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Post Game Thoughts: San Diego State

Too many words about the first loss of the 2016 season, and what it says about year four of the Sonny Dykes era

California v San Diego State Photo by Sean M. Haffey/Getty Images

On Wednesday night, I spoke in front of the Cal Grid Club of Sacramento (a fine organization that you should join if you live near our state’s capital) and wondered if I had been able to hide my pessimism in my off-season writing.

You see, I’m not someone who is usually comfortable making predictions. Most of my pre-season writing hedges by describing a wide range of possibilities because trying to predict college sports is a fool’s errand. But if you had held a gun to my head, I probably would have leaned towards the pessimist’s take. I hated it, but it’s what I felt was the most likely result based on the facts at hand.

And then the games start. And even though it was kinda what I expected, the inherent nature of college football fandom is extreme emotional response regardless of how surprising the stimulus is. At various points during Saturday's game, my visceral response was one of anger and frustration.

But in the immediate aftermath of Cal's 4th turnover that ended the game, my reaction was . . . #shrugemoji, I guess? When a game goes more or less how we all expected games to go this year, how worked up can you get? I realize that this take . . .

I almost found this game oddly encouraging. My 'hope' for this season is that Cal could manage to play coin flip games against good teams.

— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) September 11, 2016

. . . isn't likely to be super popular, but I think it's kinda true. When an 8-5 team loses the majority of the talent on both sides of the ball that got them to 8-5, then continuing to play coin flip games* against bowl teams maybe isn't too bad of a result.

And yet the key word is 'almost.' This is year 4 under Sonny Dykes, which means we're well beyond finding losses encouraging - particularly in a game that was vital to hopes of making a bowl game. And for most Cal fans, what is frustrating about this loss is that it was caused in part by issues that have been omnipresent during the Dykes era - issues that fans have seen little if any progress towards solutions.

Still, if Davis Webb’s final minute pass to Chad Hansen was a foot lower, would we all be smiles right now, trying to rationalize away the weaknesses this game revealed because it resulted in a win? Yeah, probably, because that’s what winning does.

*Cal yards/play: 6.06. SDSU yards/play: 6.03. Take a look at Bill C’s advanced box scores and try to figure out why one team won this game while the other didn’t.

Offense

Efficiency Report

17 possessions, 7 scores (5 TDs, 2 FGs), 5 punts, 5 turnovers (3 INTs, 1 fumble, 1 downs)

True, 40 points is a ton of points. But it’s considerably less impressive when you consider that it took 17 possessions (2.3 points/possession). How you view this performance likely depends on your opinion of the SDSU defense. Last year, advanced metrics pegged the Aztecs as roughly a top 25 defense - perhaps not as good as Utah or Washington, but it was a unit that clearly would have been top half in the Pac-12. If they are just as good or better this year, then this might arguably be a comforting performance.

I will say this much: I don’t think this will be a banner season for Pac-12 defenses. Shoot out ahoy.

Lip service to the run game

Every year Cal’s offensive coaching staff talks about wanting to make the run game a larger component of Cal’s offense. And while the Bears are hardly Leachian in their avoidance of the run game, it’s clear that in 3+ years the run game is still nowhere near as reliable as the passing game. Even considering playing from behind, 19 run plays vs. 75 passing plays (including sacks) is crazy.

What I’m trying to decide is if Cal abandoned the run game too early. While more balance is my preference, I’m also not a fan of running into a brick wall just to live up to a principle. Cal’s success rate on running plays was (if I did my math right) 47%, virtually identical to their combined success rate of 45%*. True, virtually abandoning the run did allow Cal to speed up the game and created a bunch of extra possessions to try to complete the comeback - possessions Cal needed. But Cal had three late possessions with the opportunity to either tie or take the lead, and couldn’t do it - if SDSU’s defense had to be a bit more honest maybe one of those drives might’ve hit pay dirt.

In any case, after an off-season of hoping, it’s looking likely that Cal’s run game is not a particular strength. That’s a disappointment, but maybe it shouldn’t be a surprise. Cal’s run game was only OK last year despite defenses having to respect Jared Goff and five receivers currently being paid by an NFL team - expecting massive improvement beyond 2015 without that same threat was probably not realistic.

*In case you were curious, 6 of Cal’s 9 successful runs came from Vic Enwere.

Turnover analysis

Turnover 1: Nothing much too it. Jordan Veasy had the ball in one hand, SDSU’s defender snuck a hand in to knock it loose.

Turnover 2: Cal has called a screen play, but San Diego State seems to have sniffed it out. The Aztecs do two things perfectly: First, Calvin Munson shoots straight through a couple of linemen who are a little too quick to get out into space to block for the screen, getting pressure on Webb very, very quickly. Second, Ronle Lakalaka sniffs out the screen, cuts off his delayed rush, and steps into the passing lane.

Webb shouldn’t have made the throw, but considering the circumstances (pressure with a safety risk, sudden change of direction from a pass rusher) it’s a bit more understandable than I first thought. It’s still a disastrous play, but I’m inclined to give SDSU more credit than I thought.

Turnover 3: Webb has a receiver with a step on his man over the top, but he slightly underthrows the ball, allowing Derek Babiash to get his fingertips on the ball. He deflects it to a teammate in the endzone for a touchback.

Honestly, I have no issues with this play. Webb was inches from a touchdown, and even with an underthrow that’s a normal incompletion 95% of the time. Combination of a great play from SDSU and a bit of bad luck on the deflection

Turnover 4: For my money, this was the worst turnover of the night, even without considering the do-or-die circumstances. My biggest issue was the game situation.

There are 13 seconds on the clock, and it’s 3rd and 3 from the 22. You have to score a touchdown. You are guaranteed two plays, and maybe if you go quickly you can get another, but it’s hardly guaranteed.

Cal seems to call a play to get the first down, which isn’t really a priority. Cal should be running routes that can get them into the end zone, because they HAVE to score and they only have a couple shots at it. Even worse, the SDSU cornerback anticipates the throw to get the first down, and jumps the route. As best I can tell, Webb never really looked at anybody else. A shame too, because Ray Hudson was wide open at the 10 with the chance to tack on some YAC.

Defense

Efficiency Report

13 possessions, 6 scores (4 TDs, 1 FG), 5 punts, 3 turnovers (1 int, 1 fumble, 1 downs)

I think we Cal fans will all gladly take a defense that can prevent the opponent from scoring half the time - particularly when you consider that one of SDSU’s drives was a very short field after a Cal fumble.

Having said that, SDSU’s offense is unbelievably one dimensional, and quite frankly it’s a testament to NFL level Pumphrey’s talent that they can score at all. SDSU had ONE pass longer than 15 yards - a wheel route in which Evan Rambo was caught creeping up on the line for a suspected run and left Rashaad Penny wide open. Other than that, SDSU was left with a bunch of dink-and-dunk underneath junk that did minimal damage. That, and Pumphrey.

Cal’s run defense: not ready for prime time

There’s a problem when you know exactly what’s coming and let that something run for 281 yards on 29 carries. Saturday’s game might be the single game Cal will miss Hardy Nickerson most.

The Bears simply aren’t ready to play good run defense. I actually thought the line did OK relative to expectations - Cameron Saffle was probably the defensive player of the game, and the Bears weren’t getting blown off the line. But it’s linebackers and safeties who are most often called on to fill the gaps. Too often, Cal players were missing from key gaps, because they took bad angles or misread plays. And when players were in position, they were not infrequently juked by Pumphrey.

You can make do with a limited-but-disciplined defense. You can make plays with an athletic-but-undisciplined defense. But when you’re undisciplined and you don’t have top end athleticism it can get ugly. Most teams on Cal’s schedule will be able to run the ball about as well as SDSU*, but those teams will have legit downfield passing threats too.

*No, SDSU fans, I’m not saying every Pac-12 running back is as good as Pumphrey. BOO MCCAFFREY, PUMPHREY FOR HEISMAN. But I do think that most Pac-12 teams will have better blocking than SDSU, making up for the difference in RB quality. It’s not a coincidence that non-Pumphrey ball carriers were a mediocre 4.5 yards/carry.

Special Teams

Positives and negatives

I suppose it says something about Cal’s past that they can allow a kickoff return touchdown and it counts as improvement on special teams. That and a couple of longish punt returns were the only negatives, but they were balanced out by excellent performances from every specialist. Noah Beito sent 4 of 7 kickoffs into the end zone, Dylan Klumph showed a stronger leg than last week, and Matt Anderson is money. That plus a spectacular onside kick makes for a solid day.

Field Position a dead heat

Perhaps just as much a reflection of the sheer number of possessions and touchbacks for both teams, starting field position was a virtual tie, 29.8 vs. 29.4. It’s perhaps a reflection of improvement in Cal’s special teams, because it was a stat that was a consistent deficit last year.

Coaching/Game Theory

The maddening return of the pooch punt

The single play I’m most mad about was Cal’s decision to have Davis Webb pooch punt on 4th and 1 from the Cal 49 with just less than two minutes to go in the half. At the time Cal trailed by 7. Webb’s punt bounced all the way for a touchback (net: 31 yards) and SDSU ended up with a pretty important field goal on their drive.

Why go for it? For so many reasons. Because this team has to believe that they can gain one yard on anybody, and actually do so. Because retaining possession would have given Cal another scoring opportunity in a game where every opportunity was critical. Because keeping the ball would have perhaps denied SDSU another good scoring opportunity at the end of the half. Even if Cal burns a minute of clock and settles for a field goal, how different is the rest of the game?

I don’t know the full explanation. CBS reported that Dykes said he was ‘protecting his QB’ with the punt decision, but it was from a halftime sideline interview and sounds like something made up by somebody. Maybe Webb checked out of the play. I have no clue. All I know is that Cal has to gain that yard, and failing to do so had a meaningful negative impact on Cal’s chances to win.

Other 4th down decisions

  1. 4th quarter, ~13:30 minutes left, Cal down 7, 4th and 4 from the SDSU 19. Decision: Field goal (good)
  2. 4th quarter, ~11:00 minutes left, Cal down 4, 4th and 5 from the SDSU 32. Decision: Go for it (failed)
  3. 4th quarter, ~6:30 left, Cal down 4, 4th and 2 from Cal 24. Decision: Punt

I mostly agreed with all of these decisions, although I wondered if Cal get another chance at the ball with a chance to win when they punted away with 6:30 left. I’m glad that Sonny rightly decided that the chance at a touchdown to take the lead was a more important reward than a perilous 49 yard field goal.

The bigger issue with each of the three moments listed above is that Cal had 3 opportunities to tie or take the lead in the 4th quarter (plus a 4th in the final minute) and failed to cash in on any of them.

Big Picture

Friends, I can’ lie. The picture right now is bleak. Cal just lost a winnable game, and I would guess that they will be favored to win in roughly 1.5 games the rest of the way. Various advanced metrics (which, to be fair, are mostly pre-season projections at this point) say that Cal is in the same range as Colorado, Arizona, and Oregon State. Cal only gets to play one of those teams. By pretty much every objective measure, Cal was at best a 5 win team that just lost a game that might have been one of those 5 wins.

This was the outcome that we all suspected or feared, but didn’t spend much time discussing during the off-season because nobody spends June dreaming about 4-8 seasons.

The question is whether or not you view a non-bowl season as an inevitable but forgivable backwards step in the Dykes rebuild, or just further proof that there is a ceiling on what Cal can achieve under the current coaching staff, and these types of seasons are more the norm than 2015.

At the beginning of year 4, the same problems that have plagued Cal since 2013 are still extant. Lack of defensive depth/talent/athleticism/tackling. An inconsistent running game. Devastating special teams breakdowns.

It’s also true that the classes that would typically make up the experienced leaders of the squad were the classes most impacted by the transition costs of the incredibly rocky Dykes-to-Tedford transition.

I don’t know what to tell you. I don’t think the sky is falling, but neither are things hunky-dory. I think some of the problems are things outside of the coaching staff’s control, and I think other problems are inherent weaknesses that aren’t likely to change any time soon.

Here’s a final question for this game, and for the season. I asked it on twitter a couple plays after Cal improbably recovered the onside kick:

I wasn’t sure what my own answer was at the time, but I finally decided that I enjoyed the game even if the final emotion was distraught frustration. Whatever your own personal answer was, keep that in mind - because this game was likely the template for more than a few other games to come this season. Your ability to enjoy these games may well correlate with your support of the Dykes era.