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Cal vs. Washington State: Post Game Thoughts

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Winning ugly is certainly better than the alternative.

Kyle Terada-USA TODAY Sports

Well, we certainly have an established script, don't we? Sluggish start, short yardage issues, a 2nd/3rd quarter surge, turnovers in bunches, an innards-churning 4th quarter, a one possession win. This formula is going to work just as well against USC and Stanford as it does against Washington and Washington State, right?

Right guys?

Offense

Offensive MVP: Kenny Lawler

Lawler didn't have a perfect day - he committed an illegal touching penalty that single-handedly killed one scoring drive and his 3rd quarter fumble might be remembered very differently if Washington State could hit a field goal. But there were extenuating circumstances:

The last time I vomited, escaping the bathroom so that I could get back to bed was a challenge. Six catches for 105 yards and two jaw-dropping touchdowns? Wow. He's such an unbelievable luxury to have in the red zone. If only Big-12 teams played some defense (I kid, Baylor's Corey Coleman, I kid) he'd lead the nation in touchdown receptions.

Your weekly reminder that Jared Goff isn't of this world

It's first and 10 at the Wazzu 34, and Jared Goff goes back to pass. But wait . . . Cal's right guard Jordan Rigsbee pulls as if he's going to lead block on a run play. Goff pulls the ball away from Vic Enwere on the run/pass option. Center Dominic Granado slides over on the defensive tackle, but he doesn't have leverage and only manages to slow down the pass rusher. Rigsbee is left standing awkwardly in the middle of the pocket with nobody to block. Destiny Vaeao levels Goff from the side.

But it's too late. Goff has already uncorked a perfect pass from the 41 yard line, right hash mark, right into the chest of a streaking Bryce Treggs as he crosses the goal line at the left hash. Touchdown.

Nifty play of the week

I'm going to start with the caveat that this play was a touchdown thanks just as much to awful pursuit angles and tackling from Washington State as it was Cal execution. But Maurice Harris' 24 yard WR screen was an interesting little play, in part because Harris was lined up to the right side in isolation, and scored a touchdown without any WR blocking.

Considering that there were three WSU defenders on that side of the field ready to make attempts at a tackle, how did he score? By literally running backwards towards his linemen so that they had time to come downfield and screen for him. Only Jordan Rigsbee got a truly effective block, but it was a perfect one to take out the cornerback who had the best angle. All Harris needed to do was avoid the safety, which he was able to do thanks to a bad angle and a quick sidestep. touchdown.

Efficiency Report

11 meaningful drives, 4 touchdowns, 3 turnovers on downs, 2 punts, 2 turnovers

Sometimes, the difference between a mediocre day of offense and a great day of offense can be two short yardage plays. If Cal converts either 4th and 1 in Washington State territory in the first half, this is probably a very different game, no?

But Cal didn't convert those plays, and you can't reasonably suggest that they were close - the line didn't get any push on either play. Nor can you suggest that this was a one-off fluke - Cal had the same problem last week against Washington. Are we really in a position where we would be better off letting Goff throw the ball on 4th and 1?

No, certainly not. Even bad rushing teams can usually manage to plunge for one friggin' yard. Having a 100% healthy, rust-free Lasco would probably help. I suspect that getting back Brian Farley might help run blocking as well, although it was the healthy interior of the line that seemed to struggle the most. But the bottom line is that this team needs to figure out how to convert short yardage. Whether that means different play calling, different players, or simply better execution I don't know.

Meanwhile, Cal converted five times on 3rd and 10 or longer. Cal football: where needing 10+ yards is better than needing 1.

Defense

Defensive MVP: Stefan McClure and Demariay Drew

It just felt right to jointly acknowledge the improved play Cal has been getting at safety, when both starters happened to have impactful performances. There's the obvious stuff - McClure's huge sack and fumble return, Drew's potentially game saving interception. But there's less obvious stuff. Particularly in the 2nd half, Cal did a good job of preventing big pass plays and keeping Wazzu in front of them, which is mostly the job of the safeties. And those seven sacks don't happen without decent downfield coverage.

It wasn't an amazing performance from the secondary (7.9 yards/attempt on 49 throws is a lot) but it's a damned sight better than what happened last year. When the season began we hoped that either Cal's defense could improve on an every-down basis, or improve by mixing in some big plays. Right now the defense has done both, and McClure and Drew are a big part of everything.

Nifty defensive play of the week

Stefan McClure's sack was a really cool blitz (and kudos to the Pac-12's highlight show for pointing this one out). Obviously, McClure comes right down the pipe. But why was he so unblocked, and why wasn't Luke Falk able to get a throw away? Because James Looney feigned a rush to occupy a lineman, then stepped back into the flat and got in the way of two different crossing patterns.  Falk had nowhere to go both with the ball, and in the pocket. And you know those extra nine yards made the ensuing (missed) field goal that much tougher.

Sustainable vs. unsustainable

Last week, I suggested that it's highly unlikely that Cal can continue to force so many turnovers. The Bears responded by forcing three turnovers (no, I'm not going to count the silly, final play turnover in the tally) that ended up swinging the game in the 2nd half.

To be clear, Cal was lucky. Excluding final play lateral weirdness, there were six total fumbles by both teams in this game. Cal recovered five of them. That's probably not going to keep happening. Gaining 3.6 turnovers/game is a crazy stat that is partially improved defensive positioning/pass rush and partially luck, and we can be equally thrilled about both developments.

Which brings us to what should be sustainable: pass rush. The Bears are tied for 6th in the country with 18 sacks. Lest you think that those sacks were all compiled against clearly inferior competition, only 5 of those 18 came against Grambling State and San Diego State. Cal's rush has been consistent - if anything, it's been getting better each game. And the one thing that can reliably create turnover opportunities? A good pass rush. With 13 different players recording at least one sack, the Bears can be confident with the depth and breadth of talent.

Will the pass rush be just as productive against stiffer lines than the state of Washington can offer? Likely, yes. But at least now teams have to account for a pass rush, rather than calling any old passing play and knowing that the quarterback would have all day regardless.

Special Teams

Providing positive value!

After last year, and after the first few games of the year, my main hope on special teams was neutral value: Don't make any glaring mistakes, don't let the other team make any big plays. Make the easy field goals, catch the darn ball on punt returns, no return touchdowns, that type of stuff.

But, for once, perhaps the two most important plays came on special teams, and both in Cal's favor! I wont spend much time talking about the WSU fake attempt because that was more about WSU mistakes than anything else, other than to note that 1) WSU should've just ran a traditional play, they were getting decent push on running plays and 2) thank goodness it was a punter running, because nearly anybody else on WSU's roster probably converts that play.

But oh, that on-side kick. It goes to show how difficult those kicks are, because Cal did just about everything right, and yet it could have ended badly if Wazzu's #19 falls on the ball, or if Darius Powe doesn't barely get to the ball before it goes out of bounds. Phew.

But Darius DID get there, and it gave us a spectacular highlight. Go back and watch the play again and just watch the sidelines reactions. It's like the entire sideline knew the onside attempt was coming. As soon as the ball gets past the only Cougar who had a shot at it, everybody makes a little hop of anticipation. Then, when Darius falls on the ball, absolute joy. Loved it.

Coverage: Adequate, at least against Washington State

Cal punted 3 times and allowed zero returns. Cal kicked off deep 5 times, and WSU's average starting field position was the 26 yard line. Those results are just fine, and if Cal can reproduce them against the rest of their schedule we won't have to worry about special teams. But the obvious caveat is that WSU has a rock-bottom special teams unit. Until Cal can do something similar against a better unit (say, Utah) then special teams coverage will remain a question mark at best.

Game Theory Errata

In praise of Sonny Dykes, again

Three righteous 4th down conversion attempts and an unexpected onside kick attempt?! A successful challenge in a worthwhile spot? Zero goofy punts and zero wasted timeouts? Dammit Sonny, when I pledged to track coaching strategy decisions, I expected you to give me something to write about! Criticism from unathletic middle-aged fans is the life-blood of blogs and you're not making mistakes!

The only shame is that the Bears were only successful on one of the four non-traditional decisions Dykes made. Luckily, Cal succeeded on the most important (and probably most difficult) play, earning an extra possession that came in quite handy.

Big Picture

I get the sense that Cal fans are all mostly on the same page. On one hand, we're all thrilled that the Bears are 5-0 and ranked. This is easily the best football team in Berkeley since at least 2009. But it's also pretty easy to recognize that how Cal has performed over five games won't be good enough against nearly every other team still left on the schedule.

S&P+ says that Cal has, so far, faced the 105th weakest schedule in the country. Sagarin has it at 94th. And yet the Bears have still needed to gut out three different one possession wins.

Those numbers mean something, but they don't mean everything. It's entirely possible that the Bears have, generally speaking, been playing below their ability level. It's entirely possible that the Bears are primed to turn it on just when the schedule stiffens.

It's also possible that Cal's performances so far is what we can expect the rest of the year. We can expect an offense that looks unstoppable in flashes, but disappears for drives at a  time. A defense that is relying on perhaps unsustainable turnover numbers. Special teams that are hit and miss.

In my mind, it all comes down to the offense. Right now, the defense is performing about as well as anybody could have reasonably expected. The offense? In terms of pure production, it hasn't really been any better than last year after adjusting for schedule strength, and that's mildly disappointing. Maybe that's down to correctable errors. Maybe that's down to needing a healthy Daniel Lasco. Maybe it's just a matter of time until Goff has a completely unstoppable pointsplosion.

I'm sounding more pessimistic than I want to sound. The bottom line is that, no matter how it looked, the Bears did what they were supposed to do through the manageable portion of their schedule. I think it's entirely safe to say that Cal has met expectations so far. More importantly, they have put themselves in position to exceed expectations - perhaps wildly so.

Utah is good, there's no getting around that. But there's reason to think they might be tractable, and they aren't a team that's built to run away with a game, unless you have a turnover and special teams fueled meltdown like Oregon just had. It would not surprise me in the least to find Cal and Utah locked in a one score game in the 4th quarter. In that type of scenario, I have no qualms trusting Jared Goff.