As I watched Cal struggle to put away Weber State from Section R, I kept thinking about two quotes that were talking points in the world of college football this past week:
If we all thought that we were going to come in here and in nine months sprinkle some fairy dust on this team and think that we’ve arrived then we’re wrong.
That’s like, when I got here, everybody wanted me to say Jim Tressel left the cupboard bare. If I heard any assistant coach [say that], they’d be gone. You’re done. Those are your players. I hear TV guys [say], ‘Wait until they get their own players in there.’ They’re our players. What do you mean ‘their players?’ The minute you sign a contract, they’re your players.
The first quote is from Texas coach Tom Herman, in the aftermath of watching his team lose to Maryland. The second quote is from Urban Meyer, in response to Herman’s quotes. And I’m guessing you can all imagine why they’re relevant to this particular season of Cal football.
Last week, following a performance that surpassed most everybody’s expectations, we all allowed ourselves to briefly believe in a world where the new coaching regime was going to (quickly!) fix all of the problems created by the previous coaching regime—and without creating any new problems of their own!
This week, following a performance that fell far below everybody’s expectations, we are now fearing a world where the new coaching regime is not going to be able to fix all of the problems created by the previous regime—and perhaps may also create problems of their own.
The reality, of course, is that the truth lies somewhere in between the statements of Herman and Meyer. Coaching absolutely matters, and the right coach can achieve significantly better results than the wrong coach with the same group of players. And while a coach should never say it out loud, talent certainly matters too. Many, many coaches inherit problems that can only be remedied by success on the recruiting trail.
Much of the 2017 Cal football season will be defined by that question. Which position groups can be fixed with coaching, practice, and development? And which position groups cannot be fixed this year and must be fixed through recruiting?
11 drives: 4 touchdowns, 2 FGA (2–2), 4 punts, 1 turnovers (1 fumble), 3.0 points/drive
It’s worth nothing that the above includes a field goal drive in which Cal gained 12 yards on 6 plays. The offense scored a touchdown on their first drive, then basically went dormant until late in the 3rd quarter, when the coaching staff went all in on Patrick Laird as the source of the vast majority of Cal’s offense.
In the end Cal’s production (3 points/drive, just short of 7 yards/play) looks deceptively solid for a game against an FCS team. Here’s one way to consider Saturday’s game:
Yards/play, Patrick Laird: 15.3
Yards/play, every single other Cal Bears: 4.7
4.7 yards/play is in the ballpark of what teams like Kansas and Boston College put up last year. It’s great that Patrick Laird has burst onto the scene as a very productive player. Based on the evidence against Weber State, either he needs to keep that type of production up or the rest of his teammates are really going to have to step up, because the secret is out.
Options at running back
Tre Watson is hurt and may or may not be out for some period of time. Vic Enwere, for whatever reason, has not been effective (more on that below). Thus, thank goodness for Patrick Laird. At first I was attributing his success to surprise—that, perhaps, Weber State was suspecting a passing play when Laird enters the game. But it’s also clear that he’s faster and shiftier than you would typically expect from a former walk-on 3rd stringer. And it was that combination of unexpected attributes that won Cal a game that otherwise hung in the balance.
Prior to his injury, Tre had been reasonably effective, but hadn’t been breaking off big plays. Enwere (who admittedly is getting mostly short-yardage carries) is averaging fewer than 2 yards/carry. Cal desperately needs somebody who can break off big plays in the running game, and that man appears to be Laird.
Vic Enwere has always graded out well by scouts, so it’s surprising to see him struggle. If I had to speculate, I’d say that Cal’s current line is not suited well for his particular skill set. Vic’s great at breaking tackles, particularly once he’s already moving downhill. But Cal’s line has not been great at the point of attack, particularly when the opponent is expecting a run. The best attribute a Cal running back can have right now is the ability to quickly shift gears in the face of iffy blocking and I don’t think that plays to Enwere’s strengths. But he’ll certainly continue to have a role as Cal’s short-yardage back at a minimum.
More worrying lack of downfield passing
This is a little bit rough because I haven’t rewatched the game (you should probably pay for Nam’s pass charting), but only seven Cal catches went for 10+ yards, and I’m pretty sure a few of those were shorter passes that included yards after catch to get to 10+. I do think that Cal’s offense is generally capable of 10- to 15-yard routes, but true deep shots have been almost completely lacking after two games. I don’t know if that’s a function of protection fears or a function of Bowers’ skill set, but Cal has a nationally elite go-route runner in Demetris Robertson and I’m worried it’s a skill set that the Bears aren’t currently capable of exploiting.
12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (2–2), 2 punts, 6 turnovers (3 fumbles, 3 downs), 1.67 points/drive
Here’s an example where in-game efficiency feels very deceptive. Quite simply, the Cal defense got lucky. Consider:
- Weber’s first drive of the second half ends with a failed fake field goal. Obviously that could have been 3 points. Our group in the stands were wondering why an offense averaging (at that point) nine yards/play wouldn’t just keep their offense on the field.
- Weber’s third drive of the second half ends when their tight end catches a first-down pass and rumbles towards midfield, before Raymond Davison forces a fumble. Good on the Cal defense for forcing the fumble, but the play itself worked and Weber could have easily had a first down at midfield in the 4th quarter when the game was still tied.
- Weber’s fourth drive of the second half covered 62 yards and included two plays in which wide-open receivers who would have easily scored were missed solely because of bad throws, including the final 4th-down conversion failure.
- Weber’s final drive (which, admittedly, included plenty of prevent defense from Cal) covered 75 yards and again included open receivers in the end zone who were completely missed.
The Cal defense held down what looks likely to be a pretty excellent FCS offense, but a few key plays went in our favor through dumb luck—and that prevented Weber State from converting their 571 (!!!) total yards into actual points on the scoreboard. Better teams will not make those same mistakes.
The good news
Last year, Cal’s run defense was abysmal. The defensive line was consistently beaten at the point of attack and linebackers and safeties were constantly out of position to make tackles at the first and second levels.
I still have significant concerns about Cal’s line holding up at the point of attack, but I don’t think that many teams will be gashing Cal because, with two games worth of evidence, I’m confident in saying that our linebackers and safeties are generally going to be in position to make tackles. If that means lots of 4- and 5-yard runs, so be it. That’s a damn sight better than consistently getting gashed for 10+ yards at a time.
For the 2nd week in a row, Cal’s opponents were able to consistently get push for 3–4 yards, and occasionally got ~10-yard runs, but for the most part, Cal’s run defense held firm.
The bad news
Some defenses can get consistent pressure on the quarterback. Others can play excellent coverage in the secondary. Great Ds do both and bad Ds do neither. Against Weber St., Cal struggled to do either.
I was OK with iffy pass rush vs. conservative UNC, but Weber going deep on us easily borders on territory— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) September 9, 2017
Valued reader atomsareenough correctly pointed out that Weber St. was frequently in max protect—keeping a tight end or two and a running back in to block—meaning that only two or three receivers were actually running patterns against Cal’s secondary.
No matter your particular pet peeve, it’s disturbing that an FCS team was able to rather easily go deep without either getting sacked or giving up interceptions/pass break-ups. Giving up 9.6 yards/attempt would be bad against most any opponent—and certainly is a red flag against Weber State.
I haven’t rewatched the game yet, so it’s hard to say if there was one particular issue that stood out above the others. I certainly saw a play where Cal CBs were beaten one-on-one. I saw plays where we seemed to lose players in zone coverage. There was one play towards the end when a receiver on the edge was simply not covered by anybody. And, in classic Cal tradition, we struggled with a tight end running patterns over the middle.
Already down two starters on defense?
Against UNC, Cal started Jaylinn Hawkins at safety and Cameron Saffle at outside (rush) linebacker. Neither played against Weber State. I’m assuming both absences were due to injury, but it’s entirely clear that this coaching staff will be extremely tight-lipped about any kind of personnel news.
And both absences play into a couple issues. Saffle is probably Cal’s best pass rush option at linebacker. Meanwhile, you get the sense that the coaching staff is looking for answers at safety, playing Luke Rubenzer for the majority of the 2nd half after only playing him (as far as I’m aware) at special teams against UNC.
Just keep avoiding the game-changing play
Again, it was a day in which Cal didn’t make many mistakes in special teams (though some snap issues on the missed PAT are concerning). And were it not for two interesting decisions, there would likely be nothing much worth talking about. But:
- TUTTLE, Trey kickoff 14 yards to the WEB49, onside kick, recovered by CAL Tartabull, Quentin on WEB49.
- CANTWELL, S. rush for no gain to the CAL14 (Tartabull, Quentin). Fake field goal.
Weber State tried to make two game-changing plays on special teams—and Cal thwarted both attempts. The first was a reasonably well-executed onside kick attempt and full credit to the Bears (notably Tartabull) who sniffed it out and were ready to compete for the ball. Cal probably got a little lucky that it deflected to one of their guys rather than one of Weber’s guys, but not giving Weber St. an extra possession turned out to be pretty damned important.
The fake field goal looked like a situation where they probably should have audibled out of the play call because Cal simply had more defenders in the area than Weber had blockers. Still, kudos to Cal’s special teamers for again being ready for the possibility of a fake.
Solid kickoff numbers
In seven kickoffs, Matt Anderson and Gabe Siemieniec got consistently solid distance, and six of seven kicks resulted in Weber starting from their 25-yard line or worse. Now if the kicking units can keep that up against FBS opponents, we’ll be in business.
Coaching/Game Theory errata
Slavish devotion to game theory take the joy out of football!
When Patrick Laird was racing down the sidelines for Cal’s final touchdown, I was the weirdo motioning for him to go down inside the 5-yard line so that Cal could kneel three times and (basically) end the game. That’s also zero fun and I certainly don’t blame Laird for scoring. It was scary, though, when Cal missed a PAT,and when Weber ALMOST scored a touchdown with about 50 seconds left—I started having Arizona 2014 flashbacks. Thankfully Weber didn’t hit on their .01% chance of coming back from down 13 points with 1:10 left.
Week 1 made us think vintage Tedford. Week 2 made us think about the darkness of 2013. The reality will probably be somewhere in between.
It’s true that struggling with FCS teams is typically a harbinger of bad seasons. But, to take one example that we hope is instructive: In Chris Petersen’s first year at Washington, his Huskies nearly lost a crazy game to Eastern Washington. That didn’t stop them from eventually finishing 8–6 in what was a very successful transition year.
Which brings us back to the conundrum posed at the beginning of this article. What can this coaching staff do this year and what will need to be addressed via recruiting?
I think we’ve already seen great progress at linebacker, which is suddenly 8- or 9-deep after struggling to find 3 bodies all of last season. We’re probably not going to get the type of play that Wilcox has had in the past with, say, T.J. Watt or Shaq Thompson, but you’re generally going to get positionally-solid tackling that limits the run game. Which is what we wanted.
Cornerbacks had a rough game against Weber, but you can see that there’s talent and depth that gives optimism for the current year.
It’s the lines and safeties that may take time. Right now, Cal only has six upperclassmen on the roster at offensive line and only four upperclassmen on the defensive line. Most of those guys are contributors, but it’s tough to have such limited numbers at a position where time in a strength and conditioning program, to say nothing of technique development, are so critical.
Meanwhile, Cal is still in a position at safety where there are at least three different players (Rubenzer, Derron Brown, Ashtyn Davis, and potentially Trey Turner and De’Zhon Grace) who have been converted from other positions. Perhaps the transition from cornerback/nickelback to safety isn’t the most extreme of switches, but we’re also moving guys from linebacker and quarterback, which is generally an indication that there’s a serious problem. Kudos to those players for transitioning to a position of need and doing their best to step up, but long-term, Cal needs their recruited safeties to step up. Quentin Tartabull looks likely to wrap up one spot at safety, but I think that second spot is very much still up for grabs.
None of the above will preclude Cal from being competitive. As unpleasant as struggling with Weber State was, it doesn’t erase beating UNC on the road. (BTW, top-25 Louisville’s per play advantage over UNC? 1.9 yards/play. Cal’s? 1.5. That’s in the ballpark.)
Really, this is just another piece of evidence that college football is one of the highest-variability sports on the planet, which is why it’s always so dangerous to overreact to one or two games. We all probably overreacted to last week’s win, but I’m more forgiving of overreacting in favor of fun and optimism because this is supposed to be fun, dammit.
So I wasn’t as surprised as many were when Cal opened as ‘only’ 2.5-point underdogs to Ole Miss. Are the Rebels a better team? Probably. But they have their own problems, both concrete and existential. The Bears have a reasonable shot at this one, particularly if they learn a few lessons from what could have been a much worse Saturday than it actually was.