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Post Game Thoughts: 120th Big Game

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Pain. Ashes and pain, lungs choked with smoke and bile.

California v Stanford Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Cal, yards/play: 5.91
Stanford, yards/play: 5.91

Cal, success rate: 43%
Stanford, success rate: 45%

Cal, 3rd-down conversions: 6–12
Stanford, 3rd-down conversions: 6–12

Cal, possessions: SIX
Stanford, possession: SEVEN

This was the single most even game of football I have ever watched, and I don’t mean just statistically. Stylistically, these two teams played nearly identically. Prior to Stanford’s final, clock-killing drive—when game state dictated that they only run the ball—Stanford had thrown a pass on 49% of their snaps, compared to Cal’s pass rate of 50.9%. Both teams had almost identical levels of success. Special teams were rendered almost wholly irrelevant save for one fake punt and the vagaries of field goal kicking.

Cal decided that they were going to out-Stanford the Cardinal and ended up playing a completely even game, except.

That one extra possession.

That one, goddamned extra possession.

Offense

Efficiency Report

6 drives: 1 touchdown, 3 FGA (2–3), 1 punt, 1 turnover (interception), 2.83 points/drive. Cal offense season average: 2.13 points/drive. Stanford defense season average: 1.97 points/drive

We’ve got to start with one of the more stunning stats I’ve seen in a while: Six possessions for one team in a game of football. I still almost can’t believe it.

I took a glance through Bill C’s Week 12 box scores and found that every single other game in the country saw each team get at least 8 possessions and excluding Big Game participants, only 8 teams didn’t at least get 10 possessions.

How about extreme games? In the 2004 Emerald Bowl, Navy played New Mexico and the Midshipmen set the college football record for the longest drive ever—a 26-play, 14:42 monstrosity. New Mexico still got 7 possessions in the game even though the functionally only played 75% of a game.

I frankly have to assume that Cal may have set a record because I have a hard time believing that a team could have fewer possessions, unless they just kept scoring defensive touchdowns and special teams touchdowns repetitively.

And to give you a sense of just how far removed we are from the previous era of Cal football? Arizona had 18 possessions against Cal in the 2014 Hill Mary game. Why can’t we ever be average in anything?

Ross Bowers made one mistake

Ross Bowers finished the game 20–29. Of those nine incompletions, one was a drop, and all of the others were, to the best of my recollection, either overthrown deep balls or intentional throwaways.

Cal is not a big play offense, and that’s particularly true in the passing game where the Bears lack receivers with the speed to get deep and a quarterback with accuracy and arm strength to throw behind the defense.

But on one play, Jeremiah Hawkins got past his cornerback and seemed open downfield. If Bowers had thrown the ball either farther or more on a rope—or if he had led Hawkins to the left of the field—then Hawkins might’ve been able to make the catch before Stanford’s safety came over. But, quite frankly, that’s a throw that Bowers hasn’t shown the ability to make at this point in his career.

Meanwhile, Vic Wharton was running a crossing route and didn’t have a defender within 5 yards of him. Make the safe pass and Cal has 1st and 10 on the outer edge of Matt Anderson’s field-goal range with about 7:00 left in the game.

Patrick Laird put forth a Big Game heroworthy performance

Patrick Laird gained 200 yards on 24 touches (8.33 yards/touch). Cal only ran 57 total plays and gained 337 total yards. Laird represented 60% of Cal’s offense, but his touches were more productive than an average Cal play. It was a heroic effort—the best Cal fans have seen since Shane Vereen’s still-unreal 2009 Big Game. It was a performance that deserved the Axe as a reward, and I’m most devastated for him as a result.

Defense

Efficiency Report

7 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1–2), 1 punt, 1 turnover (interception), 1 clock killing drive, 2.86 points/drive. Cal defense season average: 2.48 points/drive. Stanford offense season average: 2.73 points/drive

The big question is how to factor in Stanford’s final drive, in which they weren’t really trying to score, but probably could have if necessary. Remove that drive from the calculations and Stanford managed 3.33 points/drive. Either way, Stanford ended up having a pretty typical day for them, even if they did it in ways that haven’t exactly matched how they’ve done it most of the year.

It only takes one play

Bryce Love was shut down, running the ball for 44 yards on 13 carries before leaving the game due to a tender ankle.

Except for that 57-yard touchdown run.

One of the interesting things about this year’s Stanford team is that they don’t have a particularly dominant offensive line. It’s a mediocre line and they get stuffed a lot. You saw that in evidence on Saturday, when it was the Stanford passing game that was really responsible for most of their sustained drives.

But when they do get Love to the second level, he’s got the speed to make everybody else look bad. Sure enough, Love finally got outside and made Cal’s linebackers and safeties look slow. It was a touchdown that Cal would not recover from.

Challenging Cal’s cornerbacks to make plays

I couldn’t hear the exact question in the post-game presser, but based on Wilcox’s response, it was something about how Cal balanced stopping the run with supporting their secondary. The money quote: “If you’re playing Stanford—and I could be wrong—but you gotta commit to stopping the run . . . we’re not gonna sit around and play cover 2 against Stanford”

In other words: Cal’s cornerbacks were not going to be getting much, if any, safety help over the top, especially on standard downs. Elijah Hicks and Camryn Bynum in particular were asked to single-cover Trenton Irwin and JJ Arcega Whiteside.

That’s a tough ask. Hicks and Bynum are both freshman, while Irwin and Whiteside are juniors. Both corners give up 3–4 inches and 20–35 pounds. But it’s a necessary sacrifice against the style of play Stanford brings to the table. And I don’t think Hicks and Bynum did poorly by any stretch of the mind. They combined for four broken-up passes and 11 tackles. But in the end, Stanford’s wideouts won enough of their one-on-one battles to sustain drives and get points.

That Cal’s coaches could trust a pair of freshmen enough to even give them the challenge is noteworthy enough. They should be a special duo over the next few years. That’s cold comfort at the moment, but better cold comfort than no comfort.

Special Teams

Why couldn’t Matt Anderson have kicked it 4 inches further?!

Or maybe even 2 inches, allowing the ball to bounce off the crossbar and through the uprights.

One of perhaps 3/4 special teams plays of consequence, I wondered how Anderson’s narrow miss of a 47-yard field goal impacted the rest of the game flow. As an obvious example, how might have Cal’s (and Stanford’s) playcalling been impacted if the game were tied 17–17 for the last 19 minutes of the game. The world shall never know the answer to that question. The other, more existential question, of whether or not God hates Cal did receive more concrete evidence.

Coaching/Game Theory

In which our faith in Justin Wilcox was momentarily shaken, then restored

Cal faced a 4th and 2 from their own 45 late in the second quarter trailing by 7 points. Reef and I had already exchanged two-fingered hand signals, stating our agreement that Cal had two plays to gain 2 yards prior to 3rd down. So when Wilcox sent out the punt team, we were . . . displeased.

I’m not 100% convinced that a fake punt was better than simply sending out the offense—and it wasn’t exactly fun watching Dylan Klumph have to avoid/shed tacklers to get the necessary yardage—but it was a critical decision and the right decision, and Cal got an important field goal out of the drive.

In which our faith in Justin Wilcox was momentarily shaken

on 4th and 4 from the Stanford 44, Cal pooch-punted and gained 23 yards of field position. Stanford would score a touchdown on the drive anyway.

I think that this is the first decision Justin Wilcox made that I wholeheartedly disagreed with at the time—and also in retrospect. The field position that Cal gained was minimally valuable and we could safely project that, at best, Cal would have just three more possessions in the game (it turned out to be just two).

I’ll still happily take a coach that gets those decisions right 90% of the time, but it was a disappointing decision that came back to haunt the Bears.

Still, an impressive coaching performance

Stanford is a more talented team than Cal. They are a healthier team than Cal. Three of Cal’s top four tacklers in the game were linebackers who started the season second, second, and third on the depth chart at their respective positions. Stanford has the single most-established coaching staff and culture. They were playing at home, needing a win to have a chance at a conference title. They were two-score favorites.

Cal played them to an absolute standstill and the difference was one bad QB decision and the random vagaries of drive-finishing. That is wildly, wildly frustrating (more on that below), but doesn’t change the facts listed above.

Big Picture

An obvious discussion point when you beat the spread by 11 points, but still lose to a rival: the dreaded “moral victory”.

I find the discussion tiring. Each fan can decide on their own whether they found Cal’s performance encouraging in the larger context of Wilcox’s rebuild or discouraging because Cal failed to grab a winnable game. That decision only matters to the extent that fan engagement impacts a program. Based on how Cal fans showed at Erector Set Stadium last night, it’s clear that fans are climbing back on board, even if progress is slower than we’d all like.

But believe me, I get it. When Love cleared Gerran Brown on the outside I immediately put my head in between my knees and tried to block the world out. When Cal forced 4th and 1 on Stanford’s final drive, I screamed “KICK THE FIELD GOAL, YOU COWARD” like a madman, as if my shouts from six rows below the corner rim of Stanford Stadium would convince Shaw to make an awful strategic decision. And when Scarlett plunged ahead to end the game, I slumped motionless into my chair, quietly cursing various people, places, and things. As we walked down the stairs to escape, Stanford’s 95-decibel PA announcer again started crowing about the game, prompting me to ask if he ever shuts the eff up. My patient wife held me by the shoulder while wondering why we ever go to road Big Games because I invariably leave them in a miserable mood.

Which is to say that I am not a well-adjusted person. I am not predisposed to taking any tiny bit of satisfaction from watching Cal lose.

Losing to Stanford in the fashion Cal lost on Saturday is evidence of the positive trajectory of the program under Wilcox. Any discussion of “moral victories” vs. righteous indignation about the “unacceptableness” of the current 8-game losing streak is meaningless pablum and virtue signalling.

Now let’s go stab the corpse of the Mora era in the heart and go bowling, goddammit.