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Cal vs. Stanford Big Game Thoughts

I bet you all really want to talk about 4th down decision making some more!!!

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Being a fan is dumb. It's in the damned definition of the word.

Going to Big Game in Palo Alto is such a commitment. That's true almost no matter where you live, but I happen to live in Sacramento, which means you're facing a minimum of four hours of driving that will inevitably turn into five or six or more hours because of traffic, both on freeways and around Stanford Stadium. You might get stuck in an eucalyptus grove for an hour, or get lost in the dark trying to find your car.

Then there's the money. Gas. Tickets. Food and drink. The weather at night in November probably won't be pleasant. The stadium experience means watching a four hour Stanford infomercial. Our tickets were in the Cal section, but evidently two tickets in front of us were sold to Stanford fans. They arrived late and left at halftime, which was somehow worse because it was a reminder that Cal has been dominated by a team with a fan base that has collectively checked out of the rivalry during perhaps their greatest ascendancy ever.

So when you watch Cal lose for the sixth time in a row, knowing all of the above, one might start getting irrationally mad. I know I did. Then I got mad at myself for being mad about college football, which only made me more frustrated.

As we trudged out of Stanford Stadium, my wife could tell I was mad. She squeezed my hand and told me I'd feel better later. I apologized for being a #@%$. She would have been justified if she told me to suck it up and quit whining. Knowing in that moment that I'm married to somebody who understands and accepts my particular irrationality helped.

This is a long way of saying that I get it. Almost everybody is pissed off because we lost to Stanford, again. I took this loss harder than any loss since we went down to LA in 2011 and lost to a UCLA team that had suspended half of their starting lineup. After a loss like that, I expect extreme reactions, and while restrained reaction is preferable, it's a good idea not to hold anybody responsible for most of the things they say in direct response to another Big Game loss. It's been an interesting last 36 hours around here, but now we have a chance to step back and look at things as dispassionately as possible. Which isn't very!


The best performance against Stanford in years

This is cold comfort, but it's worth noting that, with the possible exception of the 2011 Big Game, this was Cal's best offensive performance against Stanford since the upset win of 2009. Although Stanford did a good job taking away big plays, Cal consistently moved the chains with underneath passing. 23 first downs is a lot on only nine drives.

Of course, this should be the best offensive showing since 2009. This is the weakest Stanford defense in a number of years, and the best Cal offense in a number of years. In an alternate universe, Cal scores 35 points and sent this game into overtime. Why not? Well, let's start talking about . . .

Red Zone failures

Red Zone failure #1: Cal gets first and goal at the Stanford 2. On first down, Vic Enwere loses a yard on a run. On 2nd down Maurice Harris appears to have a touchdown but is ruled to not have completed the catch. On 3rd down Goff turfs a throw to Lawler in the corner.

Issues: All kinds of things. Cal's inability to get a push on short yardage/goalline runs. Cal's receivers not helping out Goff. Goff not helping out Cal's receivers. Bad refs and/or bad rules. But it is worth noting that Cal ran two plays, and got open receivers on both plays. Should've been six.

Red Zone failure #2: Cal is facing a 2nd and 3 from the Stanford 11. Two incompletions quickly follow. I screwed up my DVR recording on this one, but one of them was a moderately tough catch that was dropped in the end zone.

Issues: Well, the coaching staff didn't feel confident running on 2nd/3rd (and 4th) and 3, and I don't blame them. And again, we had a chance to make a tough play in the end zone and didn't, but had a guy open.

Red Zone failure #3: Cal gets a 1st and 10 from the Stanford 16. Enwere runs for 2 yards on first down, Goff completes to Hansen for 6 yards on 2nd down, and a pass to Watson on 3rd doesn't gain any yards.

Issues: We just had to make a play on 3rd down - low yardage runs on first down happen, and the 2nd down play was a good one.

Cal's passing game: Good, but not good enough

38-55, 397 yards, 7.2 yards/attempt, no interceptions. That seems OK, especially against a decent defense. But here's an interesting stat: Stanford's defense recorded exactly one pass breakup and two sacks. Without a starting corner, and without much of a pass rush, Cal left plenty of plays on the field. There was a wheel route to Vic Enwere that was overthrown. There were the end zone plays mentioned above. There was a Trevor Davis drop that contributed to an eventual punt. There were even a few completions in which Goff made inaccurate throws that killed chances for yards after the catch.

I say this not to be Debbie Downer, but to point out that, in this particular game, Cal had the game plan and physical ability to win. That they didn't only adds to the frustration.

A quick word of confusion re: running backs

I think at varying points this year I've been of the opinion that four different runners represent Cal's best hope for a consistent running game. Judged solely on the Stanford game, the current answer would apparently be Tre Watson. Cal badly needs somebody to take hold of the job as lead back next season.


A contrast in short yardage

Stanford faced 13 short yardage situations (2 yards to gain or less) and converted 11 of them. Every single conversion was a running play. One failure was immediately converted on the next play. One failure led to a 4th and one that Stanford should have attempted to convert.

Winning without showing anything

Stanford ran the ball 40 times and passed the ball 12 times. Of those 12 passes, the majority were screens and short throws in front of the sticks. With Cal missing Damariay Drew, I really expected Stanford to try to challenge Cal through the air, but they never really did.

And they didn't have to. Stanford only had seven meaningful drives. Four ended in touchdowns. There weren't any trick plays, there wasn't much misdirection. Stanford knew that they could win this game with basic run after basic run, and they were right. When you have probably the best line in the conference and probably the best running back in the conference, and you're facing a defense that is OK but hardly dominating, you can get away with that.

For that reason, there's just not much to analyze. Cal got one stop because of a rare first down run for no gain and a Hogan incompletion to set up 3rd and long. Another came when Shaw cowardly punting on 4th and 1 (causing me to breathe a gigantic sigh of relief). A 3rd came when Stanford twice didn't give the ball to McCaffrey on 2nd/3rd and 3, then didn't go for it in Cal territory (causing me again to breath a gigantic sigh of relief).

I actually thought it was a pretty heroic showing from Cal's linebackers. The Stanford line was opening up big holes consistently, but McCaffrey mostly got tackled at the 2nd level rather than in the secondary. As much as it pains me to say it, Cal's defense did about as well as they could have been expected to perform considering the level of talent and execution that the Stanford offense brings to their bread-and-butter plays.

Special Teams

Losing the field position battle, badly

Stanford's first two punts were perfect kicks that netted Stanford 43 and 44 yards respectively, and stranded Cal deep in their own territory. Cal's first punt netted 36 yards and gave Stanford a drive that started in Cal territory.

Cal's kickoff return unit on average got the Bears out to the 20 yard line. Excluding the kickoff touchdown, Stanford's average return got them out to the 33.5.

Stanford partly gained that type of field position because Cal started short kicking to keep the ball away from McCaffrey, which . . . it's a problem when you have to choose between giving teams spectacular field position or giving up return touchdowns.

I have the same comment today that I did after the USC game: Cal's special teams routinely give up about 10 yards of field position per drive. Stanford's offense, on average, started 14 yards better than Cal's offense. And that's how you outgain a team by 139 yards and still lose by two scores.

As for the touchdown: As best I could tell, McCaffrey was untouched. And if I were a Stanford fan I'd have been irate if that holding had been called, because the Stanford player had the block well before he held, and the act of holding had no material impact on the play.

Coaching & Game Theory

Regarding those field goals

I'm going to do my best not to rehash what Avi said yesterday, but I'm probably going to do it anyway. Here goes:

Entering Big Game, Stanford had scored 30+ points in nine straight games. Against Pac-12 foes, they had averaged 40 points per game!!! Now, if Cal had the best defense in the conference, one might argue that Cal would allow less than that. But thus far Cal has had a slightly below average Pac-12 defense. You have to enter this game knowing that you need more than 30 points to win.

Here's a quick little chart, using this particular 4th down decision making device. WP = Win Probability

WP, pre-play WP, successful conversion WP, failed conversion WP, made FG
4th Down #1 38% 48% 30% 36%
4th Down #2 23% 29% 15% 22%
4th Down #3 11% 18% 10% 11%

There are a few things to point out here:

One: The calculator I used above is set to NFL parameters, which means that the numbers above are approximations. But if they were set to college then they would likely lean even more towards going for it because 1) conversion rates are generally higher in college than the pros and 2) pro kickers are so much more reliable than college kickers.

Two: I didn't attempt to bake into these numbers that Cal was the decided underdog. If I did they would lean even more towards going for it because there's the added assumption that Stanford would keep on scoring. Which they did.

Three: The decision to kick the first field goal is defensible, even if going for it is the right call. You lose almost as much as you would gain if you fail.

Four: The biggest thing is that you need to compare the first column (pre-play odds) with the made FG column. In each case, kicking takes a bad situation (you're losing) and keeps that situation stable. Take 4th down #2. Sure, missing the conversion and seeing your chances of winning fall by 8% stings. But you're already in a situation where your odds of winning are very low - this is a major opportunity to boost your chances! You have to take that chance, because if you don't you're going to lose anyway.

Five: The decision to kick on the final field goal was utterly indefensible. It does you no good to kick a field goal if you're down two scores both before and after the field goal. As the numbers indicate, failing the conversion and making the field goal are almost identically as valuable (which is to say: not at all valuable).

Six: As noted above, Cal was getting open receivers in their goal line plays (and, really, all plays - one pass broken up all game by Stanford!!!) prior to each field goal. Sure, dropped passes and turfed throws are frustrating, but it's not like Stanford was presenting some kind of impossible defensive riddle. Cal was 10-18 on 3rd down conversions all game because Cal WRs were getting open on short routes and Goff was hitting them. The Bears very much had it in them to do it again on 4th downs.

Seven: By failing to go for it early in the game, Cal was put in a situation where they were forced to attempt undesirable conversions later. Let's pretend, hypothetically, that Cal converted two of the three 4th downs, and scored two touchdowns. That's 14 points instead of 9 points. Later, when the Bears face 4th and 15, Cal is down either 28-21 or 28-20, and they can punt the ball away and try to pin Stanford, knowing they can get the ball back to try for the tying score.

Surrender punting/surrender not onside kicking

I mean, we're talking about the difference between a .025 win probability and a literally zero win probability, but why not?

Big Picture

I am an emotional man-child that lets the location of a 116 year old broken piece of outdoor equipment impact my mood. Oh wait, you probably care more about the Cal football team's Big Picture.

I'll be really fascinated to see how Cal and Arizona State come out in a game that is as outwardly meaningless as a college football game can get. Both teams are bowl eligible, both teams have been eliminated from the conference race, and neither team has (to my knowledge) any bad blood. Hell, these two teams haven't even played each other in three years.

That said, this game does have some meaning in terms of program trajectory. If Cal beats ASU, at least the Bears can say that they beat every team they were supposed to beat, and it would be a strong indication that Dykes still has the team motivated and buying in. Considering how the team reacted to the OSU win and the effort they put out against Stanford, I would be surprised if they came out flat.

Beat ASU, and then win a bowl game against whomever, and the coaching staff can make a recruiting pitch about program trajectory going into what should be a fascinating (from a neutral perspective) transition year.

Lose to ASU and Cal will have gone from 5-0 to 6-6. That doesn't bring up good memories. Those questioning whether or not Dykes has what it takes to build anything more than a middle-of-the-conference team will grow. They will stick around all through the off-season regardless, because that is the very nature of college football, and if you ever hear a coach complain about it, you should remind them that they get paid multi-millions of dollars each year because of that fan obsession. That doesn't necessarily make it right, but it makes it very, very explicable.

Losing sucks. It sucks even worse when it could have realistically turned out differently.