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Post Game Thoughts: Arizona

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Cal throws the kitchen sink at the Wildcats in a valiant losing effort

NCAA Football: Arizona at California Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

Honestly though, this Cal team is pretty amazing.

Not, like, statistically amazing. In fact, the numbers say they’re pretty bad. The Cal offense averages 4.86 yards/play on the season, 115th in the nation. The defense has been up and down, shutting down passing teams and struggling against running teams, and ranks middle of the pack. Special teams are solid but unspectacular. And the schedule is brutal.

Add up all of the above variables, and this team probably should be 2-6. And yet they are 4-4, and they were within one score in the 4th quarter in losses to USC, Oregon, and Arizona. They are one play away from 5-3.

How exactly this team manages to stay competitive is beyond me. But they are wildly competitive, ravenously competitive, shove-you-two-yards-backwards-into-the-endzone-then-go-for-2 competitive. And they’re my favorite Cal football team since Alex Mack graduated.

Offense

Efficiency Report

9 drives: 4 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1–1), 2 punts, 2 turnovers (2 interceptions), 3.44 points/drive

This is regulation only, and removes Cal’s final offensive drive when they were just as concerned with not letting Arizona get another chance as they were going for a game winning field goal.

Wringing 3.44 points/drive out of an offense that averaged 4.93 yards/play is . . . really rather amazing.

The Toyota Tercel offense

At one point in your life, you or someone you love probably owned an old, busted car with 300,000 miles on it. Maybe you didn’t even own it for most of its useful life. Maybe you didn’t have any clue if any regular maintenance had been performed. You know the transmission is weak. You know the brake fluid needs to be replaced every 3 months. It makes sounds that are as unexplainable as they are terrifying. You’ve definitely had to push the damn thing 3 blocks to the nearest gas station one time. Every day when you get into the car you say a silent prayer that it will start.

And yet it somehow gets you where you wanted to go.

That’s the Cal offense, particularly against Arizona. Missing five projected pre-season starters (get well soon, Patrick Mekari), giving a former walk-on 33 (!) touches*, running 96 total plays and managing just one play longer than 19 yards, facing 19 3rd down attempts, somehow sustaining five drives of ten plays or more . . . and yet scoring 24 points on 4 second half possessions when anything less would have meant defeat.

We’ve seen this car fall apart before. Asking this offense to face Washington’s defense was like asking your 1979 Tercel to move all your stuff over the Grapevine. But against a mediocre defense like Arizona’s they can somehow keep you in a game. Thankfully every other defense left on the schedule is much more like Arizona than Washington.

*I want to say this is the most touches for a RB since Shane Vereen’s insane 45 vs. Stanford in 2009? Maybe?

Two plays that swung the game

It feels harsh to say anything bad about Cal’s offensive performance considering the points they put up and the talent wearing street clothes on the sidelines. And yet, two plays stand out for their outsized impact on the game.

Late in the 1st quarter, on 1st and 10 from just past the 50 yard line, Ross Bowers had a receiver open over the middle about 15 yards downfield. A completion would set Cal up with a first down in field goal territory. Unfortunately, the ball went 20 yard instead into the hands of an (out of position) Arizona cornerback.

Late in the 2nd quarter, on 3rd and 4 from the 7, Ross Bowers fails to identify an Arizona safety lurking in pass coverage.

Those two turnovers, taking place where they did on the field, took somewhere between 3 and 14 points off the board in a game that went to overtime. One was a physical mistake and the other was a mental mistake, and to be entirely fair to Bowers, he has been pretty sharp with the ball of late. It’s the nature of the beast, but Cal’s margin for error is such that the Bears can’t really afford plays like that.

Defense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 4 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1–2), 3 punts, 1 turnover (1 interception), 3.1 points/drive

Again, Arizona’s overtime drives have been removed from the equation, although OT was mostly a continuation of what we saw in regulation, when Arizona was mostly stopped either by the clock or by themselves.

Arizona’s first drive was stalled with an assist from a false start. Arizona’s 4th drive was stopped because they oddly decided to pass the ball (plus a targeting penalty). Arizona’s drives at the end of each half were restricted by RichRod’s awful clock management/the clock forcing them to throw rather than just run. Really, it only felt like Cal’s defense did something to stop Arizona on maybe 2 possessions out of 12.

Revisiting Opportunity Rate

After the Oregon game I brought up run opportunity rate as the key defensive problem for the Bears. Stopping consistent gains in the ground game was again a problem against Washington, but thankfully wasn’t an issue against Air Raid Wazzu. Entering the game against run-happy Arizona, Cal ranked 122nd in the critical metric, allowing runs of 5 yards or longer on 44.7% of runs faced.

Arizona ran the ball 46 times (in just 61 total plays) against Cal’s defense and managed 5 yards or more ‘just’ 39% of the time. But in a weird statistical anomaly, Arizona had 12 runs that went for exactly 4 yards. On 65% of Arizona’s run plays the Wildcats gained 4 yards or more.

Until and unless Cal can start disrupting opposition run blocking, the defense can be got. The good news? Colorado, Oregon State, and UCLA don’t have run offenses anywhere on the level of Arizona.

Picking your poison

After halftime, Khalil Tate had exactly one run that went longer than 4 yards. More than that, he decided to hand off on zone reads more frequently as well. I haven’t reviewed tape to be sure, but it seems like a safe guess that Cal’s defense was overplaying the QB keeper in favor of forcing the handoff to the running back.

And that makes sense. Arizona was down to their 3rd string RB without Nick Wilson (Injury) and J.J. Taylor (targeting ejection), and Khalil Tate is apparently the single most dangerous running quarterback in the nation. Any play that ends up not in his hands is probably a good thing.

But Green, behind Arizona’s veteran line, still managed 6.5 yards a pop and also managed to break the type of longer runs that the Cal defense had been pretty good at preventing all year long. If there’s a spot where you notice Devante Downs’ absence it’s probably there.

And of course, you can still do everything right and come up short. On Tate’s 76 yard run Cal had multiple players in the right spot to make a tackle . . . but one player’s sheer talent and dynamism made that a moot point. It’s good that we don’t have scheme issues any more, but the right scheme isn’t a 100% cure all.

Special Teams

Fewer possessions mean fewer special teams plays

Cal and Arizona used a ton of time on their drives - Arizona because they were almost exclusively running the ball, Cal because they somehow made their way down the field 4 and 5 yards at a time. And thanks to plenty of touchbacks (hooray Gabe Siemieniec! I before E!) that meant there were only 6 kick/punt returns in the entire game. Really, there were only three special teams plays of any note:

  • Matt Anderson nailed a clutch 52 yard kick to tie the game with 1:41 left.
  • Arizona’s Josh Pollack missed a 43 yarder as the first half ended.
  • For some reason Cal brought in Matt Anderson to do a pop-up kickoff that gave Arizona the ball on the 29. We were trying to figure out why when Siemieniec was consistently kicking the ball to the goalline or further. Was it a weird onside-ish attempt that wasn’t executed properly? No clue.

Coaching/Game Theory

Two huge decisions that could’ve gone either way

Decision #1: Cal faces 4th and 4 from the Arizona 35 with 1:46 on the clock. Do you 1) attempt a long field goal that will tie the game or 2) attempt a tough 4th down conversion?

Matt Anderson is 13 for 22 in his career from 40+ yards, but 52 would be his career long. 4th and 4 is hardly a guaranteed conversion, either. The 4th down decision matrix from this article suggests that, under normal circumstances, this was a decision right on the border between FG attempt and 4th down attempt. But this wasn’t a normal decision point, was it?

Because Cal used two timeouts before the play either a missed FG or a missed conversion would end the game. The advantage of a conversion is the chance to win the game and the chance to run more clock to prevent Arizona from getting another chance to score.

Ultimately, I think the decision you make as a coach very much depends on whether or not you have a play that you are confident can gain four yards. Cal sent out their offense after their first time out, probably with the idea of running a play if Arizona set up their defense in a way that gave the coaches confidence in their play call.

Decision #2: Go for the win, or kick for OT number 3

In a vacuum of just one play to win or lose the game, again I think the decision depends on whether or not you have a play you’re confident in running. The problem Cal faced here? They had already used all of their awesome goal-to-go plays. Last week saw this play earn a critical TD to end the first half. Then we used the statue of liberty play to get a TD for Laird. Then we got an awesome touchdown for Malik. And you kinda felt like Cal had run out of well-drilled, sneaky plays that could get you those last 3 yards.

But needless to say, this play wasn’t in a vacuum. You watched all game as Arizona moved the ball consistently and dangerously, to the tune of 8.4 yards/play, then scored twice in three plays in overtime. You watched Cal’s Toyota Tercel offense cough and quake its way down the field 4.9 yards/play at a time, and needing a Herculean effort from Vic on 4th down just to keep the game alive. I’d rather take the one play gamble than trying to beat Arizona’s per play superiority in more overtime periods.

In the end, Beau Baldwin gambled that Jordan Duncan could beat a true freshman linebacker. Arizona’s pressure certainly factored into Bowers’ throw. Duncan had a shot to come up with the ball, but it’s hard to make a contested catch while also worrying about getting a foot down. Que sera sera.

In the end I saw the arguments in favor of either decision on both plays. I’m glad I’m not a coach. I’m also glad we have the coaches we have.

Big Picture

The more I watch these Bears, the more I think that they are very matchup dependent. Put them up against a passing offense, or against a defense that doesn’t have dominant defensive linemen, and they can make things happen, supported by a coaching staff that has their players well prepared and doesn’t make many mistakes. Put them up against a run first offense with a strong offensive line and a defense that can penetrate a young, inexperienced offensive line and they will struggle.

Arizona brought some of those factors into play, but not both. It should have been enough to win in regulation by, say, 7 to 10 points. But this team just finds ways to stay in games they shouldn’t.

Of Cal’s four remaining opponents, only one team has an above average rushing attack: Stanford

Of Cal’s four remaining opponents, none of them have a dominant defensive line that can shut down the run and create consistent pressure on the quarterback.

The gauntlet is over.

Does that mean that Cal will cruise to four wins? Hardly. Colorado has an OK rushing attack and a strong home field advantage. Stanford’s running attack might be enough to win a game all by itself. UCLA is a weird, unpredictable team and I don’t need to remind you how trips to Pasadena have ended of late.

But for the most part the teams built to exploit Cal’s weaknesses are in the rear view mirror - and Cal managed to mostly compete with those teams anyway . . . mostly through sheer force of will, as best I can tell.

Two wins, and I think this team has it in them to get more than that, despite all statistical evidence to the contrary.