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Why can’t Cal escape close games?

The Bears seem to always be hitting the wire every game.

NCAA Football: Oregon at California
Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Let's talk about that 20 point lead. Every Pac-12 win of the Sonny Dykes era aside from our Oregon State wins has come down to the final play. What do you think are the big reasons Cal struggles to close games or can't pull away from their opponent? Coaching, talent, the level of quality of the other opponent, etc?

boomtho: The biggest reasons are an offense that specializes in big plays but struggles to methodically run the ball (and thus keep the clock moving), and a defense that is fighting to the best of their ability but is undersized, undergunned, and prone to giving up large chunk plays.

Coaching plays a part, as we know by now that Spav is pretty darn pass happy (which makes the playcalling vs Oregon all the better!). And Sonny seems to vacillate between being aggressive and conservative without a ton of consistent logic.

Nik Jam: Offense needs to have some killer instinct and learn to put teams away. I admire that once Utah and Oregon finally took leads in the second halves, the Cal offense immediately responded with TDs. Sometimes they even scored when they were already up to go multiple scores! Problem is, while I know its not reasonable to score every single drive, the timing of some of the bad drives are ominous.

Against Utah the Bears were up two scores. Utah scores with just a handful of minutes left. All the Cal offense needs to do is run the ball and get two or three first downs to seal the deal. Instead, they go three and out (and if I'm not mistaken there was a holding call or a sack too). We all know about the nightmare 3rd quarter against Oregon that allowed the Ducks to respond back.

While they did get the clinching first down against Texas ("fumble" aside) I would like to feel more confident in the offense when the game is winding down and they need to just churn the clock. I'm just not sure the team is built to do that. They're built to score fast. Hopefully the massive running game against the Ducks is the start of something.

HydroTech: I think that Cal can't put away games right now because the defense needs improvement. Sure, the defense has come through in the end for Cal in some games, but if the defense was better throughout the entire game, Cal wouldn't be in so many close games to begin with. Cal's defense is 95th in the nation in terms of average yards allowed per play, 103rd in the nation in terms of opponent's 3rd down conversion rate, and 124th in the nation in terms of average yards allowed per rush. (Note: Cal is 34th in the nation in terms of average yards allowed per pass, so that's good!) I love how the Cal defenders play with so much heart and determination, but for Cal to be a better team there has to be better results on the defensive side of the ball as a whole. Just think of how good Cal's offense has been. It's a top 10 offense in college football. If Cal's defense was even just average, it's very possible that Cal could be 7-0 right now.

Berkelium97: I agree with Hydro that the defense is the primary culprit here. Early in the third quarter is entirely too soon to switch to a burn-the-clock offense, so I don't think game management was an issue against Oregon. While the Ducks wouldn't have scored as quickly if Cal had been able to drive down the field, we cannot expect the Cal offense to score on every single possession. Instead, the culprit is mostly the defense. We can't pressure the opposing QB, we struggle with making solo tackles, and when we do finally prevent a third down conversion, we often bail out the opponent with a boneheaded penalty.

Taking a broader view of the program, we're fielding one of the best offenses in the nation yet we are barely winning games. I'm not expecting a top-10 or even a top-30 defense. Like Hydro said, an average defense would be good enough. A defense that, on average, holds opponents to 25-28 points per game would likely elevate this team to 7-0 and, assuming UW beats us and goes to the playoff, put us in strong position to contend for a Rose Bowl in this down Pac-12 North. The offense has consistently been doing its job this season (something we couldn't say last season--remember we didn't score more than 4 TDs during our first six Pac-12 games last year). If the defense improves to average, we could be an excellent team.