Whenever possible, I try to be positive in this space, so let's start with the good news: On a play-for-play basis, Cal at least played USC even, and I would argue actually outplayed the Trojans on Saturday. Don't believe me? I understand - it certainly didn't feel that way from the stands. But the numbers bear it out. SBNation's Five Factors box score shows that Cal had a higher success rate and gained 1.6 more yards/play. That's a relatively significant advantage that would usually be enough to earn a win.
But it wasn't enough to earn the win. It wasn't even enough to give Cal's offense the opportunity to win the game at the end. We'll get into why a little later, but here's a little hint: There's one obvious reason and two slightly less obvious reasons, and all three are incredibly frustrating.
Your reminder that Jared Goff is still a very good quarterback, despite devilish events sent to test your faith
Has Jared Goff regressed? In my opinion, he has not. Last year, he averaged 7.7 yards/pass in Pac-12 play. So far this year, having yet to face two of the weakest defenses on the schedule, he's thrown for 7.6 yards/pass. He's throwing for just as many touchdowns, and he's had some bad interception luck.
The problem is that he played his best game (at Washington) early and he's dealing with a running game that has regressed. But he still makes plays that reminds you that he's going to be a very high draft pick if he so desires.
Cal is facing a must-convert 4th and 6. With the game on the line, he uncorks a beautiful over-the-shoulder 29 yard pass to Darius Powe, clearing an underneath defender and steering him away from a safety. On the very next play he throws a laser beam to Stephen Anderson on a slant, splitting the ball between two USC defenders for a touchdown. That was the conclusion of an 87 yard drive in which Goff ran or passed on all but two plays of the drive.
On the state of the 2015 offense
For all of the uncertainty in college football, everybody agreed on one thing regarding the 2015 California Bears: If they could develop even an average defense, great things would happen. And against all odds, that's exactly what the Bears have. Hell, maybe even better than average - Cal is currently 4th in the Pac-12 in conference games only in yards/play allowed!
And yet the Bears have a losing conference record. How is that possible?
If you recall, we discussed prior to the season that, despite all of the hoopla and crazy numbers in certain games, Cal's offense wasn't an elite one in 2014. It was a good offense, no doubt, but not elite. Borderline top 25. The advanced stats at Football Outsiders had an average ranking around 31st best in the nation. Nothing to sneeze at, but hardly Oregon south. Still, Cal had just about everybody coming back - surely things would improve?
The results . . . have been about the same - it just feels like we've regressed because we had higher expectations. The advanced stats (not yet updated to include the USC game) have Cal at around 30th best in the country. On one hand, perhaps that's about what we should have expected - the same players, the same results. On the other hand, I think we all expected more with the entire core of the offense given another off-season to practice together.
Why has the offense stagnated? Losing Chris Harper, Chris Adcock and Alejandro Crosthwaite certainly plays some role - Harper had a skill-set relatively unique to Cal's WR corps and Adcock did an excellent job anchoring the line in the middle. Daniel Lasco's injury and the subsequent regression of the running game is probably the biggest issue. Teams have been able to play 7 defenders out across the secondary, and Cal hasn't been able to punish them on the ground, making Cal's passing reads so much more difficult for Goff. Of course, there's also . . .
Reason #1 Cal didn't win
Cal has now lost 19 total turnovers, which is 116th in the nation. Offensive turnovers have now been directly responsible for two of Cal's three losses. Which makes one wonder: Is there some sort of inherent characteristic with Cal's offense that causes it to be turnover prone?
Probably not. For my money, it's a frustrating combination of bad luck and rough performances.
Cal has lost 7 fumbles, which is a little high but really not much different from the national average of 5 or 6. It's the 12 interceptions that have been killing the Bears. Some of those 12 interceptions (Two tipped passes vs. Grambling, a why-not hail mary vs. Washington) have been fluky. Five came when Goff had the worst game of his career at the wrong time. Now we have two more against USC to analyze.
Goff said in his post-game comments that the Pick-six was caused by getting hit in the pocket. I've watched the replay a bunch of times and I can't really see it, but it's certainly true that he had Treggs marginally open down the field and the ball flutters off target in a very un-Goff-like fashion. Maybe Goff simply felt the rush and the ball slipped out of his hand. I dunno.
The 2nd interception is actually less meaningful as it was a 4th down play and would have had a similar result if the USC defender simply batted the ball down. I haven't been able to find a good replay angle to see if there was some sort of secondary penalty as Dykes and Goff have claimed. Really, the issue with that drive was the 3rd down play when Cal had Goff throw blind to Lasco seven yards behind the line of scrimmage with nobody there to block the man who was assigned to Lasco.
A classic bend but don't break
USC had just two drives without a first down, and one of those drives was killed in part because of a holding penalty. The Trojans were generally able to move the football. But they only scored 20 offensive points because the Bears made them earn every one of those first downs and tended to stiffen when it mattered. USC only broke three plays longer than 20 yards, and one was a trick play that was actually pretty well defended.
The Bears were disciplined and in the right places, and USC's success came mostly down to the pure athleticism that makes them such a nightmare to defend. But to Cal's credit they made solid tackles, occasionally forced a negative play, and generally limited USC to the absolute minimum considering how generally mistake-free the USC offense played themselves.
Helped by USC's conservatism
I don't know who USC is going to hire. They could probably hire somebody worse than Clay Helton (like Lane Kiffin or Steve Sarkisian) but based on Saturday's game I think they could probably do better, because Helton didn't help USC's cause much with NFL level conservatism.
I think Cal's chances were helped tremendously by the decision making of Helton, who elected to punt on 4th and 3, 4th and 2, and 4th and 1 from the 50 yard line or closer. USC's running backs averaged just short of 5 yards/carry, and you have to like USC's chances to score if they make likely conversions on those plays.
Beyond that, Helton called 27 pass plays vs. 42 running plays, an incredibly unbalanced number considering that USC's passing game was significantly more efficient and explosive than their running game. Granted, some of that imbalance was because the Trojans built a 24-7 lead and tried to milk the clock. . . but that very same conservatism allowed Cal to climb back into the game, and very nearly led to a punt that would have given the Cal offense a chance to steal the win.
Being not bad isn't good enough
Reason #2 Cal didn't win
We have a problem: Our expectations for special teams has been lowered so significantly, that we celebrate if Cal special teams don't have an obvious negative impact on a game. As long as we're not giving up big returns, missing easy field goals, or making major gaffes, then we shrug and move on to worrying about other areas.
But special teams are a problem. There were 134 plays from scrimmage in Saturday's game. There were 18 combined kickoffs and punts. Those kickoffs and punts make up 12% of the game, and on those plays, USC trounced Cal. USC's average starting field position was the 31, and Cal's average starting field position was the 18. That's 13 yards of field position on every drive. Both teams had 11 possessions, meaning that USC had a total of 143 yards of extra field position on Cal.
Why? To be fair, it's not entirely on special teams. Cal's turnovers positively impacted USC's starting field position. Cal was actually marginally better at punting (average of 39 net vs. 37) although USC's numbers are heavily impacted from one stupid punt that netted just 20 yards due to a touchback. The real difference was kickoffs. USC's kicker did a great job of placing nearly every kickoff right at the goalline, and then the Trojans mauled Cal's kickoff blocking. Twice, Cal's returner was tackled well before the 20 despite Cal committing a blocking penalty. Quite frankly, we would have been better off not fielding each kick and letting it bounce into the end zone.
Meanwhile, USC had three excellent kickoff returns, and one bad return when Daniel Lasco knifed through USC's blockers for a brilliant, hard tackle on USC's returner.
That one play from Lasco is a reminder of what other teams get regularly from special teams. USC regularly gets solid returns. They regularly cover kicks well. They make life hard on other teams. Cal very rarely gets that, and in most games special teams are a net negative.
Passing on an extra possession
Reason #3 Cal didn't win
All season long, Cal's offense has been brilliant running the hurry-up offense at the end of the second quarter. In seven games prior to USC, Cal has scored four touchdowns and one field goal in the final minute of the 2nd quarter! That's five successful drives, and Cal wasn't given an opportunity to run the two minute offense in those other two games. The Bears have been so wildly successful in these situations that it has led fans to wonder if the offense needs to pick up the pace on all drives to increase production.
So when USC was driving for an eventual field goal late in the 2nd quarter, I started mentally doing the math in my head, trying to figure out what it would take for Cal to have a chance at another offensive possession.
Unfortunately, the official play-by-play doesn't list the exact time for each play, but I know that USC had first and 10 from the Cal 12 with roughly 2:00 minutes left on the clock. At the moment, Cal had three timeout and USC had one. As the clock was ticking prior to USC's first down play call, I was begging Dykes to call a timeout. When USC rushed for 3 yards on first down, I was begging Dykes to call a timeout. When USC ran for 4 yards on 2nd down, I again begged Dykes to call a timeout. USC knew exactly how much time they needed, and when their 3rd down play failed, they kicked a field goal with 11 seconds left on the clock.
Even using one time out would have given Cal about 50 seconds, which can sometimes be enough for the Bear Raid, particularly knowing that the Bears would have had two timeouts left on the board. Using two timeouts would have granted Cal probably 90 seconds. You get the point.
I want to be clear: I have generally been very happy with Sonny Dykes' game management this season. He's been better than probably 75-80% of head coaches in the country. But this was the type of basic clock management mistake that he cannot afford to make. It's almost like being given the opportunity to recover a fumble and politely refusing. Against a team like USC, Cal cannot afford to leave any potential opportunity untapped.
The consequences are obvious. Cal lost this game by 6 points, and they passed on a chance to add 3 or 7 points to the board. For my money, leaving those first half timeouts on the board and not trying to score was the single worst game management decision Sonny Dykes has made in three years at Cal.
Three things have happened. Cal has lost a one possession road game to a ranked Utah team. Cal was blown out on the road in Los Angeles. Cal has lost a one possession home game to (a now nearly ranked) USC team. In isolation, none of those results are necessarily shocking or damning. Prior to the season, if I had seperately said that any of those three things would happen, nobody would have batted an eye.
But all three games did happen, all in a row, and it has predictably led to a disgruntled, sniping fan base. Stop the presses: college football fans don't handle losing well. For my money, UCLA game aside, Cal has proven that they have the horses to play close with just about anybody. I fully expect at least that much the rest of the year, even if this team is, at the same time, flawed enough that they likely won't pull away for any routine wins either.
The good news is that Cal has arguably cleared the toughest part of their schedule. Despite the latest Vegas line, I'm of the opinion that Oregon is a significantly more tractable foe than Utah, USC, or UCLA. Arizona State falls into the same category, and Oregon State is meaningfully worse than San Diego State. I fully expect this team to bounce back and beat the Beavers, and at least split their games between Oregon and ASU.
And then there's Stanford. I know it's looking ahead, but I don't think we'll be able to understate the importance of the Big Game on the psyche and trajectory of this program. The difference between 7-5 + another 0-fer against California rivals vs. 8-4 and taking home The Axe? Miles and miles apart. Washington State demonstrated that the Cardinal can be had.
But first things first. It's time for the Cal offense to get right against an Oregon defense that has been absolutely shredded by anybody with a pulse. Breaking a five year losing streak to the Ducks would be a decent achievement, even if Oregon's own struggles have diminished the accomplishment.