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Monday Thoughts: Cal at the Halfway Point

How has Cal’s offense, defense, and special teams performed 6 games in? And what should we look out for the rest of the way?

NCAA Football: California at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I suppose this is the apogee of Sonny Dykes football at Cal, no? After a tomato can game against Hawaii in Australia, Cal has played five games. In every single one of those games, one team trailing by 7 points or less has possessed the ball inside the final 3 minutes. In 8 out of 10 opportunities, a team has scored 40 points in regulation.

The Bears could be 6–0 or 1–5. They are, in fact, 3–3. That, in itself, is not a particularly surprising result. Berkelium’s final CGB crowd-sourced projections had Cal facing three near coin flips along with 3 likely wins, with an expectation of 4 wins in total (4.01, to be pedantically precise). Cal finishing 1 win below that projection is certainly within the standard deviation.

The surprise is how Cal got there. The Bears won two of their tougher games (Texas and Utah) but lost what most fans (probably still) considered the easiest game on the schedule other than Hawaii.

Cal Offense

Points/drive: 3.0 (17th in the nation)
Yards/play: 6.44 (26th in the nation)
S&P+ national rank: 8th in the country

By any objective measure, Cal’s offense has been very, very successful—and that’s without any caveats about having to replace the bulk of the skill position talent that made Cal’s offense so successful last season. When you consider how much production Cal has had to replace, it’s hard to be anything but incredibly impressed with the performance of Cal’s players and coaches on the offensive side of the ball.

What the advanced stats see is an offense that has torched three bad defenses (Hawaii, Texas, ASU), one mediocre defense (OSU) and two good-to-very-good defenses (SDSU and Utah). Our computer overlords see an offense that combines consistency with explosiveness and solid success both running and passing the ball.

This all pretty well fits in with the theory that, once established at any particular job, Sonny Dykes will produce a top-25 offense almost regardless of how much talent left the year prior. Remember, Cal was 4th to last in the entire country in returning offensive yards and appears to still be fielding a top-15 offense.

Four new(ish) names have played a big role in explaining how Cal has shrugged off a massive talent exodus: Chad Hansen, Demetris Robertson, Davis Webb, and Jake Spavital.

All four are a credit to Dykes’ ability to identify and bring in offensive talent. Some are worried about a hypothetical 2017 Cal offense without Webb (plus linemen Stephen Moore and Chris Borrayo) but when your head coach has a decade plus track record of producing great offenses it’s a little tough to get worked up about that side of the ball.

Cal Defense

Points/drive: 2.74 (100th in the nation)
Yards/play: 6.14 (104th in the nation)
S&P+ national rank: 109th

Sigh. For context’s sake, here’s the four year S&P+ trend for Cal’s defense, from 2013 through 2016 so far: 104, 108, 82, 109.

Last year, Cal made a bit of defensive progress, and it was enough support to combine with a spectacular offense and earn a bowl game despite a brutal schedule. But based on the evidence so far, Cal has regressed closer to the types of performances we saw in 2013 and 2014, and that’s a problem.

One reason the advanced stats don’t like the Cal defense? The Bears have faced maybe one and half good offenses. Texas is pretty legit—they have a great offensive line, some impressive skill talent, and an exciting freshman QB. Arizona State’s offense is OK. Everybody else is somewhere between mediocre (Utah, Hawaii) and downright bad (SDSU, Oregon State). And other than rare flashes, everybody has moved the ball against Cal.

The Bears are an extreme bend-but-don’t-break style defense—believe it or not, Cal has actually been very successful at preventing big plays relative to everything else. They’re also not totally awful at getting off the field when they force passing downs.

The problem is that those positives so rarely get opportunities to shine. Cal’s defense has been death by a thousand cuts as teams easily sustain slow drives down the field—6- and 7-yard run after 6- and 7-yard run. The Bears rarely force passing downs and preventing big plays doesn’t look any better on the box score when drives finish with short touchdowns.

It’s not a hard problem to diagnose. Inexperienced, undersized linebackers. Safeties who don’t excel in run support. Linemen who struggle to consistently disrupt blockers. So far this year, Cal has had one of the worst run defenses in Power 5 football—and opponents know it. Until that changes the Bears will give back just as many points as the offense scores.

Cal Special Teams

Special teams can be tough to measure, but so far it’s been a year of limited impact, something that I suspect most fans are probably fine with. Let’s start with two obvious positives: Matt Anderson and Cal’s kickoff team.

Anderson has kept up right where he left off in 2015, hitting on 10 of 11 field goals, and is probably in the top 10–20 kickers in the country. It will be tough for him to prove that he has a stronger leg, since Cal’s offense is successful enough that the Bears are much better off going for it in marginal positions.

Meanwhile, Cal’s kickoff team is vastly improved. Noah Beito has been reaching the end zone at a reasonable rate and coverage has been much improved. The onside kick TD return was an obvious fluke, and it’s a real shame that the one long return that has been allowed was such a critical play against San Diego St.

Kickoff returns are also a bit improved and have seen occasionally success, mostly when Khalfani Muhammad gets the ball.

On the negative side, Cal has mostly been at a deficit on punts. That’s largely a factor of facing four teams in the top-20 in punting, but it’s worth noting that it’s been quite some time since Cal has had a punt return of more than a handful of yards. It’s also worth noting that Cal games have very few punts period, so there’s an inherent volatility in the stats.

What to watch in the 2nd half

Can this team stay healthy?

Cal still doesn’t have the depth to weather more than a few injuries, and they’re starting to add up. Obviously, most of the focus will go to Davis Webb (who is expected to play vs. Oregon) and Chad Hansen. Considering our youth at receiver and how the coaching staff handled Davis’ injury in Corvallis, both are likely essential. Meanwhile, Evan Rambo’s injury has forced Khari Vanderbilt and Luke Rubenzer to see more snaps. and the defense has had a few other nicks and bruises over the first half.

Still, this has been a largely healthy season, and it needs to stay that way.

Can Cal’s offense continue to produce against better defenses?

As noted above, Cal has played two above average defenses—SDSU and Utah. They will face at least four in the 2nd half. Washington, UCLA, Stanford are led by their defenses—the latter two frankly rely on their defenses to buoy bad offenses. USC isn’t quite on the level of the previous three, but they’re close. And Washington State appears to have a rapidly improving defense after a rough start.

Also, there’s Oregon. Cal should firebomb Oregon’s defense, if only to show that the Ducks and not the Bears possess the worst defense in the conference.

Can the defense somehow stop the bleeding against runs?

Oregon, for all their flaws, are still a great running team. Stanford is a mess, but they will still pound the ball up the middle and you know that McCaffery will be healthy come Big Game. Washington and USC are both getting great production from their passing game, but both will be more than happy to simply hand the ball off if they can get away with it.

Can the Bears improve as the schedule gets tougher?

Pre-season, the conventional wisdom was that the second half was much, much tougher than the first half. While it’s true certain teams (Oregon, Stanford, UCLA) are weaker than pre-season expectations, the 2nd half is still a step up.

Average national rank, S&P+, 1st half: 62
Average national rank, S&P+, 2nd half: 34

It’s true that teams like Utah aren’t that different from Oregon or Stanford. But Washington and USC are the two best Pac-12 teams on Cal’s schedule, and there are no bad teams like Oregon State (sigh). Just coming back into the clubhouse 3–3 again would be an obvious team wide improvement in performance. Bowl hopes rest on the Bears getting better.