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Post Game Thoughts: Oregon State

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NCAA Football: Oregon State at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Senior Day on the first Saturday in November is wrong.

I mean, I love closing out the home schedule of what feels like a sea change year with a win. I love this group of seniors, since they committed to Cal either in 2012 after Tedford got fired or in 2013 after Cal won one friggin’ game.

But it’s too early for nostalgia. Not with two rivalry games to play. Not with bowl eligibility to earn. And beating this particular iteration of Oregon State doesn’t exactly lead one to wax poetic.

Still, that Cal could confidently take care of business and lock up an expected win early in the fourth quarter is another small sign of progress. It’s the accumulation of those small signs of progress that has led to Cal securing their fifth win (as many as Sonny Dykes’ second-best season) with two left to play despite an injury list that isn’t so dissimilar from 2013.

True, playing on the road doesn’t make this an apples-to-apples comparison. But Cal just beat Oregon State while averaging 1 yard/play more than the Beavers . . . one week after OSU averaged .5 yards/play more than Stanford.

By the way, I’m still bitter about that Ryan Nall fumble.

Offense

Efficiency Report

9 drives: 4 touchdowns, 3 FGA (3–3), 0 punts (!), 2 turnovers (1 fumble, 1 downs), 4.11 points/drive. Cal offense season average: 1.95 points/drive. Oregon State defense season average: 3.33 points/drive

Excluded from the above: Cal’s final, awesome, 11-play, 6-minute clock-killing drive to end the game, which wasn’t designed to score points, but very much served its purpose.

There were basically two meaningfully bad things that happened all day for the offense: Cal’s odd inability to gain two yards on three plays, leading to a turnover on downs, and Patrick Laird’s fumble on first and goal. Everything else was a level of dominance we are very much not used to seeing from Cal’s offense.

True, Cal’s 6.2 yards/play isn’t exactly scorched earth-offense, but a 49% success rate* over 76 plays will generally net you plenty of points. I’m almost disappointed that the game was played at a snail’s pace and Cal only had 9 possessions to rack up points. If Cal had put up a Sonny-Dykes-esque 14 possessions they’d have broken 50 easily.

*49% is the same success rate Oklahoma put up in the Bedlam game, to give you a sense of comparison.

A quietly efficient afternoon

Was I the only one shocked to open up the box score on Sunday and see that Ross Bowers completed 80% of his passes? Bowers’ previous single-game high was 71% against Weber St.—and he hadn’t done better than 61% (oddly, against UW) since.

And while it wasn’t exactly a game full of deep shots, it’s not like Bowers was content to dump the ball off for a series of easy completions. His two touchdown passes were picture-perfect lofted passes to the corners of the end zone and he was regularly hitting his receivers on 10-yard intermediate routes. Bowers will likely never be a guy to go 20+ yards downfield with much frequency, but we saw him generally hit the throws this offense asks of him.

Again, the strength of opposition has to be factored in—OSU’s pass defense is the worst in the conference by a decent chunk. But Bowers still had to make the throws and he performed better against OSU than the average opponent. The offense has been quietly solid in its own special way since clearing (stumbling over?) the USC/Oregon/Washington hurdle.

A good Big Game omen?

Oregon State is a bad team and generally speaking, don’t have a ton in common with Stanford. But both teams do share one similar weakness: run defense. OSU is ninth in the Pac-12, allowing 4.69 yards/run, while Stanford is a massive .01 yards/run ahead of the Beavers. Hell, in conference play only OSU actually nudges a bit ahead.

That doesn’t necessarily mean Cal will do to the Cardinal what they just did on Senior Day to OSU—Colorado, for example, has a pretty suspect rushing defense and Cal didn’t do much against the Buffs. But Cal had a couple changes to their line on Saturday, getting Patrick Mekari back and giving Michael Saffell his first start at right guard. If Cal is both getting healthy and finding their best line configuration at the right time, then they will be facing a team vulnerable to what the Bears might be able to do on offense.

Defense

Efficiency Report

9 drives: 2 touchdowns, 3 FGA (3–3), 4 punts, 0 turnovers, 2.56 points/drive. Cal defense season average: 2.48 points/drive. Oregon State offense season average: 1.51 points/drive.

On one hand, allowing Oregon State to have a solid day (by their very, very meager standards) isn’t super impressive. On the other hand, we’re talking about a Cal defense that is missing three of their four preseason starters at linebacker, so I’m not exactly expecting Cal to hold teams down like they occasionally did earlier in the season. On a day where OSU played it mostly safe on offense and didn’t turn the ball over, Cal’s defense did its job.

Did Oregon State save everything for Cal?

The Beavers broke out a flea-flicker and a halfback throw back, plus a few different sharp misdirection throws that made me think they were keeping some of their best plays for what the coaches perhaps picked out as their most winnable game of the year. Unfortunately for the Beavers . . .

Sometimes you win just by showing up

. . . they couldn’t stop shooting themselves in the foot. One OSU drive ended when their pass catcher tripped over himself one-yard short on 3rd down. Another ended on a 3rd-down drop. Another drive was killed by an offensive pass interference. Generally speaking, the OSU offense didn’t look particularly sharp and that’s going to be a problem when you’re a team that’s inherently limited to start. Luckily Cal got enough early-down run stuffs and forced enough incomplete passes that OSU couldn’t make up for their self-inflicted wounds.

Special Teams

Matt Anderson, Cal career record holder

When the PA announcer let the crowd know that Matt Anderson passed Doug Brien for most career points in Cal history, I think most everybody’s reaction was “Bear Raid inflation”.

And that’s kinda fair. The 101 extra points kicked by Matt Anderson in 2015 and 2016 don’t hurt. But on senior day, let’s appreciate the fact that Matt Anderson is probably the best placekicker in Cal history.

For his career, Matt Anderson is currently 54–66 on all field goals. That’s an 81% success rate. For comparison— Doug Brien hit 70% of his kicks, Jim Breech managed 63%, and Ryan Longwell hit just 56%. Anderson is a stunning 38–40 from inside 40 yards and an impressive 16–26 from outside 40 yards.

This wasn’t some sort of cheap record. Anderson needs just three more field goals to break Brien’s record for most in school history—and he will almost certainly end his Cal career with the highest percentage of made kicks as well.

Nailing three kicks of 30+ yards in a six-point win over Washington in 2015. Putting the game winner against ASU dead on the money. Canning a 52-yard kick to send the Arizona game to overtime. In moments of high stress and low, Matt Anderson came through—and replacing him is a problem that might fly under the radar next year.

Just never return a kick out of the end zone

Cal and Oregon State combined for 13 kickoffs. Three of them were touchbacks, and the other 10 were returned. Only two of those made it past the 25—and both only barely. Which continues a theme we’ve seen all season long. Hell, you can see it nationally—only 18 teams in the country average more than 25 yards/kickoff return. Unless you’re Devin friggin’ Hester, if that ball forces you back into the endzone, you take a knee.

Coaching/Game Theory

Time to start constructing that kitchen sink

OK, fine, this doesn’t really have anything to do with the Oregon State game—which, let’s be honest, isn’t super intriguing to analyze because the better team played like the better team and won.

So let’s talk about the fact that Cal has two weeks to prepare for a game that means everything.

Of the many things that frustrated me about the Sonny Dykes era, chief among them was how his teams performed against Stanford and the decisions he made during each Big Game. His first two Big Games were inevitable blowouts, but in both 2015 and 2016, Dykes spurned chances to make decisions that might have kept Cal close in games that ended up being 13- and 14-point defeats, respectively. Here’s what I wrote last year:

No trick plays, no gutsy decisions, no particularly obvious wrinkles. Just a meek surrender to Stanford as soon as they got up 14 points in the 2nd half. With a bowl on the line, against your bitter rivals, with the fan base quickly giving in to either anger or apathy, the coaching staff gave in.

This coaching staff isn’t meek. This coaching staff doesn’t give in. I’m beyond excited to see the kitchen sink they build.

Big Picture

In an article that is ostensibly about the Oregon State game, I have mentioned Stanford three or four times. Can you tell where my head is at?

Like I said above, I’m plenty happy that Cal did the needful and beat a truly bad Oregon State team. I think many of us were worried that Cal would play down to their opponent—and for brief stretches, the Bears did. But most of the game was an exercise in expected control and that’s certainly praise-worthy.

But everybody is thinking about Stanford. Media post-game asked about it. The players brought it up semi-unprompted. It’s been seven goddamn long, miserable years since the Axe was in the right place. If Cal beats Stanford, the 2017 season is the most successful Cal season since at least 2009—and starts to rebuild a shattered fan base.

True, I’ll be thinking plenty about the start of basketball season (double header this Friday!) over the next two weeks. But in the back of my head I’ll be thinking about how Stanford regularly plays two bad quarterbacks, and how their defense is the worst they’ve had in like 8 years, and how David Shaw loves punting, and how they’ve absolutely wasted a Heisman candidate running back and . . . well, you get the point.

Happy Hate Fortnight.