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Cal vs. Oregon State postgame thoughts

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The Bears win a game that doesn't mean a ton from an on-field perspective but makes a ton of difference for the psychology of the team and the fanbase.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

I don't have a ton of thoughts about this game because, well . . . imagine if we played the 2013 season all over again, but we replaced Jared Goff with a random, sub-replacement level freshman Pac-12 quarterback? That's basically what OSU is this year, and so there's not a ton we can gleam from this particular game.

Instead, let's talk about why you're reading this right now. You're a Cal football fan, and you watch every week because it's fun for you (or, alternatively, because your evil brain tricks you into thinking it's fun!)

That game was fun. Some of it was silly fun, but I had a blast at the game even though it was 45 degrees and the crowd was kinda subdued. We got to tailgate all day and trade thoughts on how excited we all were about Cal basketball (HYPE!), and remember a friend we all miss. We got crazy screen pass touchdowns and beautiful deep bombs and piesman touchdowns just minutes after our section started yelling 'THROW IT TO MALIK'  every time he came on the field. We got to see more yards of Cal offense in 60 minutes than any other game in program history.

There's something oddly fun about those weird games where half the crowd leaves and the hardy few left have the run of the place. Your reward? Seeing Jalen Jefferson conduct 'Fight' while a bunch of 20 year olds celebrate because they're all going to get to take a trip in December for the first time at Cal. That's damned fun.

It may not mean much in a few weeks - most of the good feelings will drain away if the Bears drop the Big Game - but we have all week to worry about that.

Offense

In which Jared Goff scares the pants off of every Cal fan, then provides hope

Jared Goff started out 1-5 for zero yards, and didn't really look like Jared Goff until the 2nd quarter. His first few throws were bad enough that when he finally completed a pass that gained yards, there were a few vaguely sarcastic cheers. People were antsy.

And I get why, because Jared Goff hasn't looked like Jared Goff for the majority of a game since Washington State. Midway through the first quarter, I was wondering if there was something mental to his struggles, because he was missing easy passes with perfectly find protection.

But at some point early on he settled down. It was probably about the time he realized that Oregon State's pass rush wasn't going to be bothering him often, that he had all the time he needed to set his feet, read the defense, and make the throws he's been making for years.

And that led to some beautiful, beautiful throws. The best of the night was either his throw to Trevor Davis (35 yards covered in the air, juuuust a little bit behind Davis) or the deep ball that got from the goal line to the 50 to Maurice Harris very, very quickly. For my money, I'd take the throw to Harris, in part because the replays remind me just a bit of Aaron Rodgers and the way he makes split second decisions and just flicks the ball 50 yards to a receiver, all casual like. His 30 yard toss to Powe in the front corner of the end zone was nice as well.

My hope? I'm hoping that Goff's struggles were at least in part mental, and that this was an opportunity to get back in the right, aggressive frame of mind before the biggest game of the year. True, Oregon State has (by far) the worst pass rush in the Pac-12. But in terms of total sacks, can you guess which team is 2nd to last? Those Junior Cardinal. With a clean pocket, Jared Goff found his mojo. If, against a weakish Stanford rush the line can keep it clean again then the Bears should have a fighting chance.

Player(s) of the game

Cal's offensive line has had troubles, by their own admission. They bounced back with an expectedly strong performance against OSU's weak front. Where they really excelled was in space, getting away from the line and blocking in space on Cal's many successful screen plays. And seeing Jared Goff have enough time to go deep again was a wonderful thing.

Does it mean that everything is fixed for ever and ever? No. But for at least one week, the line did everything you could ask for and more.

Nifty wrinkle of the game

This might be something that Cal has been using lots and I just never noticed, but against OSU we sent our running backs in motion out of the backfield right before the ball was snapped quite often. That type of motion has obvious value as a way to set up running back pass patterns, but I wonder if it also has value by distracting ends and outside linebackers who might otherwise either rush the quarterback or fall back into coverage against Cal's receivers.

That play of the game that we've all been waiting for

Malik McMorris catching a pass was a very poorly kept secret, at least among die-hard Cal fans. Reports trickled out of fall camp, and when a 300 pound fullback is on the field you can't help but notice and wonder. It was just a matter of time, but the moment finally came.

Part of me was a little disappointed that there wasn't anybody for McMorris to try to run over (or juke?!), but OSU's end bit so hard on the run fake that there was nobody to stop him.

760 total yards

I guess that's what you get when you combine generally bad field position with an offense that moved the ball at will after the first couple drives. It didn't feel like a record setting performance, in part because we started slow and in part because there was so much of the game that wasn't high leverage. All those years of Cal football - 86 points against UOP, 70 against Baylor, blowouts over Washington and Washington State, it's funny that this is the one that (for now) is the record setter.

Defense

Player of the game

Darius Allensworth had 4 pass breakups, and I don't recall him ever getting beaten in coverage (granted, I think Darius White spent more time on Jordan Villamin, OSU's best target by a wide margin). Regardless, being in position and following through by breaking up passes is still the best way for Cal to get off the field, and that's what Allensworth provided against the Beavers.

Concerns with run defense

Cal's pass defense wasn't taxed a ton because OSU's various quarterbacks were never going to be consistently accurate downfield. So it's a little concerning that Cal's run defense was relatively porous against an otherwise mediocre rushing attack.

Now, don't get me wrong - OSU is actually better than you'd think on the ground, which maybe isn't a huge surprise considering the type of rushing attacks Andersen built at Wisconsin. But still, 6 yards a pop for the Beavers is a little concerning, particularly coming on the heels of what Oregon did last week. The reality is that Cal is still pretty thin on the front seven, and unless they get some guys back 100% healthy for Stanford, things could get ugly against Stanford's much better offensive line.

Special Team

Matt Anderson, developing a leg?

Quietly, we just might have ourselves a solid field goal kicker. Matt Anderson is now 11/14, and 7/8 from inside 40 yards. After a shaky start to the season with misses against SDSU and Texas, Anderson has nailed 48 and 45 yard field goals in the last two weeks, and both had plenty of leg with solid accuracy.

#collegekickers can be inherently streaky and we still don't have a good sense of whether or not Anderson can hit from 50+, but if Cal's offense is going even close to where we all expect it to be this team shouldn't be attempting 50 yard field goals even if they had Adam Vinatieri on the roster. As long as Anderson can hit a 40 yarder when we're facing 4th and 18 or when the game is on the line, he'll be more than good enough.

Improved kick coverage a good omen for Big Game?

Cal kicked off 10 times, with one kick going out of bounds. The other nine? All returnable, but none of them got past the 25 yard line. And lest you shrug and say 'well, that's just OSU,' I would note that the Beavers have had some decent success in the kick return game, with one touchdown and a solid team average. Cal held them below that and didn't give up anything big.

Stanford is a much bigger challenge - as I'm sure we'll all be reminded of constantly, Christian McCaffery and Stanford have perhaps the best kick return unit in the nation. So any indication that we might be able to hold that unit down is a positive.

I hope we kick off 10 times against Stanford.

Coaching and Game Theory Errata

The joy of blowouts

There were no in-game coaching decisions that actually mattered, because Cal built a 3 possession lead fairly quickly and never let up. The closest thing was the decision to go for it on 4th and 3 from the OSU 25 when the game was still tied at zero. Up to that point the offense had actually looked a bit shaky, but a 4th and 3 is still typically going to be a better proposition than a 42 yard field goal. And Goff was a split second away from going up the middle for at least 5 yards on a scramble before getting tripped up.

The psychological side of things

There are lots of things that I don't talk about in my writing. Team dynamics. Leadership. 'Momentum.' Effort and buy-in. 'Adversity' and the ability to overcome it. Why? Because I'm in absolutely no position to define and evaluate things like that.* I think, generally speaking, it's important for a football team to have a sound locker room, to have players and coaches that support each other mentally, to have a team that can bounce back in game and in season. It's just really hard, if not impossible, to say when teams do or do not have these types of attributes, except as post-hoc, ipso-facto, lazy analysis. Team A won, therefore Team A has leadership. Team B didn't bounce back, therefore Team B doesn't have leadership.

But when you watch this clip, and you see Stefan McClure. He's a guy who has been through a ton at Cal. He was thrown onto the field as a true freshman against Robert Woods and Marqise Lee and held his own. He played in front of dead crowds at AT&T Park. He tore up his knee (IIRC) against Stanford in the Big Game, and had to sit out 2012, watching from the sidelines as the Tedford era disintegrated around him. Then he comes back for the 2013 season, has to suffer through rock bottom of the rebuilding process, then gets hurt again halfway through the season and has to sit out the rest of the year. After another year of recovery he comes back, switches positions, has to learn from a new defensive coordinator, then suffer through a season when Cal's defense and secondary struggle badly.

If there is anybody on the entire team who could be more justified feeling bitter or angry, who could have transferred or checked out or passed up on a redshirt senior season, it would be Stefan McClure. If there's anybody who could have hung his head after 5-0 turned into 5-4, and tuned out his coaches, it's McClure.

Instead the third year captain is representing his teammates to thank Coach Dykes for believing in them, for helping turn them around, for getting the Bears to a bowl game. And you can watch the video and see how the other players react, with enthusiasm and gratitude towards their coach. And that means something. It means something that this coach hasn't lost his players amidst a painful losing streak; on the contrary, has them positive and energized.

I don't know if Sonny Dykes will lead this team to whatever promised land each individual Cal fan has in their mind. But based upon what little evidence I have available to me, he has the players behind him. Considering how the season has turned, that's impressive and speaks well to his leadership and temperament.

*It is at this point that you should note that I'm in no position to define and evaluate on field football related things either, but let's not let facts get in the way here.

Big Picture

Happy I hate Stanford week

Ahh, Stanford. All year long we get to hear about how friggin' great Stanford is. How they Do Things The Right Way, how they only recruit special little flowers, about how wonderful they are because they sometimes throw on an extra offensive llineman or two, or because they use MULTIPLE TIGHT ENDS OMG! I just threw up a little.

And now, as much as this year has turned in a direction we weren't hoping for, the Bears have been afforded an opportunity to deny Stanford the Pac-12 North title, when it looked like they had it all but clinched weeks ago. We can play a decisive role in their fall from playoff contender to conference also-ran in the span of two weeks. If The Axe wasn't motivation enough, that should do it.

It won't be easy. Nothing that has happened over the last two Big Games has suggested that Cal matches up particularly well with Stanford from a purely stylistic standpoint. But this year's Stanford team is very different from prior versions. And even if Cal isn't quite as good as we hoped, they are still meaningfully better than last year.

Stanford has gotten too damned comfortable. Too damned comfortable with their position in the North, too damned comfortable with their position over Cal. It's well past time for that to end.