Sports naturally have narratives. These narratives are mostly fan driven, but they create the leitmotif of seasons and of programs.
And for many Cal fans, that narrative is DOOM, with varying numbers of Os, depending on your pessimism and/or flair for hyperbole.
I'm not here to deny that Cal football has been perhaps a bit more unlucky than your average major conference program. And I'm certainly not here to start another annoying debate between the optimists and the pessimists. But I am here to argue that, with one third of the regular season in the books, our Bears have been pretty lucky.
- One score games: Cal is now 2-0 in one score games, despite giving the ball to the opponent with enough time for a final drive to either tie or take the lead in the 4th quarter.
- Injuries: knock on wood, but Cal has not experienced a single season-ending injury, while nearly every major rival has experienced multiple injuries to players that range from important to irreplaceable.
- While there were certainly calls made by the refs on Saturday that were wrong in Washington's favor, there were more than a few that went in Cal's favor as well - a phantom roughing the passer that helped extend a Cal FG drive, a missed offensive PI on Kenny Lawler that led to another FG, and the decision to not give the ball to UW after an apparent Goff fumble, to name just a few.
- Most importantly, events in the Pac-12 continue to fall in Cal's favor. Cal's best team in at least seven years has coincided with Oregon's worst team in at least eight years. Washington State and Oregon State are dysfunctional. Arizona State's offense is broken. Stanford's defense is its weakest since at least 2009.
Two weeks ago I very scientifically estimated that there was a 2.692% chance that Cal could sneak through the chaos and win the Pac-12 North. After another two weeks of data, I'm willing to upgrade that number to a 9.626% chance. That we're even seriously entertaining the idea two years removed from 1-11 is an indication of how much has fallen in Cal's favor. I don't mean to discount all of the hard work that the players and coaching staff have put in - that they are in position to take advantage is certainly the biggest story. And dammit, it's worth getting excited about.
Offensive MVP: Jared Goff
My goal was to not ever give this award to Jared Goff, because Jared Goff is the best player on the field every game, and so if I'm being honest his name should be here every week. But this was one of those weird games where nobody really stood out. Vic Enwere was the most productive running back, but his fumble (correctly ruled or not) was basically the only reason UW had ANY chance to win. Kenny Lawler was the most productive WR but dropped two easy catches.
So let's just talk about Goff. First of all, this was by a wide margin the toughest situation he has faced this year. Cal never really got the running game going, and successful running plays came only occasionally. UW collected five sacks, hit him a few more times, forced some early throws and flushed him out of the pocket multiple times. UW didn't really have to blitz to bring that pressure, and as a result the Huskies mostly had pretty damned good downfield coverage. Lesser quarterbacks (like, say, Chuckie Keaton or Ryan Finley) would get eaten alive given those circumstances.
Goff still completed 60% of his passes for 342 yards and two TDs despite more than a few drops. He's getting into that Marcus Mariota, 'Even my bad days are better than your good days' level.
Your weekly reminder that Jared Goff isn't of this world
You all know what play is coming, right? It's first and 10 from the Washington 28. Jared Goff goes back to pass, but Cal's back up left tackle lets UW's defensive end cut right by him to the inside. Suddenly there's a big dude with upraised arms racing towards him. Goff can't step into his throw at all. Doesn't matter. It's still a laser beam right into the chest of Bryce Treggs. It had to be into his chest, because if it's behind him it gets batted down (or worse) and if it's ahead of him the safety probably breaks up the play and probably lays an even bigger hit on Treggs. Instead Treggs is able to set himself to absorb the hit of the safety and fall into the end zone.
In-game highlight: Jared Goff connects with Bryce Treggs for TD
Jared Goff to Bryce Treggs: ON TARGET for the Cal Bears.The Bears are rolling 20-7 right now, and you can check them out on Pac-12 Networks and Pac-12.com/now!Posted by Pac-12 Conference on Saturday, September 26, 2015
Nifty play of the week
Loved the play design on Kenny Lawler's 8 yard touchdown. Lawler is the lone WR split off to the right, with three WRs to the left. The Washington defender is probably anticipating either a fade or a slant to take advantage of the open space on the right side of the field. Hell, it's what I was expecting.
And sure enough, Lawler was probably Goff's first read on the play - but it wasn't a fade or a slant. Instead it was a crossing pattern that took Lawler into the space on the left vacated by three receivers running routes away from the left side of the field. The rightside cornerback handed Lawler off to a linebacker who wasn't prepared to run with him, Goff manipulated the pocket well, and the result was an easy, walk-in touchdown. Great design to run counter to what defenses are expecting.
Jared Goff tying @CalFootball's all-time TD record is absolutely the Bears' #12Best Moment! http://t.co/Pm42GFIW6g— Pac-12 Networks (@Pac12Networks) September 27, 2015
Does Washington have the blueprint to stop the Bear Raid?!?
On Cal's 2nd drive of the game, the Bears are facing a 3rd and 9 from the 16. Goff drops back to pass, and after cycling through a few progressions he ends up stepping into an inside rush and taking a sack. The Pac-12 crew later replayed the play from a higher angle, and you could see Goff progress to his left, in time to watch Bryce Treggs get shoved to the ground by a UW defender. He (obviously) doesn't make the throw and takes the sack, forcing Cal to settle for a field goal.
Later, on Cal's 5th drive, Kenny Lawler is shoved to the ground in the end zone, leading to an incomplete pass and contributing to an eventual turnover on downs. I fully expect the players and coaches to work hard in the film room to discover a counter to our vulnerability to WR shoving. Now that it's on film, I fully expect every team to shove our receivers until we prove we can stop them. From shoving.
12 drives, 3 touchdowns, 3 field goals, 3 punts, 2 turnovers on downs, 1 fumble*
Not great. Not awful. The good news is that Cal was very successful moving the ball through the middle of the field. Cal started 11 drives in their own half, and 9 of those drives entered Washington territory. It's what happened past the 50 yard line that made the entire game so frustrating.
It was lots of things. It was the offensive line failing to enforce their will when UW knew we were going to run. It was a bizarre reverse on 3rd down. It was UW shoving. It was a Vic Enwere maybe-fumble. It was UW getting pressure and/or sacking Goff.
*I'm not counting Cal's final drives of both halves, because neither drive had a reasonable, fair chance to end with a score.
How much better does the offensive line need to play?
I think, generally speaking, Cal fans were mildly disappointed with Cal's offense. And while there were issues all the way around (drops, RBs missed a few holes, Goff stepping into pressure) I think it's safe to say that the offensive line had the toughest day.
To be frank: UW's front seven won the battle at the point of attack more often than not. You can see that re-watching the game or in the stats sheet: Cal had 10 tackles for loss, 6 tackles for no gain, and a total of 19 runs that gained two yards or less. It really says something about Cal's QB and WRs (and, oddly, Cal's defense!) that the Bears managed to score 30 points despite losing the battle at the line when on offense.
4th and goal inside the 1 @uw_football says NONE SHALL PASS. #CALvsUW pic.twitter.com/u6dJsFr3WL— Pac-12 Networks (@Pac12Networks) September 26, 2015
So clearly, the offensive line will have to perform better. In their defense, both tackles had to miss portions of the game with injury, and that's going to mess with what a line can do. Even more in their defense? I think it's a good bet that UW has at least the 4th best defensive line Cal will face this year. I'm confident that Utah had a better defensive line, and it wouldn't surprise me if UCLA and USC do. But everybody else will be weaker. We can only hope that the Cal line will open more running lanes and give Goff more time in future games.
Defensive MVP: Kyle Kragen
Kragen's first half performance was probably the best we have seen a single defensive player perform since . . . I dunno, some random Mychel Kendricks game in 2012. Kragen single-handedly killed three separate Washington drives by absolutely terrorizing the right side of the Husky line, recording three sacks and a screen pass break-up. His 2nd half was comparatively quiet, but the tone had been set and Jake Browning never looked comfortable or confident the rest of the game. We've been begging for at least some semblance of a pass rush for two years - what we got on Saturday was more than I thought we could reasonably expect, and Kragen was the biggest driver.
J. Browning sacked by K. Kragen for 0 yds,J. Browning fumbled, recovered by Cal D. Downs http://t.co/mb7h8PQ441— Cal Sports Now (@CalSportsNow) September 26, 2015
Turnovers, and can we count on them?
First in the country in turnovers forced, tied for seventh in turnover margin. Can the suddenly opportunistic Bears keep it up?
Nah, probably not. If Cal finished the season with 42 turnovers forced (their current pace) it would be the highest per game turnover rate over the last seven years. Having said that, it's not like the turnovers that have been forced so far have been particularly fluky.
Here's my hopeful formula: Some small amount of pass rush + defenders mostly likely to be in position to make a play + Jared Goff is a turnover avoiding machine = Cal is more likely than not to end up on the plus side of the turnover ledger over the long run. Seems reasonable, no?
INTERCEPTED by @CalFootball! It's looking golden for the Bears in Seattle. Watch #CALvsUW: http://t.co/YfMNDWLu5w http://t.co/CuZT04uTAQ— Pac-12 Networks (@Pac12Networks) September 27, 2015
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.
15 havoc plays created on 55 UW offensive snaps, for a havoc rate of TWENTY-FRIGGIN'-SEVEN PERCENT! Holy smokes. I will fully admit that UW's offense has some significant flaws - an overmatched-at-times quarterback, a struggling offensive line, a lack of deadly skill position players - but that number is a jaw dropper. If Cal could produce half of that number on a week-in, week-out basis it would be a solid improvement on last year.
How bad, exactly, is Cal's kickoff coverage?
I ask this, because Cal continued to squib kick when they were kicking into the wind, and UW's average starting field position on those drives was the 38.5 yard line despite two accidental fair catch signals. Basically, we were letting UW start at the 40 yard line for fear that they would return the kick for a touchdown.
UW was a good kickoff return team last year - but how much of that was because of John Ross, who is injured and out for the season? I have a hard time believing that Cal's coverage unit is so bad that it justifies handing the opponent the ball at the 40 yard line for free. And remember, this is a week AFTER the coaching staff made kick coverage a point of emphasis in practice. If it is that bad, field position will be a constant concern the rest of the season.
A word in praise of Matt Anderson
Cal's unproven placekicker hit field goals from 31, 37 and 41 yards. At the college level, those are tough kicks - NCAA kickers only make kicks from 40-49 yards about 60% of the time. The average college kicker probably makes 2 of 3. Anderson made all three, in a game the Bears only won by six points.
Game Theory Errata
In praise of Sonny Dykes
Was this the best game management we've seen from Sonny Dykes? Probably. Granted, I think he was mostly presented with fairly obvious decisions. Cal twice punted when facing 4th and 13 and 4th and 15. Cal kicked field goals, and each time they were facing 4th and 11 or more. Cal elected to go for it three times, all in Washington territory, all from 4th and 4 or closer.
So yeah, easy decisions, but we've seen Dykes get seemingly easy decisions wrong in the past.
The final play
ICYMI, @JaredGoff16 takes matters in his own hands w/ the game on the line & #Cal now 4-0 for the 1st time in 8 yrs. pic.twitter.com/7D8VkojxXg— Ryan Maquiñana (@RMaq28) September 27, 2015
I still haven't heard a great explanation for exactly what the play call was. In Goff's post game Q&A I think he indicated that the play had some sort of option to throw the ball. Obviously, the play gave him the option of running the ball. I'm curious if he also had the option to punt the ball if nobody came open and there wasn't a running lane. Either way, the play design was brilliant, because it played off of Washington's expectation that Goff would pooch punt. It looked to my eyes like UW's defenders never really expected him to run, giving him the time and space to just barely get those final 4 yards.
Let's say you don't buy a damned word I wrote at the top about how things are falling in Cal's favor. You're convinced that Cal isn't equipped to handle a stiff upcoming schedule.
Fair enough. Even then, Cal is already 4-0, with two road wins in their pocket. They will be heavily favored in two home games against Washington State and Oregon State, and probably slight favorites over Arizona State. Even if the rest of the season went pure chalk, Cal would probably finish 7-5, more or less in line with pre-season expectations. Perhaps disappointing given how the Bears have started, but hardly a disaster either. Steal a win or two and you're looking at a pretty sweet bowl game. That's pretty solid for a realistic worst case.
If Cal, with a healthy Daniel Lasco, comes home and takes care of business against what is very likely to be the worst FBS defense the Bears will see all year, the worst case scenario doesn't look much different than an average pre-season prediction.
Nobody knows what the future holds, and that goes double for the bizarro world of college football. So all we can say is that the Bears have done everything right to put themselves in position for something special. And if there has ever been a team that seemed custom built to thrive in the chaos of a weird, unpredictable season, it would be the Sonny-Dykes-era Cal Bears.