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Cal vs. Texas postgame thoughts

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You'd think we would be used to these shenanigans by now, wouldn't you?

No, YOU da man
No, YOU da man
Brendan Maloney-USA TODAY Sports

Where do we even begin? With some games, it's hard to find much that's worth over-analyzing. But that was one of the most eventful games I've ever seen. Sure, we've seen insanity. But when Cal and Colorado/Arizona/Wazzu are wildly trading scores, it's mostly just one way traffic. This game, though. This game actually had plays made by both defenses. And special teams weirdness. And replay reviews. And 4th down decisions. And personal fouls. Every other play seemed to have either an amazingly great play or an equally shocking mistake from one side or the other, or both. And that's before getting into the context of the game, both in terms of history, Cal fan psyche, and the outline of the 2015 season.

College football, man.

I keep coming back to this thought: Cal looks like a Life on the Margins team this year. They won their easy games (btw, SDSU lost at home to South Alabama while getting out-gained by 200 yards on Saturday) and have entered the part of the schedule in which most games will be toss ups. Winning the first of those toss ups (on the road, no less!) means a great deal, but specific aspects of this team will have to improve significantly if we're going to avoid watching more of these types of insane, no-lead-is-safe games.

And if that's our fate, I'll gladly strap on the hard hat, respirator, chemical resistant gloves and steel toed boots that should be mandatory Personal Protective Equipment for those who are exposed to significant levels of Cal football.

Note: Due to Sunday's running of the 14th annual Dick Kranz Memorial Horse Race, I was unable to re-watch the game, and so my insights are more limited. Luckily there was no shortage of discussion points from this game. If I get the chance to re-watch, I might add notes next week, but no promises!

Offense

Offensive MVP (Non-Jared-Goff-Division): Khalfani Muhammad

There are plenty of people (myself included) who doubted Khalfani's potential as a running back. There's no doubt the dude is the fastest straight line runner on the team, but track speed doesn't necessarily equal production as a football player. There were concerns about his vision, cutting, tackle breaking and ball security.

And I guess there still are concerns. I was hesitant to call him my offensive MVP because that fumble hurt. But 164 yards on 10 carries? You can't argue with that. Even better, Muhammad showed the type of vision and cutting ability that can turn theoretical speed into actual yards on the field. I actually thought his 49 yard run to set up Cal's 3rd TD was a more impressive run than his more-or-less straight line 74 yard scamper.

Runner up: Dude, was every single Kenny Lawler catch a jump ball at full extension? Kenny Lawler was made for Jared Goff and Jared Goff was made for Kenny Lawler.

Your weekly reminder that Jared Goff isn't of this world

Early in the 3rd quarter, it's 2nd and 3 on the Texas 24. Cal runs play action, but the protection scheme is blown badly. Cal's left guard Chris Borrayo moves to his right to help out center Dominic Granado with a double team . . . leaving the other Texas DT completely unblocked with a lane right to Goff. Khalfani Muhammad doesn't have a chance to get over and block either because he's involved in the play fake. Jared Goff turns from the play fake back towards the line, and immediately finds a 300 pound man bearing down on him.

With exactly zero time to contemplate a decision, he uncorks a perfect pass to Kenny Lawler's outside shoulder, 20 yards downfield, in a spot where only Lawler can make a play. There was a safety drifting over, and that type of pass would be wildly dangerous throw to try to make for the vast majority of college quarterbacks. Most dudes probably take a sack there and try to regroup on 3rd and long. Jared Goff just makes plays.

Nifty play of the week

Gonna go ahead and go with the 3rd and 7 play-action pass to Stephen Anderson that was dropped. The result was painful, but the play call and execution (until the drop) was picture perfect. It would have been so nifty!

Efficiency Report

14 meaningful possessions, 6 touchdowns, 1 field goal, 1 missed field goal, 2 lost fumbles, 4 punts.

In terms of what the offense controls, Cal had 8 successful drives and 6 failed drives, but three of those failed drives came when Cal maybe took their foot off the gas - more on that next.

The other three failed drives? The first drive of the game (when Cal maybe should have gotten a better spot on 3rd down), The Khalfani Muhammad fumble, and the Jared Goff fumble when Texas' Shiro Davis beat Brian Farley around left tackle on a speed rush. Based on these results, I'm inclined to stick with what I already believed: As long as Cal's line gives Jared Goff even a little bit of time (only 1 sack vs. Texas) then about the only thing that can stop Cal's offense is itself.

But this is college football, and players will inevitably make mistakes, and Cal's offense will inevitably not score on every friggin' possession, which is why Cal's defense will have to keep making at least some plays - hopefully more.

"And then maybe I make the wrong decision cause I'm trying to be a little conservative and maybe we just don't run the plays we would run if it was a tie game."

That's a quote from Jared Goff after the game, when asked if the team 'exhaled' (let up, I assume) after going up 21 points. Of interest: Jared Goff blaming himself for calling the wrong plays at the line.

I suspect that Goff might be trying lead by shouldering more blame than he actually deserves - you would have to think that Cal's offensive coaches would have a little more influence on the plays called down the stretch. In any case, how much did Cal let up?

Well, after Cal went up 21 points, the Bears ran 12 plays. 6 of them were runs, 6 were passes. You can't say the Bears leaned on their run game alone. HOWEVER: It's important to note that of those six passes, four of them were thrown at or near the line of scrimmage, and a fifth was a short route over the middle well in front of the sticks. Cal only went down the field once, and they just so happened to get a dude wide open down the field on that play, and hit him in the chest with the ball.

Did Cal avoid running deeper routes, or did Jared simply choose short, safer throws over higher risk throws downfield? I don't know the answer. I do know that there isn't really any reason to change much about what this offense does when they have just finished reeling off 5 straight scoring drives and 10 straight drives without being forced to punt.

Defense

Defensive MVP: Jalen Jefferson

Mostly just for the interception that gave Cal a pretty-damned-important extra three points right at the end of the half, but Jefferson was Cal's 2nd leading tackler. If there was a linebacker making a play, it was usually Jefferson. (4 of Cal's 6 leading tacklers? All either cornerbacks or safeties, which tells you something.)

Downfield passing is the lifeblood of a good offense

The more college football I watch, the more I realize that the biggest distinction between good teams and bad teams is typically the ability to throw the ball downfield. There are a few reasons why teams might not be able to go downfield. Maybe they can't protect their quarterback long enough to let longer routes develop. Maybe their quarterback isn't accurate beyond 10 yards. Maybe they don't have the speed or size at WR to challenge cornerbacks. Whatever the reason, teams that can't stretch the field are fatally flawed.

When teams can stretch the field vertically, it makes such a gigantic difference. Safeties can't get up in run support. Linebackers can't stack up in the box. Cornerbacks can't move up and play pressing coverage, confident that the quarterback can't go over the top on them.

Cal's defense looked great against Grambling and San Diego State because those teams couldn't throw the ball down the field. Texas immediately proved that they could, and our defense scrambled all game long to adapt. And based on the evidence, it doesn't look like our defense is vastly different from last year.

Having said that, part of the reason Cal was so bad last year was because of the schedule. Nearly EVERY team Cal faced had a veteran quarterback, great WRs, and a strong offensive line. Last year was a banner year for Pac-12 offenses, and a substandard defense was never going to stand a chance. But right now?

Right now, I would say that there are only two teams on the schedule who 100% for sure have the ability to consistently throw down field with accuracy and precision: Oregon and USC. A bunch of teams might be able to do it, amongst them Stanford, Washington, UCLA. The hope right now is that Cal's defense is just a little bit better than last year, and that Pac-12 offenses are just a little bit (or maybe a lot bit) worse.

Creating (not much) Havoc

Last year, CGB talked about the failure of Cal's defense to create havoc plays - any tackles for loss, fumbles, or passes defended in some fashion. Against Texas, Cal had 4 tackles for loss, one forced fumble, and two passes defended, which means that Cal created havoc on 7 plays, or 8.4% of Texas' plays. That's . . . bad. Like, worse than last year, when Cal created havoc on 11.5% of opponent plays, which ranked 123/128 in the nation.

And why is havoc important? Those 7 havoc plays saved Cal. One was Jalen Jefferson's interception. One was Mustafa Jalil's butt fumble. One sack ended Texas' first drive of the 3rd quarter, and the other two ended Texas' first 4th quarter drive. Cal's defense made very few positive plays, but they ended four separate drives during the 31-0 run that did barely end up being enough to win the game.

Jerrod Heard vs. everybody else

If you're looking for reasons for optimism, you will note that players not named Jerrod Heard rushed for just 126 yards on 28 carries, for a mediocre 4.5 yards/play. Cal's run defense generally looked solid against more conventional running plays. They just had no prayer to stop Heard on runs both designed and improvised, and it highlighted a general lack of speed across the defense. One thing I wasn't able to review that I wanted to look at was strategies for containing Heard. They tried a few different tactics (including, late in the game, holding two linemen back, I think just to try to encourage him to stay in the pocket), and none of them worked.

Jake Browning has -6 yards on 10 rushing attempts, with a long run of 12. Thank friggin' Oski.

Special Teams

Did Darius White block it?

Well, he certainly thinks so, and given the choice I'd much rather credit him rather than blind luck and/or an unforced error from Texas. The Longhorns aren't really sure either. Based upon the initial trajectory of the kick, I doubt that White needed to actually touch the kick for it to miss. I've watched the replay over and over, and I really don't see any change in trajectory or indication that the ball was tipped. Either way, I think it's fair to speculate that White's mere presence so deep into the backfield may have freaked the kicker out, which in the end is just as good as a block.

Jared 'Pooch' Goff: Worth it?

Cal employed a not-quite-new strategy of having Jared Goff pooch punt the ball to prevent any possibility of a return. The result? Three punts with a net yardage of 32, 30, and 45 yards (average: 36 yards). Last year, Cole Leininger averaged a net of 36.3. If Jared Goff can consistently punt the ball as well or better than he did against Texas, then Cal has found a way to equal last year's (not very good) punt coverage results, but without any risk of a touchdown return.

The best solution is to improve the punt coverage team to the point that we can reasonably expect better nets than 36 yards. But until the coaches can do that, Goff pooch punting is a more viable alternative than I thought - particularly since teams are terrified of our offense actually going for it.

Game Theory Errata

Please be ready to make a decision on 4th down

Twice in the first half, Cal used a timeout while the coaches appeared to be deliberating on whether or not to go for it on 4th down. The first time was on the first series of the game, and I will note that it's possible that Dykes was 100% focused on challenging the spot rather than worrying about going for it on 4th and 1 from the Cal 34. But the 2nd timeout was used before Cal went for it on 4th and 3.

This is one of my biggest pet peeves with football coaches, but it's going to be important particularly for Cal this year. Clearly, Cal's field goal kicking is not going to be trustworthy. Clearly, Cal's offense is good enough that you should trust them in any reasonable conversion situation. Ergo, Cal will be going for it a huge percentage of the time. Sonny Dykes and company have to have their decision made up ahead of time. Like, say, right now. They should know that they will be going for it on every, say, 4th and 6 or less once they pass the 50 yard line, until they get inside the 15. or something like that.

Like I said above - Cal is still a life on the margins team, and any wasted time out might end up being the difference between winning and losing.

Cal is more likely to convert a 4th and 6 than make a 44 yard field goal, ignoring the fact that touchdowns give you more points than field goals

I don't really have anything to add, I just wanted to make sure that the point above got bolded.

Big Picture

If you believe that Jarrod Heard is at least the 4th best quarterback Cal will face this year, then it's possible that the Bears have cleared one of the biggest hurdles they will have to jump over this season. If, however, you believe that allowing a previously dysfunctional offense to total 650 yards at 7.8 yards a pop is cause of alarm, you might be a bit more pessimistic about the future of this season.

In the short term, Cal got a road win, moved halfway towards bowl eligibility, and made their fan base very, very happy. And if Cal goes on the road and beats Washington to get to 4-0, it's hard to envision a scenario in which they don't get to at least 8 regular season wins.

But I'll be totally honest: Washington scares me. Their defense is currently 8th in the country in yards/play allowed, and Jake Browning has looking progressively better in each start. There's plenty of reason to be skeptical of UW (haven't faced any legit offenses, rushing offense looks completely barren) but plenty of reason to think they can be a threat.

Washington won't score as much as Texas did. Can Cal keep scoring 40+ on the road against a better defense than they faced in Austin?

I think yes, because I'm inclined to answer any question in Jared Goff's favor when he is a prominent variable.