It’s a bad idea to overreact to one game. This is a lesson that has been demonstrated many, many times over to each and every college football fan base.
But damned if I didn’t find myself overreacting to Cal’s loss last week. I didn’t feel energized on Saturday morning the way I usually feel before any home game, let alone the first of the season. The pre-game tailgate seemed more subdued than you would expect for a marquee opponent like Texas. Getting to the stadium and seeing large swathes of open seats (again: for a highly ranked Texas) didn’t help.
I should’ve known. Cal wasn’t there to play a game of feelingsball. Momentum isn’t a thing in this sport, despite what hundreds of announcers would have you believe, and the Bears on the field didn’t give a damn about my whiny malaise.
Which isn’t to say that I thought the Bears wouldn’t give a full effort - one thing no fan could fault a Sonny Dykes team for is a unified team effort. I simply didn’t think that Cal had the horses to play with Texas for 60 minutes. When Texas scored on 5 of their first 6 possessions (the one failure a fluky interception that hit a WR in the hands) I thought it was just a matter of time until the floodgates opened. When Davis Webb was sacked and the Bears followed it up with a blocked punt for a safety, I immediately tried to decide if I thought Cal could recover from a 40-28 halftime deficit, knowing Texas would get the ball back to start the 3rd quarter.
And then Luke Rubenzer saved the game, and maybe the season.
The converted quarterback, of whom many (meekly raises his hands) didn’t think had the necessary speed, size, or experience to make the conversion to safety, completely changed the game with a spectacular interception return.
Texas is just 60 yards away from a big lead, with 1:32 on the clock and 2 timeouts. Considering that Cal hadn’t really stopped the Longhorns, optimism was in short supply.
Then Shane Buechele lofts up a throw to a receiver with a step on Darius Allensworth. Here’s the best angle you got on the TV broadcast:
You can see the ball at the top of the screen, just about at the top of its arc halfway to the receiver. This screen grab doesn’t even give you the full sense of how far across the field Luke had to go to get this ball. It was one of those plays that seemed to go in slow motion because of how long the ball was in the air, and how far the defenders had to run. But Luke plucks it out of the air on a dead run, somehow stops his momentum and immediately turns up field for a 45 yard return that allowed the offense to punch it in for the halftime lead.
31 minutes of football (and somewhere between 2 and 851 hours of realtime) later, Cal fans would be celebrating one of the best wins for this program in recent memory; whether that was on the field, in the stands, or in front of a TV well into the wee hours of the morning. It was as cathartic a game as I can recall.
14 possessions, 7 touchdowns, 6 punts, 1 turnover on downs
Note - the above doesn’t include Cal’s final, should’ve-been-a-TD-but-it-technically-killed-the-clock-final-drive.
A classic example of how a fast pace can mask true efficiency - half of Cal’s normal drives were successful. Of course, 3.5 points/drive is excellent, and Cal achieved that number by never having to settle for a field goal thanks to excellent goal line execution. Those last few years of struggling to punch the ball when the Bears were within a couple yards of the end zone? So far this year it hasn’t been a problem at all.
As a quick reminder, here are the drives that didn’t end with 7+ points:
- 1st quarter: The goofy double-review-of-ref-spots drive.
- 1st quarter: Cochran holds when the Texas rush gets him around the edge, Cal can’t catch up to the chains.
- 2nd quarter: Webb’s 3rd and 4 pass is batted down after a decent Texas push. Hard to tell, but I think Webb had picked out an open receiver.
- 2nd quarter: Webb almost throws a bad read interception on 2nd down, then is sacked when Cochran gets beaten around the edge on 3rd down.
- 3rd quarter: Webb is sacked on 3rd down after Cochran is beaten around the edge.
- 3rd quarter: Webb drops the snap on 3rd down, killing any chance of a successful play
- 4th quarter: Coverage sack on 3rd down
Cal had some trouble holding up against Texas’ pass rush on obvious passing downs, and Aaron Cochran in particular had a rough day. We saw Cochran do a good job protecting Jared Goff’s blind side last season - considering that he’s returning from a leg injury that might still be limiting his speed and mobility, I think it’s reasonable to think that he’ll bounce back. Otherwise, Cal’s offense was remarkably steady on the night, even by the standards set during the Dykes era.
Your weekly reminder that
Jared Goff Davis Webb is not of this world
Webb’s touchdown pass to Jordan Veasy on the first drive of the game was right up there with any throw Goff made with the Bears. Here’s where Webb was when he wound up his throw:
And here’s where the ball landed:
I’m not going to break out the protractor, but that’s a throw that travels 43 yards downfield, from one hash to the opposite sideline, right into the chest of a receiver . . . and Webb threw that ball with two defenders on him, without really setting up his body. Damn.
Chad Hansen is a bad, bad man
In case you were curious, Bowling Green’s Freddie Barnes holds the NCAA record for receptions in a season with 155 catches over 13 games. If Chad Hansen maintains his current pace, he will finish the regular season (12 games) with 160 catches.
In case you were curious, Nevada’s Trevor Insley holds the NCAA record for receiving yards in a season with 2,069 yards over 11 games. If Chad Hansen maintains his current pace, he will finish the regular season with 2,184 yards.
In case you were curious, Chad Hansen holds the NCAA record for best ever Horns Down.
Recommitting to the run
We may have learned two things about Cal’s run game: 1. The coaches really do want to run the ball more and 2. They very well may have landed on Vic Enwere as their lead back.*
Accounting for sacks, the pass/run balance was 43 to 37, which actually might lean a little more in favor of the run than I’d prefer, but that’s picking the tiniest of nits. The running backs combined to average only 4.6 yards/carry, and it was an even uglier 3 yards/carry before Vic’s final should-be-TD to unintentionally twist the knife in the hearts of Texas fans.
The rushing numbers were kept down for two reasons: Most primarily, Texas did a really good job of preventing big bursts. Cal had plenty of 4 yard runs, but none longer than 11. But the Bears also had lots of short yardage runs that were mostly successful. A one yard run on 3rd and goal from the 1 will hurt your averages but look mighty fine on the scoreboard.
*As is tradition, both myself and the Cal coaching staff retain the right to completely change our mind on this question at least 10 more times over the rest of this season.
A quick discussion of the Vic fumble
Texas gave up a gigantic touchdownish run while trailing by 7 points with 1:15 left in the 4th quarter with zero timeouts left. They deserved a shot to win the game the same way Stanford fans deserve a successful football team. Any discussion beyond that point is academic, which I guess is why we’ve spent so much time trying to make sense of the damned play.
15 possessions, 5 touchdowns, 4 field goal attempts (2-4), 4 punts, 2 interceptions
People will (rightly) point to the turnovers as the key distinction in game that was otherwise remarkably even, but just as critical were 4 instances in which Texas drove inside the 40 yard line but settled for field goal attempts.
What’s really incredible is the splits. Texas scored touchdowns on 4 of their first 6 drives, then scored ONE touchdown in their final NINE!
Cal just might have a pass defense
Take a look at what happened to Texas when they decided to throw the ball, and tell me what you think:
23-39 (59% completion)
6.7 yards/pass attempt
Two interceptions, one touchdown
That’s pretty, pretty mediocre. Now, to be fair, we’re talking about a true freshman in his road debut and a veteran known more for his legs than his arm. Still, this team shredded Notre Dame through the air two weeks ago to the tune of 10 yards/attempt. I was hesitant to make much of anything about Cal’s pass defense against SDSU and Hawaii because those teams either can’t or won’t try to do much through the air. Texas can, but Texas didn’t.
The Longhorns only had three passes that went longer than 11 yards. Two of them were 5 yard throws with 10-15 YAC at the end. The other was an NFL level throw from Buechele nearly as good as the Webb throw above, and Cal had not-awful coverage over the top.
So what we saw from Cal against the pass was a defense that allowed almost nothing down the field, tackled pass catchers reasonably well, forced a large number of incompletions when you consider that Texas was mostly throwing short, and also actually got a pretty decent amount of pressure.
And there was no better illustration than the final Texas possession - Cal stoned a WR screen on first down, then twice got to tee off on Buechele when nobody was open down field.
Penalties can be a defense’s best friend
Five different offensive line penalties on five different drives contributed to 3 Texas punts and 2 field goal attempts. In nearly every case, Texas was in a position where they could have reasonably run the ball, but were instead forced into passing downs - the relative weakness of the Texas offense, and the relative strength of the Cal defense. Cal actually had 21 more penalty yards on the night thanks to a slew of defensive personal fouls in the first half, but Texas’s mistakes seemed to have the more sizable impact.
A clear win, but for one play
Cal beat Texas on average starting field position on kick offs by 7.5 yards, and on net punting by a yard . . . if you remove the blocked punt that resulted in a Texas safety. Thankfully, Cal’s defense came up with the play of the game to give Cal’s offense the ball right back for an improbable halftime lead.
What happened on the block? Take a look at the pre-snap picture:
Texas has seven players lined up across from four Bears. In theory, this should still be OK, because if three guys get through clean, Cal has a three player shield to protect Dylan Klumph. Three Texas players do in fact come through totally unblocked, although one is far too wide of the formation to bother the punt. As for the other two players?
#19 and #35 are the players that came through without being chipped. Unfortunately, the outside player in the shield tries to help out on the player that comes up the middle, giving #19 a clear lane to Klumph. The new spread-shield punting formation makes it very hard to block punts these days - you need an aggressively set up punt block formation and an execution error by the punt team. Texas got both, and got two points.
Still, that shouldn’t detract from Cal solidly winning on special teams for the rest of the game. Cal had better average starting field position despite a couple of instances where Texas got good field position for reasons that were out of the control of the special teams unit (turnover on downs, post-punt deep kick).
Khalfani Muhammad had an excellent day returning kickoffs, Noah Beito got consistent distance on his kickoffs, Klumph boomed a couple of punts, and Cal didn’t have two missed field goals like the Longhorns. In a critical game with fine margins, Cal’s special teams were a plus, and we haven’t been able to say that in some time.
Coaching/Game Theory Errata
That goofy ball placement series
Man, I totally get you. You’re staring down the sticks on 3rd down, and it looks clear as day that Khalfani got the first down. But the refs give you a bad spot, and they refuse to review the play, and so you challenge.
But spot-of-the-ball challenges almost never work, because the very nature of the decision is such a judgment call. Losing a timeout and your only challenge for the very unlikely chance of success just isn’t worth it. Luckily Cal never really had reason to challenge the rest of the game, and the first half time out didn’t matter.
That said, I loved the decision to try for the 1 yard (really, a few inches) conversion. If ever there was a game that demanded aggression to put up points, this seemed to be the game. Kudos to the defense for picking up the offense and minimizing the damage.
Great game plan, great game prep, great in game adjustments
Cal clearly brought out a number of wrinkles for Texas - from the various plays keying off of Melquise Stovall sweeps, to the nifty 2 point conversion. They had the players ready to play a largely mistake free game, at least from a mental/emotional perspective. I always get the sense that Dykes and company find that right balance between composed and hyped that you need.
And they adapted reasonably well. In a post-game interview, Dykes credited Kaufman with some changes to the defense to slow down Texas, including a different run fit. My untrained eye saw Cal’s secondary increasingly play closer to crowd out the shorter routes, confident that they could keep up if they tried to go over the top. Whatever the exact explanation, it’s undeniable that Cal’s defense played just as much of a role as the offense.
Cal has now played two games against teams that, I suspect, will finish the season in the 30-45 range in most advanced stat rankings. Take a quick look at the play-by-play efficiency from both games:
Cal vs. SDSU yards/play and success rate: 6.06, 45%
SDSU vs. Cal yards/play and success rate: 6.03, 39%
Cal vs. Texas yards/play and success rate: 6.20, 46%
Texas vs. Cal yards/play and success rate: 6.08, 45%
Those stats are really, really close, to the point that trying to distinguish them is a pointless task. Suffice to say that it’s tough to argue that Cal, SDSU, and Texas are significantly different teams.
We’re finally done with non-conference play - where do you think Texas and SDSU would rank among Cal’s slate of Pac-12 opponents? For my money, I’d go with the following:
Teams that are probably better than Texas/SDSU: Stanford, UCLA, Washington
Teams that are probably about as good as Texas/SDSU: Oregon, USC, Utah
Teams that are probably worse than Texas/SDSU: ASU, OSU, WSU
This could all change very rapidly, of course, because we’re still just 25% through the season and half of these teams haven’t played more than 1 meaningful game. Still, Cal accomplished something important against Texas: they won perhaps a must-have game for bowl eligibility purposes while simultaneously demonstrating the ability to win more games in a similar fashion.
That’s the mostly-objective side of the coin. Subjectively, emotionally, spiritually? This was a game the fan base needed. It’s been four years since a win over a rival, and that came in the middle of an already-lost season. It’s been years since the fans and the players got to celebrate on the field. We all needed a shot of positive adrenaline, and the Bears delivered in a big way.
The goal now is to make this game mean more than just one (incredibly, incredibly fun) game.