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Post Game Thoughts: Oregon State

Because you want to read about Cal’s worst loss in at least 2 years.

NCAA Football: California at Oregon State Cole Elsasser-USA TODAY Sports

During his 3.5 years at Cal, Sonny Dykes has had (by the standards of college football) a very patient fan base that has generally supported him. This has been true for a few reasons:

  1. Jeff Tedford left behind a radioactive shell of a program with problems that went well, well beyond simple issues of talent or depth.
  2. Sonny Dykes has shown slow but constant improvement throughout his tenure.
  3. Sonny Dykes has pretty much always won as a favorite, never losing games against the weakest teams on the schedule (post 2013).

And for that reason, the vast majority of Cal fans have fallen somewhere between vocal support and silent noncommittal. That’s despite a mediocre record of 16-15 (8-13 in conference) even when you remove the 2013 mulligan most fans have granted.

Losing to Oregon State might change that.

Cal is now four years removed from Jeff Tedford, and save from a handful of redshirt seniors this team is full of players who committed knowing he would be the head coach.

For the first time in his tenure, Cal looks very likely to take a step back from the level established a year prior. (Cal’s 4 year F/+ trend? 103 -> 65 -> 29 -> 54, and that ranking at 54 was prior to losing to Oregon State)

For the first time in his tenure, Dykes has lost a game as a substantial favorite - Cal was 10 to 14 point favorites at various points this week.

When you can’t point at consistency and progress as positives, what else can you point at?

Post-loss discussion typically turns into an exercise of blame parsing. “Sure, this aspect of the game was bad, but this aspect of the game was the biggest problem”

This was a team-wide, systematic defeat. When you are outgained by 2.65 yards/play against the worst team in the conference, there’s no way you can pick out specific issues. Really, the miracle of this game was that Cal managed to make it close in the end. The late comeback shouldn’t distract from the underlying reality: Cal was comprehensively beaten by a team that hadn’t won a Pac-12 game since 2014.


Efficiency Report

11 regulations drives: 4 touchdowns, 2 FGA (2-2), 4 punts, 1 turnover (interception), 3.1 points/drive

Removed from the above is Cal’s defensive touchdown and Cal’s overtime possession wherein Cal went 3-and-out but got 3 points out of it anyway.

This is a tale of two games. In Cal’s first 6 possessions they managed one measly field goal, then somewhat miraculously reeled off 31 points in five possessions to force overtime. Why? It’s no secret

Taking what they gave us, eventually

Maybe the single most shocking stat of the Bear Raid era: Cal averaged 7.8 yards/run (QB runs removed) and 2.8 yards/pass. And that was the case because OSU was overplaying Cal’s passing attack to an extreme degree. The question is when, exactly, did Cal figure out that passing the ball wasn’t going to get it done? The first two drives of the game featured 7 Cal passes and 1 run, but Cal’s 3rd drive featured plenty of running and ended in a field goal. Drive #4 was all passing (and an interception) and drives #5 and #6 were killed by penalties.

And as Cal scored 31 points on their final 5 possessions of regulation, the pass/run balance was 24/27, despite Cal’s normal 3/1 ratio, despite the clock very much not running in Cal’s favor. Would the game have ended differently had Cal gone to the run game earlier? I’d certainly be curious.

Injuries piling up

Davis Webb reportedly dislocated his thumb in the first quarter, Chad Hansen left the field with a foot injury, and Vic Enwere apparently is hurt as well. The latter two injuries probably didn’t have a major impact on Saturday but could be huge later in the year. Davis Webb’s injury is concerning in part because he was clearly ineffective yet the coaching staff kept him in the game and continued to call passes at a high rate.

The defining play of Webb’s day was his final throw. It’s 3rd and 7 in overtime, and Robertson is wide open around the 5 yard line for a huge first down. Webb misses him badly and Cal settles for a field goal that very much wasn’t enough.

I guess it’s a good time for a bye.


Efficiency Report

11 possessions: 5 TDs, 2 FGA (2-2), 2 punts, 2 turnovers (INTs) - 3.7 points/possession

Not included: Two end-of-half drives, OSU’s overtime drive. You can bump up points/possession to 4 if you want to count that one, which: yikes.

Entering this game, Oregon State’s offense had produced 1.2 points/drive in three games against FBS teams. Minnesota, Boise St., and Colorado, in case you were curious. Cal’s defense allowed them to be roughly three times as effective. That’s stunning, one of the worst performances relative to to the rest of the season you’ll likely ever see. Cal took whatever momentum they gained from the goal line stand against Utah and burned it, another reminder that sports momentum ISN’T A THING.

Possibly the worst defensive game plan I can remember

I am not an expert in Xs and Os. I admit this readily and frequently. I watch a ton of football and I try to read smart people like Chris Brown and MGoBlog and Kodiak & Hydro, but I know my limitations.

I simple don’t understand Cal’s defensive game plan.

Oregon State CANNOT. PASS. THE. BALL. THEY ARE 2ND TO LAST IN THE NATION IN YARDS/PASS. They barely even tried to go downfield against Cal, and when they did it failed. Their long pass was 13 yards!!! There was absolutely zero reason to respect the pass. If I were game planning, I would play single coverage on their receivers and be absolutely sure I had 7 guys in the box (at least!) when they put a running back on the field.

Most of the time, Cal did not do that. They didn’t do it to start the game, and they didn’t do it in the middle of the game, and they only started to do it late. And that’s partly how you allow a team with zero passing threat and a season average of 3.9 yards/run do THIS:

50 carries, 474 yards, 9.5 yards/rush.

This is not after the fact analysis. People - smart people that I respect - were begging Cal to put more defenders in the box in the middle of the game, as OSU was shredding Cal on the ground. Us fans may not be able to create a scheme that will work, but anybody watching knew that whatever Cal did for 3/4s of the game wasn’t working.


It wasn’t just the game plan

It went beyond the scheme, of course. To allow an offense that inept to be so productive, pretty much everything has to go wrong. There were missed assignments, missed run fits, and missed tackles. On some plays, Cal would have two players covering the man in motion, opening up huge holes elsewhere. On other plays, rushers lost gap contain and OSU’s QB picked up easy scramble 1st downs. On other plays, Cal actually had somebody in position to make a tackle, and they were juked or simply ran over.

This team desperately, desperately misses Hardy Nickerson and Damariay Drew. One was a solid run LB who pretty much always made the right read. The other was an excellent safety in run support and a very sure tackler. Without them Cal is left with a bunch of players who are inexperienced, undersized, and simply not ready to shut down the run.

There are 128 teams playing FBS football. Cal is 126th in run attempts faced, 127th in rushing yards/game allowed, and 127th in rushing yards allowed/play. This is not a problem that will get better.

Special Teams

Another game of marginal impact

One positive play (Demetris Robertson’s 39 yard kick off return), one negative play (Robertson’s muffed kickoff that led to Cal starting on the 3) and then a whole bunch of mostly routine plays. Cal actually won the field position battle by a relatively insignificant margin, but it was a little plus that helped keep Cal in a game that, by most other measures, shouldn’t have really been very close.

Coaching/Game Theory Errata

Not ready to play

Cal scored once on their first six offensive possessions. OSU didn’t punt until the 4th quarter.

One thing I’ve actually praised Sonny Dykes for is consistency of effort and preparedness. When Cal has gotten beaten soundly, it’s typically because of a massive talent advantage. The days of having Cal simply no show against a team that was, talent-wise, even or worse, seemingly gone.

They came back on Saturday.

Something I’ll never understand

One of the biggest pet peeves I have as a fan is when college teams throw in front of the sticks when they’re trying to move down the field inside the final 2 minutes with limited timeouts.

Granted, sometimes short passes work. If a RB is wide open running a route out of the backfield and can run for the first down, great. But if you’re throwing to a dude in front of the sticks, and there’s a defender on him . . . or if you’re running a WR screen, for example . . . the vastly likely outcome is a short gain that will eat more time than the yardage itself was worth.

Maybe Davis Webb’s injury (he could only make short throws?) has something to do with this, but then why not just run the ball more?

This is a long winded way of wondering whether or not Cal could have handled their final drive better. Webb’s injury throws a measure of uncertainty into the equation, and I can understand why the coaches wouldn’t want to run without an ability to stop the clock. Regardless, missing out on a chance for the touchdown to win certainly hurts in retrospect.

Big Picture

Calls to fire [insert coach here] are standard fare when you lose as a double digit underdog in year 4 under any head coach. I’m never had any interest in advocating for the firing of any coach, particularly in the middle of the season. I won’t be starting now.

What I can say is that Cal finished the ‘easy’ part of their schedule 3-3. Granted, the easy teams look a bit tougher than expected, and the hard teams look significantly easier than expected. But losing another coin flip (in a game that should have been weighted in our favor) puts Cal in a tough spot. Cal has already lost three road games to teams weaker than USC and Wazzu, and going 3-1 against Oregon/UW/Stanford/UCLA is a tall task. A bowl game is a tough, tough ask.

I started this column by noting that Sonny Dykes is eating away at the good will of the fan base by losing in different, new ways. To earn it back he’s going to have to WIN games in new ways.

This season will be defined by Cal’s performances against USC, UCLA, and most of all Stanford.