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Post Game Thoughts: Washington State

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Cal comes through with one of the most unexpectedly dominating performances in program history

NCAA Football: Washington State at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Even by the standards set by one of the least predictable sports out there, that was something else.

I think “dour” would probably be the general feeling from Cal fans prior to the game. Three-straight losses and a top-10 opponent had something to do with it, but it had as much to do with the timing and conditions of the game—another late night start on a Friday, with poor air conditions to boot.

And then we were celebrating on the script Cal as the band played “Palms of Victory”.

It was a game that reminds you why you follow this sport and why you follow the Bears. 3.5 joyous hours of screaming at the refs for not understanding targeting rules, trying to calculate YPP (you know me) live, yelling at Twist for screwing up our in-game superstitions, doing alligator clap after alligator clap, yelling at the coaches to call the Malik McMorris wheel route, making semi-tasteless AQI jokes, chanting for an 8th turnover, meeting on the ‘C,’ singing the drinking song as field security shepherded us out through North Tunnel, trying to find a bar with space to actually get a drink, getting into bed at 2:00 a.m., and reading twitter because you’re still wired . . . it was everything that makes college football wonderful.

It was the very best type of exhaustion.

Offense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 3 touchdowns, 3 FGA (3–3), 6 punts, 0 turnovers, 2.5 points/drive

Removed: Cal’s final drive, when the 2nd string offense went 3-and-out with three up-the-middle hand-offs to Zion Echols.

For the first three series of the game, I thought we were going to get an exact replay of Cal’s previous two games. It looked like the Cal offense was going to be completely incapable of moving the ball.

Those first three drives collected 11 yards on 13 plays. There was exactly ONE play that gained more than one yard. It felt like the defense would need to basically pitch a shutout to win the game.

As it turns out, that’s more or less what the defense did! But the offense suddenly rose from the dead. Cal got at least one first down in every single relevant drive for the rest of the game and averaged 6.63 yards/play* the rest of the way. It was a baffling and stunning reversal—and I can only offer a few possible explanations for the turnaround.

*Which is top-25 level offensive production! 6.63 is roughly what Georgia has put up on the season!

Doing things that fit Ross Bowers skill set

The main schematic/strategic changes to Cal’s offense (at least, that were discernible to me) was more protection and more designed roll outs. Cal kept backs and tight ends in to block more frequently and Cal frequently sent Bowers to one side or another so that he didn’t have to worry about manipulating the pocket as often. And it worked. Some of Bowers’ best throws came on roll outs. He found Kanawai Noa on out patterns multiple times and had a couple of solid throws on sideline patterns to Jordan Veasy as well.

Even when Cal’s offense was struggling on their first three drives, you could see the skeleton of a good offense. There would be plays where the protection was solid and Bowers made a nice throw, but Cal’s receivers couldn’t make the catch. There would be other plays where Bowers was inaccurate or where the protection wasn’t good enough to find a receiver. But you could tell that the basic ideas of what the offense wanted to do made sense.

The other major change? When the game was still close on the scoreboard, Cal’s coaches almost completely abandoned the run. In the first half, Cal attempted 27 passes to just 7 runs. It took some time for the passing game to start clicking, but the Bears very much passed to set up the run—and it was the foundation for a very successful night for the offense.

Toughness isn’t everything, but it can get you pretty far

I’m fascinated listening to Old Blues talking about Mike Pawlawski because apparently Paws wasn’t an obviously talented player, at least based on how we usually evaluate quarterback play. But everybody who watched him play raved about his toughness, his ability to make plays, and his ability to lead.

And I thought about that when Ross Bowers dove like a madman into the end zone. If you were watching on TV, what you didn’t see was the reaction of Cal’s sideline. You know those dunk reaction videos where the entire sideline mobs the court? It was pretty much like that. There were dudes sprinting down the opposite sideline in disbelief. Ross Bowers has had a few tough weeks and he’s been his own toughest critics. But his teammates have his back and probably the best single play Cal football has had since the Wizard of Returns is evidence of that.

The reemergence of the running game/Vic Enwere?

But as soon as Cal had appeared to abandon the run (#neverrun) the Bears shockingly found themselves up 3 scores in the 2nd half with a defense that was dominating, which meant that it was time to run the ball (#alwaysrun) regardless of whether or not it was going to move the chains. Except it did move the chains, perhaps against all expectations entering the game.

Cal’s success late in the game was presumably a mixture of factors. The offensive line simply played their best game in weeks, moving WSU linemen in a way that the Bears hadn’t done since Patrick Laird was running wild against Weber St. I think the WSU defense may have been in the process of checking out mentally as well in the face of an offense that was in the process of turning the ball over 7 times.

Enwere, meanwhile, reminded us that he can be very effective in the right circumstances. I still get frustrated when he tries to cut outside on plays where the right move is to follow his blocks through the line, but he’s Cal’s best runner when he’s given (and then finds) his path towards the second level.

Will Cal be able to give Big Vic holes to get to the second level the rest of the way? There are reasons for optimism just beyond the hope that Cal’s line will improve with experience. Here’s yards/carry allowed by Pac-12 defenses vs. FBS opponents. Note whom Cal has already played and who is yet to come:

lol UCLA

Defense

Efficiency Report

13 drives: 0 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1–2), 4 punts, 7 turnovers (2 fumbles, 5 interceptions), 0.23 points/drive

Removed: WSU’s final drive when the Cougs made a halfhearted effort to pretend they were still trying behind their second-string QB.

The performance of the defense is difficult to separate from the absurd turnovers. Whenever a team forces seven turnovers you have to have a discussion about turnover luck and the sustainability of that kind of number. Cal’s “expected turnovers” (a calculation based on how much havoc Cal creates, basically) was 2.63, which is still a large number but obviously not 7.

But Cal’s defense still dominated outside of some really goofy batted balls. Nine sacks and another three tackles for loss obviously stand out. That Cal was able to produce that kind of havoc without allowing many big plays particularly impresses.

The Cougars were held to a 33% success rate after averaging 45% entering the game. Turnover luck turned a safe win into a blowout win, but that turnover luck shouldn’t distract from the underlying reality that Cal noticeably outplayed a team that had legitimately earned a top-15 ranking . . . and most of that was due to the defense.

NINE SACKS?!?!

Looney was like ‘man I got you a couple of those’ because we were running multiple looks, and when you’re able to run multiple looks like that the offensive line gets confused. We’re running a lot of twists and a lot of stunts, constantly keeping pressure on them, so the D line did a terrific job of opening gaps and the blitzes just got executed the way they were drawn up on the board.

The quote above is from Jordan Kunaszyk, answering a question from CGB’s own Rob Hwang, regarding Cal’s ability to get pressure all game long.

The last time Cal recorded nine sacks in a game, Brandon Mebane and the Cal defense spent 60 minutes tormenting Trent Edwards and T.C. Ostrander while Cal fans chanted “UC Davis”. This Washington State team is a damn sight better than that particular Stanford outfit. What exactly did the Cal defense do to get nine sacks? Let’s look at every single one!

Sack #1: Cal rushes just three men. Wazzu’s guards and tackles both double team Looney and the blitzing LB, but Tony Mekari bull rushes the center right at Falk, who steps up to avoid Mekari . . . right into the arms of Looney

Sack #2: Cal again rushes just three. Luc Bequette gets pushed well wide on an edge rush, but Falk holds the ball forever and a minute, allowing Bequette time to come all the way around and get him from behind. This one is on Falk.

Sack #3: Cal sends Cameron Goode on a blitz and he and Tevin Paul combine on a nifty stunt. Paul and the stunt put the blocker on his heels, allowing Goode to push by him to get to Falk.

Sack #4: Cal rushes four, but in this case the fourth is Darius Allensworth on a cornerback blitz. Wazzu’s RB recognizes the blitz but comes in with a pretty weak chip attempt that Darius blows by to get the sack.

Sack #5: Cal again rushes three and again Tony Mekari bull rushes the center. Falk, standing in his own end zone, freaks out for fear of a safety and turtles himself forward into the line, allowing Bequette to grab him and pull him down.

Sack #6: Cal rushes four, with Gerran Brown and Jordan Kunaszyk stunting towards opposite sides of the A gap; they bamboozle WSU’s interior line. Meanwhile, Looney has a nice quick step push between the guard and the tackle. WSU’s offensive line is completely discombobulated and, like, three Bears could’ve made the sack.

Sack #7: Kunaszyk shoots straight up the middle. I suspect that he’s merely supposed to occupy the center so that Brown (on a delayed blitz) will come through unblocked behind him. But WSU’s center (who is having a nightmare game) can’t even stop Kunaszyk, who shoves him aside to get to poor Luke Falk.

Sack #8: Cal sends Brown, Goode, and Looney at the left side of WSU’s line. WSU’s left guard seems to think that he and the left tackle should be switching their blocking assignments. Regardless of the blocking scheme, Brown shoots between the guard and tackle to take down Falk. This was the only sack of the night where Cal rushed more than four guys.

Sack #9: This play works exactly how sack #7 was probably designed—Brown rushes up the middle and occupies the center. Kunaszyk follows on a delayed blitz behind him to crush-sack for the fumble, which Brown follows for the scoop and score.

What do these sacks have in common? I suppose the most obvious factor is that DeRuyter and company really put the emphasis on interior blitzes from Cal’s middle linebackers. Meanwhile, WSU’s center had a nightmare of a game, getting bull rushed repeatedly by Tony Mekari and toyed with on various middle linebacker blitzes. By the second half the entire WSU line clearly had no idea how to deal with Cal’s various blitzes and stunts and the scoop and score was all but inevitable. I think it’s also noteworthy that much of Cal’s pressure was developed by back-up middle linebackers. The depth Cal has built on defense in just half a season still astounds me.

And obviously, you can’t dismiss what the secondary did to keep Falk from getting throws off quickly. The blitzers and the guys in coverage had a symbiotic relationship on Friday night and the Cougars couldn’t cope.

A team built to play pass-first offenses

The two best defensive performances of the season? Cal shut down Ole Miss for 3 quarters, then shut down Washington State for an entire game. Both of those teams are, either by design or circumstance, heavy-pass offenses. And in both games, Cal mostly played a 2-4-5 defense. That plays right into the strength of the team—flooding the field with a bunch of CBs and LBs who are excellent in coverage and allowing the coaches to dial up a variety of exotic blitzes on obvious passing downs. Whatever the secondary might give up on pass plays will be paid back and then some in sacks and defended passes/interceptions. This defense is air-raid poison.

Meanwhile, against more run-based offenses, Cal hasn’t been nearly as dominant. Which is why I’m confident about Cal’s defense going up against UCLA and Colorado, but more nervous about match-ups against Arizona and Stanford.

Special Teams

Sometimes your best hope is to stand back and let the opposition self-immolate

Three critical Washington State mistakes happened on special teams:

  • A holding call that brought back (but probably also allowed for) a touchdown return on the opening kickoff
  • A missed 49-yard field goal
  • A 1-yard punt

Cal has a long and storied tradition of letting the Cougars screw up on special teams, then reaping the benefits.

Pluses and minuses even out for a solid day

On the ledger of what Cal can control, you have your good:

  • A nifty 31-yard punt return (admittedly set up by a weak line drive punt) from Vic Wharton
  • A critical 48-yard field goal from Matt Anderson (plus two other made kicks)
  • A high–hang time 39-yard Klumph punt downed at the 2
  • Kickoffs that pretty consistently went to the goalline or further.

And on the bad side:

  • A punt fumble from Wharton that thankfully was recovered by Cal
  • A bad decision from Ashtyn Davis to return a kickoff that was a few yards deep, even after he slipped on his first step. He was tackled at the 11.
  • Punts that netted just 19 and 28 yards respectively because they went too far into the end zone.

Considering that the bad didn’t end up mattering much and the good ended up helping in obvious ways, this was a clear win for a unit that hasn’t gotten a ton of clear wins.

Coaching/Game Theory

Justin Wilcox was as good as his word

We’re going to find a lot about our team in the next 48 hours. We just, across the board, we’ve got to be better. Coaching, starts with me. Make sure we’re giving our guys the best opportunity, in terms of what we’re doing, offense, defense, special teams, all of us as coaches.

That was what Justin Wilcox said as part of his opening statement after Cal lost to Washington. If you haven’t already, you should watch the entire presser. The feeling, after watching what happened on the field in Seattle and then watching Wilcox speak after the game, was that there would be a serious reevaluation of every aspect of how this team tries to win games.

I think it was partly scheme and prep-based (What did Cal need to change about the plays called and the formations used?) and partly psychological/motivational. Either way, Wilcox, his staff, and the players emphatically delivered with a spectacular game plan and improved execution.

When things turn sour, every coach promises changes to fix things. Not as many actually deliver.

Mike Leach maybe isn’t the game theory master you’d expect

Did I enjoy that Mike Leach elected to attempt a 49-yard field goal rather than go for it only to watch the kick miss badly? Did I enjoy that Leach spurned a makeable 4th and 2 only to see his punter kick the ball one-yard downfield? Did I enjoy that Leach surrender punted with WSU down 24 points in the 4th quarter, then decided to attempt a pointless 4th-down conversion just so Cal could get another sack and turnover all on the same play?

Did I also enjoy that Leach then spent the entire post-game presser insulting his own players for his failure to prepare them for Friday’s game.

Yes. Yes I did.

Big Picture

Fans had two hopes for the season—one objective goal and one subjective goal.

The objective goal was to get to a bowl game. With four of our five toughest conference games in the rear view mirror—and with a priceless win over Washington State locked in—the Bears are very, very likely to go bowling. Hell, they might only need one more win thanks to their APR, although I think a 5–7 record would be a bit of a letdown at this point.

The subjective goal was to feel like this is the coaching staff that can restore Cal to the point where we can realistically dream about contending for the conference title.

This win is a major step forward towards both goals. If Cal can not just beat—but crush—Washington State, then they are clearly capable of winning any game left on their schedule. Winning two out of three seems to be a pretty safe bet.

That other goal may have already been achieved. The speed with which it was clear that the defense had been turned around, the offensive production we saw prior to the injury storm, the general sense that they’ve been wringing about as much out of the roster as could reasonably be expected . . . all count as signs that Wilcox is the guy.

Still, two straight games that were really not competitive were a drag. Following those games up with this game . . .

Consider that the biggest point spread upset in college football history is Howard over UNLV, when Howard beat the Rebels by 3 despite being 45-point underdogs. That’s a 48 point swing between the predicted spread and the actual spread.

Cal was 15 point underdogs entering the game, then won by 34. That’s a 49-point swing. This is an historically anomalous result. A significantly portion of that swing is turnover luck, but a just as significant portion was the work this coaching staff did to get the Bears ready to play.

In the first year under a new regime the Bears look set to make a bowl for just the second time in the last six years despite a team that is mostly young team. Cal has one senior starting on offense and five on defense. The program appears to be healthier than it’s been at any time since . . . 2008?

This was as fun as any game I’ve been to in years and that would’ve been true even if events on the field didn’t portend a bright future.

Thanks, Bears.