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Post Game Thoughts: 119th Big Game

A not particularly big Big Game likely ends Cal’s hunt for a bowl.

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

These posts tend to get shorter as the year goes by, because at a certain point there’s no more discovery, no more newness to analyze. We found out a few weeks ago where the story of the 2016 Bears was headed, and the last couple games have just been an exercise in following the inevitable story line to its predetermined conclusion.

So this won’t be long. My neurons have long since moved to focus on the basketball season, where Lindsay Gottlieb and Cuonzo Martin have led their charges to a combined 6-0 start. Both teams are at least good and maybe great, and you should be paying attention to them rather than the painful last gasp of the football season. Still, I’ve got a job to do.

The 2016 Bears are not a very good team. S&P+ ranks Cal 65th in the nation, 44th out of 64 Power 5 teams. FEI (which hasn’t been updated post-Big-Game) ranks Cal 72nd, 48th out of 64 Power 5 teams. Those numbers are probably a little flattering towards the injury-sapped team Cal has been fielding since mid-season or so.

If they beat UCLA next week, they will finish 4th or 5th in the North, and something like 8th in the entire conference. If they lose they could well finish last place in the North, 11th overall (Thanks Arizona!). The difference is not relevant.


Efficiency Report

12 possessions : 4 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1-2), 6 punts - 2.6 points/possession

Cal did a much better job translating yards into points this time around, thanks to three red zone conversions. Still, what was frustrating was how often Cal stalled out at midfield, and what Cal might have been able to do with a more aggressive mind set. Until surrender punt #1, Cal didn’t have a single 3 and out drive, and every drive but one reached at least the Cal 46 yard line. The opportunities to make this game competitive were there, and they were passed up.

A game plan that almost worked

A part of me wonders if Cal could have made this game a contest with better weather.

Cal’s game plan seemed to be simple: Protect Webb from Solomon Thomas and exploit Stanford’s iffy cornerbacks by going hard with WR bubble screens and the usual short passes. If Stanford starts to commit too many backs to the edges, run the ball away from Thomas. You could see it working from time to time.

Oh, but the weather. To make a short passing attack work, you have to have a high completion percentage. Webb only managed 59% thanks to a combination of errant passes and drops, all of which appeared to the naked eye to be weather influenced.

A thank you to Davis Webb and a plea for the future

Davis Webb has thrown for just short of 4,000 yards to go along with 35 touchdowns and a completion percentage of 62%. He’s been as good as Cal fans could have reasonably expected for a graduate transfer, and I’ll remember him fondly considering how otherwise frustrating this season has gone.

I can’t think of a particularly good reason to start him against UCLA.

Don’t get me wrong, I’m pretty damn sure he gives Cal the best chance of winning. But with bowl eligibility unlikely and dependent on APR scores, a win no longer has a tangible value. I suppose one could argue that there are potential gains in terms of recruiting, morale, and making Jim Mora look bad. But for the future of this football program, this team needs to find out if Ross Bowers is a viable quarterback in 2017, and now would be a better time to find out than September of next year.


Efficiency Report

12 possessions: 6 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 5 punts - 3.75 points/possession

Cal’s best defensive performance in four games is still a performance that would be worst in the nation pro-rated over an entire season. Unsurprisingly, Stanford wore Cal down, punting 3 times in the first quarter, then just twice the rest of the game (once when they had firmly moved into time-killing mode).

Stanford’s offense with Chryst and a 100% McCaffrey clearly isn’t the offense that scored 37 points over 4 weeks in the middle of the season, but giving up this kind of production to an offense this limited is still illustrative.

On injuries

Sonny Dykes had an important note in his post-game presser:

“Our top 8 safeties, not one of them dressed for this game today because of injuries. We have 17 scholarship defensive backs and I think we dressed 3, maybe 4.”

Without any context, this is 100% a legitimate excuse, in my opinion, for a poor defense. No coach in the country can plan for that type of attrition. Except.

You’ll note that we were focusing on the secondary. What about Cal’s linemen and linebackers?

Starters vs. Hawaii: Saffle, Wilson, Looney, Mekari, Downs, Davison
Starters vs. Stanford: Saffle, Wilson, Looney, Mekari, Downs, Davison

It’s also worth noting that nickleback Cameron Walker, who plays kind of a hybrid linebacker/secondary role, started both games and has been healthy all season.

Losing Darius Allensworth hurts. Losing every safety (other than Khari Vanderbilt) hurts. But the secondary wasn’t the problem with Cal’s defense early in the year, and it wasn’t the (only) problem late in the year. Cal’s problems on defense start with a front 7 that has been utterly unable to slow down most opponent run offenses, and that’s the part of the team that has perhaps been the healthiest.

Special Teams

Maybe we’ll be able to play normal special teams next year

Presumably with Christian McCaffrey’s kickoff return touchdown in the forefront of him memory, Sonny Dykes had Cal special teams use every trick in the book to avoid kicking to Stanford’s only meaningful source of positive yardage. He was successful, in that McCaffrey only had 11 return yards on one attempt. It also meant that Stanford was starting on their 30 yard line or better after kickoffs. I guess it’s a trade off you have to make, but I’d much prefer having a coverage unit that can be trusted.

Coaching/Game Theory

The play that caused me to throw a semi-embarrassing tempter tantrum

During the post-game press conference Sonny Dykes offered up a few different quotes, and each one managed to piss off a different segment of the fan base. Here’s my personal choice, regarding the decision to kick a field goal on 4th and 3:

“If I’d have known the game was gonna be 45 points scored we’d have gone for it, but that wasn’t the way the game was going at that time.”

Important context: This quote was given minutes after Dykes described, in excruciating detail, the injuries in Cal’s secondary that have neutered Cal’s attempts to play defense. I just can’t fathom how a field goal in the driving rain was a viable option when you know that your defense has zero depth, and is going to have to survive the pounding Stanford was going to dish out. To that point Stanford had scored two touchdowns on five drives. Considering how Cal’s defense was going to inevitably tire, you have to go for it on that play.

We punted twice trailing by 14 points in the 4th quarter

But expecting anything different at this point would be dumb

Big Picture

In year 4 of the Sonny Dykes era, the Bears faced the worst Stanford football team since probably 2008 at home. For the final 28:20 of the game the Bears never possessed the ball with the chance to tie or take the lead. The Bears were outgained by 1.6 yards/play. It wasn’t exactly a blow out, but neither was the game in doubt.

And thus we got a Big Game that reflected the slog of a season. Constant, numbing rain. A first half of the year that was at times encouraging and at others, maddening. A second half that wasn’t really competitive, and a coach making decisions as if competitiveness wasn’t particularly the goal.

Here’s what I said prior to the game:

No trick plays, no gutsy decisions, no particularly obvious wrinkles. Just a meek surrender to Stanford as soon as they got up 14 points in the 2nd half. With a bowl on the line, against your bitter rivals, with the fan base quickly giving in to either anger or apathy, the coaching staff gave in.

Nothing about that game felt like the Big Game. Rain and apathy diminished attendance from both fan bases. The Stanford band wasn’t in the house. David Shaw’s brutally boring style of football gradually killed what little resistance was brought by Cal’s defense and what little enthusiasm was brought by Cal’s soaked fans. Neither team played much like this was the one game to win above all others. Maybe that’s the saddest part.