Before we get into the specifics, a few general thoughts about what was ultimately a satisfying win:
1. Cal won calmly and easily over an FBS team. Even better, an FBS team coming off a bowl appearance, and likely headed to another! There was some griping about the performance generally and offense/special teams specifically, but it's worth remembering that Cal hasn't had a comfortable win over this level of team since 2012 over 6-6 UCLA.
2. That said, you're not being greedy for wanting more. A few people have alluded to this, so I'll just go ahead and say it: This team is capable of doing something special (at least, relative to Cal's history over the last 55 years and particularly relative to the last 5 years or so). Early returns indicate that Cal is the ONLY team in the Pac-12 North better in 2015 than they were in 2014. I think there are scenarios, multiverses, in which Cal wins the Division. It might be a long shot, it might only happen 2.692% of the time, but I think it's in the realm of possibility. We want to see this team play to their full potential because the opportunity is there. They haven't reached that potential yet. They might not need it until week 6. They might need it next week. I hope they get there at some point.
Offensive MVP (Non-Jared-Goff-Division)
First, the simple facts: Lasco gained 128 yards on just 19 carries, and he did that without an run longer than 19 yards, which tells you that he was consistently getting 5-6 yards on most runs. He was his usual self, consistently hitting the right hole, making solid cuts, and dragging defenders forward for extra yards. Now if only he could learn to stop hopping, jumping, and hurdling. On a side note, if there isn't a penalty for 'illegal helmet to the crotch,' there should be.
Lasco and the running game basically iced the game during a dominating 3rd quarter. At one point one of the announcers said that Lasco always seems to get stronger as the game goes on. That well may be, but I'd be inclined to credit Cal's line for getting stronger, and Cal's passing attack for shredding SDSU over the top a couple of times. Is it a coincidence that Cal's running game took over just after Trevor Davis streaked untouched into the end-zone for 75 yards?
Your weekly reminder that Jared Goff isn't of this world
Early in the 3rd quarter, Cal faces a 2nd and 10 from the SDSU 34. The Aztecs show blitz, but end up rushing only 4 men. Still, the rush is concentrated to one side of the line, and it feels like Goff won't have much time to make a play. From my vantage point in the stands I'm hoping he either dumps the ball off to Khalfani Muhammad or spots Kawanai Noa running free on a 5 yard dig.
But Jared Goff (shocker!) has better field awareness than I do. He realizes that his line has the blitz handled and he has enough time to get more out of the play. He coolly sidesteps to his left and drops a perfect lofted ball to the sidelines over the defender and right into the chest of Ray Hudson. It's a big 32 yard gain and Cal scores 2 plays later.
Nifty play of the week
Loved the WR screen to Maurice Harris on Cal's 2nd touchdown, particularly the picture perfect blocking from Darius Powe and Dominic Granado to make sure that Harris got over the line. This is one of those great confluences of a cool play called at the perfect time, executed brilliantly.
Cal had 11 drives before garbage time began, and scored 5 touchdowns. The other six drives ended in failure. Why? Let's find out!
Drive one: A Steven Moore false start put Cal behind the 8 ball, but the Bears still might have converted if Goff delays a throw a split second or Darius Powe turns his head a split second earlier.
Verdict: Credit SDSU for bothering Goff a bit, but this was mostly Cal mistakes.
Drive two: Jordan Rigsbee misses an assignment on the interior of the line, and Vic Enwere can't get over to slow down the rusher. Goff is sacked, but Cal still might convert if either an offsides OR a defensive PI is called on the ensuing long 3rd down attempt
Verdict: Equal parts credit to SDSU's rush, Cal protection failures, and ref iffyness.
Drive four: The ultra rare interception that is entirely on Jared Goff. The announcing crew speculates that Goff misread the coverage scheme. Whether it was that, simply not seeing the CB, or badly underthrowing the ball, Goff has his first INT of the year that is actually his fault.
Verdict: SDSU did a good job here, but it's a throw you wouldn't ever expect Goff to actually attempt.
Drive five: This one would have been a touchdown if Trevor Davis maintains his footing after getting tapped from behind - you could see how frustrated he was about not housing what would have been an 82 yard TD. But this drive ends in a missed field goal (more on that below).
Verdict: Should have been at least 3 points, credit to SDSU for stiffening in the red zone.
Drive eight: This drive was probably going to be another TD until Chad Hansen is called for a very iffy offensive pass interference. I see why the refs called this one (if you extend your arm and create space from a defender, the flag is coming) but Hansen actually made mostly incidental contact. Tough break, tough to blame the ref as well.
A delay of game and a sack didn't help matters, either.
Verdict: Mostly a bit of bad luck.
Drive ten: Stephen Anderson is called for a hold that negates what would have been a first down run. Cal is unable to make up the yardage lost on the penalty and punts
Verdict: Kudos to SDSU for stifling Lasco on 3rd and 1. You didn't get the sense that Cal was pushing to score at this point, as it was clear that the Aztecs weren't going to be scoring 21 points in the 4th quarter without unusual circumstances.
In total: Three times, Cal drives are derailed by penalties that put the Bears in 2nd/3rd and long situations. Some of the penalties are good calls, others aren't. The penalty mistake and a few other mental mistakes plus a generally fundamentally sound SDSU defense means that Cal's offense doesn't quite perform up to expectations.
It's also worth noting that, thanks to SDSU's ball control, slow offense, Cal has fewer possessions than usual. Getting five TDs and a field goal attempt out of 11 meaningful possessions isn't amazing, but it's hardly worrisome. The real question is if production like that would be good enough against a team like, say, Arizona State or UCLA.
Defensive MVP: Darius White
This is always going to be a tough award to give (more on that below in the 'depth report' section) but White was the player who stood out positively on the most plays to my eyes. He looked the best in coverage, and he had multiple plays where he moved quickly and decisively to contribute to a tackle on plays in the flat.
But I really just want to talk about that interception because ooooohhhhhh man was that cathartic to watch on replay. SDSU ran a 15 yard dig route, and White was all over the intended receiver, in perfect position to jump on the ball. Hell, the throw wasn't even thatbad - sure, the QB could have led his receiver a little, but the ball would have hit the WR in the chest if White weren't right there ready to step in.
For my money it was the best defensive play of the game in isolation. It was also the most important in context because it gave Cal the ball back in decent field position with time running out. Cal scored 3 plays later, and I doubt they score a TD if that pass simply falls incomplete and SDSU punts it away instead.
The power of being in the right place
Last year was about Art Kaufman teaching a bunch of young, wounded players where to be on the field. That painful year has paid dividends so far, and now the Bears are actually making plays.
San Diego State ran the ball (not counting sacks) 39 times. Only two of those runs went for more than 9 yards. San Diego State passed the ball 33 times, and only 3 passes went for more than 15 yards. One of those passes was deep into garbage time. Another was a perfect throw and the WR made a great catch with Darius Allensworth draped all over him.
Cal basically blew one play - when Hardy Nickerson failed to track the tight end and Demariay Drew didn't read that he needed to come over to cover the coverage gap. That play gave SDSU a 7 point lead and put Cal fans in a sour mood but it was the only significant defensive mistake.
How refreshing is it to have guys in the right position? Sure, sometimes they're going to miss a tackle, but sometimes they're going to snuff out a play or make a huge interception. By having guys in the right place, Cal picked two passes and should have picked two others. If the Bears had better hands on Saturday the defense very well might have outscored the SDSU offense.
By my count, 23 different defenders registered on the stat sheet in some fashion, and nearly as many registered either in the stadium or during the re-watch. Art Kaufman wasn't joking when he said he was going to rotate heavily. It's reasonable to conclude that rotation contributed in part to Cal's increasing defensive success as the game wore on.
It's worth noting WHERE the rotation is happening: Primarily on the line and at linebacker. The starting secondary played most of the way through the competitive portion of game, particularly the cornerbacks (Stay healthy, Dariuseses!). On the other hand, backup linebackers like Broussard, Barton and Downs and back-up linemen like Johnson, Manley and Barr all got plenty of playing time. Even better, they're all making impactful plays. So far, we're not using depth just for the sake of it.
Apportioning credit/blame, and a reminder of how good we have it
I don't know about you, but I was very, very unimpressed with San Diego State's offense pretty much all the way around. And so, early in the year, we must ask: How much of that was the Cal defense being good vs. the SDSU offense being bad?
On the plus side, Donnel Pumphrey looked pretty good, and Cal did a generally solid job of preventing many after contact yards. On the downside, SDSU's quarterbacks looked generally overmatched and inaccurate, their skill players didn't seem particularly athletic, and their offensive gameplan was almost as predictable as a David Shaw gameplan. Even when they were down 21 points SDSU still ran on most 1st and 2nd down plays, all while letting the clock run. Yeesh.
You can only play what's in front of you, and the Bears were well prepared to take care of business. But we're still left wondering exactly how good this defense can be when truly challenged.
More kick off concerns
I think we all know what we have at kicker: Matt Anderson is capable (at sea level) of kicking the ball somewhere between the goalline and the 5 with consistency. That's not amazing, but it's not disastrous either. Just don't kick it out of bounds, please.
What we don't know is what we have from the coverage team. Not counting the squib kick to end the first half, SDSU's average starting field position after a Cal kickoff? The 33 yard line. If it's going to be like that all year, Cal would be better off kicking out of bounds just to assure the opponent doesn't get a touchdown return.
Now, SDSU was a solid return team last year (35th in FEI kickoff returns last year) and returned a kickoff for a touchdown last week. This was a legit test for Cal, and they didn't completely fall on their face, even if Matt Anderson did have to make a tackle.
One thing is clear: Sonny Dykes recognizes the issue:
Cal worked on kickoff coverage for 30 minutes in tonight's practice, Dykes said.— Connor Letourneau (@Con_Chron) September 14, 2015
What we know so far
Kick off defending: Problematic, needs work, coaches working on it.
Kick off returns: Incomplete, Cal defense selfishly not allowing enough field goals or touchdowns to get fair evaluation.
Punting: Just fine, assuming we can get the play off. Cal had to use another time out prior to a punt (and another prior to a punt return).
Punt returning: Solid, if unspectacular. Limited opportunities because Grambling's punter couldn't get the ball downfield enough for a return, and SDSU's punter got solid hangtime. If nothing else, I fully trust our bevy of WRs to catch the danged ball.
Field Goals: Incomplete, but early data is about as alarming as you would expect. If the offense is great and Dykes is aggressive, it might not matter. Oregon is ex. #1 of why having good kickers doesn't matter most of the time if you're smart about it.
Game Theory Errata
Time outs? Who needs 'em?
I was pretty loudly calling for a timeout from the stands when SDSU gained just 1 yard on a 2nd down run late in the 2nd quarter. Not using one of the two timeouts Cal had left allowed SDSU to run 40 seconds off the clock. Luckily, SDSU threw an interception on the very next play, giving Cal much better field position than they might have had after a punt. Then the offense did its thing, scoring in three plays and 53 seconds. Wow.
I still think the timeout made sense, though. You can't assume an interception, and so need to be thinking about having to drive 80+ yards rather than 65. Plus, Cal had to be perfect to score a TD on that drive, and little we had seen from the offense so far suggested that they would be. In the end, Cal left 2 timeouts unused. I'm just glad it didn't end up hurting them.
Just how aggressive should this team be on 4th down?
When Cal sent out the field goal team facing a 4th and 5 from the 18, I groaned. Partly that's because Cal had been so close to scoring the play before, partly because I was hoping Cal would run the ball on 3rd down in anticipation of going for it on a 4th and 1 or 2, and partly because I was starting to think that the risk calculus made a conversion attempt reasonable even with 5 yards to go.
This was probably a mildly irrational reaction. I don't know the exact numbers, but I'm pretty sure that college kickers make 35 yard field goals more frequently than teams convert on 4th and 5. But then Matt Anderson missed the field goal, and a 64 yard drive netted zero points.
Some have been saying that Anderson slipped either on his approach or his plant. I didn't really see anything on the replay that suggested a slip. Regardless, I was very, very pleased when Sonny opted to go for it on 4th and 2 from the 14 rather than attempt a 31 yard field goal. Cal scored a touchdown two plays later and the game was functionally over.
Cal nearly doubled SDSU's per play production (8 yards/play vs. 4.3) before you even consider things like penalties and turnovers, which also went in Cal's favor. Honestly, this game wasn't as close as the score indicated, in part because Cal shut it down in the 4th quarter when it was clear that SDSU had given up. If Trevor Davis isn't tripped up from behind, if offensive PI isn't called/if defensive PI IS called, if Nathan Broussard or Caleb Coleman hold onto their interceptions and take them back to the house . . . this easily could have been something like 45-7.
That it wasn't illustrates that Cal has things to clean up. For now, we get to spend a week wondering how much better Cal needs to be to beat Texas. Cal was favored by ~13 last week, and it's already moved to around 7, which means if Cal were at home, they might be favored around as much as they were against SDSU. Texas obviously has much more raw talent than SDSU, but they are younger, less disciplined, and significantly less stable.
That whole 2004 thing has been beaten to death already. Jeff Tedford and Mack Brown are gone, and all of the players that will play next Saturday were in elementary school when our Rose Bowl hopes died. This isn't about the past, this isn't about revenge. This is about a young, exciting team trying to live up to their potential by entering hostile territory and emerging with a win. A win that should be expected.