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Post Game Thoughts: Ole Miss

We struttin’ on the SEC here

NCAA Football: Mississippi at California Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

When Cameron Goode fell into the endzone, our little piece of Section R devolved into an uncontrolled collection of limbs and loud, joyful noises. I briefly lost my glasses in the impromptu mosh pit. If somebody had stepped on them I’d have considered it an acceptable loss.

When the clock hit zero, Reef and Nam exchanged cathartic shouting that ended with vaguely coherent references to ‘12-0’ and ‘Pasadena.’

After clearing the Bancroft steps, we happened upon the Ole Miss equipment truck, which made for a perfect chance at celebratory photos, posing in front of a vanquished enemy.

It was the type of game that led to exchanges of ‘Go!’ ‘Bears!’ with whichever excited fan or rowdy frat you happened to encounter on the walk away from the stadium.

If there was a single thing disappointing about the game, it was that only 37,125 people were in attendance. Don’t get me wrong, I understand why. Games like this have been too few and too far between over the last decade. 7:30 starts are rough (I didn’t get home until 1:50). There are plenty of fans that aren’t going to show up until this team proves that they’re the real deal.

I was thinking about this while surrounded by a group that was mostly forged during the heights of the Tedford era and hasn’t give up on the Bears despite seven seasons with a combined conference record of 19-44. Roughly two classes of students have passed through Berkeley without experiencing football that might convince them to keep showing up at Memorial Stadium year after year.

Don’t get me wrong - I loved every second of Saturday’s game, even with Memorial barely half full. But we all remember what it was like the last time an SEC team made the mistake of scheduling a road game in Berkeley. That’s what I want to see in Cal’s future.

This game was a necessary step in that direction. This is the type of game that can begin the rebuilding of the fan base.


Efficiency Report

12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 4 FGA (2–4), 5 punts, 1 turnover (1 interception), 1.67 points/drive

Excluded drives: Cal’s final drives of the 1st and 2nd halves. You could debatably include the final drive of the first half, but I think Cal was just as concerned with not giving Ole Miss another chance as they were with actually scoring.

If Matt Anderson had a better day Cal might’ve scored 2.17 points/drive, but if the offense is going to make a habit of creating a bunch of 40+ yard field goal attempts then we’ll all have to live with occasional misses.

At the game, I was pretty down on the performance of the offense. And it can’t be denied that from an efficiency standpoint, this wasn’t a very good performance. Just above 2 points/drive and 4.5 yards/play isn’t very good unless you’re facing an elite defense, which almost certainly doesn’t describe Ole Miss. But I think there are positives to consider, so let’s dive in.

Ross Bowers CAN throw the ball down the field

Completing only 24 of 47 passes typically isn’t going to get many raves - just barely over 50% completion percentages aren’t much to write home about. But within the context of the game and the defense the Bears were facing, I was generally very pleased with the throws Bowers was making.

By my count Bowers made eleven different throws that were catchable balls but were either broken up (or interfered with, dammit*), dropped, or difficult catches that receivers couldn’t come down with. I only counted five passes that were basic inaccurate throws, and one of them might have been an intentional throw away.

Of larger concerns are bad reads. There was a comeback route that the cornerback was all over that could have been picked, and a couple throws where Bowers probably had more time to find receivers that were more open than the targets he picked out. But those all pale in comparison to the end zone interception that took at least three points off the board.

Still, it was a very encouraging game, because we saw Bowers make throws that we didn’t necessarily know he had the ability to make. Those sideline throws to Vic Wharton? Some posts and slants over the middle to Noa? That sideline out throw to Singleton? All more or less on the money. Mix that in with what we already knew - that he’s willing to stand strong in the pocket in the face of pressure, and that he can keep plays alive with his mobility - and you can see the ingredients that earned him the starter’s nod.

I can’t decide if I loved or hated that crazy dive run - stay healthy Ross!

*I’m totally cool with our coach fighting for calls for his players rather than wasting his time jawing with an opposing assistant coach for no good reason.

The challenge of life without Demetris Robertson and Melquise Stovall

You want variety in your receiver corps, right? You want your burners to stretch the field, your nifty slot receivers to get open on short routes, your reliable hands on possession receivers. Cal started the year with plenty of that versatility.

But with Stovall and Robertson out, Cal has a surplus of possession type receivers and a deficit of speedsters to go deep. And as a consequence Cal’s pass catchers struggled to get separation from Mississippi DBs for much of the game. Hence the five credited pass breakups and a number of other well contested balls that otherwise could have been completions.

Will every team Cal’s schedule be able to play coverage the way Ole Miss did? Hard to say, and I think it’s worth noting that the Rebel defense started to wear down as Cal eventually racked up 88 offensive snaps. But it’s an issue worth monitoring until Cal gets back their most athletic deep threat. Get healthy Demetris!


Efficiency Report

14 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1–2), 6 punts, 4 turnovers (3 interceptions, 1 turnover on downs), 1.14 points/drive

So. My mind is having trouble reconciling two different POVs on Cal’s defensive performance. One side of my mind is saying “Hey, that was great, but Ole Miss spent plenty of time shooting themselves in the foot.” The other part of me is saying “ARGLEBARGLE 43 MINUTE SHUTOUT OF AN SEC OFFENSE?!?!?!!!!1”

Both things can be true, of course. Ole Miss absolutely put themselves in a variety of tough situations via unsportsmanlike penalties, illegal blocking penalties, and a slew of false starts and delays (because SEC teams can’t handle Pac-12 crowd noise, natch). But previous defenses would still have given up conversions and points, whereas this defense punished Ole Miss for their self-inflicted errors.

Cal, thus far, has been a very bend-but-don’t-break defense. Prior to the UNC game, Cal’s defense was ranked 118th nationally in success rate and 33rd nationally in Explosiveness (ISOPPP) which is a fancystat way of saying that they had been good at preventing big plays but bad at stopping teams from moving the ball in small chunks. And that style can work if the opponent is going to hurt themselves with mistakes.

What exactly changed after the first five drives?

Mississippi’s first five drives of the game resulted in 245 total yards (11.67 yards/play) and 17 points. Only two tip drill interceptions prevented the game from maybe getting completely out of hand early.

From that point onward, Ole Miss totaled just 171 yards (3.29 yards/play) and zero points.

It’s possible that there was some sort of critical defensive wrinkle that allowed the defense to so completely change the tenor of the game. But nothing so obvious that I was able to pick it up on my rewatch. But there were certainly factors that contributed in some fashion. In no particular order:

  • Ole Miss loses their #1 receiver to injury*
  • Ole Miss line is unsettled by absence of starting center
  • Cal switches to mostly nickel defense, and figures out that their best configuration in the secondary is to play three of Cam Bynum, Elijah Hicks, Traveon Beck and Darius Allensworth at cornerback with Jaylinn Hawkins and Quentin Tartabull at safety.

Ole Miss losing their #1 receiver made it that much easier for Cal’s DBs to contain pass catching options. Ole Miss losing their center led to procedure penalties that put the Rebels behind the chains and probably helped Cal’s pass rush get home more often. But I want to focus on item #3.

Cal’s 2nd half pass coverage was, relative to what we thought this group was capable of, spectacular. And much of the work was done by two freshmen and a senior who was shockingly relegated to back-up status prior to the season. I’m not entirely sure what Cal’s coaches saw in practice that made them think that Darius Allensworth wasn’t one of the 2 or 3 best cornerbacks, but when it comes to actual on-field production he was clearly the best cover corner last year, and he proved that he’s a critical member of the secondary on Saturday.

Cal’s pass rush was excellent (more on that below) but there were certainly a handful of plays where Shea Patterson had all day and still couldn’t find anybody because Cal’s secondary had the field blanketed. This feeling is both wonderful and confusing, but I think I can get used to it.

*Bonus TwistNHook Fact of the Game™: A.J. Brown is a noted human who plays for Ole Miss. He wears #1.

On Cal’s pass rush

When rewatching the game, I was specifically curious as to how Cal found so much success getting to Shea Patterson. As it turns out, there was no single answer to that question.

When coaches and commentators talk about the virtues of the 3-4 defense (at times more of a 3-3-5 against Ole Miss), this is the type of performance they point to. Cal got sacks from four different players, and QB hits from three others. There were safety blitzes, cornerback blitzes, and plenty of linebacker blitzes . . . except that it feels like a misnomer to call them blitzes, because Cal was generally only sending four guys at the quarterback. It’s just that it was different guys all the time.

Major props to Devante Downs, Cameron Goode, Ray Davison, and Alex Funches. Cal’s four most prominent linebackers each got home on various blitzes, and the guys who didn’t blitz generally caused difficulties for Shea Patterson by covering space over the middle. It was a display of unit wide versatility that frankly doesn’t seem possible based on everything we saw last year.

Do you in fact make your own turnover luck?

Four important stats:

  1. Cal offensive yards/play, all games combined: 5.83
  2. Cal defense, yards/play allowed, all games combined: 5.82
  3. Cal total offensive turnovers: 5, but one was a meaningless 2nd quarter hail mary interception so really 4
  4. Cal total defensive turnovers forced: 9

Right now, on a per play basis, Cal is exactly even with their opponents. And this has largely been true in each individual game. But the Bears are 3-0 because they have won the turnover battle decisively in each game.

One of the reasons that S&P+ isn’t very high on Cal is because advanced stats tend to view turnovers as inherently random and thus unsustainable. And I certainly agree that three turnovers forced/game is a lot. As in, last year’s national leaders in forced turnovers (Washington) forced 2.35/game. It’s basically impossible for Cal to keep up this pace. They were buoyed by fumble recovery luck against both UNC and Weber St.

But the turnovers Cal forced against Ole Miss? The first was broken up by Ray Davison, the second was broken up by Marloshawn Franklin, and the third was Cameron Goode getting himself in a passing lane in the middle of the field. Was it lucky that the tipped balls went to other defenders in the area? Yes. Was it lucky that Shea Patterson didn’t see Goode? Also yes. But when players are generally in the right area on 57 pass drop backs, tipped balls and players in passing lanes will generally happen. And that’s just one of many reasons why the Cal defense is so vastly improved.

Special Teams

A plus game from Dylan Klumph

An average of 46 net yards/punt on 5 punts is excellent, and on a few he added in solid directional punting to effectively kill off any chance of a return. True, a few were aided by friendly bounces, but on the whole it was a very encouraging game for the punting unit.

I’m only worried about Matt Anderson in the sense that I’m worried about literally every kicker

Anything over 40 yards is generally gonna be a nerve-wracking experience nationally, and we’re not much different. Mostly I just want the offense to not consistently need him to attempt the long ones.

Coaching/Game Theory

All I really want is for coaches to be ready to make a decision

Leading 17 to 16 early in the 4th quarter, Cal faced a 4th and 1 from the Mississippi 46. It’s the type of conversion that Justin Wilcox rightly elected to attempt twice in the first two games. But, perhaps because the Bears were leading in this case, he seemed to hesitate to make a decision and Cal had to burn a time out. Thankfully he sent the offense back onto the field, the Bears converted and eventually earned a field goal attempt. Even more thankfully, that wasted time out didn’t come back to haunt Cal. But there will be a game in the future when a timeout like that will be needed.

Regarding 4th down decision making

Easy decision, correct decision: The 4th and one mentioned above.

Easy decision, incorrect decision: The 4th and one from the Ole Miss two. I will never be convinced that field goals that are shorter than PATs are ever the right decision.

Medium difficulty decision, correct decision: 4th and 4 from the Ole Miss 43 on Cal’s first drive of the second half. We were all terrified if was gonna be a pooch punt but instead it was a huge conversion to Kanawai Noa.

The 19 yard field goal was the first game theory decision Wilcox has made that I particularly disagree with. By that point in the game Cal’s defense was well in control and I’d certainly trust them to defend a 98 yard field should the Bears have failed to gain half a yard.

But I’ll gladly take a 4th and 4 conversion attempt from field goal/punt no-man’s-land in compensation - that conversion was quietly one of the plays of the game.

Big Picture

We’ve had false dawns before. We all hoped that a road win over Northwestern, or two difference wins over Texas, represented turning points in the Dykes era. As it happened, those games were merely coin flips in our favor. In yet another proof of the Gambler’s Fallacy, those wins had no bearing on which side the coin landed in future games.

This feels different, but football cares not for feelings. Which is an ominous way to segue towards Cal’s next game against USC. The Trojans are among the most talented teams in the country, with two wins over Power five teams. Yet they have also looked vulnerable twice. After 16 years of misery it feels dumb to expect anything different, but who knows?

What is certainly true is that Cal has banked three wins. Two of them are over programs with names that mean something. This coaching staff now has something concrete to sell to fans and, more importantly, recruits.

We’re only three games into the season, and yet in a weird way it feels like the season is already a success. Expectations were so low that the Bears have practically met them halfway through September. Now is when we start finding out just how absurdly accelerated the rebuild is. vs. USC, at Oregon, at Washington, vs. Washington State. Perhaps the four best teams on the schedule, four weeks in a row.

It’s a slate that looks daunting, and Cal will certainly have to improve in certain facets to get through it with reasonable success. The Bears have proven most everybody wrong (yes, I’m in that category too) so far.

No point in stopping now.