The descriptive explanation for why Cal lost so badly to Colorado is pretty simple. The one consistently above-average skill of the 2017 Bears has been a pass defense that has ranged from competent to downright smothering. Every other aspect of the team has been shaky. So if the pass defense were to disappear for a game against just about any opponent, Cal is liable to get blown out.
There, recap done.
Except why? What exactly happened this week that would lead to a previously mediocre passing offense to eviscerate one of the better secondaries in the conference?
I don’t really have an answer to that question. I’m not sure if anybody actually does.
12 possessions: 4 TDs, 7 punts, 1 interception - 2.3 points/drive
This is more or less right in line with what you can expect from the Cal offense, adjusted for facing a mediocre defense playing at home. Maybe a little bit better because Cal converted four of their five trips past the 40-yard line into touchdowns, but more or less in line. And if you told me pre-game that Cal would score 28 points I’d have been decently optimistic about getting a win.
A passing offense that’s so close yet so far
On one hand, Ross Bowers threw for an impressive 359 total yards to eight different targets, with two 100-yard receivers.
On the other hand, a completion percentage of 56% and four sacks (plus a pick that may or may not have been Bowers’ fault?) really cuts into the effectiveness of the passing offense.
And really, it’s the same problem we’ve had all season. Cal has to pass the ball because their run game will just never be the type of consistent, 5 yards/handoff type of threat. But so many things can and do go wrong with Cal throws the ball. For one thing, Bowers just simply has accuracy issues that can turn possible plays into incompletions or worse. For another, Colorado broke up nine passes, a numerical indication of how Cal’s receivers struggled to gain separation. Then you get into Cal’s pass-blocking issues, as Colorado’s delayed blitzes caused all kinds of trouble for a young, patchwork offensive line.
The 2017 drive of the year
And by “drive of the year”, I don’t necessarily mean best. I mean the most representative of the abilities of this team. I am, of course, talking about a 17-play, 79-yard touchdown drive that required five 3rd- or 4th-down conversions plus a pass interference penalty that gave Cal a first down before what would have been 3rd and 15. How did the drive end? Of course, with Kanawai Noa making a contested catch on a 3rd and long.
11 possessions: 4 TDs, 3 FG attempts (3–3), 3 punts, 1 fumble - 3.4 points/drive
If one were to argue that the game was functionally over when Colorado scored a touchdown two minutes into the 4th quarter to give themselves a 20-point lead, then one could argue that Colorado was pushing towards the territory of 4 points/drive when they were running their full offense rather than just handing over and over to Phillip Lindsay to kill clock. That’s nearly double Colorado’s season-long points/drive of 2.07. Cal only managed three meaningful stops—and one of those was thanks to a fumbled handoff exchange. This was, with the possible exception of Weber St., Cal’s worst defensive performance of the season.
What in the world happened to Cal’s secondary?
Prior to this game, Cal’s defense had surrendered 23 passes of 20 yards or more in eight games. That’s about three long passes each week. Then Colorado managed FIVE in the first 20 minutes of the game. By the time Cal’s defense had somewhat stabilized, the Bears already faced a 14-point deficit, which just isn’t a margin this team is built to overcome.
Avi has maligned Cal’s soft slot defense and that was certainly an issue. But there were all kinds of problems. There were issues with zone exchanges between corners and safeties. There were points when defenders played 15 yards off of receivers, allowing for easy pitch-and-catch chunk gains. There were plays when Colorado WRs simply ran by cornerbacks with impunity. And beneath all of it was a Cal pass rush that oddly struggled to get home on passing downs.
Stat of the game? Montez finished 20–26, and Cal only recorded two pass breakups, both by Cam Bynum. Cal’s DBs were just never near Colorado WRs when the ball was delivered.
Why? That’s always the tough question. It’s easy to speculate that Cal simply didn’t think Colorado had the ability to go over the top on them . . . which, based on their season-to-date, wasn’t an unrealistic assumption. And there did appear to be some scheme issues. But I’ve tended to just chalk up truly baffling results to the gods of sports randomness. On another day, when Shay Fields gets behind Cal’s defense, Cal gets pressure and Montez can’t get a throw off . . . or Montez misses his read and throws elsewhere . . . or he underthrows the ball. But in this game, Cal’s secondary made a disproportionate number of mistakes (and such variety!)—and they were all punished.
They kind did an OK job with Phillip Lindsay though!
Holding Phillip Lindsay to 4.9 yards/carry isn’t exactly some sort of stunning defensive triumph, but Cal’s run defense has been their relative weakness. So holding an opposing back below his yards/carry average (if only slightly) is something worth celebrating.
Lindsay only broke one long run until garbage time and was actually caught behind the line a few times. His stats only look good because Colorado built a lead via their passing game and could feed him the ball to kill the game off.
Really, Cal’s plan worked perfectly early in the game. Stuff the run on 1st and 2nd down, then shut down the mediocre Colorado passing game on 3rd and long! Every team on earth struggles to convert on 3rd and 17 and Cal’s defense has been great on passing downs all year long! How could this go wrong?!
Every specialist loves the altitude
The physics of playing football at 5,360 feet were evident on a day that saw 10 punts collectively average about 48 yards (with only one meaningful return by either team) and 8 of 10 deep kickoffs end in touchbacks. I suppose the elevation didn’t hurt Colorado’s field goal kicking either, although those kicks were close enough that accuracy was the more critical component.
Poor starts an increasing concern
Again, with the possible exception of Weber State, this was the first time this season that I felt like the coaching staff didn’t have the Bears ready to play their best. I know from Wilcox’s comments after defeats to Oregon and Washington that the coaches have been more self-critical, but I pegged those losses on stylistic challenges and/or talent gaps more than issues of scheme or motivation. But against Colorado, the Bears just . . . came out flat. After falling behind by 17 the Bears more or less played Colorado even the rest of the way, but few teams come back from three-possession deficits regardless of how much time is left in the game.
Cal has fallen behind by nine points or more in six games this year. It’s great that Cal came back to win two of those games and force overtime in a third and it’s certainly encouraging that Cal’s coaches have been able to adjust when things don’t seem to be going well. But better starts would go a long way towards helping this team win because the Bears don’t exactly have an offense built to consistently overcome deficits.
We’ll probably never have a coach this unconventional, but . . .
With about 20 minutes of the game left and Cal trailing by 13 points, Cal faced a 4th and 1 from their own 23-yard line, and punted the ball away. Colorado would then embark on a 6-minute touchdown drive that functionally ended the game.
Hindsight being 20–20, Cal would’ve been better off going for it in that situation. But, cross-my-heart-hope-to-die, I openly said that Cal should’ve attempted the 4th and 1 prior to punting. I partly wanted to see Cal go for it because the offensive line had been getting pretty consistent push all game long and Cal had converted every other short-yardage attempt in the game.
But beyond that, Cal was simply running out of opportunities. We knew that Cal would have to score at least 14 points—and just that only in the unlikely scenario that Colorado stopped scoring entirely. As it happened, Cal would only have four possessions left and by the time they got the ball back, they trailed by 20 points. The daunting deficit math said that Cal needed to play more aggressively—and when you’re in that mindset, attempting a one-yard conversion isn’t that daunting.
All year long, I’ve found myself caught between the reality that Cal is simultaneously objectively bad* and yet somehow consistently competitive. And all season I’ve been fearing an ugly loss to a mediocre or worse team—the game when Cal’s underlying weaknesses come home to roost. I thought it would come against Arizona, but Cal nearly pulled that one out.
Turns out it was Colorado.
That it happened shouldn’t significantly change your opinion of this team, whatever it may have been prior to the game. This is still a team that was limited before various season-ending injuries and these types of teams typically have these types of games at some point. The key is to make it a one-off occurrence rather than a trend.
Cal gets a chance to make it a one-off next week in an ideal scenario—the worst team in the conference and in your home stadium. Sure, Oregon State has been competitive two weeks in a row. We already knew that Cal wasn’t good enough to look past anybody.
Take care of business at home (Vegas has Cal favored by 9, while Our Computer Overlords like Cal 75% of the time), then all Cal needs to do to go bowling is beat a potentially Bryce Love–less Stanford or a potentially Josh Rosen–less UCLA. Or get the 5–7 APR exemption, which would be bittersweet if it meant a season-ending losing streak to Stanford and UCLA, but whatever.
The reality is that how Cal fans view the season will likely be defined by (presumably) not screwing up the OSU game—and more importantly how Cal performs against beatable in-state rivals. Which isn’t to say that Cal will be favored, as both games are on the road against slightly better teams. But Cal was unable to get their 5th win early and now that means a win over Stanford or UCLA is required for the bowl math.
*-6% gap between offensive and defensive success rate, -0.84 yards/play offense vs. defense, 101st in S&P+, etc.