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Cal vs. Grambling State post game thoughts

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I entered the stadium behind a Grambling fan with a sign hanging around his neck that read: "We're going to win Halftime" And I supposed that about summed things up, didn't it?

D . . . def . . . defensive touchdowns?
D . . . def . . . defensive touchdowns?
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

When approaching games against FCS competition, I have a pretty simple rule of analysis: You can't prove a strength against FCS teams, but you can reveal fatal weakness.

If you dominate against a lower division team, it's still entirely possible that you're a flawed team. We need to look no further than last year and remember that Cal's defense held Sac St. to 14 points on 4.6 yards/play, then allowed 42 points/game against FBS competition.

Conversely, failing to dominate against FCS competition in one or all phases of the game almost certainly means a lost season. Think Cal in 2013, Oregon State in 2011, Washington State in 2010 or 2012, Colorado in 2012 . . . well, you get the point.

So here's the good news: Cal didn't reveal any fatal weaknesses against Grambling St. The Bears controlled every facet of the game, and the final score might not even totally reflect how big of a mismatch this game was. As a quick illustration: Grambling totalled 144 yards at an average of 2.8 yards/play in their first 14 drives. Meanwhile, Cal's first team offense averaged 9.3 yards/play - nearly a first down on every snap. The Bears could have named their own score.

And so it's hard to figure out what to take away from this game. Cal certainly looked good. But Grambling probably isn't a very good team, and certainly played below their own potential. The Tigers helped bury themselves with completely unforced errors - unforced fumbles, bad penalties, missed assignments - that future Cal opponents likely won't make.

Offense

Offensive MVP

Kenny the Red Zone Assassin Lawler managed 3 touchdowns and 6 catches on just 7 targets, and he showed off why he's such a huge threat near the goal line. His first touchdown was particularly instructive - a flawlessly executed stutter step, his defender stuck with stone feet because he's terrified of the fade pattern, and the easy catch when he finally cuts inside on the slant. Easy.

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

(You're damned straight this will be a recurring feature.)

It's 2nd and 3 from the Cal 32, early in the 2nd quarter. Goff goes back to pass, and Grambling sends an interesting blitz. Initially, six players attack the line. One of the six pulls back into coverage, but his bluff draws the attention of a Cal blocker. As a result, there are only four blockers left for the five defenders converging on Goff. This is a formula for disaster.

Goff is about to get sandwiched, and doesn't really have the time or the space to set his feet. But he knows that he's got a bunch of receivers facing man coverage, and so he uncorks a perfect pass right into the chest of Trevor Davis. The play gains 32 yards, and the pass itself probably traveled 55 yards in the air considering how far back Goff was from the line of scrimmage and how he had to throw from the hash-mark all the way to the opposite sideline.

Nifty wrinkle of the week

You won't find true freshman walk-on Malik McMorris listed anywhere on the depth chart, but #99 has a clearly defined role on the team this year: Goal line full back. When news came out from fall camp that the defensive lineman had switched to offense, I wasn't really expecting to see him in action much this year, but he came in on most goalline packages. He does have experience as a short yardage back in high school, and he showed off much more nimbleness than you would ever expect from a 5'11'', 300 pounder.

He had a solid seal at the end of the line on Lasco's early touchdown run, and led perfectly for Coprich later in the game. I don't know if we should expect a true frosh to get that type of push against Pac-12 defenses, but I'd love to see the big man get a carry or two later in the year.

A comprehensive list of bad plays made by the first string offense

You know, like, in my opinion:

  • The offensive line completely blows a protection package and Lasco can't get over in time to block the free blitzer. Goff is easily sacked but a facemask penalty absolves Cal of their sins.
  • Bryce Treggs fails to catch a ball sent into his chest, and it bounces right into the arms of a Grambling defender. Bryce has to face the wrath of Tony Franklin for pre-ruining Goff's TD/INT ratio.
  • Goff puts a goal line pass on the wrong shoulder to Lawler, and it falls incomplete and could have been picked.
  • On the next play, Vic Enwere fumbles on the goalline.
  • Goff gets impatient and forces a pass to Powe in the back of the endzone when he had more time to find somebody more open. This goes on the list of bad plays because it could have been picked.
True, there were other plays that were unsuccessful due to either minor, common mistakes or because Grambling defenders made good plays. Those are the five plays that stood out when I rewatched the game as meaningful errors. Out of 51 total first string plays, that's pretty damned good, and pretty correctable. Regarding the contention that Cal left points on the table: Well, Cal failed to score a TD in three of their eight offensive possessions in the first half. One of those was immediately turned into a pick 6. So I'd say Cal left 10 points on the board, which is a criticism only if you expect the Bears to play flawlessly. Dare to dream!

A place where we talk about the offensive line AND run/pass imbalance

Some Cal fans were understandably a bit concerned that Jared Goff got hit a few too many times against an FCS team. Hell, Sonny said as much in his post-game presser. I was also perplexed while watching the game in Memorial that Cal seemed so intent on throwing the ball much more than running (32 pass attempts vs. 14 runs in the 1st half). Not surprisingly, these two items are related, and I think it reveals something interesting about Cal's offensive brain trust.

Grambling runs an unusual 3-3-5 defense, in which the 5 secondary defenders are typically playing man-to-man coverage with no help over the top. It's a cover zero that leaves their six defenders in the box free to attack the line of scrimmage and (hopefully) create havoc. It was mentioned on the broadcast that Grambling actually led the FCS in sacks last year.

When the defense is constantly sending 6 defenders to attack five offensive linemen, it doesn't make a ton of sense to run the ball. And Tony Franklin does not give one single damn about run/pass balance. When you hand him single coverage, man-to-man defense, he is going to throw the ball over, and over, and over, until you prove you can stop it.

And Grambling never did. But there's an obvious risk in this situation - When your opponent is frequently sending 5 or 6 men at the line, dudes are going to get through. You have to trust your quarterback to make quick reads and quick throws to his inevitably-open-receivers. Jared Goff can sure as hell do that.

Grambling's scheme is designed to get guys free at the quarterback, no matter what. Considering that, I actually think Cal's line did a pretty decent job. There was the blatantly blown protection that led to the sack/facemask of Goff, but otherwise they picked up every other blitz to at least give Goff time to get the ball out. Honestly, the REAL test of the line won't come until they have to stop 3/4 high end Pac-12 linemen rushing the quarterback without the benefit of a blitz. No line is going to hold up perfectly against constant blitzes anyway.

Analysis of (insert your favorite Chase Forrest related pun here)

Perhaps the best reason to schedule games like this? Chase Forrest got to play two quarters of football, and looked pretty darn good throughout. The Bears were in the process of running out the clock and thus decided to run the ball much more than scheme and defense would ordinarily dictate. As a result, Forrest 'only' had 17 pass attempts. Still, we learned a lot about him.

First note: He looks accurate. Of his 7 incompletions, only two were garden-variety inaccurate throws. One was a throwaway to avoid a sack, one was batted down at the line, one looked like an attempt to draw a pass interference on the goal line, and one hit the hands of Ray Hudson through a very tight window.

The final incompletion? It was an interception, and yet was perhaps Forrest's best play of the afternoon. Twice, Forrest stood strong in the pocket against a blitz that was picked up by the line. Twice he waited patiently for his receivers to come open, and twice he uncorked near perfect passes downfield to Bug Rivera. One ended in a bizarro interception after Rivera tipped the ball, and the other ended in a touchdown.

Good pocket sense, strong footwork, quick throws, accuracy both on short routes and deep? Who does that sound like to you? This coaching staff just might be pretty good at finding and developing quarterbacks for their system.

Defense

Defensive MVP

Cameron Walker - This was a little tough, because nobody on Cal's defense really played all that much because the game got out of hand so quickly and the Bears went so deep down the depth chart. But Cam made the most out of his limited time on the field, recording a sack, a blitz pressure, a pass break up, and Cal's first interception returned for a touchdown. Sure, the play was plenty fluky, but Walker always seemed to be in the right place at the right time against Grambling, a valuable skill for a defender to have.

Not really Cal related, but goodness did Grambling's center(s) have a rough day. Dude(s) picked up two false start penalties, an unnecessary roughness call, and completely missed his assignment on the safety-turned-Interception-into-Touchdown play.

Defensive line depth

Cal substituted pretty quickly on the defensive line, and one of the brighter developments was that the 2nd string was roughly as productive as the first string. Of the 12 players listed on the depth chart, 11 registered both from the eye test and on the stat sheet with at least one tackle. 3 sacks on 33 dropbacks isn't an amazing ratio against an FCS team, but Grambling was certainly leaning on short passes that limit the time a pass rush has, and there were multiple pressures, like the near safety.

If the coaches are really planning on playing 3 deep on the line, this was a solid indication that it might work.

The ups and downs of a massive position switch

Luke Rubenzer made his Cal debut at safety, and it turned out to be a busy day - I actually think the 2nd string got more run than any other spot on the depth chart.

Rubenzer's day was best summed up in a Grambling drive late in the second quarter. On first and 10, the Tigers came out with three WRs, two lined up on the weak side. Devonte Downs lined up across from the slot receiver, but the play appears to be a zone read. The QB keeps the ball and heads to his right around the line and Downs plunges to the quarterback to make the tackle.

Unfortunately for the Bears, it appears to be a zone read with a run/pass option, and the quarterback pulls back and lofts a soft pass over the top to the slot receiver who had peeled off down the sidelines. Grambling gains 49 yards, and if Khari Vanderbilt isn't able to chase down the receiver from behind it would have been a touchdown.

Is this big gain Rubenzer's fault? Certainly not entirely. Both he and CB Jaylinn Hawkins bit hard on the run fake. I suspect that Hawkins had responsibility for the zone the slot receiver entered, and that Rubenzer had the responsibility to make sure that nobody got over the top on his side of the field. It was a nifty, well executed play from Grambling, and it illustrates the challenges safeties face, especially against running quarterbacks. Perhaps not surprisingly, Rubenzer stayed a good 15 yards off the line on Grambling's next play - a short run into the line.

But football is all about shaking off mistakes and coming back for the next play. Just two plays later, Rubenzer makes a classic free safety play, tracking the quarterback's eyes and jumping a downfield route for the pick. Mike Pawlawski had some solid analysis from the Pac-12 Network booth, pointing out that Rubenzer's experience as a quarterback puts him in an ideal position to make plays just like that.

You also want a player to learn from tough plays. So, when Grambling runs a similar play to the opposite side on their next possession, can you guess what happens? Yep - Rubenzer tracks the slot receiver in motion, follows him to the outside, and tackles him for a much shorter gain.

Special Teams

An obvious example of why special teams matters

Goodness gracious did Grambling have trouble punting the ball, and as a result Cal had spectacular field position all game long (average starting yardline: Cal 39). The Tigers averaged 29 net yards/punt, which isn't much different than a safety making an interception over the middle.

Block that punt BLOCK IT Block that punt BLOCK IT

Cal sent more players than usual at a few Grambling punts, and the result was one block and a couple other near calls. As with most things that happened in this game, it will be worth tracking whether or not Cal continues to send more men at the punter, and if it pays off at all.

Concern: kick off coverage

If you're looking for a relatively innocuous over which to agonize, allow me to recommend kick return coverage! Twice Grambling managed to break open decent returns in their many opportunities to receive kicks. If they had a faster or more elusive returner, they might've had a touchdown return.

To be fair, Cal also had a number of excellent coverages, and the big return occurred near the end of the 3rd quarter, probably against reserves. Even still - Cal likely doesn't have a kicker that will consistently reach the end zone with kicks, so the coverage team will have to be spot on. Luckily, I suspect the Goffense will give them plenty of live game practice opportunities.

Game Theory Errata

Largely absent because this game was so quickly out of hand. I would, however, like to note that Sonny Dykes twice elected to go for it and was twice rewarded with conversions. Where did he decide to throw caution to the wind?

  • 4th and 7 from the  33
  • 4th and goal from the 1
The 2nd scenario should result in a 4th down conversion attempt every time. David Shaw would punt in the 1st scenario 3,826 times out of 10. Thankfully Sonny realized that the potential to gain maybe 15 yards of field position or the potential to maybe make a 50 yard field goal weren't very enticing. The best thing that might happen to Cal's offense this year is not having a placekicker than can be trusted from 40+ yards.

Big Picture

Cal completely and utterly dominated an over-matched opponent who did themselves no favors. Meanwhile: Texas, Washington, Washington State, Oregon State, and Stanford all looked somewhere between flawed and awful. It's always a bad idea to make too much out of one week, but it looks entirely likely that Cal will be given every opportunity to make noise in the Pac-12 this year.

Next up is San Diego State, who won a sleepy game against FCS San Diego, only scoring 30 points despite six Torero turnovers. Overreaction based upon a 30 second glance at the box score? SDSU offense lame, SDSU defense potentially scary, Cal offense >>>> SDSU defense anyway. #analysis