review. I haven't rewatched the game, and I don't ever intend to do so. Because I watched things from the 70th row in the corner of the end zone, and because I spent most of the game in a daze, I have only limited insights. Talking about losing is so much less fun.

Offense

Defenses have adapted, Cal must adapt back

Remember earlier in the year, when Jared Goff was slicing and dicing opponents, and scouting websites were saying that Goff was the best quarterback against the blitz in the nation? Well, opponents were paying attention. And it's resulted in tough times for the Bear Raid.

Utah and UCLA both rarely blitzed, electing to send just 3 or 4 rushers at Goff and blanketing 7 or 8 defenders across the field to make his reads more difficult. And this is working because 1) Cal's line hasn't been able to hold up long enough against 3/4 man rushes* and 2) Cal's WRs haven't been able to get separation against defenders.

One solution to this issue is obvious: Cal's WRs simply need to make some tough catches. Against UCLA, there were many plays where a Cal WR had an opportunity to make a marginally difficult catch that fell incomplete. Is it fair to expect those plays to be made every time? No. But if the Bears want to move the ball against tougher defenses, they need to make tough catches more often.

The other obvious solution is to run the ball better. And right now, I think that solution is to give a greater share of the carries to Khalfani Muhammad, who is currently averaging twice as many yards/carry as any other regular running back. six of his eight rushes against UCLA gained 6 yards or more, and this isn't exactly something new. He's been Cal's best, most consistent running back since the Texas game, and now is the time to find out if he can handle a bigger workload.

*At a minimum, I expect USC and ASU to be able to pressure Cal with 3/4 rushers. Hopefully Cal can keep Oregon State, Oregon, and Stanford's depleted defensive lines at bay.

Defense

Complete and utter methodical domination

UCLA's first seven drives resulted in three touchdowns, four field goals, and 33 points that proved to be more than enough. The Bruins gained 402 yards in 69 plays on those seven drives, but also lost 40 yards to penalties, which means they really gained 442 yards (6.4 yards/play). What was stunning and utterly disheartening was UCLA's ability to produce (and Cal's inability to prevent) constant gains. Cal's defense did a mostly did good job of keeping the Bruins in front of them, and UCLA only had a few big chunk plays. But Cal allowed 41/69 plays to gain five yards or more.

How bad was it? In those first seven drives, UCLA faced just four 3rd down conversions longer than six yards, and two of those occurred because the Bruins committed a penalty. There was never any indication that UCLA could be stopped.

By the time the dust had cleared Cal trailed by 23 points and the game was over. When Cal scored, UCLA tacked on another touchdown on a drive that only required one difficult conversion. If it weren't for a bit of red zone inefficiency, the Bruins could have essentially named their score. Luckily, they called off the dogs by calling just one pass play in the 4th quarter.

Special Teams

Improvement

Matt Anderson kicked off five times. Four of those kicks were touchbacks, and the fifth was only a return to the 20 yard line. He made his only field goal attempt, a chippie. That's excellent.

Cole Leininger netted an average of 40 yards on 4 punts. He had two excellent punts that weren't returned, one kick that was a little short, and one kick that was long but allowed a 12 yard return. All in all a solid day.

Cal didn't have a chance at a meaningful return because Fairbairn puts 90% of his kickoffs through the end zone and because UCLA's punters stink and don't punt it long enough for a return.

Unfortunately, this game was so lopsided in other phases that special teams didn't really matter except for one obvious play. More on that later.

Coaching/Game Theory Errata

On the fake punt, and 4th down in general

On Cal's second drive of the game, the Bears faced a 3rd and 1 and went deep down the sidelines. The ball fell incomplete. Sonny Dykes left the offense out on the field before eventually calling a timeout, then he sent out Harry Adolphus to punt.

Later, with UCLA leading 20-3, he again sent Adolphus out to punt, this time on a 4th and 10. The fake went poorly, but I don't think it was because of poor execution. Four different UCLA defenders sniffed out the play, and Cal only had three men to block.

Stating the obvious: I don't know what the coaching staff was thinking on both plays. I suspect that Dykes sent out Adolphus on the first punt perhaps with the intention of faking, but maybe UCLA lined up in a way that led them to pull back from a potential fake. The coaching staff clearly think that Leininger is the better punter right now, so if the intention was 100% to punt away, I don't know why Adolphus would be on the field.

It's a shame, because in retrospect that would have been the perfect time and place to call a fake. Cal needed to match UCLA score for score, and you have to like Adolphus's chances at getting just one yard.

As for the decision to fake later in the half? The game was already out of hand, so I don't blame the coaches for recognizing that they needed to do something to change the game and give their team a chance to climb back in the game. But based on the play design, I have a hard time thinking that that particular play gets 10 yards unless the opposition completely falls asleep. But in the end, failing didn't meaningfully harm Cal's slim chances of winning the game. It's just a shame they didn't save the fake for a future situation where it was more likely to work and positively change a game.

Two point conversion aggression

A small thing Sonny got right: Going for two midway through the 3rd quarter, trailing by 17 after the touchdown. Any scenario that has Cal coming back is three touchdowns and two conversions to score 23 points and tie the game. Most coaches, upon scoring the first touchdown, would kick and leave the conversions for later. But by attempting the conversion right away, it allows Dykes to shape his game strategy based upon the success or failure of the early conversion. Since Cal failed, Dykes knew that Cal would still have to score 3 times, and can plan accordingly.

I hope that Dykes does not again have to demonstrate correct conversion strategy when trailing by multiple scores this season.

The surrender punt

Prior to actually scoring the touchdown to cut into UCLA's 23 point deficit, Cal punted on 4th and 1 from their own 29 in the 3rd quarter, and I assumed that Cal had given up. When you need at least three scores just to tie a game and the opposing offense has scored on every drive, I think that puts you in a position where you have to attempt to convert every single reasonable 4th down you are faced with.

Big Picture

In the intro we covered why this season isn't going to be The Season. So now we can recalibrate and try to enjoy the season for what it is, or what it can be. For as bad as the Bears looked on Thursday, it's important to remember that the same team has out played, on a per-play basis, three different Pac-12 opponents. It's important to remember that this team has an NFL level quarterback* who can go off against anybody. It's our nature as fans to be somewhat manic-depressive. One week ago, UCLA fans were a moribund bunch, largely convinced that they were heading for a home loss to Cal as their season spiraled down the drain. Seasons change, and change quickly.

What would make this season a success? That depends on a variety of factors unique to each fan. I'd be beyond ecstatic with an 8-4 regular season with just one win over Stanford or USC. I'd happily take 8-4, even if the two losses came to USC and Stanford. I could probably rationalize 7-5, although it would feel hollow if Goff left for the draft and we only got 13 total wins out of a generational quarterback.

The bottom line is that it's time to cast off the disappointment of Cal's performance against UCLA, and see what they can do measured against the more moderate, realistic expectations we all brought into the season, rather than the dream expectations that we all hoped for after a 5-0 start.

*There is an increasingly popular chorus of people who suggest that Jared Goff should stay in school because he isn't ready for the NFL, and/or because his draft stock has taken a hit that will require another year at Cal to recover from. I'm no NFL scout, but everything I know from my experience with how NFL people react to college performances tells me that Jared Goff will be a very high draft pick assuming he doesn't get injured between now and draft day, almost regardless of what happens on the field. If Jared Goff decides to come back, it's because he just really intrinsically values his final year at Cal over an NFL paycheck, a la Matt Barkley or Andrew Luck - and not because he needs another year to make the big bucks.