Just last week, I jokingly complained about how every Cal game was the same and any analysis would inevitably be repetitive. So hooray! Variety!
Before we muddy the water, let’s get the obvious out of the way: With both teams at full strength, USC is the better football team. With Cal on the road, and significantly more beat up than USC, the Trojans are so much better that splitting hairs about schedules and game theory and play calling becomes academic. Cal was never winning this game. USC gained 3 more yards/play than Cal despite shutting down their offense in the 4th quarter. The amount of variables that would have had to go in Cal’s favor just to make this game competitive are barely worth discussing. We will discuss anyway, because we are masochists.
Regarding the schedule: Some folks are upset from an academic standpoint. Others from a competitive balance standpoint. While I certainly sympathize generally with the challenge athletes face balancing classes and sports, what the football team faced this week isn’t any different from what most Cal sports teams face multiple times each season—and have faced for years. Fans, administrators, and coaches sold our collective souls on that front awhile ago.
On the competitive balance front—the question is how much losing a day of prep and a day of rest impacts a team. I think calling it a travesty is a bit hyperbolic, but since it’s a disadvantage I can’t quantify, I’m not going to ignore anybody that wants to argue the point—and hopefully the Pac-12 and/or Cal’s athletic department has gotten the message and will work to prevent a similar set-up in the future.
To me, a lot of this is a collision of circumstances. Cal happens to be particularly beat up right now and that happened to peak (God, I hope it has peaked) at the worst possible time—against a physically dominant opponent, playing at home, on a short turnaround.
If Cal had an extra day of rest? Maybe the game would’ve been closer.
If Cal were healthier? Maybe the game would’ve been closer.
If USC weren’t coming off a bye? Maybe the game would’ve been closer.
But even if you change all of those factors, it’s still really hard seeing how Cal was going to win this game. There’s still a big gap between these two programs, and that’s what matters long-term.
11 drives*: 3 TDs, 1 FG, 4 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 downs)—2.2 points/drive
Cal on the season averages 6.18 yards/play. Against USC, Cal averaged 5.72 yards/play. A decline, certainly, but hardly a catastrophic decline. It was more than Cal averaged against both Oregon and Oregon State and Cal scored 40+ regulation points in both of those games. Why exactly did Cal’s ability to get decent yardage not translate into points?
That’s a complicated question with multiple answers. Here’s a few: 1) Fewer possessions, largely because USC doesn’t play fast. 2) USC was able to force a decent amount of incompletions, so Cal was a bit more boom/bust than usual. 3) 4th-down decision making/execution. More on that later.
*I removed Cal’s last two drives of both halves because one started with :28 seconds on the clock and the other was a garbage time drive that wasn’t played normally by either team. Counting them would reduce Cal’s points/drive to 1.8.
A reminder that Cal’s receivers are still young/inexperienced
If Cal had any chance of keeping this game competitive, they were going to need perfect execution. Needless to say, that didn’t happen. Demetris Robertson’s drop of a long bomb on Cal’s first drive was certainly the most painful and obvious of Cal’s offensive mistakes, but it wasn’t the only one. Cal had a handful more drops before halftime, all of them on plays that could have extended drives that stalled out. And when 60% of your catches (and probably targets) are going towards freshmen, mistakes aren’t an unlikely occurrence.
A positive sign for future games
Cal’s co-starting running backs combined for 127 yards on 26 carries, for 4.9 yards/carry. That’s not amazing, but it’s solidly decent production. USC might have better run defense than any team left on Cal’s schedule and when you’re looking for reasons to be optimistic, you grasp at any straws available.
13 drives: 6 TDs, 2 FGAs (1–2), 2 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 fumbles)—3.5 points/possession
Looking at the stats, and having watched the game play out, 45 points feels like a pretty realistic minimum output for USC’s offense against Cal’s defense. USC was rolling up about 10 yards/play for most of the game until shutting it down late and still finished with efficiency numbers that outpace what the best offenses in the nation have put up this year. With a few different bounces USC might have dropped 50 in 11 drives before the 4th quarter even began.
And honestly, USC’s turnovers are almost frustrating. For 12 long years we’ve watched USC turn the ball over against the Oregon States and Utahs of the world to help contribute to upsets. And finally, when USC lowers themselves to turning the ball over against Cal, they are so dominant in every other way that it only acts as a salve to keep the score marginally more respectable. USC truly is useless.
What’s left to say?
At full strength, Cal’s defense wasn’t great. They had a solid secondary that prevented big plays and could usually get off the field on passing downs. They had a couple of defensive linemen who could occasionally make plays in the run game.
Cal’s defense isn’t at full strength, and it’s unclear if there are any relative strengths left that might slow down future opponents. If Cal can get Darius Allensworth and the rest of the secondary healthy, then they might be able to play more single coverage and dedicate more men to the box, but until then we’re playing a game of damned-if-you-do, damned-if-you-don’t.
No positive plays, three negative plays
In our ongoing theme of low-impact, low-variance special teams play, it was mostly another sleepy night. Khalfani Muhammad’s fumble on the opening kickoff gave Cal crummy field position to start, Dylan Klumph’s second punt was returned 32 yards by Adoree Jackson to set up an easy score, and a late bad return coupled with a blocking penalty again forced Cal to start inside their own 10.
It’s hard to get too up in arms when plenty of other things were going wrong on offense and defense, but this might be Cal’s weakest special teams performance since SDSU. It would have been more frustrating if the plays above came in a game that was close enough where field position might have had a role to play.
Missed opportunities to make it a game
As noted above: there probably wasn’t a scenario where Cal wins this game. There was just no way that Cal’s defense was going to be able to get enough stops. But whatever chance Cal had of making this competitive went begging when Sonny Dykes passed up opportunities to maximize Cal’s offensive possessions.
Entering the game, Dykes had to have known exactly how limited his defense was. He had to know that for Cal to possibly win, he would have to find a way to wring out every last point out of every last offensive opportunity just to have a chance to be in the game.
And then Cal punted on 4th and 1 from midfield on their first possession.
It’s not the only example of bad underdog strategy from the game—just the most glaring. Cal’s fourth drive ended on 4th and 1 and going for it would’ve been better than the immediate TD Cal gave up after an 11-yard net punt*. Cal’s fifth drive ended with a failed 3rd and 6 from midfield. I’d have considered running the ball on 3rd down knowing that a 4th-down conversion attempt might follow. Cal’s sixth drive ended with a field goal that didn’t really change the state of the game.
Beyond that, Cal didn’t really attempt any other high-variance tactics. No fakes, no trick plays, no unexpected onside kicks. And what was the risk? USC’s offense demonstrated that field position was thoroughly irrelevant (five TD drives covering between 65 and 95 yards) and drastic measures were necessary. None were taken, at least not until the second half when the game was already well out of hand.
*This one is marginally unfair 20/20 hindsight, but even still 4th and 1 is a great spot for a fake punt.
On the pointlessness of coach quotes
Setting: An unfair thing happens to a football team! Media ask head coach about unfair thing. Coach has two response option:
Option 1: “I’m telling it like it is. That thing was very unfair and I’m not happy.”
Fans who like and support coach: “I’m glad we have a coach who stands up for his players and program. Strong leaders don’t shy away from the truth.”
Fans who don’t like and support coach: “Leaders don’t make excuses. He should be focusing on [insert whatever thing team doesn’t do well] rather than factors outside of his control.”
Option 2: “It’s a tough situation, but I’d rather not comment. We just have to focus on getting better each week.”
Fans who like and support coach: “We’ve got a classy, stand-up guy leading our kids. If only [entity that wronged us] didn’t have it out for our program!”
Fans who don’t like and support coach: “Figures that he lets [entity that wronged us] walk all over us without doing anything. He responded to this with the same weakness that he responded to [grievance from 2 months ago].”
The worst thing about the annual loss to USC is that it's also inevitably a Pyrrhic defeat— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) October 28, 2016
If Cal had simply lost, it wouldn’t exactly have been cause for celebration, but neither would it be a shock or a season-altering setback. After all, we’re pretty damned well used to losing to the Trojans, aren’t we?
No, the question is how much this game impacts Cal’s ability to win games in the future? Josh Drayden and Aaron Cochran (at a minimum) have been added to the injury list alongside a number of other Cal players who were either missing or limited already.
The biggest names on the list are undoubtedly Chad Hansen and Darius Allensworth. Cal badly needs Hansen back for the final stretch because he acts as a safety valve and big-play threat at the same time—and because the offense needs to be at 100% capacity to outscore what the defense will allow. And Cal needs Allensworth because he’s one of maybe two players on the defense who are above-average Pac-12 players on the defense.
Beyond the injury list, this game doesn’t change the general course of the season much. Cal still needs two wins, and Stanfurd and UCLA are both the most likely targets. They also happen to be the most attractive targets from a fan-satisfaction level
But Cal has two games between now and then. One is against a team that everybody—flawed humans and emotionless computers—agree is a top-5 outfit. The other is on the road in probably the weirdest weather environment in the Pac against a team on a six-game winning streak. That’s not great news for a team that is currently limping. Hopefully an extra two days of rest will help Cal get right.
When you play the #4 team in the nation, it’s a kitchen-sink game. I just hope Cal has enough available parts to make one.