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Post Game Thoughts: North Carolina

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Diving deeper into the first win of the Justin Wilcox era.

NCAA Football: California at North Carolina Rob Kinnan-USA TODAY Sports

The first game of a season is always dangerous. True, this is at least a real game—a concrete piece of evidence indicating what kind of football season you’re likely to get.

But it’s so easy to overreact to that data. Maybe that team you beat is actually really bad. Maybe that team you lost to is actually a title contender. Maybe the better team lost because they haven’t figured out which players to play.

That all goes doubly for the first game under a new coach, when you want everything good that happens to be a reflection of his influence. And boy is it going to be easy to buy into the Wilcox era when Cal’s performance in the season opener draws such an obvious line between 2016 and 2017.

Offense

Efficiency Report

13 drives: 5 touchdowns, 1 FGA (0–1), 5 punts, 2 turnovers (2 interceptions), 2.7 points/drive

In case you were curious: Last year, the Bear Raid averaged 2.67 points/drive, which ranked 28th in the nation, unadjusted for schedule strength. The 2017 Bears matching that number against a decent Power 5 defense on the road in the debut game for a sophomore quarterback, a new offensive coordinator, and an almost entirely rebuilt offensive line is really, really exciting stuff.

The ups and downs of a sophomore quarterback making his debut

Midway through the second quarter, Cal had just 7 points on six drives and Ross Bowers looked jumpy. Nothing was being thrown downfield, he got rid of the ball too quickly on a couple of routes, and was inaccurate on a couple of throws. Cal Twitter was getting jumpy.

Then Bowers absorbs a helmet-to-helmet hit.

And on the very next play, he bravely stands in the pocket, lets the wheel route develop, and uncorks a perfect pass just moments before getting hit from two different angles.

Later in the game, Bowers throws a killer interception—throwing a pass to a well-covered receiver while he’s being hit. It’s a brutal swing at a moment when Cal could have grabbed firm control of the game.

Bowers follows it up with two touchdown drives that include a number of impressive throws all over the field.

All of the above illustrates a few key points:

  1. Ross Bowers will, at times, look like an inexperienced sophomore.
  2. Progress is not linear.
  3. On the evidence of this game, he has the ability to make the plays needed to score points and win games.

Things like lofting a perfectly weighted ball into the hands of Malik McMorris on 4th down or hitting the right shoulder of Jordan Duncan in the end zone or standing up to pressure to deliver the right pass. We saw enough variety and enough play making to get excited about what Bowers did against UNC—and what he can do in the future. Considering how unsettled the quarterback position was all offseason, that’s just fine.

A rebuilt offensive line excels by not standing out

Most of the time when you notice an offensive lineman, it’s because something bad happened. Thankfully, Cal’s offensive line flew well under the radar in all the right ways. There was one false start late in the second quarter and the line surrendered one sack, which was perhaps more on Bowers for trying to scramble through a small crease. Otherwise, the line was free of obvious errors.

Now, Cal’s running game never really got going. Enwere and Watson combined for just 3.2 yards/carry and there was never a sense that there was a ton of room to manuver for either back. I’d guess that’s in part because UNC was more concerned with slowing the run game and daring a new quarterback to beat them through the air. (Which he did! In part because his line gave him time!)

Strength in depth, part 1

North Carolina made it their mission to stop Demetris Robertson from beating them. Cal tried to find ways to get him the ball on shorter passes, but he was heavily tracked and didn’t have the space to get into the open field.

That’s fine. Even with Melquise Stovall dinged up, Cal has a deep stable of pass catchers and they took fine advantage of the attention UNC wasn’t giving them. Would I like Demetris to get the ball more often? Of course! But if teams are going to scheme around taking him out, they’ll be giving up ground somewhere else on the field.

Defense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1–2), 4 punts, 4 turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 fumble, 1 downs), 1.4 points/drive

Deliberately excluded: North Carolina’s 4-yard touchdown drive following a long interception return and North Carolina’s meaningless final touchdown drive when Cal’s defense was pretty clearly not playing normal strategy. If you add one of those “drives” you’d get 1.84 points/drive. Add both and it’s 2.2 points/drive. No matter how you parse the numbers, it’s a pretty massive improvement on the 3.15 points/drive Cal’s defense allowed last year—a number only exceeded by Texas Tech and Rutgers among Power 5 teams.

Taking advantage of an opponent’s weakness

Let’s be real: While we’re all thrilled that Cal’s defense looks significantly improved, the Bears definitely benefited from an opponent that had some pretty major issues at quarterback. Larry Fedora played Brandon Harris for 5 drives. UNC only managed 3 points on those 5 drives and Harris was wildly ineffective, averaging 3.75 yards/attempt and throwing two interceptions.

Chazz Surratt was better but still generally kept his throws underneath. Prior to the final garbage-time drive, I only counted three complete passes that traveled further than 10 yards past the line of scrimmage. The ACC broadcast also did a good job highlighting iffy reads. UNC’s offense was limited by QB play that ranged from mediocre to bad and it’s for that reason that it’s very difficult to say exactly how much Cal’s defense has improved. Better quarterbacks (and offensive lines, and WRs, and . . . ) lurk later in the year.

But that there has been improvement is pretty damned clear. So let’s talk about it.

Preventing big running plays

There was a moment in first quarter when the Cal run defense of 2016 showed up. UNC’s offensive line does a great job sealing the left side of the line. North Carolina has two tight ends on the play—one of them erases Cal’s outside linebacker and the other blocks away a safety. UNC’s outside WR eliminates Cal’s cornerback. Michael Carter gets the edge, but Cal’s other safety takes a bad angle, turning a 10- to 15-yard run into a 47-yard run that sets up UNC’s first touchdown.

What is remarkable about that play is that it’s the only big run play that UNC earned on the night. Cal’s run defense struggled last year both because of their inability to stuff running plays for no gains or losses and because they frequently allowed 5- to 10- yard runs to turn into huge plays. By preventing big run plays, Cal’s defense forced UNC’s quarterbacks to try to make plays that they were generally ill-equipped to make.

Strength in depth, part 2

One thing that jumps out on both the stat sheet and on a rewatch is how much Cal’s defensive depth played and contributed. Linebacker reserves Gerran Brown, Alex Funches, Evan Weaver, and Jordan Kunaszyk all saw significant action. At least four different reserves at cornerback and safety saw action as well.

This probably shouldn’t be remarkable, but it’s certainly a sea change from previous seasons, when back-ups were clearly not trusted and not ready. Contrast that with Saturday’s game, when players like Funches and Gerran Brown were ready to contribute in their first game at Cal after JC ball.

Defensive line rotation seemed much more limited and Tevin Paul was the only back-up who I noticed. That will probably be an area of concern this season.

Special Teams

Can Cal get something going in the return game?

For the most part, special teams were a wash. Neither team had big special teams plays and both teams missed a field goal. But UNC did manage one nice 17-yard punt return and averaged a few more yards on kickoff returns—and so the Tar Heels had a slight, if ultimately minor, field position advantage.

It’s not so much what UNC did much as it is that Cal didn’t do anything of their own. Cal hasn’t had an impact return man in some time. I was hoping that Robertson could be the guy, but he wasn’t on return duty this time around.

Coaching/Game Theory Errata

Not screwing up the easy decisions

We didn’t learn a ton about Justin Wilcox’s game management preferences in this game, in large part because there weren’t a ton of marginal decisions to make. Wilcox was faced with the following 4th-down decisions:

  • 4th and 1 from the Cal 36, game tied 7–7 late in the 1st quarter
  • 4th and 1 from midfield, Cal down 4 at the start of the 4th quarter
  • 4th and 1 from the UNC 38 (Same drive as above)

I included the first example mostly to conclude that Wilcox isn’t Chip Kelly—he’s probably never going to be the guy who tries for 4th-down conversions on his own side of the field in early game situations. Hardly surprising, but worth noting.

The last two decisions were both pretty damned obvious decisions. When you’re losing in the 4th quarter, you had better be attempting short 4th downs once you cross the 50. But Wilcox is a long-time defensive coordinator and there are still dinosaurs out there who would punt in those situations.

Gradually opening up the playbook

It’s tough to say for sure if Cal wasn’t throwing the ball down field because Bowers was intentionally choosing to throw towards closer targets or if the coaching staff was trying to work him into the game. Regardless, as the game wore on, Cal took more frequent shots down the field and that was the main shift that won them the game. I’m inclined to spread credit all around, from Bowers to the offensive coaching staff for managing the game well.

Smothering the opponent

Few things are more beautiful than a 5:16 drive in the 4th quarter that turns a one-possession lead into a two-possession lead.

Big Picture

First, the boring accounting. Most fans and pundits generally think that Cal will struggle to reach bowl eligibility. By winning a road game as double-digit underdogs, Cal has added an “unexpected” win to their ledger while simultaneously indicating that perhaps we shouldn’t be too cynical about their chances in future games. I’ve already updated my internal expectations from 4–8 to 6–6.

But that’s not the real story. It’s about the symbolic page turning from one era to another, and the possibilities that change carries. Fans don’t spend time dreaming about proving the critics wrong and going 6–6. What Saturday’s performance allows is bigger dreaming—for 2017 and beyond.

Despite all the reasons for skepticism—all of the turnover, the inexperience, the transitions on both sides of the ball—Cal just outgained a Power 5 team on the road by 1.48 yards/play. If they can do that in Chapel Hill, then why can’t they do it in Berkeley and Los Angeles and Boulder and Palo Alto? What’s stopping the Bears from continuing to exceed expectations?

There are probably good answers to that question. I have no interest in them right now.