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Post Game Thoughts: Oregon

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NCAA Football: California at Oregon Troy Wayrynen-USA TODAY Sports

Trying to analyze early season college football is a damned near impossible task. Consider: When the pre-season S&P+ numbers came out, North Carolina and Ole Miss ranked 37th and 23rd respectively.

Those numbers are imprecise—and (particularly in the case of Ole Miss) probably more optimistic than human prognosticators. But I think they’re in the ballpark—both teams were expected to be top 40 teams, and perhaps fringe top-25 teams.

And then Cal beat them both and we all got super excited. And we should get excited when Cal unexpectedly wins games! Wins are awesome! But now, five weeks into the season, we can now also point out that UNC and Ole Miss are a combined 1–6 against FBS teams, with a lone win over South Alabama (who itself is 0–4 against FBS teams).

In other words:

The S&P rankings listed above still include pre—eason projections as a significant component. If you remove preseason projections, here are the ranks of the teams listed above:

71st: Ole Miss
85th: North Carolina
95th: California

This is a week that forces you to radically reevaluate everything you thought you knew about the 2017 season.

Offense

Efficiency Report

14 drives: 3 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1–1), 7 punts, 1 turnover (1 fumble), 1.7 points/drive

Cal’s offense scored one touchdown on a short field thanks to Jordan Kunaszyk. They scored another on a 75-yard touchdown pass to Kanawai Noa. They managed a field goal attempt on a 47-yard drive that required a 4th-down conversion. They scored a final touchdown on an arguably-garbage-time drive that required an Oregon 4th-down pass interference.

If you removed Noa’s 75 yard TD from the ledger (You shouldn’t, because that was a sharp play that was well-executed), then Cal managed just 2.65 yards/play. Even with that play included, averaging 3.65 yards/play is awful—worse than 2016 Rutgers, who were dead last in yards/play last year.

Really, the stunning aspect of the game was that Cal managed to parley such meager play-by-play efficiency into 24 points. They did that by converting 4 out of 5 trips that made it past the 50 into points. If Cal happened to be inefficient in the red zone on Saturday, they might have been on the end of a truly ugly-looking blowout.

Nobody and everybody is at fault

A list of various people and things I have observed Cal fans blaming for the offensive performance against Oregon:

  • Ross Bowers
  • The offensive line
  • WRs unable to get separation
  • Beau Baldwin playcalling
  • Injuries

Which . . . yeah, all of those things probably play a part. Let’s take each one by one

Ross Bowers’ biggest (or, at least, most glaring) weakness is the skill he evidently most needs: He’s not very good at sensing pressure or manipulating the pocket. Over the first 3.75 games of the year, that mostly meant lots of plays where he either made iffy throws or got flushed out of the pocket and wasn’t able to make a play on the run. Against USC and Oregon it meant that—plus a whole bunch of sacks.

There are other limitations, many of which can be chalked up to “young, first-year QB playing behind an inexperienced line without critical skill talent due to injury.? Sometimes life ain’t fair.

The offensive line was generally struggling to run block, but doing a reasonable job in pass protection. Even that relative strength has flagged—and the showing against Oregon was so bad that I specifically tried to track which linemen were playing because I figured somebody must have been hurt. But no—the same five starters against UNC played the majority of the snaps against Oregon, with only Ryan Gibson getting brief cameo appearances.

I don’t think there’s a single player to single out on the line—different players had different problems on different plays. There were mental mistakes (double-teaming somebody while a linebacker raced in for a TFL) and physical mistakes (getting easily bull rushed or speed rushed).

This was, by a wide margin, the worst line performance of the year. Last week wasn’t great shakes either, but it was good enough that it gave Cal a shot at winning. The line will have to return to at least that level in future games. UW and Wazzu will not be particularly forgiving.

That Cal draws so many actual (and almost) PI calls is an indication of how their WRs struggle to get separation from DBs. This was something we discussed previously in the context of Demetris Robertson’s and Melquise Stovall’s injuries/absences. With both players increasingly likely to miss the entire season, this is the new reality. How do you fix that? WRs can improve their route running, Bowers can get better at throwing receivers open, and the coaches can modify play calls, but it’s not an easily solvable problem.

Last week, some criticized Beau Baldwin’s playcalling for abandoning the run. This week, a mostly different group criticized him for running too frequently, particularly on first down. I personally think that playcalling has little if anything to do with Cal’s struggles because of the other issues bulleted above.

And finally, injuries. On offense, Cal is missing four pieces of their offense that were expected to play a big role this season. The offensive line appears to be generally healthy, but individual players have missed time during games and there are probably a few that are playing hurt to some degree. We knew before the season that this was not a team with the depth to absorb many injuries. I actually don’t think the amount of injuries is that remarkable (See: USC and Oregon.), but Cal’s have been particularly bad because they’ve been right at the top of the depth chart—and they’ve been season-ending injuries.

So yeah. That’s how an offense that had averaged ~5.7 yards/play on the season puts up just 3.65.

Defense

Efficiency Report

14 drives: 6 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1–1), 6 punts, 1 turnover (1 interception), 3.2 points/drive

This game can roughly be divided into three segments:

  • The 1st quarter, when a healthy Oregon offense raced to 17 points in 3 drives
  • The 2nd quarter, when an injured Oregon offense gained 1 first down in 4 drives.
  • The 2nd half, when Oregon realized that they could run the ball at will and scored touchdowns on 4 of their 7 possessions.

The first segment was disheartening because Oregon’s healthy offense barely seemed to break a sweat against a previously stingy defense. The third segment was even more disheartening because Cal was unable to stop a wildly one-dimensional offense.

Oregon’s run/pass ratio after Justin Herbert left the game was 44-to-13. Even worse, Taylor Alie’s longest completion was a measly nine yards. Even when Oregon passed, the plays were functionally long hand offs. It says something that Oregon’s Alie-led offense still outscored Cal’s offense.

Checking back in on defensive sustainability

Last week, I noted that Cal’s defense was succeeding by forcing turnovers, preventing big plays, and preventing opponents from converting long drives into points; I expressed concern that those factors might not be sustainable unless Cal improved their success-rate defense.

Against Oregon, allowed a success rate of 54%, forced just one turnover, allowed Oregon to score 5.62 points/drive past the 40 yard line (and go 4–4 in the red zone), and allowed two long touchdown drives.

Obvious statement alert: If you allow your opponent to continually make successful plays, it’s probably just a matter of time before they make you pay on the scoreboard.

Cal’s run defense has addressed one problem from 2016, but not all problems from 2016

Last year, Cal’s defensive line got blown backwards and struggled to shed blocks from the offensive line. Then, their linebackers and safeties tended to take bad angles, miss assignments, or fail to make the tackle.

The players and the new coaching staff have done an admirable job of addressing that second issue. Cal’s second-level defenders are much more fundamentally sound and disciplined. But not much has changed about that first issue. Opposing offensive lines are still getting a ton of push on Cal’s first line defenders.

Football Outsiders defines running opportunity rate as “The percentage of carries (when five yards are available) that gain at least five yards, i.e. the percentage of carries in which the line does its job, so to speak.”

Cal’s defense stood at 104th in the nation* in opportunity rate prior to the Oregon game. After giving up 328 rushing yards, that ranking is likely to drop further still.

*By the time you’re reading this, Cal’s advanced profile page might be updated to include stats from the Oregon game.

Special Teams

A quiet game, bar one play

This was a game filled with a whole bunch of 42-yard punts that were fair caught and a whole bunch of 23-yard kickoff returns that weren’t functionally different from touchbacks. And the only play that seemed consequential at the time (Vic Wharton’s muffed punt) was immediately erased by Jordan Kunaszyk’s interception return. Oddly, Cal’s most glaring mistake probably turned out better than whatever the offense might have done starting from their own 43.

Also, we’re probably lucky that an Oregon blocker managed to blow up his own teammate’s promising-looking punt return.

Coaching/Game Theory

A long term conundrum

Cal was 1 of 3 on 4th-down conversion attempts. The first was a marginally ballsy move to go for it on 4th and 1 from the Cal 43, right at the beginning of the 4th quarter with the Bears down 10. And Cal would hit a field goal that briefly put the Bears within one score! Huzzah for successful in-game decision making!

Cal would then later attempt essentially mandatory 4th-down attempts because Justin Wilcox isn’t a cheese-eating surrender-punter.

But watching the offense struggle so badly the last two games got me thinking. This is an offense that will, because of its own inherent limitations, probably need four downs to gain 10 yards more often than most. It’s also an offense that will probably convert on 4th down less often than most. How aggressive will Justin Wilcox and company get knowing both of those facts and also knowing that this team probably can’t afford to waste too many potential scoring drives?

Big Picture

That was rough. Taken at face value, it would be hard to read all of the above and come out with a ton of optimism for the rest of the season. And yet, after a game like that, I go back to a mantra of college sports analysis:

Progress is not linear

If you watched Justin Wilcox’s post-game presser, you could viscerally feel his disappointment at how his team had played. Kani Benoit’s 68-yard touchdown run on 3rd and 3, when a stop would have given Cal the ball down just 7? That was eating him alive inside.

And it’s certainly true that this was Cal’s worst performance of the season by the eye test and by the numbers. And when that performance is fresh in the mind (particularly a mind aware of the awful injury news Cal has gotten this week) it’s easy to get pessimistic.

But Cal probably won’t play this poorly again. Sure, they’ll still probably lose games. Cal could play significantly better and still lose to UW or WSU, as obvious examples. But this team has done enough right that now is no time to give up on the season.

As unpleasant as this game was, it didn’t shake my opinion that this is the right coaching staff—and that they’ve got the program moving in the right direction. All we can do for now is to hope the injury situation doesn’t get worse, and that the coaches figure out how best to scheme around what we’re missing.

Getting through the toughest portion of the schedule in one piece would be nice, too.