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Cal vs. Air Force Post Game Thoughts

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It's the end of a season and perhaps the end of an era, so here's to looking back on the 2015 season and ahead to the unknowns of 2016.

Tim Heitman-USA TODAY Sports

Thanks to the 11 a.m. start, I caught the 2nd quarter of the game live on my lunch hour with some work friends. My main memory of the game? Just laughing in delight at how totally in command Cal's offense was. I watched the Bears score 21 points in about 5 minutes of game time, and spent most of that time just laughing at how unstoppable the assault was. It was a game to savor, for a wide variety of reasons.

Offense

Jared Goff is not of this world

Was this the greatest performance of Jared Goff's career? It's in the conversation. Air Force was certainly over-matched, but Jared Goff threw around 10 downfield passes that were essentially perfect. Passes that were perfectly weighted, in stride with the receiver, directly into the receiver's chest and hands, always over the right shoulder, always away from the defender.

Sure, it helped that Air Force's pass rush was generally ineffective. It helped that Air Force didn't play with much safety help and generally played man-to-man. It helped that safety WESTON STEELHAMMER was ejected for targeting. Against a better team, Jared probably wouldn't have attempted a number of those throws because they wouldn't have been available as option.

But you still have to actually make those throws. There isn't a quarterback in college football who makes every single one of those throws.

I'll have more thoughts later on Jared Goff, his three years at Cal, and what it meant for the Bears. It's still a little too soon to put in context everything he did and accomplished within the conditions during his time at Cal.

God I'm going to miss him.

A nearly perfect game

Cal shut the offense down for the final quarter of the game after going ahead by 23 points. Prior to that point Cal had 11 drives resulting in seven touchdowns, one field goal, one punt, one turnover, and one end-of-half possession.

That's just two true failed possessions when the game was in doubt, and one of those failed possessions was a 61 yard drive inside the 5 yard line that included a dropped touchdown pass and a botched fake field goal.

Hell, Cal's first drive of the 4th quarter ended on a dropped 3rd down pass, and that was immediately followed by an eight minute drive that ended with three straight runs up the middle rather than an Eff You touchdown. Cal could have dropped 70 had they been so inclined.

A final look at the running back derby

Tre Watson, Vic Enwere, and Khalfani Muhammad split carries pretty evenly against Air Force, with varying success on a day defined by the passing game. Here are the final season totals for the three backs that will be competing for touches next season:

Enwere: 505 yards on 106 carries, 4.8 yards/attempt
Muhammad: 586 yards on 87 carries, 6.7 yards/attempt
Watson: 517 yards on 89 carries, 5.7 yards/attempt

Picking between the trio is tough. Enwere's numbers are lower, but he also gets more carries in short yardage situations. Muhammad's are the best, but one could argue he's a bit more boom or bust than the others. This is mostly an act of hair splitting, since the performance of the offensive line is much more important than the strengths and weaknesses of any one running back. Expect Cal to continue to split carries between these three next year.

Offensive line provides hope for next season

Be forewarned: Cal will be largely dismissed nationally next year. Jared Goff is gone, and he was the main reason people paid any attention to the Bears, at least from a national perspective. Most fans and pundits will pick Cal to finish 5th in the Pac-12 North next year.

And hell, that might be fair. It's tough to replace a first round draft pick at quarterback. BUT. One of the nicer features of an Air Raid offense (Bear or otherwise) is that they tend to keep rolling even under different quarterbacks. The other reason you should be cautiously optimistic about Cal's chances of maintaining their offensive production is that the offensive line ended the season on a hell of a hot streak.

Let's throw out Oregon State because they were a mess. Cal faced off against three defenses that finished in the top 25 in sacks. Stanford, Arizona State, and Air Force managed three total sacks, and one of those sacks was an intentional grounding call.

Cal is bringing back  four of their five starters, and the general consensus is that they are well situated to replace Jordan Rigsbee. You give a Tony Franklin quarterback time, you gain yards.

Defense

Player of the game

Kyle Kragen gets the nod narrowly over Hardy Nickerson, in part because his role on the edge of the line was usually to either tackle the quarterback or force him to pitch, which he typically managed. But Kragen's biggest role was being disruptive, recording a sack, forced fumble, and recovered fumble that ended up being the biggest swing plays of the game. He's going to be a tough guy to replace on the defensive line.

The return of the opportunistic (or, if you prefer, lucky) Cal defense

Cal's defense was 'lucky' in two ways. Primarily, they were lucky to be playing with the Cal offense, which could have basically named their point total in this game. As a result, the defense only needed to get a few stops to ensure a comfortable victory.

The defense did that by getting back to forcing turnovers, something that hadn't really been a feature of the Cal defense over the 2nd half of the season. Those turnovers were, partially, the other way Cal got a bit lucky. One turnover was the definition of good luck - a blown mesh between Air Force's quarterback and running back that Kyle Kragen pounced on. The 2nd was a nice hit by Kragen, but the Bears were fortunate that the ball went out of the end zone for a touchback. The third turnover was mostly inconsequential as the game had been essentially decided, but it's a nice end-of-season reward for Luke Rubenzer.

Special Team

Field position equity!

All season long we've been tracking the painful fact that Cal has generally had a field position deficit. They managed to keep things even in this game by getting good field position of their own to match the good field position they allowed to Air Force. Credit to Trevor Davis, Maurice Harris, and the return teams for putting together some decent run backs on both punts and kickoffs to make thing even easier for the offense (not that they needed the help).

I guess we need to talk about the fake?

Sonny Dykes called for a fake on the very first offensive drive of his Cal career, and it went beautifully, and since then every single special teams fake he has called (save surprise onside kicks) have blown up spectacularly. Speaking as someone who is generally in favor of special teams fakes: When you've got Jared Goff, sometimes it's best to just keep the ball in the hands of the standard offense. Hopefully next year's offense is worthy of the same level of trust.

Coaching/Game Theory

One last note in praise of motivation and buy-in

Playing Air Force in Fort Worth isn't necessarily the most exciting result for the Cal players who were hoping for Las Vegas, amongst other possible destinations. That plus a vaguely public contract negotiation saga, and it's conceivable that the Bears might have come out flat. Instead they administered a beat down as a heavy favorite, something that most of the Pac-12 didn't manage to do. This is a restatement of previous discussions, but kudos once again to Sonny Dykes for keeping his team focused on the task at hand.

And because Cal was so dominant, Sonny was never faced with any particularly critical decisions. When your offense is that on track you don't end up facing many 4th down calls.

Big Picture

The big picture doesn't have much to do with this particular game. Beating Air Force was a nice reward for a group of players who suffered through multiple painful seasons and hopefully helped build a new culture around Cal football. But within the context of this season and within the context of program as a whole, beating Air Force doesn't mean a whole lot. So instead, the focus turns to the task Cal's coaches face in 2016.

Sonny Dykes and his staff have passed a few big tests at Cal. They survived a near worst-case-scenario year one, and managed to prevent a one year disaster from becoming a multiple year disaster. That doesn't sound like much, but just ask Washington State and Colorado fans about the rebuilding process.

The offensive brain trust has proven that their system, whatever you want to call it, can work at the major conference level (which, based solely on the evidence at Texas Tech, we already knew). The defensive staff has proven that they can coach a just-good-enough defense, which sounds like damning with faint praise until you consider what the defense actually produced in 2013 and 2014.

More than that, they have proven that they can produce solid football within the academic and cultural structure demanded by Cal administrators, and generally by Cal fans.

Now they have to prove that they can maintain it after losing a significant chunk of the talent that helped produce the results they have earned so far. The 2014 team didn't lose a single player taken in the NFL draft. That won't be the case next year.

Right or wrong, many Cal fans won't have a ton of patience for a rebuilding year, and bowl eligibility will likely be a bench mark next year even considering the departure of Goff alongside a deep class of contributing seniors on both sides of the ball.

Next Bear up.