Apathy is Cal Athletics’ greatest enemy.
We're lucky to follow a robust athletics program with more programs than all but a small collection of other schools. We’re lucky to follow a University that happens to be located in a dynamic, beautiful, highly desirable part of the country.
We’re unlucky that those two facts makes Cal athletics prohibitively expensive to operate.
Six years ago, Cal came thisclose to cutting four sports and reclassifying a fifth. A fundraising push saved those sports but did nothing to address the structural problem that still has Cal sports operating firmly at a deficit.
What exactly does all that have to do with a thoroughly dispiriting loss at Washington State? Simply this: Cal’s football fan base is tuning out, and that’s not something the athletic department is built to handle.
We’ve all seen the signs week by week. How many people do you know that are contemplating dropping their season tickets? How many extras for the Washington game were floating around? We see the impact when we look at the internal numbers at CGB. When things go south, Cal fans don’t get angry and demand change. They simply spend their leisure time (and leisure dollars) elsewhere.
Do game start times and late notice play a role in this growing tide of apathy? Absolutely. But don’t fool yourself. If Cal was having Washington’s season - or Colorado’s season - or Washington State’s season - or Utah’s season* - then you damn well know that the fan base would be energized, Memorial would be selling out, and the late nights would be but a brief grumble amidst a sea of revelry.
Mike Williams has gotten all kinds of flack for his statement that, “We still have big donors, big football alums, who say 3-9 and 95-percent graduation rate trumps Rose Bowl.” I don’t know if that statement is the truth. But it won’t take a donor revolt to put Cal athletics in a precarious position financially. How many season tickets are going to be sold when next year’s home schedule is random FCS team, Ole Miss, USC, OSU, Wazzu, and Arizona? How do you get the fanbase excited when the pre-season pitch is ‘pretty much the same team again, but with uncertainty at quarterback?’
*The next time somebody argues that “Cal can never be competitive,” please point out the programs in the Pac-12 that are currently competitive.
12 drives: 3 TDs, 1 FGA (0-1), 5 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 downs) - 1.75 points/possession
Not included: Cal’s final drive of the 2nd quarter that began with 30 seconds on the clock
A new week, a new low for in-game efficiency, and I was even generous by not including a borderline drive where Cal tried to move the ball. We now have a clear trend that is actually becoming more extreme - the offense is becoming more inefficient each week in terms of wasted yards that don’t lead to points.
A disappearing run game
Here’s what Cal’s running back duo have put up over the last 3 games
USC: 26-127, 4.9/carry
UW: 18-63, 3.5/carry
WSU: 26-93, 3.6/carry
This isn’t a case where the game situation (immediately falling behind by a couple touchdowns in each game) forced the Bears to abandon the run game - it was never effective in each contest. And it’s because Cal’s line just hasn’t been able to open up space for the running backs. On one early 3rd and 1, Cal’s left tackle and left guard double teamed a Wazzu end, leaving a gap for a linebacker to fill. That forced Watson to bounce outside . . . where he ran into the Wazzu end who had split the double team and made the tackle anyway. When two blockers and a running back can’t get past two defenders there’s not a whole lot of scheme that can fix things.
11 drives: 7 touchdowns, 3 punts, 1 turnover (interception) - 4.5 points/possession
Not counted: Wazzu’s punt return touchdown
Cal stopped Wazzu four times. One was a badly overthrown ball that landed in the hands of Khari Vanderbilt. One series was stalled in part because Luke Falk had to briefly leave the game with an injury. One drive stalled out on a 4th and 1 that Wazzu might’ve gone for if the game was in doubt. The last was ended in part by a holding penalty.
Not that I needed to tell you it was bad.
Was there any reason to expect anything else?
Hardly. This was pretty much the worst game to play considering the specific injuries Cal faces on defense. Some people complained about Cal’s game plan (rush 3, flood the field with 8 defenders) and it wasn’t exactly my cup of tea, but there was no schematic fix that was going to change the ultimate outcome here. Teams with bad secondaries do not stop Washington State. Teams with bad, beat up secondaries REALLY don’t stop Washington State. I mean, we gave significant playing time to two walk-ons! Our depth was impacted because a former quarterback was too hurt to go! We’re getting well into silly time here.
How long will the defensive rebuild take?
I don’t know man. If you squint you can see players who could theoretically be contributors on an OK defense if they were surrounded by more talent. Darius Allensworth and James Looney are decent building blocks. Cameron Saffle, Josh Drayden, Marloshawn Franklin ,and Jordan Kunaszyk have shown flashes that makes you think they could be solid with another year of practice and development. But that’s only half a defense, and we’re assuming positive development and health for all of them just to get that far. If an entirely new defensive staff is brought in next year, that adds on potential transition costs of learning a new system.
Punting has to get better
Right now Cal is 95th in the nation in net punting, meaning that we don’t tend to gain a ton of field position when we punt (and, oddly, 7th in the conference that is evidently not very good at giving other teams the ball back).
For what it’s worth, I don’t think that the problem is Dylan Klumph particularly. Cal is 127th in the country in punt return yardage allowed, which basically means that our coverage isn’t very good. People complained that Klumph ‘outkicked his coverage’ for Wazzu’s punt return touchdown, but a 48 yard punt shouldn’t so clearly outkick the punt coverage team.
An obligatory discussion re: playing your starters in a blowout
The critical question: Are you, or are you not, still trying to win the game? On the one hand, Sonny Dykes kept his starters in for the entire game. On the other hand, he was punting with Cal down 28 points in the 3rd and 4th quarters. So which is it?
I suppose that’s probably at the heart of frustrations expressed by Cal fans right now. Which is it? If you’re trying to win, then go all out. If you’re throwing in the towel, then earn the twin rewards of keeping our key guys healthy for future games (I’ve heard there’s a big one next week) and getting back ups in game experience. These half-measures ultimately serve to alienate your fans.
That Chad Hansen and Davis Webb both appeared to get knocked around and potentially picked up late game injuries isn’t encouraging.
Timing is everything, no? Stanford without an effective Christian McCaffrey has an awful offense. Stanford with an effective Christian McCaffrey has an average offense. Combine that with an above-average defense and you’ve got a team that is solidly better than Cal.
So much better that an upset isn’t plausible? No, not at all. The Cal team that beat Utah, for example, could give the current version of Stanford a run for their money.
That Cal team isn’t here right now, and there isn’t a particularly good reason to think that they will show up. Too many players out injured, too many players trying to play through injuries that limit their effectiveness.
Maybe this team somehow gets healthy in time for next Saturday. Maybe the high flying Cal offense that could complete passes to any part of the field comes back. Maybe the defense conjures the play they showed against Utah to slow down a one dimensional offense. Maybe. It’s not impossible.
But it’s also not likely.
Every year, no matter how apathetic Cal’s fan base has become, all eyes will tune in for the Big Game. I have friends from college who don’t care about football in the slightest who make an effort to watch Big Game because they’re our rival, damn it.
This is a chance for this team to grab back some attention and good will. It’s also a chance for the fan base to tune out to an even higher degree. I’m desperately, desperately hoping for the former.