I had a choice on Saturday night. Cal football was playing Oregon in a seemingly winnable game against a North rival with a dominant winning streak against our Bears. But a family member also invited me to a party at the same time.
Now, I was always going to go to the party. If I learned nothing else from Marshawn, it's #familyfirst. But when I took a moment to glance at twitter during the game, I made an observation about how the choice didn't really cause me as much angst as it usually would:
Important family function, can't watch Cal live for the first time in a while. It's a problem when fans realize they aren't missing anything— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) November 8, 2015
And I'm theoretically in the top 1% of football die-hards. In the end, I saved myself all kinds of heartache by grimly glancing at the final stats, and then rewatching the game with necessary emotional detachment. Bizarre pooch punts are much easier to laugh at when you already know what's going to happen.
The biggest shortcoming of the Dykes era
Waaaaaay back when Sonny Dykes was hired, atomsareenough and I debated the relative merits of Cal's newest hire. I made the following argument:
Cal desperately needs an overhaul on offense, and Dykes is just the guy to do it.
. . . Cal needs an offensive coach who can take the talent currently on the roster and wring every last yard out of it. I believe that Sonny Dykes fits that description more than any coach rumored to be on Cal's list - perhaps even more so than Chris Petersen, who wasn't going to be coming to Cal either way.
By any objective measure Sonny Dykes created a fearsome offense that was surely the best amongst non AQ schools in 2012. He's shown the ability to put up points and yards at lower level major conference schools like Arizona and Texas Tech. I think a fair argument can be made that, at Cal, Dykes will have access to the highest level of talent he has ever had in his coaching career - a thought that should frighten defensive coordinators in the Pac-12.
The Tedford era cratered because Tedford's greatest skill as a coach - developing quarterbacks - ceased to be an asset. Sonny Dykes was hired to turn Cal's offense into a high-scoring, high-flying, high-octane death machine. Dykes has said many times over the last few seasons that this is supposed to be the year. The year when everybody is used to the system, when the players are experienced and ready to go, when the numbers and yards are supposed to translate into wins.
And it's not happening. Taking the season as a whole, Cal has been OK on offense. When you are hired to build a top-tier offense, OK isn't good enough. And against Oregon, one of the worst defenses in the Pac-12 (last in yards/play allowed, 2nd to last in FEI, 3rd to last in S&P+), Cal's offense wasn't even mediocre.
When you look at Dykes' resume, you pretty much see year after year of excellent offense. He spent two years as a co-coordinator at Texas Tech when the Red Raiders had top 20 offenses. He moved to Arizona and immediately rehabilitated an offense that put up 14 points or fewer 7 times the season prior. Then he turned Louisiana Tech into a top 10 offense in three years. It was a resume as unimpeachable as you can get for a coach that Cal might have a chance to actually get.
And yet here we are in year three with an offense that is roughly Pac-12 average. Even worse, Cal has been less efficient than their numbers indicate. In Pac-12 games only, the Bears are 6th in the conference in yards/play, but ninth in scoring. In year three under Sonny Dykes, the Bears have averaged 27 points/game in Pac-12 play. That's an 11 point decline from last year.
Sonny Dykes isn't delivering the one thing he was most hired to deliver.
Why isn't the offense delivering?
There's the million dollar question, and everybody has their pet theory. Is it the lack of a 100% dedicated running back or wide receiver coach? Is it because the Bears refuse to play offense at tempo? Is it because the Dykes/Franklin offense is inherently flawed against high end defenses? Is it because the offensive line can't open holes or sustain pass protection, or because Jared Goff has inexplicably regressed, or because Cal's WRs can't get separation from more athletic secondaries?
If there's one thing I learned at Cal, it's that the answer to a complicated problem is very rarely a simple answer. There's no one single thing wrong with the Cal offense. Probably all of the things I've listed above are contributing to the problem. I will say this much:
Nothing this offense does seems to come easy. With other teams, you see them hit misdirection plays where a receiver runs untouched for 10 or 15 yards. There are easy 12 yard pass patterns, or running backs that get into the secondary before being touched. That doesn't happen with this offense. Every throw needs to fit through a tight window, every run requires broken tackles at or near the line of scrimmage. As of right now, this offense isn't creating anything easy via scheme, which means we need the players themselves to manufacture plays with their skill and talent, and against equally talented defenses they won't be successful every time.
Three plays illustrative of the malaise affecting the Cal offense
1) It's 3rd and five, and the Bears are already in field goal range leading 7-0. Cal is in a formation with two wide receivers lined up on the end of the line like tight ends. Both receivers run dig routes towards the middle of the field. They are likely supposed to pass each other to confuse their defenders, but instead they collide with each other. Jared Goff has time, but feels pressure earlier than it actually comes and forces a throw to the receiver coming from right to left. Because the players disrupted their own routes, the pass falls incomplete.
2) It's 3rd and 4 from around midfield with Cal trailing by 7. Goff has a ton of time and Khalfani Muhammad running open underneath for an easy first down. Goff's throw is inexplicably at Muhammad's ankles and falls incomplete. As it turns out, the play wouldn't have counted because of an illegal hands-to-the-face penalty, but the failure to complete such an easy conversion I think is illustrative of the sudden shakiness of the offense.
3) Cal is down 13 late in the 3rd quarter with a chance to climb back into the game. On 2 and 9 and 3 and 9, Goff hits the hands of his receivers on admittedly tough catches, but neither Ray Hudson or Trevor Davis is able to hold on for positive gains that would have either set up 3rd and short or earned a first down. Could Goff have been more accurate and made the job of his receivers easier? Sure. Could both players have made those catches? Sure. But neither happened, and Cal was forced to either attempt a 4th and 9 conversion in their own territory or punt it away.
The play that broke the floodgates open
For the first 3.5 drives, the Cal defense was doing about all I could ask for against the Oregon offense.* Sure, the Bears gave up some yards. But they generally kept the Ducks in front of them, made tackles, forced the Ducks into a bunch of 3rd down attempts, and got themselves off the field. To that point, the Bears had held Oregon to 5.3 yards/play over 30 plays, forced one turnover, and had the Ducks facing a 3rd and 15. That's a legitimately great level of play against Oregon.
Then the Bears blew a coverage and allowed Darren Carrington to get behind the defense. He converted the 3rd down and Oregon scored a touchdown two plays later.
And that was it. After allowing 5.3 yards/play up to that point, the Ducks churned out 8.6/play the rest of the way, scoring on 7 of 9 drives the rest of the way. For perspective, Baylor leads the nation in yards/play at 8.3 a pop. Oregon was playing like the best offense in the nation for the last three quarters of the game . . . which I suppose is pretty obvious when one of the most famously productive offensive teams sets a record for yards in a game.
*I will note that Oregon's offense currently ranks 13th in yards/play nationally and that's including games without Vernon Adams at quarterback. The Ducks still have the offense that Cal wishes it had - probably a top 10 offense with Vernon Adams.
What actually broke said floodgates?
Cal was already playing without Jalen Jefferson and James Looney. Michael Barton was injured and based upon the box score, didn't play when the game was in doubt. Tony Mekari and Todd Barr both left with injuries in the 1st quarter and never returned. I'm probably missing an injury or two, knowing how these things typically go.
By the time the first quarter ended, Cal had already defended 30 plays without any of the depth in the front seven that characterized the beginning of the season. It's likely that Cal would have broken a few times regardless of the depth situation, because Oregon's offense is that good. But Cal still doesn't have enough pure talent to overcome multiple injuries to the front seven.
The result? By the 2nd quarter, guys were getting blown off the line on every running play and nobody had a prayer rushing the passer. It's hard enough for defensive linemen to chase Vernon Adams when they're fresh. When they're gassed it's game over. For an offense that executes as well as Oregon does it was all over.
The power of a mobile quarterback
One day, Cal will have a mobile quarterback, the kind that drives you crazy extending plays and making something out of nothing. On Saturday, Vernon Adams reminded Cal fans that the Bear defense still isn't well-equipped to deal with the threat.
Cal's front seven tends to be reasonably disciplined, reasonably strong/physical, and they tend to be better tacklers than I think they are given credit for (relative to the standards of tackling in college football, at least). What Cal's front 7 lacks is speed, a problem that becomes most obvious against a player like Vernon Adams.
The announcers had a good point - it's a tough balance between rushing the passer and maintaining gap integrity. There were multiple plays where Cal's rushers were very disciplined and kept Adams in the pocket . . . at the expense of actually getting to him, thus allowing Adams tons of time to find a receiver downfield. On the other hand, there was a play where Cal's right side edge rusher made a nice move to cut to the inside of his blocker and earned himself a clear path at Adams . . . who simply ran outside to the space the rusher vacated and ran for an easy first down. Damned if you do, damned if you don't.
There were plenty of people calling for Cal to blitz more. I would have liked to see a few blitzes, if only to give Adams more to think about and read, but I truly doubt it would have made a big difference. As improved as Cal's pass rush has been this year, none of the linebackers have particularly shown ability as pass rushers, and Adams proved last week that he's perfectly willing to beat blitzes when he shredded Todd Graham's blitz-happy defense.
Finally a positive impact
Last week I bemoaned that special teams so rarely makes positive plays, and that we have grown too accustomed to celebrating not-bad things. Cal's special teams unit turned around and produced by far their best game of the season . . . on a day when Cal's offense and defense turned in probably their worst performances, thus rendering the special teams effort irrelevant. That's some dark, dark stuff right there, universe. Impressive.
Cal's special teams did three obviously good things: Two blocked punts and a 48 yard field goal. Cole Leininger had a good game, and Oregon's kick returners miscommunicated with loose balls, ran into their own blockers, and otherwise hindered themselves to the point that the Ducks had bad field position . . . which in part explains why Oregon had 777 total yards rather than, say, 725. Sigh.
Coaching and Game Theory Errata
The weirdest decision of the Dykes era
Cal faces a 4th and 4 from their own 47, trailing by just seven, and Luke Rubenzer trots onto the field for what I believe is his first offensive snap of the season . . . and he pooch punts.
In retrospect, Cal obviously needed to attempt to convert that 4th down. At that point in the game it wasn't necessarily fait accompli that Oregon's offense was unstoppable, and the Cal offense wasn't exactly lighting the world on fire. I would have gone for it, but punting wouldn't have been a shocking decision.
But . . . Rubenzer? If you're going to pooch punt it, you may as well use the guy who has 11(!!!) career punt attempts rather than Rubenzer. Or better yet, use your actual punter and have him try for the sidelines inside the 20.
Rubenzer's punt gained Cal 21 yards of field position. Oregon rushed for 17 yards on their first offensive play, putting them where Cal would have given the ball back if they had just attempted the damned conversion.
Another week, another surrender punt
It's the 4th quarter, and Cal faces a 4th and 1 from their own 29, and Sonny Dykes sends out the punt team. Cal needed three scores, and they would receive just two more possessions for the rest of the game. That pretty well speaks for itself.
When should you put a play on film?
You will recall that Cal attempted a fake punt against UCLA on 4th and 10, deep in their own territory. The play actually gained four yards despite the fact that it wasn't executed particularly well AND UCLA sniffed it out. In other words, I think that play would gain four yards or more most of the time, at least the first time it's used, before opponents have it on film to plan for.
Cal punted five different times tonight on 4th and 4 or shorter. Make of that what you will.
We've got two things going on right now. Obviously, and most importantly, there's the actual football team and how they are playing on the field. Secondarily, you've got the various rumors flying around about Sonny Dykes' status/satisfaction as Cal head coach, which has prompted Cal fans to speculate even more than usual about the future of the program as the excitement of the promised year three breakthrough has gradually fallen apart.
My personal opinion? I think Sonny Dykes is like every other college football coach, and that college football coaches are like every other person on earth: He wants to earn as much as possible for his work, and if he receives a more attractive offer, he will take it. Like every other coach in the history of time. And if Cal offers him an extension that is better than any other theoretical offer, he'll accept. Granted, that was my opinion before any of the various rumors, and will be my opinion for every future Cal head coach. Joe Kapp is probably the only person ever who would consider coaching at Cal for less compensation than he could earn elsewhere.
But it's background noise, and one can't help but wonder if it's background noise that somehow is impacting a team that has seen a mostly steady decline in performance week to week.
On the field? It's a one game season. Cal will beat Oregon State next week, because Oregon State is the 2nd worst power 5 team in the nation. Cal will play a meaningless game against Arizona State two days after Thanksgiving in front of 25,000 people. For this coaching staff to regain the confidence of the fan base, they must beat Stanford. For this head coach to be offered an extension, he probably must beat Stanford.
That's a tall order, but if Northwestern can do it and Washington State can almost do it, then Cal can do it.
It's going to require fixing the offense. It's going to require getting healthy on defense. It's going to require getting a positive special teams contribution at the right time. It's going to require sound in-game decision making. It's going to require Cal to do many things that they have not consistently been able to do, all season long.
I hope they can. Hope doesn't mean much in college football.