For the first 45 minutes of the game, Cal had essentially played mistake-free football.
Three inconsequential five-yard penalties. One unlucky tipped pass interception. One fumble on a sack that was immediately erased by a USC fumble on the next play. A dropped pass that was more the fault of the sun than Patrick Laird. Perhaps a few missed tackles, but that was much more about trying to tackle 5 star uber athletes than anything Cal’s defenders were doing wrong.
No, the only real mistake in those first 45 minutes was a missed 29 yard field goal.
In other words, If Cal plays essentially mistake free football (which NEVER happens at the college level) then maybe they can take a 3 point lead into the 4th quarter against USC.
(And then a flurry of mistakes in the 4th quarter showed us what happens when shoot yourself in the foot against top 5 talent . . . which was something we damned well knew already.)
That’s really the perfect illustration of how far this team has come, and how far they still have to go. Justin Wilcox’s Bears are much more disciplined. They make fewer mental mistakes, and they force the other team to earn their wins. But they don’t yet have the sheer talent to turn a clean three quarters into a clear lead against a team with top 5 talent.
That fact is cold comfort after yet another loss to that accursed team, but cold comfort is significantly more than I’ve taken away from any other loss to USC in the last decade.
14 drives: 2 touchdowns, 3 FGA (2–3), 2 punts, 7 turnovers (4 interceptions, 2 fumbles, 1 turnover on downs), 1.43 points/drive
We knew going into this season that Cal was likely to take a step back on offense, and that the offense would likely be pretty fragile. And alas, both assumptions were true and that fragility has been exposed.
Simply speaking, this isn’t a team that can afford injuries, not with so many new contributors across the board. And yet, here we are 33% into the season with injuries to every position group except quarterback.
Throw that mix against the USC defense and you get an offense that averaged a point/possession until a garbage time touchdown against a prevent defense.
The good news, relatively speaking
I think there’s only one team on Cal’s schedule with the talent to pull off what USC did to Cal’s offense. Washington is legit, and that game could well get ugly. But otherwise the Pac-12 is full of defenses that range from OK (Washington St., Colorado) to iffy (Oregon, Stanford) to abjectly awful (Arizona, Oregon State, UCLA).
In other words, if Cal can get healthy and make strides as a unit, they could be well poised for a 2nd half of the season step forward.
Should Cal have run the ball more?
There was a spirited twitter debate regarding Cal’s run/pass balance, so I decided to take a closer look at Cal’s success rate running and passing the ball. The results (All numbers exclude any Cal drives that came after USC went up 17 points):
Cal success rate, runs, 1st half: 59%
Cal success rate, passes, 1st half: 31%
Cal success rate, runs, 2nd half: 33%
Cal success rate, passes, 2nd half: 38%
Cal success rate, runs, full game: 48%
Cal success rate, passes, full game: 33%
Conclusion: I’d have been OK with a bit more running, but I think many of the run/pass decisions were reasonably dictated by the down and distance circumstances. Cal passed 12 times vs. 8 runs on 1st and 10, which in retrospect is probably a touch high.
But the entire debate obscures a much more important reality: USC’s defensive line gradually took control in the trenches as the game went along, and that renders most of the debate academic.
13 drives: 3 touchdowns, 3 FGA (3–3), 3 punts, 4 turnovers (1 interception, 1 fumble, 2 turnover on downs), 2.3 points/drive
Amazing stat: Of USC’s 13 drives, only TWO netted more than 35 yards - and one of those long drives ended in an interception. Though, to be fair, who knows how many yards USC might’ve gained if they had been forced to go further than 4 and 33 yards on two of their touchdown drives.
You get the idea. USC’s offense started with consistently excellent field position, and against a lesser defense they probably would have pushed towards 45 or 50 points. As a matter of fact, we’re now far enough in the season that we can compare USC’s output against Cal to the rest of their opponents:
USC's offense this season:— Joey Kaufman (@joeyrkaufman) September 24, 2017
Western Mich.: 7.8 yards per play
Stanford: 8.4 yards per play
Texas: 5.3 yards per play
Cal: 4.7 yards per play
That number rises to 5.4 yards/play if you eliminate USC’s final 3 drives when they had pretty clearly shut things down with a three possession lead, but the larger point still stands - we’re starting to get concrete evidence that Cal’s defense is more than improved. They appear, in fact, to be the biggest strength of a likely bowl team.
Efficiency vs. Explosiveness
If you don’t follow the work of Bill Connelly and his S&P stats, you should. But for those not familiar, S&P ranks college football teams based upon their efficiency (ability to be successful on a high percentage of plays) and their explosiveness (ability to earn and/or prevent big plays). And right now, S&P+ does not like Cal’s statistical profile on either side of the ball.
Why don’t the advanced numbers like Cal’s defense? There are a few reasons, but the main reason is that opposing offenses have a pretty high success rate against the Cal defense. Cal’s opponents had successful plays 45% of the time (105th nationally) prior to USC, and the Trojans were successful 47%* of the time before 4th quarter garbage time.
So if teams are succeeding frequently against our defense, how exactly has the Cal defense been so good where it counts on the scoreboard? Three reasons:
- Preventing big plays
- Preventing opponents from finishing drives
We saw even more of the above against USC - forcing two turnovers, not allowing a single play longer than 19 yards, and forcing USC to stall out an impressive 7 times inside the Cal 41 yard line.
The problem is that there are reasons to believe that those types of traits aren’t necessarily very predictive of future success. Turnovers are inherently random unless you have an elite pass rush. Red zone defense probably isn’t a thing (it certainly isn’t at the NFL level). And now Bill C. has put in work that indicates that creating or preventing big plays isn’t very predictive either.
All of the above isn’t to suggest that Cal’s defense isn’t much better this year, or to suggest that everything that has happened so far has been lucky and is destined to come collapsing down. But it is a factor to watch over the rest of the season - can Cal’s defense improve on the success rate metric, and can they perhaps defy the numbers and continue to excel at what they are already doing well?
*USC came into the game with a success rate of 49%, so that would still be a slight win without considering how Cal clamped down on big plays
A special teams unit away from being Utah
Occasionally, in the CGB power rankings, I’ll make snide comments about how much I don’t enjoy watching Utah play football, and how I don’t understand how they ever win games. But their formula is very clear: consistent, fundamentally excellent defense. Limited, but mistake free offense. And excellent, game-swinging special teams.
Long term, I don’t want Cal to be Utah. I aspire to more than an 8-5 season every year. But this year? 8-5 would be just dandy. Alas, Cal’s special teams perpetually range between unremarkable to slightly harmful.
Against USC, the pendulum swung towards slightly harmful, with a missed field goal, an out of bounds kickoff, one 13 yard punt return allowed, and one disastrous kickoff return penalty that stuck Cal deep in their own territory. With only one positive play to offset the bad (Ashtyn Davis’ 40 yard kickoff return) it made for a rough day for special teams
Cal is a team that will have to rely on field goals
At this point in time, Matt Anderson’s long term track record still easily outweighs his short term rough patch. But it needs to get reversed quickly, because it’s looking like Cal will be needing field goals as a prominent source of offense based on how they have built their team. Unless Demetris gets healthy quick and starts catching 40 yard bombs, this is going to be an offense that has to string together short gains into drives that will stall out all too often in field goal range.
Still making all the right decisions on 4th down
Boy was I worried that handing a defensively minded coach a reliable, veteran field goal kicker would result in a lack of 4th down aggression. But no, Justin Wilcox is leading the nation in 4th down conversion attempts!
True, this is likely skewed just because Cal has probably faced more manageable 4th downs in the zone between the 30 yard line and midfield where neither punting nor field goal kicking makes sense. But it’s still encouraging that Wilcox is electing to go for it even with an offense that isn’t quite Oregon-under-Chip-Kelly lethal.
If we could all compartmentalize the fan side of our brains, this would be an easy game to get over. Losing to a top 5 team with top 5 talent by 10 points in a rebuilding year? Duh, let’s move on to the more winnable games on the schedule.
You just have to ignore that throbbing reminder that USC is nominally a rival that has beaten us 14 years in a row oh and also they’re really annoying as a part of the process.
With conference play now underway, we’re learning a ton about this team and this new coaching staff. This past Saturday we learned that they collectively have the toughness to play USC to a stalemate for 45 minutes, but not necessarily the depth or talent to go the full 60.
Next week, we will see how well they bounce back from defeat, in an environment that will be significantly more hostile than the mildly excitable collection of Tar Heels on hand in Chapel Hill to start the season.
Ultimately, it was a game that further cemented our initial impressions on both sides of the ball, as well as our hopes for the season at large: Be disciplined, tough, and competitive against all comers and trust that doing so will result in more wins than losses. So far, so good.