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Post Game Thoughts: UCLA

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The 2017 season ends as a contradiction: a wildly frustrating step forward.

California v UCLA Photo by Harry How/Getty Images

Doing things the right way, trying hard, being scrappy, buying into the program, being a team player, next man up, building a culture and a program.

All important traits. All valuable. All things that Cal football displayed frequently this year—and all things that are absolutely necessary as a foundation of a successful program.

Sometimes those traits aren’t enough to actually win games, particularly when you’re playing Power 5 conference football.

I’m pleased with the foundation that Justin Wilcox, his coaches, and his players have built. I have a feeling (naive hope?) that this year’s seniors will be remembered as players who came to Berkeley when there was little reason to come and helped set the stage for this program’s rebirth.

The focus of the off-season will be all of the things that need to be built off of the foundation that is now hopefully in place.

Offense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 2 touchdown, 5 FGA (4–5), 4 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 2.25 points/drive. Cal offense season average: 2.14 points/drive. UCLA defense season average: 2.83 points/drive

It’s hard to swing this as anything other than disappointing. Against the second-worst defense in the conference, Cal basically put up their season average of points/drive, give or take a successful two-point conversion. But I think we all know why:

What caused Cal to stall inside the 30?

Let’s take it one by one:

1st drive of the game: Cal has 1st and 10 from the UCLA 29, but Jake Curhan commits a pretty obvious hold that helped spring Patrick Laird for a 4-yard gain, which puts Cal in 1st and 20. The Bears get 9 yards back on a pass to Jordan Veasy, but a stuffed run on 2nd down puts Cal in a tough passing down and Ross Bowers isn’t able to find anybody open downfield.

3rd drive of the game: Following UCLA’s fumble, Addison Ooms commits a false start before the first play of the drive. Bowers throws the ball away on 1st down, a Laird run gains 7 on 2nd down, and Bowers makes an inaccurate throw on 3rd down.

4th drive of the game: 1st and 10 from the UCLA 22. Cal runs the ball on 1st and 2nd down, gaining 5 yards total. Bowers throws to Kanawai Noa . . . who is at the line of scrimmage rather than the first-down marker, for no gain.

6th drive of the game: Cal has driven 49 yards to the UCLA 20. A solid run from Vic Enwere gains 5 yards on 1st down, but Curhan commits a false start. Cal takes a shot into the endzone to Vic Wharton on 2nd down that had a chance, but UCLA breaks up the throw. Bowers can’t find a receiver on 3rd down and throws the ball away.

10th drive of the game: Cal has 1st and 10 from the UCLA 26. Laird runs for a solid 5 yards on first down, which is immediately negated by a penalty for illegal substitution. Bowers completes two passes to set up 4th and 3, but gets sacked on an empty set play when a blitzer comes unblocked past the left side of the line.

11th drive of the game: Cal has first and goal from the 4, but two runs to Laird net just 2 yards. On 3rd and goal, Cal basically runs a two-man pick-play route, hoping to spring Noa on the far left. I think you could perhaps argue that the throw was a little late, but this play doesn’t work mostly because UCLA’s corner plays the route really, really well.

Conclusions from the above about Cal’s drive finishing struggles?

Well, let’s start with the obvious, which is that penalties are bad. On four different occasions, Cal drove inside the UCLA 30, then committed a penalty—and Cal was never able to recover. If Cal’s offense excels at anything, it’s their ability to consistently pick up small chunks of yards. If Cal’s offense struggles at anything, it’s their inability to gain large chunks with any frequency. This offense cannot play behind the chains—and that was in full effect. On two of the occasions above, Cal actually gained 10 or more yards in their set of downs . . . but asking them to gain 15 or 20 in three plays is too much.

What I don’t see is some sort of play-calling failure. Are there little things that I’d quibble with? Sure. I don’t like going empty on 4th and 3 when the threat of a Patrick Laird run would have kept UCLA’s pass rush honest. I didn’t love the mesh route on the 4th drive of the game, although that may have been the mistake of either the receivers or Bowers for not throwing to a receiver at the sticks. But generally, Cal was running the exact same offense with the exact same run/pass ratio that got them into plus territory in the first place.

Cal’s offense failed inside the 30 for the same reasons the offense has generally struggled all year long. And it’s an issue that we’ve talked about before and has to be discussed again now.

UCLA had absolutely zero respect for Cal’s ability to throw downfield

The game direction wasn’t great and it was often hard to see what was going on downfield, but you could tell from the way UCLA lined up, from the struggles Cal had completing pretty basic short routes, and from where UCLA defenders were when throws did get off: UCLA cornerbacks and safeties were right up on the line of scrimmage, closely defending any and all short throws—and daring Cal to try to throw deep.

Cal could not throw deep. Cal has not been able to throw deep all year.

The Bears are 120th in the country in pass plays for 30 yards or more, with just nine. They occupy a place in the rankings populated by teams that range from Power 5 teams without a viable quarterback to triple-option schemes.

There are many reasons why Cal has been unable to throw the ball deep and we’ve talked about them all year. There’s no need to rehash the why. More important are the results. Winnable games ended up as losses in large part because of this one significant weakness. For my money, it’s the number-one area to address for Cal’s coaches between now and September of 2018.

Regarding the likely departure of Beau Baldwin

As is often the case when coaches voluntarily leave, there were a whole bunch of bad “You’re leaving? Well, good riddance!” takes in the immediate aftermath.

To be clear, Cal’s offense was not good this year and that is supported by pretty much any metric you might want to cite. And I suppose if one wanted to be stubbornly reductive, one could conclude that bad Cal offense in 2017 must mean that Beau Baldwin is a bad offensive coordinator.

But do we really need to rehash what he inherited? Do we really need to say, again, that Cal lost 4,306 yards from scrimmage (out of 6,158) due to graduation/injury, plus the quarterback that threw them the ball, plus four out of six players who got significant playing time on the offensive line?

I am of the opinion that Baldwin wrung about as much production out of the healthy players he inherited as was reasonably possible. Even if you disagreed with that contention, it would be a mistake to vastly overvalue what he accomplished this year in comparison to his years of excellent coaching results at Eastern Washington.

If Cal loses Beau Baldwin, it’s entirely possible that Cal brings in somebody just as good or even better. But losing him—and adding the risk that he is replaced by somebody inferior or somebody who leads to a year of transition costs—is a real concern. Baldwin leaving is very much not a good thing.

Defense

Efficiency Report

13 drives: 3 touchdowns, 3 FGA (3–3), 6 punt, 1 turnover (fumble), 2.3 points/drive. Cal defense season average: 2.5 points/drive. UCLA offense season average: 2.72 points/drive

(2.3+2.72) / 2 = ~2.5, so you could say that this game pretty much went exactly as expected. The Bears held UCLA slightly below both their season average efficiency and Cal’s defensive season average efficiency, which should’ve been enough to win the game. Cal did a bit worse against the pass than I hoped, but made up for it by playing the run well and getting a number of big negative plays to help end drives. Ten different negative running plays/sacks helped end a variety of UCLA drives. Kudos to Cal’s front 7/demerits to UCLA’s iffy offensive line and running backs for causing them.

Nobody could do anything about Jordan Lasley

UCLA passing game when throwing to Jordan Lasley: 12–14, 227 yards (16.2 yards/attempt)

UCLA passing game when throwing to anybody else: 15–22, 176 yards (8 yards/attempt)

And thus, the power of one special athlete. Lasley was virtually unguardable and both Josh Rosen and Devon Modster were perfectly comfortable throwing the ball up for grabs in his direction, confident that he would make a play on the ball. I think it’s safe to say that if you take him away, Cal probably wins this game.

Similar to last week and Stanford’s bigger, veteran WRs, Cal’s younger CBs struggled in a very tough matchup. Again, these is the type of battles I expect them to win much more frequently as sophomores.

On the bright side, Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks combined for 14 tackles, all solo. For CBs, they are excellent tacklers. Let’s hope they don’t need to make as many next year. Really, everybody on defense have been solid tacklers, which is probably the single biggest difference between this year and last year on the defensive side of the ball.

Special Teams

A clear win, but for two critical plays

Cal won the punting and kickoff battle pretty decisively. Dylan Klumph probably had his best game of the season and Gabe Siemieniec’s kicks were, as always, to the goalline or further. UCLA struggled on their few kickoff returns and had no punt returns of note. Vic Wharton had one nice return of his own. Add it all up and Cal had a decent field position advantage that helped explain how Cal got deep into UCLA territory so often despite a yards/play deficit.

Two plays obviously stand out: Matt Anderson’s missed 46-yard field goal and Ashtyn Davis’ running-into-the-kicker penalty. The former was 3 points that Cal could have had, but didn’t; the latter allowed UCLA to continue a drive and eventually get a field goal of their own.

Both were understandable. Expecting Matt Anderson to be perfect is asking a lot. Field goal kickers who can make 80% of their kicks are pretty valuable, which is exactly what Anderson has been both this season and within this game. And against many other coaches, Davis’ penalty would’ve been forgotten because they wouldn’t have attempted the 4th-and-1 conversion from their own 32 so early in the game.

Coaching/Game Theory

Two interesting decisions

Decision #1

30 seconds into the 4th quarter, Cal trailing by 7. Cal faces a 4th and 3 from the UCLA 19. Do you kick a 36-yard field goal or go for the conversion and the chance of a touchdown?

Arguments in favor of kicking the field goal: Matt Anderson is money from inside 40 yards (12–13 on the season) and the offense has been struggling enough that it’s fair to have concerns about gaining 3 yards.

Arguments in favor of going for it: At that point in time it’s a fair guess that you’re only going to have two more possessions in regulation. If you kick a field goal here you still are going to have to score a touchdown later, and if UCLA scores in any of the 2–3 possessions they are likely to get then your field goal might not be worth very much.

Hindsight (losing by 3 points) makes the decision look particularly bad. But to be fair, there were plenty of people vocally disagreeing with the decision right when it was made, without knowing how the rest of the game was going to play out.

For my money, I would’ve gone for it, but it was a pretty marginal decision. My thinking: we couldn’t afford to keep settling for field goals. I was more afraid of UCLA running away with the game by continuing to score and I’m generally going to side with the more aggressive decision barring extreme scenarios anyway. Having said that—and as noted above—I didn’t particularly care for the play call.

Decision #2

Why, exactly did Justin Wilcox not call any of his timeouts as UCLA drove for the game winning field goal? With three timeouts left, it’s possible that he could have preserved some time for Cal’s offense to respond to a made (or missed) field goal.

For me, this was a clearly wrong decision . . . that also probably didn’t impact the final result. If Wilcox HAD used his timeouts, I think the most likely result was that the UCLA offense would have used the extra time to run more plays to get further down the field and drain the clock anyway, before hitting an even shorter field goal.

But at a minimum there wasn’t really any downside to calling timeouts after UCLA got to 1st and 10 from the Cal 25. Using those timeouts might have preserved something like 30 seconds if UCLA isn’t able to get another 1st down. Is it likely that the Cal offense could get 3 points in 30 seconds? Nah. But I’d rather have the chance.

Big Picture

Let’s change three plays for the entire season.

One: Jordan Duncan is able to come down with Ross Bowers’ contested pass for the game winning two-point conversion against Arizona.

Two: Ross Bowers throws underneath for an easy 15-yard gain rather than deep for a Stanford interception.

Three: On 3rd and goal from the 2, Cal converts for the touchdown against UCLA and doesn’t have to settle for a field goal.

If you change those 3 plays, I’d guess that Cal goes 7–5 on the season. Potentially 8–4!

Now, be honest. Ask yourself two questions:

  1. If Cal converted those three plays and went 8–4 on the season, would your view on the 2017 season be significantly different?
  2. If Cal converted those three plays and went 8–4 on the season, should your view on the 2017 season be significantly different?

If most people are being honest, the answer to question one is yes. If Cal were 8–4 right now and prepping for a trip to the Sun Bowl, we’d all be thrilled—and wondering if the athletic department is planning extensions for the coaching staff. Wins are as intoxicating as losses are poisonous.

The indisputably correct answer to question two is no. Three marginal plays (out of 1780 total plays from scrimmage) should not meaningfully change your view of the entire season.

The final ledger shows that in 2017, Cal football comfortably won 5 games; comfortably lost 4 games; and played 3 coin-flip games, losing all 3. Considering the state of the roster that Wilcox inherited—and subsequent injuries to critical players—I think that’s a solid level of performance to build upon. If nothing else, Wilcox and his staff were able to maintain a similar level of performance from the previous season despite having to install their own schemes and plays. If this is, in fact, the baseline under Wilcox, then we’re starting with a solidly high floor.

The key part there is “build upon”. 5–7 (2–7) won’t be received charitably by Cal fans next year and I think everybody within and around the program is accepting of higher expectations.

That Cal couldn’t finish the season with a bowl season is frustrating, in part because this has been an enjoyable team to watch, in part because the extra practice time would have been nice, and mostly because this collection of players deserved the reward of a bowl trip.

But it should mean more time for recruiting. Cal has been mired in the general vicinity of 7th/8th in Pac-12 recruiting rankings for the last few years and if this staff is going to truly turn the program around, that’s where they can do it. Time to bring in the next generation of Golden Bears.