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Cal vs. Arizona State postgame thoughts

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You know, we hadn't really had a true dose of Bear Raid madness since that goofy game down in Austin, so I suppose we all should have expected something roughly this absurd, right?

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Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

When Cal fell behind 24-3 midway through the 2nd quarter, their win probability was at about 8%. When the Bears started a drive from their own 6 early in the 3rd quarter, still trailing by 17, their win probability was still at 8%, because whatever value the Bears got for cutting the deficit was counteracted by the time that had passed on the clock. You need time to come back from huge deficits.

21 point comebacks are very rare. I'm only aware of two in the history of Cal football (read about one of them here!). 16 NFL teams have never had a bigger comeback than 21 points. This is a game to savor, regardless of the greater context of the season.

Reflect on the series of events that had to fall just right to make a win possible. Cal had to score on each of their final 6 offensive possessions. ASU had to fail to score touchdowns on each of their four possessions prior to their last drive. No Cal turnovers, no missed field goal, no mistakes. That's how you make something that happens 8% of the time actually happen.

Last week, I openly wondered why I spend so much time, money and energy on this hobby, and the Bears reminded me why just 7 days later.

Offense

Your weekly reminder that Jared Goff is not of this world

I suppose one play in particular stands out this week as obviously spectacular, but this is a game to appreciate for Jared Goff's consistent display of quarterback mastery, rather than one or two individual plays. This wasn't really a game about Goff's amazing arm or accuracy - heck, his deep throw was a little off all game, perhaps because of the swirling wind.

Instead, this game was all about an understanding of Cal's offense and an understanding of what ASU's defense was going to throw every single play. Hitting a 7 yard hot route isn't high on the list of sexy things a quarterback can do, but it's the difference between consistent 10 yard gains and a -10 yard sack that kills a drive. That Goff had (including scrambles) 53 drop backs without a single sack against THAT defensive scheme says more than I can about his ability to make quick decisions and accurate throws.

Offensive player of the game

Recognizing that eventual NFL quarterback Jared Goff is essentially ineligible for this made up award, there are two choices. Do you go with Bryce Treggs, who came through on senior day with a monster 147 yard receiving performance, including Cal's critical first touchdown to stem the bleeding and the final 3rd down conversion on the game winning drive?

Or do you give it to the offensive line, who stonewalled the most productive pass rush in the nation, while also opening up lanes for a 6.3 yards/pop running game?

Considering the criticism the line faced midway through the season and the major turnaround they engineered over the last three games, I have to give it to the line. But damned if Bryce Treggs isn't going out as perhaps the most beloved of this particular group of seniors. GAME BALLS FOR EVERYBODY!

The biggest development for the 2016 Bears

Tre Watson, feature running back. Cal has had a problem all year with a bunch of specialist running backs. Maybe one guy is a home run threat but can't get consistent yards. Another isn't a threat in the passing game. One guy struggles in pass protection. I haven't reviewed enough tape to tell you which issues are problems for which guys, but the way the team shuffled through various options tells you that they couldn't find the right fit.

I think Tre Watson is the right fit. Watching him yesterday, I didn't see one particular skill stand out as impressive, but he seemed to have an all-around game that lends itself to getting plenty of snaps. It's a shame Cal fell behind so quickly, thus forcing the Bears to pass the ball more often. Maybe it was just a matter of getting enough snaps to get comfortable with the offense. Maybe he just needed an opportunity to show what he has. Either way, if Sonny Dykes says that he's our starter going into next season, I'm confident about that.

Thoughts on scouting, game planning, play calling and the college game

Way back in October, in a twitter conversation about future Cal opponents, I expressed optimism about the ASU game because it seemed like a good match-up for our offense. And sure enough, when both teams got onto the field, Jared Goff and the Bear Raid ripped ASU's blitz happy scheme to shreds.

Now I'm obviously far from a noted scout, talent evaluator, or Xs and Os wiz. But information isn't hard to find. NFL talent scouts had been talking all season about how good Jared Goff is when you blitz him and put him under pressure:

Goff's numbers under pressure this season are also vaguely otherworldly. Last season as a sophomore he threw six touchdowns under pressure to just one interception and this year he has yet to throw a pick when pressured. His passer rating under pressure is actually higher than his passer rating when kept clean — something no quarterback ever sustains long-term and is remarkable enough even in a sample size of five games.

Before the game started, I was curious if ASU would change their defensive strategy to account for the fact that Jared Goff's biggest strength is picking apart various blitz packages. After all, we saw a marked downturn in the production of Cal's offenses once teams started sending only 3 or 4 rushers while spreading 7 or 8 defenders across the secondary to give Cal's WRs less room to get open and to make Goff's reads much more difficult. Would ASU copy what every other successful defense had put on film?

Hell no:

"We would get beat 100-0 if we didn't pressure," he said, pointing out that the Sun Devils lost both starting safeties this season - sophomore Armand Perry and senior Jordan Simone - to injuries. "That's who we are and what we're about is pressuring. As long as I'm the head coach, that's the way it's going to be. They want somebody not to blitz, get somebody else. There's no doubt in my mind that what we do is the best thing we can do for our guys."

Part of me wants to bash Todd Graham for being inflexible and sticking with his preferred system despite mountains of evidence that it wouldn't work against Jared Goff*. But I also think that this exposes some of the constraints of the college game. Coaches just don't have the time and resources to teach a bunch of often young, inexperienced players to successfully execute different plays and looks at a high level. Because ASU has blitzed all year long, it's entirely possible that they would have been just as bad trying to play a bunch of guys in coverage who don't have coverage skills because they've been practicing different plays all year long.

I don't know exactly how much blame Graham deserves here, but the entire mini-game around ASU's blitz scheme fascinated me.

*Seriously though, go back and watch Khalfani's 58 yard TD catch and watch how comically easy it was for Cal to make that play happen against ASU's blitz.

Defense

Player of the Game: Hardy Nickerson

On Saturday, Hardy Nickerson collected 6 solo and 10 assisted tackles, for 16 total. For the season he has 101 tackles, 3rd most in the entire Pac-12 and 4th most on a per game basis. While the rest of the defense crumbled around him (and by that, I mean seemingly every starter around him but Kyle Kragen has gotten hurt), Nickerson has raised his game to a new level. Over the first five games of the year he only averaged 4 tackles a game. Over the last seven games? 11 tackles a game.

Hey, I wish we lived in a world where opposing running backs didn't even get past the defensive line. But the good news is that Cal has Hardy Nickerson behind the line, turning 10, 15 and 20 yard rushes into 2, 4, and 6 yard rushes. Against ASU he was the biggest reason that the Sun Devils faced so many 3rd down conversion attempts. And on that note . . .

Is bending and not breaking a thing, or: The value of forcing a whole ton of 3rd down conversion attempts

ASU ran 95 plays from scrimmage for 586 yards and 46 points. Eye-popping numbers that don't exactly paint Cal's defensive effort in a kind light. But two of the touchdown drives were very short fields - the 10 yard drive after a muffed punt and the 51 yard drive after a shanked punt. It's weird to say that Cal allowed 46 points and to also say that it feels like they held ASU close to the minimum, but here we are. Games that have 29 total possessions make for weird box scores.

There are two stats that I want to pick out: ASU averaged 6.17 yards/play, which is good but not great. ASU went 11-21 on 3rd down, which is a pretty great conversion rate but a crazy number of conversion attempts. What I'm trying to say is that the Cal defense did a great job of making the ASU offense play absurdly methodical football. Sure, converting about 50% of your 3rd down attempts is great! But if you face 21 of them, it means that 10 different drives are going to end with a failed 3rd down. For Cal, that meant 3 forced punts, 6 field goals, and one converted 4th down.

So, is bending but not breaking a thing?

Definition 1: Bending and not breaking defined as  giving up a ton of yards without giving up a ton of points? Not a repeatable skill. Maybe weird things happen in one or two games in the red zone, but if you're in the habit of constantly giving up yards, the points will follow.

Definition 2: Bending and not breaking defined as keeping the offense in front of you, forcing them to convert a bunch of 3rd downs, and hoping that they will eventually make a mistake on one of those 3rd downs to kill a drive? That's absolutely a legitimate football strategy. I thought Cal did a good job employing definition 2, while enjoying some random variance you hope for from definition 1. And when you have a not amazing defense that's increasingly banged up, you'll gladly take both.

Special Teams

Your weekly complaint about field position

ASU's average starting field position was six yards better than Cal's average starting field position, and it goes beyond one muffed punt. ASU's net punting was 20 yards better than Cal, and ASU's abiliy to consistently kick the ball through the end zone resulted in a net advantage of field position after kickoffs. Luckily Cal's offense shredded ASU's defense to such an extent that field position wasn't a big issue. But seriously - Cal has a ton of work to do, for the bowl game and next season - with punting and kickoff teams.

Matt Anderson, long term solution!

After an off-season of competition and uncertainty and comments from the coaching staff indicating that nobody knew if there was anybody on the roster capable of hitting field goals of even average difficulty, the Bears have seemingly found consistency with Matt Anderson. He's 16-19 on the season, but 13-14 from inside 40 yards, the distances from which any college kicker really needs to convert from.

For a long time it feels like Cal has gone without an above average kicker. True, occasionally the Bears have had a guy who eventually developed into a good kicker over a few years, only to graduate as soon as he reached that level. Luckily Cal has Anderson for another two years.

Now we just need to hope that the coaching staff doesn't use Anderson's consistency as an excuse to spurn sensible 4th down conversion opportunities.

Coaching/Game Theory Errata

One (two?) bad decisions that will thankfully be lost to the sands of time

Late in the 2nd quarter, Cal trails by 17 points. On Cal's 2nd to last possession, the Bears face a 4th and 1 from their own 34 and punt. On Cal's final possession they face a 4th and 2 from the 50 and pooch punt with Jared Goff. The first decision elicited mild displeasure from fans both in the stadium and at home. The second decision elicited significantly less mild displeasure from fans. It's the first time I can recall meaningful booing towards somebody associated with Cal during the Dykes era.

The first decision to punt was mildly annoying, but not one I'm going to die on a hill for. Cal should be able to easily gain a yard, but this team has shown throughout the season that it has trouble with short yardage running. The potential gain from a conversion in your own territory with limited time left isn't so great compared to the potential loss. I think you need to go for it because you're losing by 17 with halftime approaching, but it's a marginal decision that very few coaches would attempt, even  unorthodox dudes like Chip Kelly.

The second decision, though . . . there, your potential downside is so much less. There are about 45 seconds left in the half, ASU won't be starting in field goal range, you're running out of opportunities to turn around a 3 possession deficit . . . win probability when you're down 17 at the half is about 8%, vs. 20% for a 10 point deficit.

Thankfully Cal won anyway, and there will be those who say that pooch punting was the right decision because it prevented ASU from scoring again in the half. But as detailed above, Cal had to play a near perfect half of offense and about as well as they are capable of playing (considering injuries) on defense just to barely win the game on a not-guaranteed field goal kick. Having an extra 3 or 7 points from that final possession would have made a huge positive impact.

Big Picture

Cal is 7-5. The Bears have:

  • Won three games by more than one possession
  • Lost three games by more than one possession
  • Won four games by less than one possession
  • Lost two games by less than one possession
In the end, 7-5 feels about right. If you are trying to concoct dream scenarios with this regular season, then you can imagine a universe where Jared Goff gets those final 21 yards in Salt Lake City, where the Cal defense stops USC on 3rd and short and the Bear Raid responds with a last second touchdown to win, and where Cal converts in the red zone against Stanford , finishes 10-2, and somehow wins the Pac-12 North tie-breaker.

It's just as easy to imagine a universe wherein Texas doesn't miss the extra point and wins in overtime, Washington State stops Cal on 3rd and 36 and converts from the ensuing short field, and where ASU finishes a couple 3rd quarter drives with touchdowns to salt away their big lead. The Bears are just as close to 4-7 as they are to 10-2, which is to say that they played a whole mess of close games and thus lived the life of teams consigned to playing close games all season long.

The final chapter of this season is yet to be written - there will be a bowl game, potentially against a pretty decent Big-12 also ran in the Cactus Bowl, potentially in a completely random bowl without a Pac-12 tie-in against who-the-hell-knows. I'm hoping it will be against a team that offers a true measure, rather than whichever small-conference team managed to barely piece together six wins. But even knowing that this season isn't over yet, it's a good time to ponder the future.

Soon we'll be entering an off-season that will be very different. For the first time in a few years Cal is losing a difficult-to-replace class of seniors. For the first time in a few years Cal might have to replace early entrants to the NFL draft. For the first time in a few years Cal may have to replace a quarterback. If the whispers and rumors are true, it's even possible that Cal will have to replace its head coach, although I both hope and guess that such a dramatic, seismic change won't happen.

Sonny Dykes has built something worthwhile in Berkeley. Soon we will find out if what he built is a foundation for more, or just a brief mirage.