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Post-Game Thoughts: Arizona State

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Wherein I have learned to modulate my reactions to my weekly dose of repetitive randomness that is modern Air Raid football

NCAA Football: California at Arizona State Joe Camporeale-USA TODAY Sports

I’ve kinda figured out how to be a Cal fan during the Sonny Dykes era. I think, at least.

See, we play the same game every week for the most part. One team will score in the high 40s/low 50s. The other will score in the 40s. One team will win, the other will lose. The winner and the loser will likely be determined by a handful of high-leverage 4th-quarter plays. We all know this going in. So when Cal comes out with a positive result on one of those high leverage plays, I react like this:

And when those plays turn sour, I react like this:

This will go entirely out the window against USC, UCLA, and Stanford.

Offense

Efficiency Report

16 possessions: 5 TDs, 3 FGAs (2–3), 5 punts, 3 TOs, 2.6 points/possession

I’m not sure if it’s worth counting Cal’s final drive attempt, so if you’d like you can remove a possession and a turnover from the chart above and bump Cal up to 2.7 points/possession. This performance falls somewhere in between Texas and San Diego State. Probably a bit more boom and bust than against SDSU, which is partly a reflection of playing against ASU’s crazy risk/reward blitz packages.

Two plays that swung the game

Interception 1 and interception 2. In both cases, ASU rushed four linemen and kept all of their safeties in short zones over the middle—and here’s where I curse the universe because Todd Graham is learning.

Last year, ASU sent suicide blitzes at Jared Goff all game long and watched him burn them on hot read after hot read. And it happened a few times this year as well, most prominently Tre Watson’s 74-yard swing pass. But with the game on the line, Graham kept his linebackers home and they rewarded him by reading Davis Webb’s eyes and making two huge interceptions.

What was Webb thinking on each play? Dunno. I don’t think he was feeling pressure on either play (in both cases Cal’s line seemed to have the four ASU rushers in reasonable control). It honestly looks like he just doesn’t see either linebacker on either play.

On interception 1, a dump pass to Vic in the flat or Hansen against single coverage on the outside would’ve been better options. On interception 2, Cal had a numbers advantage to the left with Singleton setting up for a WR screen, but Webb went right to Hansen with three defenders in the vicinity.

Hansen and Robertson, and . . .

Chad Hansen and Demetris Robertson combined for 14 catches, 213 yards, and 3 touchdowns. They were both excellent, flashing amazing body control all over the field with crazy sideline/endline catches. Cal’s other receivers had more than a few drive-killing drops, particularly in the first half when Cal had the opportunity to put the hammer down while ASU was struggling.

Defense

Efficiency Report

13 meaningful possessions: 4 TDs, 3 FGAs (3–3), 5 punts, 1 interception, 2.8 points/possession

Honestly, if Cal’s defense can hold above-average offenses to below a field goal per possession, I’ll take it. Yes, I fully realize that we’re setting a very, very low bar.

Of course, we have to talk about the difference between the first half (1.4 points/possession) and the second half (4.5 points/possession).

What exactly happened at halftime?

Good question! I have a few theories:

  1. ASU came out with a crummy offensive gameplan, then made some halftime changes.
  2. Fatigue/injuries: I don’t think the desert heat was a huge factor, but there were various players who picked up various (hopefully minor) injuries that kept them out for periods of play and this isn’t a defense that can afford to miss certain players. At a minimum Cameron Saffle, Evan Rambo, and Darius Allensworth missed plays or series—and Cal’s pass defense was not coincidentally less successful. Regardless, I don’t think you can dispute that Cal was winning the majority of their battles on the line in the 1st half, then losing the majority in the 2nd half.
  3. Making plays on 3rd down: ASU’s offense was marginally more productive after the half (5.2 vs. 6.1 yards/play) but kept themselves on the field by converting 3rd downs. check it out:

1st half: 1–7
2nd half: 6–10, plus a 4th-down conversion

Cal’s defense was roughly as good at forcing 3rd-down attempts in the 2nd half, but they didn’t get off the field. The yardage that ASU had to get to convert didn’t really change much from half to half, but the conversion rate certainly did.

All of these are probably interrelated. It’s easier to convert on 3rd down when you’re winning on the line of scrimmage. If you convert a 3rd down, the defense has to stay on the field and gets more fatigued. When the offense hits on a new wrinkle, the defense as to account for that, etc. etc. etc.

Special Teams

The difference between adequate special teams and excellent special teams

I’m comfortable at this point saying that Cal’s special teams are OK. This is progress of a sort, considering how bad the unit has been for the last few years.

ASU’s special teams last night (and probably for this entire season) were spectacular. Zane Gonzalez had seven touchbacks and should’ve had nine. He only failed to reach the back of the end zone once due to an ASU penalty. He nailed three field goals. He’s probably the best kicker in the nation. Matt Haack had three perfect punts with crazy hangtime AND distance. ASU’s quarterback was actually good at pooch punting.

There wasn’t really anything Cal could do about that. Returning a punt when three dudes are about to level you is a bad idea. Returning a kickoff when you’re 8 yards deep in the end zone is a bad idea. For Cal to match ASU, they would have had to get equally elite performances from their specialists. Instead, Matt Anderson missed a FG, Noah Beito gave ASU a couple of return opportunities, and Dylan Klumph outkicked his coverage once or twice.

None of those plays are a big deal individually, and in many games they wouldn’t be a big deal collectively. But when the other team is throwing a no hitter, you either have to match or you’ll fall behind.

Coaching/Game Theory Errata/Miscellaneous

How Madden do you want to get?

Would you have kicked a field goal immediately as the color commentator discussed on both of Cal’s last two drives? None of it works without an onside kick recovery anyway, but Cal might’ve been able to preserve a few seconds for the necessary second drive.

2nd-half play calling

It’s the laziest fan trope in the world to praise play calling after a win and criticize play calling after a loss. But I actually worried in real time that Cal was letting their foot off the gas too much. Going back and looking at the box score, you will find that when the game was within a possession, Cal ran the ball on 8 out of 9 first-down plays in the 2nd half. On those 8 run plays, only two went for more than 3 yards. Cal was playing behind the sticks for pretty much the entirety of the second half.

Does that mean that passing would have necessarily been more successful? Well, Cal’s only first-down pass out of those plays was intercepted, so no guarantees. And I certainly didn’t want Cal to abandon the run game either. Mostly, I just wanted Cal to run their normal offense—the same offense that scored 24 first-half points despite plenty of missed opportunities. An offense that keeps defenses guessing no matter the down and distance.

I think Cal’s coaching staff was expecting their offensive line to take the game over. Considering how many first-half plays ASU had to defend, that’s probably not an unrealistic hope. But it became clear quickly that ASU was starting to win at the line of scrimmage and I don’t think standard runs were going to get much traction from that point onward.

I don’t like ASU right now

Big Picture

Cal went on the road against a decent team and could have (should have?) won the game. Collectively, the Bears are playing a bit better than I anticipated prior to the season beginning, although I think we’ve established that I was at least marginally on the pessimistic side. The result, as noted in the intro above, is three games that could’ve gone either way.

Three games against decent teams that were hanging in the balance in the 4th quarter—and Cal lost two of them. Before the season began, we picked out these games as the wins Cal needed to get, and so far they mostly haven’t gotten them.

The good news is that the second half of Cal’s schedule doesn’t look quite as foreboding as it did in August. USC and Oregon are both clearly down and nobody has yet looked better than expected (unless you harbored naive hopes that Stanford would finally regress, something Cal fans have been fruitlessly predicted every year since Harbaugh left).

This makes next week’s game (which Vegas has already pegged as a virtual coin flip) as close to a bowl eligibility must-win as you can get in early October.

Honestly, this is all preliminary before the real season starts. I harbored no expectations of 10-win seasons or conference-title contention. I just wanted a team that would a) be competitive and b) win some freaking games over teams that I particularly care about.

a) appears to have more or less happened. b) remains to be seen. If b) happens, losing a random road game to ASU in a non-title season will be forgotten very, very quickly.