This year hasn’t quite been what many hoped it could be. 5–7, any way you slice it, is disappointing. But no matter how you feel about this season, and about the Dykes tenure generally, pause for a second.
Consider that Cal’s defense is ranked in the bottom 10 by every meaningful measure.
Consider that UCLA has had a top-25 offense the past few years, but UCLA fans AND Jim Mora were happy to see offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone walk away because they didn’t think he was good enough.
Then consider what UCLA’s offense produced against Cal on Saturday:
This is the most important Cal football tweet I have ever sent.— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) November 27, 2016
UCLA sucks: pic.twitter.com/kXuDWU1QAm
This, my friends, is rival schadenfreude of the finest vintage. There was a point about halfway through the game when I thought Cal was going to shut UCLA out, which would have been one of the most improbable/funniest things to ever happen in an otherwise low-visibility game.
This all probably says more about UCLA and Jim Mora than it does about Cal—that UCLA fired a successful offensive coordinator so that they could install an asinine ‘pro-style’ scheme; that UCLA had to replace an excellent, but injured quarterback with a scattershot former walk-on; that UCLA has been wasting elite west coast talent for the better part of two decades.
Combine that with the happiness of seeing Cal’s seniors—who have had to endure one of the more painful four-year stretches in the history of a program with lots of painful four-year stretches—go out with a win? That’s as happy an ending as we were ever going to get.
12 possessions: 3 TDs, 5 FGA (5–5), 4 punts - 3 points/possession
Not included: Cal’s final Bruin soul–crushing 7-minute drive to end the game.
This was a good—borderline great—offensive performance. For all of UCLA’s many flaws, they have a pretty good defense and Cal racked up an insane 34 first downs to along along with nearly 500 yards.
The difference between good and great? Red-zone finishing, obviously. Hooray for Matt Anderson, but settling for 3 field goals after driving inside the 10 would have been poison against pretty much any other team in the conference.
As Cal held the ball and ran play after play (102 to UCLA’s 54!), UCLA’s defense finally started to crack and Cal finally managed a couple of biggish plays after dinking and dunking down the field in the first half.
A game plan well-executed
UCLA has a borderline elite pass defense and an average run defense, and so the Bears actually ran the ball more than they passed the ball. Sometimes this isn’t rocket science.
Of course, any game plan is more complicated than simple run/pass balance. But what Cal had to do was to keep the UCLA defense honest. They did that by constantly attacking the edges with bubble screens that typically went for 5 yards a pop, plus quick slants to Hansen that worked well because cornerbacks were worried about his sideline go routes deep. The short passing game and the running game complemented each other well, even if they weren’t nearly as successful on the goal line.
In praise of an offensive line that might take a step back next year
This year, Cal allowed just 16 sacks, tied for 22nd in the nation. The 21 teams ahead of Cal is a list of teams that don’t pass due to philosophy (hi there, triple option teams!) or don’t pass because they’re bad at it (hi there, Minnesota and UNLV!). Allowing 16 sacks on 637 drop backs (i.e., 2.5% of Cal’s pass attempts) is a spectacular number.
Meanwhile, Cal’s rushing attack generally did its job—the Bears were able to produce when teams didn’t respect the run threat and put too many players in the secondary to guard receivers. I don’t think the running game is quite where the offensive brain trust wants it to be, but it’s still a critical component of the offense.
At a minimum, Chris Borrayo and Steven Moore (combined starts: 88) are gone, and they won’t be easy to replace. We’ll find out just how good Brandon Jones (and Cal’s line recruiting) is next season.
11 possessions: 1 TD, 1 FGA (1–1), 8 punts, 1 turnover (interception) - 0.9 points/possession
Not included: UCLA’s we’re-not-even-gonna-try possession to end the first half, UCLA’s special teams fumble.
Movable object defeats resistible force
In the battle between UCLA’s awful run offense (2.93 yards/carry, 127th in the nation) vs. Cal’s awful run defense (6.16 yards/carry, 127th in the nation), Cal won decisively, holding UCLA to a meager 3.5 yards/carry. True, higher than UCLA’s season average, but still a number well below what is required to sustain scoring drives.
A fool’s hope for 2017
Here’s a list of seniors who have played meaningful snaps on defense this year:
Everybody else is, in theory, coming back—including various injured players, mostly in the secondary. Returning experience doesn’t guarantee improvement, but for Cal to succeed, the defense HAS to get better. The only way that happens is if all of the players coming back get better, plus contributions from a bunch of redshirt and true freshmen.
In praise of Matt Anderson
Cal’s ace kicker finished the season with a flourish—5 field goals, 2 of which came from moderately difficult distances. He finishes the season tied for 5th in the nation with 22 field goals and tied for 21st with an 85% success rate. He might very well contend for the Lou Groza award next year, although we all hope that he spends way more time kicking extra points.
On motivation and team culture
4-7 Cal vs. 4-7 UCLA in the 'which team is still trying?' bowl. I think my money is on Cal, for what little that's worth.— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) November 20, 2016
If motivation and team culture decided every football game, Sonny Dykes would have a much better record at Cal. And for once, with the general ability levels of the teams on the field more or less even, consistency of give-a-damn earned Cal an easy win.
That kind of trait probably falls under the category of ‘things fans expect out of a team’ rather than ‘pleasant bonuses that not everybody gets.’ But team culture has been the one positive factors that kept me on the Dykes bandwagon longer than others.
5–7 is 5–7, and no amount of excuse-making or blame-casting will make that better or worse than what it is. What I can’t decide if it’s a wildly entertaining 5–7 (wins over Utah, Texas, Oregon, and UCLA!) or a wildly frustrating 5–7 (A bunch of coin flips plus uncompetitive losses to UW, USC, Wazzu, and Stanford).
Everybody seems to be in agreement that Sonny Dykes isn’t getting fired despite an unsightly 10–17 Pac-12 record even if you’re generous enough to throw out 2013 as a mulligan. Everybody seems to be in agreement that Cal will have a new defensive coordinator next year.
But really, what are the odds that Cal will be in position for immediate improvement next year? They will be losing Davis Webb, Khalfani Muhammad, and at a minimum two of their best offensive linemen. The offense will probably take a step back. The defense will largely have the same personnel that finished 113th in S&P+. Does anybody think that a new coordinator’s scheme is going to fix what ailed the Bears in 2016?
Cal hasn’t recruited at a level that would suggest that they will be better in 2017. Moreover, the schedule (replacing Texas and SDSU with Ole Miss and North Carolina) will probably be tougher because the Pac-12 was undeniably down this year and will likely bounce back. A ton can change between now and next September, but I would guess the Vegas over/under for Cal wins will be set a 4 next year. If that scenario comes to pass, Cal would be better off cutting the cord now and starting over with whatever coach the powers that be think can get the job done, rather than enduring another mediocre year and delaying the inevitably necessary rebuild.
But since a change isn’t likely coming, we’re left hoping for unlikely things. Hoping that Cal’s next quarterback is ready to produce at the same level as Davis Webb. Hoping that Cal has players ready to replace multi-year starters on the line. Hoping that Cal’s defense stays healthy for the first time in recent memory and that all those not-hurt-anymore players actually make a difference. Hoping that the guys who did play on defense make an unexpected developmental leap.
Man, I hope. It’s all I’ve got.