The hardest games to say anything about are blowouts that pretty much everybody saw coming.
Any Cal win is fun to talk about. Close Cal losses will have nice moments and critical plays worth breaking down. And at least with unexpected blowouts, you can spend time trying to figure out why the game played out differently than anticipated.
But that game? ‘Well, we knew they were better and then they proved it.’ Trenchant insight, isn’t it?
This was always the most unwinnable game of the year. Washington is probably the most talented team in the conference. Perhaps more importantly, they’re also the best-coached. As a consequence, they rarely have down performances, which probably was a required ingredient for Cal to have a chance. Playing them on the road was only going to have one outcome—and the only question was how ugly it would look.
As it turns out, pretty ugly.
12 drives: 0 touchdowns, 2 FGA (0–2), 9 punts, 1 turnover (1 fumble), 0 points/drive
And lo, one year removed from an offense that could score 41 regulation points and feel disappointing, Cal’s offense was shut out.
Deja vu all over again
If you remove that goofy botched field goal to end the game, Cal managed 2.63 yards/play against Washington. If you remove Kanawai Noa’s 75-yard TD reception against Oregon, Cal averaged 2.65 yards/play against Oregon.
Noa was out injured against the Huskies—and then we basically watched the Cal offense produce exactly as much offense as they produced against the Ducks, except without Noa’s production.
As a consequence, there really isn’t anything new or interesting to say about the offense after this game. Everything I picked out last week as a hindrance to offensive production is still preventing Cal from moving the ball. The only piece of good news is that Cal’s toughest games are almost over.
The challenge of developing a quarterback in these circumstances
Ross Bowers was sacked 7 times on 25 drop backs. Ross Bowers was sacked on 28% of his throws. I have no interest in rewatching the game to take a look at how many other drop backs resulted in hurries or hits, but I’m sure there were a significant number.
Like many young quarterbacks, Bowers still doesn’t have much ability to manipulate a pocket. This is compounded by the offensive line’s inability to frequently maintain a clean pocket anyway. In the end, both problems contribute towards each other in a vicious cycle—the line struggles to block, which makes Bowers jumpy, which often results in him making the wrong decision and taking sacks that perhaps could have been avoided.
You know how occasionally there will be an article about how many failed quarterbacks the Browns have tried since whenever-random-date? And then you think about how quarterback success is at least as much about circumstances and support as it is about talent?
You see where I’m going with this, right? CGB will have a roundtable up at some point this week about the quarterback position, but it’s not clear to me that the 2017 team has the personnel that would allow for positive experience and development for any future signal caller. And after how the offense has performed over the last three games, we’re all probably looking to next year, hoping for success once everybody gets healthy.
12 drives: 5 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1–2), 4 punts, 1 turnover (1 fumble), 3.17 points/drive
How do you want to treat Washington’s final two drives? The Huskies sent in the back-ups, ran five times in seven plays, and basically looked like they weren’t really trying to score any more. If you remove those two drives, then Cal instead allowed 3.8 points/drive.
3.8 points/drive is a lot, particularly when you consider that Washington only averaged 4.9 yards/play in their 10 non–garbage time drives. Cal also held Washington to a success rate of 46%, below Washington’s pre-game season average of 52%.
All of which is to say that this game was a step up in defensive performance on a per-play basis, but Washington scored a ton anyway in part because the Cal defense received zero help from the offense or special teams units and because Washington’s consistent, methodical offense was able to sustain many long drives.
Defensive stat of the game
Washington finished 12–20 on 3rd down. That stat is notable for two reasons:
- Washington converted on 60% of their 3rd down tries (plus 1–1 on 4th down), which is a very high rate. Even the best teams barely average better than 50% on a season.
- Cal forced Washington to attempt 20 3rd downs
There’s an alternate universe where Washington wins this game 26–7 because Cal gets off the field on 3rd down. But to be fair, we’re dealing with a few tough realities. Firstly, Washington is an effective offense that keeps themselves ahead of the chains. 12 of their pre–garbage time 3rd-down attempts were 6 yards or fewer. And Cal’s defense struggles to get teams into tough passing-down situations. Saturday’s exact result—with lots of long, multi-play drives—was a reasonably likely outcome.
A defense that’s building depth
If you’re looking for rays of sunshine in an otherwise cloudy game, look at younger players with unexpected contributions. Redshirt freshman Tevin Paul came up with two tackles for loss including a sack in occasional playing time. Sophomore Evan Weaver also had two tackles for loss as part of a six-tackle day. Both of those players started the season as 3rd stringers, yet are in the game making impactful plays against a college playoff–level opponent.
And it’s not like Paul and Weaver are playing because the guys ahead of them on the depth chart are struggling. Cal saw 17 different players register 3 or more tackles. Of those 17 players, only 3 (Devante Downs, James Looney, & Darius Allensworth) are seniors. Cal’s defense is deep, and young, and 100% completely average—and that feels just fine and dandy considering last year. It’s a great foundation to build around.
A rough day for field position
Cal’s nine punts netted an average of 33 yards. Washington’s 4 punts netted an average of 42.5 yards. Yes, that’s an average of 10 yards of lost field position per punt.
Cal’s seven kickoff returns on average reached the 26-yard line. Washington only actually returned one kickoff thanks to a failed onside kick attempt.
Add up all of the above and Washington had an absurd 17.4 yard advantage in average starting field position. True, some of it is because UW could move the ball and Cal couldn’t. But most of it comes down to the fact that Washington has an effective punt return unit and Cal does not. If Cal is going to be a low-scoring, ball-control team, one of the biggest issues they need to address is a consistent disadvantage over the course of the game in net punting.
When you lose a game like that, game theory doesn’t really come into the equation. The onside kick attempt did seem sharp, though sadly it wasn’t quite executed. Not sure it served much purpose in this particular game, but at least they’re trying stuff?
Here’s the question that will define the rest of the season:
If Noa is out for extended time we have to have a conversation about what the offense can realistically do against anybody on the sked— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) October 8, 2017
Cal is currently down five offensive skill position players because of injury. If you had asked me to name the top six non-QB skill position players back in the preseason, Vic Wharton is the only one still on the field. Worse, four of the five players are out for the season—and we have no real clue when Noa might be back.
Preseason, we knew that quarterback and offensive line were question marks, but that running back and wide receiver should have been solid. Needless to say, that assumption has to be reconsidered.
So can we answer the question above? What can the offense realistically do if Noa is out for multiple weeks?
The good news, such as it is, is that after next week Cal will not play a team that has a top-half-of-the-Pac-12-quality defense. The bad news is that Cal’s offensive performances haven’t even been passable in the context of facing good teams. Consider:
Washington defense yards/play allowed by game:
Fresno St.: 4.67
Oregon State: 3.68
Oregon defense yards/play allowed by game:
Southern Utah: 4.24
Arizona St: 5.32
Washington St: 5.51
USC Defense yards/play allowed by game:
Western Michigan: 5.03
Washington St.: 5.70
Oregon State: 4.91
Ole Miss Defense yards/play allowed by game:
S. Alabama: 5.50
Tennessee Martin: 5.48
Cal’s offense against Washington was worse than FCS Montana. Cal’s offense against Ole Miss was worse than FCS Tennessee Martin. Cal’s offense against Oregon was worse than FCS Southern Utah. Cal’s offense against USC was worse than Western Michigan and Oregon State (but better than Texas lol).
Cal’s offense post–North Carolina is producing like an FCS team—and there is no cavalry coming. Maybe Cal can win some games through monstrous defensive performances or through fluky plays, but it’s hard to imagine this offense turning things around as presently constituted.
In the post-game presser, Justin Wilcox indicated that there would be a pretty serious reevaluation of what the coaches can do to put players in a position to succeed and that how Cal prepares for and comes back on Friday against Washington St. will tell him a lot about his team.
I don’t disagree in concept . . . but I’m just not convinced this team has the healthy horses on offense to produce a significantly different performance against a pretty excellent Washington State defense. I hope I’m wrong.