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Post Game Thoughts: Washington

That wasn’t a ton of fun. Shall we talk about it?

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

What’s there to say? This game was a virtual carbon copy of the previous game against USC. Cal falls behind quickly. Cal scores a couple of times to make the game close on the scoreboard, even as the underlying statistics and eye test tell you that there are big differences between the two teams on the field. Cal misses opportunities to keep it close in the 2nd quarter. Cal gets well and truly blown out in the 2nd half.

Last week, USC turnovers kept the game kinda close. This week, UW special teams mistakes kept the game kinda close. But when you watch a team (again) average 10 yards/play you know that it’s just a matter of time until the hammer comes down. In this case, the hammer was five straight UW touchdown drives over less than 14 minutes of game spanning the 2nd and 3rd quarter that turned a 1 point lead into a 36 point lead.


Efficiency Report

15 possessions: 3 touchdowns, 2 field goal attempts (2-2), 7 punts, 3 turnovers (3 interceptions - 1.8 points/possession

Not included: The final possession of the 1st half, when Cal’s coaches annoyed fans by not trying very hard to score.

Rough. This was Cal’s worst offensive performance of the season, and probably worst since the 2014 Big Game. The running game never got going, and for the first time Cal really struggled simply to complete passes with any regularity. It was a dominant performance from the best defense in the conference. Consider that Cal ‘earned’ 6 points on drives that didn’t gain a first down. Really, 1.8 points/possession flatters the Cal offense, because in includes points that came by virtue of UW special teams tomfoolery.

What happens when the screen game dies?

Prior to Davis Webb’s thumb injury against Oregon State, Cal had an offense that would throw the ball wherever the defense wasn’t. When Utah pressed, Cal went over the top to Hansen and Robertson. When ASU played soft, we threw underneath and grabbed chunks at a time. When Texas couldn’t decide what to do, we did both.

Right now, Cal is struggling to go deep. Probably the biggest reason is Chad Hansen’s injury. It was a boost having him available to play, but he didn’t look 100% either, and I didn’t get the sense that he was going deep as often as you would expect. Meanwhile, it’s still unclear if Davis Webb is 100%, and whether or not there are any lingering effects from his injury against OSU.

So UW pressed our wideouts, daring us to beat them over the top. Cal was able to do it twice, and not coincidentally those plays came in two of Cal’s three touchdown drives. The rest of the game, UW’s CBs were right on top of Cal’s WRs, knocking away passes and making very tough reads for Webb. It was a perfect game plan for what Cal was able to do.

So . . . is Davis Webb hurt?

I dunno man. On the one hand, he was notably less accurate than usual - 10% lower than any other non-thumb-injury-vs.-OSU game. Some, maybe all of that difference was because UW’s defense is really good. But there were multiple plays where his throws were nowhere near the receiver, to the point where our section was openly speculating about whether or not the QB and the WR were running the same plays.

On the other hand, he made some truly beautiful throws. The bomb to Demetris Robertson was picture perfect, and had to fit into a relatively tight window. His touchdown throw to Chad Hansen had the perfect amount of touch to get over the linebacker without staying in the air too long so that the safety could get over. Webb made enough throws to make me think that he’s reasonably healthy, but simply playing against better defenses, but I also wouldn’t be surprised if he’s not playing at 100%.

Minimal help from the run game, and Chris Borrayo’s injury played a role

In case you missed it, probably Cal’s best lineman missed the game with back spasms. And probably not coincidentally, Cal struggled to run the ball. Pre-game, some Cal fans were hoping that the run game (and UW’s relative weakness at run stopping) might be the key to keeping the Bears close, and so I was mildly annoyed when Cal threw the ball on their first 4 plays from scrimmage. But losing Borrayo may well have played a role in that decision.

Cal’s starting duo managed just 3.5 yards/carry between them. It’s a shame that Cal was unable to run the ball against (generally) 6 man defensive boxes, but that’s the reason that UW is an elite defense and why Cal isn’t an elite running offense without the context of the defenders that have to account for Cal’s passing game.


Efficiency Report

14 possessions: 9 touchdowns, 1 field goal attempt (1-1), 4 punts - 4.7 points/possession

Not included: UW’s end-of-game clock killing drive, UW’s ‘possession’ that ended with a fumbled punt return.

Yikes. Yikes. Based on points/possession, I think this was the 2nd worst defensive performance of the Dykes era, only ‘bested’ by the 4.8 points/possession Stanford managed in 2013.

What happens when a bad defense can’t do the one thing it had previously done well?

If there’s one thing the Bear defense could hang their hat on, it was the ability to prevent big pass plays. Thanks in part to a conservative scheme that saw defenders in the secondary play off the line of scrimmage, and thanks in part to generally solid tackling from cornerbacks and safeties, Cal hadn’t allowed big pass plays all season long.

But this week was going to be a bad combo. With injuries piling up in the secondary, Cal was down to a two deep full of players who were expected to play a reserve role at best. Meanwhile, UW is ranked in the top 5 in pretty much every measure of passing offense. It was gonna be bad.

Cal’s defense has been bad all season long. Injuries have made them even worse. Earlier in the year, the Cal defense was hovering in the general vicinity of 100th best in the nation according to S&P. Add in some critical injuries and the Bears are basically tied with Oregon at 115th, ahead of only Texas Tech on a list of Power 5 defenses.

When does experience help, and when does it hinder?

This is a question I’ve been pondering of late. In every single season under Sonny Dykes, the defense has struggled. Also in nearly every season, the defense has suffered more than their fair share of injuries. And each year I say to myself: “Well, it sucks that the defense is hurt now, but at least the young guys are getting playing time and experience, and hopefully that will pay dividends next year.”

It hasn’t paid dividends very often. This thought exercise isn’t necessarily applicable to 2016, because the 2015 Cal defense was pretty veteran and mostly healthy, and so back-ups didn’t get nearly as much run. But I’d like to believe that the 2017 defense would improve because guys like Jordan Kunaszyk and Chibuzo Nwokocha are getting run sooner than anticipated. And yet, if that experience is getting torched over and over prior to another defensive coaching staff change, I question how valuable that experience is.

Special Teams

The benefit of always fielding punts

Washington’s kicker had himself a bit of a nightmare performance: 4 punts, with an average net of just 23.5 yards/punt. He horribly shanked one punt, then had a weird short line drive bouncer.

And that punt might have turned out OK, except that Vic Wharton aggressively ran up to catch the punt on the bounce and return it 29 yards. If Vic doesn’t field that punt, it might bounce another 10 yards, and UW gets a 40-45 net punt.

It’s not always possible to field a punt, and it’s certainly not always possible to return it, but simply catching the punt is on average going to save a team 5-10 yards of field position even ignoring the possibility of a return, because the ball won’t go bouncing the wrong way. It was great to see Cal get a big punt return for the first time this season (Cal’s previous 8 punt returns: 20 total yards)

Matt Anderson: Too good for this team

Matt Anderson is 16-18 this year after finishing 18-21 last year. Those are excellent numbers for a #collegekicker even without noting that he’s only ever missed one kick closer than 40 yards. Thus, Cal can bring him on and feel very confident that they will walk away with 3 points . . . even in situations when Cal really needs 7. Why are you so good Mr. Anderson?!

Coaching/Game Theory

I am lazy and am mostly going to copy/paste from last week

Except the argument is even more extreme this week, because Cal’s defense was even more beat up, and UW’s offense is better than USC’s offense, so Cal would almost certainly have to score more than USC scored a week ago.


Big Picture

It’s very tempting to dismiss this game. Washington is a favorite to make the playoffs for a reason. By every objective metric they are very, very good.

But not unstoppable. They have already played two teams (Arizona, Utah) in the general vicinity of Cal’s ability level on the road, and struggled a bit with both. It’s not a crazy ask for Cal to be vaguely competitive in a game like this. Cal was competitive for about a quarter and a half.

And still I will sound like a broken record: This season will be defined by how Cal performs in eminently winnable games at home against Stanford and UCLA to close out the season.

Meanwhile, here’s a weird game in Pullman in November at night between us and the games we actually care about. Washington State! The perfect team to play when you’ve got a beat up, inexperienced secondary! Don’t get me wrong, a win next Saturday would be just dandy, and also considerably more impressive since Wazzu is better than both of our California rivals, and on the road. In fact, a win next week would probably be the best of the Dykes era.

But that doesn’t much matter to me right now. I want Cardinal blood. I want to kill off the Mora era. I want to make David Shaw look 3% more stone faced than normal. I want Josh Rosen to transfer because the Bruins looked so hopeless at Memorial Stadium. I want Christian McCaffrey to declare for the draft having lost his last Big Game.

Ask again later.