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Post Game Thoughts: Utah

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A new week, a new paean to weirdness. Come, let us together sing the song of our bizarro people!

Utah v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

You want to know why college football is better than pro football? I could probably go on for a few thousand words, but let’s keep things simple: watch Cal and Utah play football.

You couldn’t find a greater contrast of styles. Look at these extremes:

  • Yards/play: Cal 7.4, Utah 4.6

  • First downs: Utah 30, Cal 17 ; Total yards: Utah 442, Cal 362
  • Time of possession: Utah 42:01, Cal 17:59

The first stat indicates a Cal blowout. The 2nd stat indicates a Utah blowout. The 3rd doesn’t have any correlation to winning or losing, but simply illustrates how very, very different these two teams like to play football.

Cal played their game. 4 touchdown drives, each averaging about 1:45 of clock time. Utah played their game. Multiple incredibly long, drawn out drives that ate a ton of clock and cut down on the number of possessions available for both teams. The clash of styles resulted in a near dead heat, with everything coming down to the final set of plays.

Quite frankly, I find what Utah does extraordinarily impressive, even if it’s born out of their inherent limitations on offense. 4.6 yards/play is typically atrocious. If Utah averaged 4.6/play on the season they’d be sitting at 120th between Rutgers and Idaho in the national standings.

But most teams mix in the occasional 10 yard play with as many 0 yard or negative plays, and thus rarely sustain drives. Not Utah. They gain 4-5 yards on seemingly every damned play. It puts tremendous stress on an offense - Utah faced TWENTY FIVE separate 3rd or 4th down conversions - which means that they inherently have to execute on a huge number of plays where a screw up kills a drive. They converted just enough to stay close in a game that could have been a laugher. Cal hung on to the win by stopping their conversions just in time.

Offense

Efficiency Report

9 possessions: 4 touchdowns, 4 punts, 1 interception, 3.1 points/possession

Note: I didn’t include Cal’s final drive of the 2nd quarter, which is a debatable decision. If you want to count it, add another punt and downgrade Cal to 2.8 points/possession

Talk about boom or bust. Cal collected a total of just 4 first downs on their 5 failed drives, but had 4 lightning quick, perfectly executed touchdown drives. If you compare stats on successful drives vs. unsuccessful drives the numbers will always be stark, but Cal’s 4 TD drives resulted in 297 of their 362 total yards. 13 YPP on the TD drives, 2.6 YPP on failed drives.

Why so boom/bust? Nam floated a reasonable explanation that would make for a good off-season analysis effort:

The power of the screen game and/or great downfield receivers

Cal won the game because the Bears threw four downfield touchdowns. None of the plays were particularly fancy. Hansen go route. Robertson wheel route. Hansen go route. Robertson go route. It’s a staple of this offense.

Another type of play that’s a staple of this offense are WR screens, and those plays were much less successful, and I suspect there’s a correlation there. Utah was very aggressive at the line, playing close to Cal’s receivers. You have to think that they saw so much tape of Cal burning everybody with WR screen after WR screen and decided they didn’t want to get beat like that.

That aggression allowed them to blow up some stuff close to the line of scrimmage, but it left them susceptible over the top, and Cal made them pay 4 different times . . . and almost a 5th, when Webb was about half a foot away from hitting Robertson over the top right at the end of the first half.

Defense

Efficiency Report

10 possessions: 3 TDs, 2 FGAs (1-2), 3 punts, 2 turnovers (downs), 2.3 points/possession

Player of the Game: James Looney

Defensive tackle might be the position with the greatest gap between importance and excitement. Teams without good interior defensive linemen get run over, and generally have a bad pass defense because they can’t pressure the quarterback. But good DT play is pretty boring. Often, it will be one dude standing up to a double team, occupying blockers so that his teammates can make plays.

Which is why James Looney was so friggin’ eye-opening against Utah.

He had a direct hand in nearly every failed Utah drive. On Utah’s first drive, he got what should have been a sack (the refs apparently forgot that intentional grounding exists on Saturday) on 3rd and 11. On Utah’s first drive of the 3rd quarter he sliced through the line and drops the Utah RB for a loss on 3rd down. He was right in the middle of Cal’s stop on 4th and 1 early in the 4th quarter, and of course he came up huge on the entire goalline snap.

Looney is not your prototypical interior lineman. At only 280 pounds, you would not expect him to be so disruptive. But for whatever he may lack in sheer mass he makes up for in speed - when rewatching the game, he stood out for his incredible speed in reaction to the snap - faster than any DEs, even faster than linemen who ostensibly knew the snap count. His first step can be devastating. Lining up most of the day against Utah’s back-up center, he was dominant, easily the player of the game.

Age matters, experience matters

When Cal started the season poorly on defense, those inclined to be understanding argued that Cal’s defense was young. Those less inclined to forgiveness pointed out that Cal’s defense is mostly made up of upperclassmen (9 out of the 12 ‘starters’ on Cal’s depth chart) that should be prepared to contribute.

I find both arguments compelling. Cal does have mostly older players at the top of their defensive depth chart. But many of those players are first time contributors. Raymond Davison, Devante Downs, Khari Vanderbilt and Marloshawn Franklin are all juniors and seniors, true. But they are also first time starters playing significantly bigger roles than in prior seasons.

Earlier in the year, they all struggled to varying degrees, particularly in run support. Sometimes, they would take the wrong gap or a bad angle. When they took the right gap, they would be hesitant and let the runner have a chance to break a tackle.

Against Utah? Much, much better. Vanderbilt’s headstrong sprints towards the point of attack paid dividends. Downs and Davidson were making plays on the other side of the line of scrimmage.

We shouldn’t get carried away. Utah is probably the 2nd most limited offense in the Pac-12 (see you next week Beavers!) and holding them at bay doesn’t necessarily mean Cal will have the same success against the UCLAs and Oregons of the world. But we’re looking for signs of progress, and pretty much everything that happened against Utah was positive.

On injuries

Cal was missing Darius Allensworth and Evan Rambo. Utah was missing center J.J. Dielman, WR Cory Butler-Byrd, and later in the game WR Tim Patrick. I feel like that more or less balances out in the end. And if Darius and Evan come back shortly, I’ll feel very thankful that they missed time during a stretch of the season that isn’t full of lethal passing attacks.

Special Teams

A low impact Saturday

Thanks in large part to a game that was so short of possessions, special teams wasn’t particularly important in either direction. Utah did have a decent advantage in average starting field position, but that was driven in part by factors out of the control of special teams units. Great field position for Utah from an interception, or bad field position for Cal because Utah drove to midfield before punting. Hell, Cal had more touch backs and a better punting average.

And you know what? I’ll take it. Utah was meaningfully hurt by a special teams error (tough to blame Andy Phillips for missing from 48 yards, but boy is this game different if he hits that kick) and Cal wasn’t, and that’s just fine with me.

Coaching/Game Theory Errata

Setting an extra possession on fire and getting away with it . . .

Already 100s of tweets and comments have been spilled on this topic. I enjoy talking through this stuff because I find it interesting, but I’m worried that it’s starting to detract from what we should be focusing on after such a crazy game. BUT since we’re nothing if not exhaustive here:

There isn’t an argument in favor of Sonny Dykes’ end-game timeout usage that isn’t post-hoc, results-over-process rationalization. Full stop.

Let’s set the stage. Utah has 1st and goal from the 9 yard line with ~2:30 on the clock (~2:00 after Utah’s 1st and goal play). They have just gone 40 yards in 5 plays. Both teams have all of their timeouts left. As a consequence, Utah has their entire goal line playbook open.

The upside of using your timeouts is that you earn yourself an extra possession - probably about 1:30 of clock - in case your opponent takes the lead. The downside of using your timeouts is . . . well, there isn’t a meaningful downside compared to the equity you can gain. The only arguments in favor of not using timeouts are ‘intangible’ arguments. “The defense got the stop because Dykes showed faith in them.” “Utah panicked because they expected us to use timeouts and then they lost control of the clock.” I find neither of those arguments convincing, and have seen no evidence for either*.

As it turns out, the entire debate was rendered somewhat academic by the 4th down pass interference called on Marloshawn Franklin. If Cal had used their timeouts, Utah could have used their new series of downs to run the clock down anyway. But anticipating an unlikely, 4th down, automatic 1st down defensive penalty wouldn’t be good game management, and misses the point. The point is that Cal had a chance to earn free game leverage, and decided to pass up on that free leverage. Thankfully, it didn’t bite them this time, but I’m worried that everybody took the wrong lesson from the entire situation. Honestly ask yourself: If Utah had scored on 3rd or 4th down prior to the penalty, would you have felt that the right decision was made?

*Kyle Whittingham played the situation perfectly, even planning to save his team 20 seconds in case of a penalty that gave them extra plays. Unfortunately for him, he didn’t count on Pac-12 refs accidentally burning one of his time outs for him in a spot that did him zero good. Utah wasn’t confused because Cal put pressure by not stopping the clock - Utah was confused because of a loud crowd and Pac-12 refs. So kudos to Cal fans and kudos to the refs!

. . . but that’s not everything that coaching is

Let’s be honest: us blogger types tend to put an undue focus on game management decisions. It’s obvious why - game management decisions are relatively simple, obvious aspects of coaching. Nearly every variable is clear to the fan watching the game, and the impacts of every decision are pretty easy to quantify.

I want a coach who makes the right decisions, because it’s typically low hanging fruit. Sonny Dykes occasionally makes decisions that I really don’t agree with, but despite that I actually think he’s a better game manager than probably 75% of college coaches. I still find certain decisions extremely frustrating.

But it’s also a relatively small percentage of what makes a coach successful. David Shaw is probably the single worst in-game strategist in college football. For a long time I convinced myself that, because he punts in stupid situations, he would inevitably end this current high point for Stanford football. Unfortunately, he’s also better than the vast majority of coaches at pretty much every other aspect of his job. Recruiting, talent development, game planning, building and maintaining a program culture . . . these things are significantly more important. That’s why Shaw’s idiotic game management decisions are so rarely consequential - goofy timeout usage doesn’t matter when you typically win games by 17 points.

Here’s the defining image from the game for me:

Sonny Dykes mobs James Looney

That’s 46 year old Sonny Dykes, jumping probably higher than he thought possible, onto the shoulders of a team captain that just saved the game, as the rest of the defense joins him in a mosh pit on the field in celebration. He follows that up by leaping into the arms of his quarterback in the beariest of hugs.

Sonny Dykes has fostered a very strong program culture at Cal. There’s a reason this team fights so hard through so many weird games with occasionally crushing endings. There’s a reason Cal games regularly end with scenes like this.

Team culture doesn’t always translate to wins, and there are certainly aspects of the Dykes era that will have to improve for Cal to move beyond their current identity of fun-but-flawed-agent-of-chaos. I’m as greedy as the next fan, and I’m hoping for more this year and in future years. But if all we get is crazy football games played by a team that we can be proud of, a team that’s very, very easy to root for, well . . . I’ll take it.

Big Picture

Where would we be if Khari Vanderbilt doesn’t pick the right pursuit angle on 1st and goal from the 2? If Troy Williams throws the ball a foot lower on 2nd down? If Utah’s skill players ran the play their line was blocking for on the final play?

It’s the what if game we can play every week. The Bears are now 2-2 on the ole coin flip, and so far the only real regret of the season is that they haven’t been able to translate a per play efficiency advantage into more wins, thanks largely in part to singularly disastrous plays (two tight losses, both featuring pick 6s and special teams touchdowns, is a little out there).

I’ve been joking all season long that Cal will trade off a crazy last second win with a crazy last second loss all season long, but that goes out the window this week: Oregon State is coming off of back-to-back blowout losses to two teams that Cal would like to think are peers. They have one of the worst offenses in the country. Along with Hawaii, this is the 2nd game of the season that is a 100% must-win. Even on the road, at night, in Corvallis, with the possibility of rain in the forecast.

If you believe in Bill Connelly, S&P, and the value of objective numbers, Oregon State is the only game left in the year in which Cal is favorite to win. That’s the bad news.

The good news is that Cal has played sufficiently better than pre-season projections (and Oregon, Stanford & UCLA sufficiently worse) such that those home games are inching closer to toss up territory. Once pre-season projections are completely removed from the system, I expect to see another 4 or 5 coin flips on the docket (with a rough home game against the Dawgs being the only obvious exception).

Add up all the numbers and our computer overlords think that Cal has a 64% chance of getting to 6 wins and a bowl. Those are odds I would have gratefully taken in August, and I’ll gratefully take them now.