The hardest game of the season is often the one in which reality comes crashing down on your hopes.
Sometimes, you know it’s coming and you do your best to brace for impact. Sometimes blind optimism makes that first gut punch all the more painful.
Your head knew that this season was much more likely to be about achieving bowl eligibility rather than dark horse Pac-12 North contention. But your heart knew that an upset over Oregon would raise the specter of relevance. The heart wins that battle much of the time— to the great chagrin of your head.
I’ll never stop hoping—it’s one of the charms that make college football joyful despite all of the many non-joyful aspects of the sport. You shouldn’t either. But when that first game reveals all of the flaws that you feared—all of the flaws semi-concealed by a weak schedule—it’s a bummer.
Oregon is a better football team than Cal. That fact was confirmed on Saturday, but most—if not all—of the available evidence pre-game suggested that same fact. They were better last year despite not having a quarterback and they’ve been recruiting better than Cal* for a long time. They maintained a generally competent coaching staff after Willie Taggart’s surprise departure. Only a bizarre series of events against Stanford stopped them from entering this game with an undefeated record and a deserved top-15 ranking.
That Cal lost this game shouldn’t significantly dampen your enthusiasm for this team. Cal just lost in what I would judge to have been their third-toughest game of the year. Unless you thought that this was a team with realistic 10-regular-season-win potential, this loss can’t be that shocking.
The real question is this: Now that some of this team’s flaws have been revealed, what—if anything—can the team do to mitigate them and how do they recover from a pretty humbling night?
*Average team recruiting ranking over the last four years per the 247 composite? Oregon is 19th in the nation, Cal 44th.
12 drives: 3 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1–1), 2 punts, 6 turnovers (4 interceptions, 1 fumble, 1 downs), 2 points/drive
Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.54 points/drive
Oregon defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.88 points/drive
This was simultaneously the best and worst game the offense has played so far this season. Cal was more efficient against Oregon than they were against BYU and UNC and if the defense had played closer to their ceiling, perhaps this game could’ve gone down to the wire.
Except for all the turnovers. Those were kinda important.
Regarding the turnovers
Underthrow, pass rush blow by + fumble, overthrow, overthrow, tipped ball
Just two weeks after praising Chase Garber’s accuracy, misplaced balls played a big role in swinging the game Oregon’s way.
Now, to be fair, it’s a lot easier to be/look accurate against FCS athletes. On both of Garber’s interceptions, Oregon had defenders in the immediate vicinity waiting to take advantage of iffy throws. But that doesn’t change the larger reality: Cal needs better quarterback play to reach a higher threshold of performance and the jury is still out on whether or not the current QBs on the roster can deliver that.
As long as the Cal offense continues to be a dink-and-dunk, low-explosiveness, medium-efficiency offense, they simply can’t afford to make mistakes. They don’t have the big-play ability to make up for multiple turnovers.
And of course this isn’t just on the quarterbacks. While Brandon McIlwain probably regrets not securing the ball, the scoop-and-score is just as much on guard Kamryn Bennett getting beaten on a swim move. While Garbers underthrew that first pick, he was also throwing against the teeth of the pass rush and Jeremiah Hawkins got beaten to a 50/50 ball. The general issue about receivers struggling to get separation and get open lead to situations where QBs have to choose between taking a sack or trying to fit balls into tiny windows or trusting targets to make contested plays. If that’s what an offense relies on to move the ball, then turnovers become all but inevitable.
The reemergence of a balanced run game
241 rush yards on 41 attempts against an Oregon defense that had shut down everybody else’s rushing attack was a wildly pleasant surprise and probably the biggest bright spot from an otherwise rough game. Patrick Laird looked completely rejuvenated and how the offensive staff moved Laird and McIlwain around to keep Oregon guessing impressed me. The line did well in run blocking as well, with Addison Ooms in particular standing out for his downfield blocking on QB keepers.
The offense after one trimester
For as bad as the offense has been collectively (113th in S&P+ this week—better than just four Power 5 offenses) you can see flashes and components of what could be an average offense. But you also see the weaknesses, the talent gap, and the physical errors. It’s easy to say that mistakes will be ironed out after film review and practice time, but some mistakes are really the result of physical mismatches and the challenges of trying to execute when faster and/or stronger guys are trying to maim you.
Cal hasn’t played anything close to a clean game after one-third of the season. At some point, you have to assume that mistakes are an inherent characteristic of a unit. I don’t know if four games worth of evidence is enough to say that for sure, but I wouldn’t call you rash if you reached that conclusion yourself.
10 drives: 4 touchdowns, 1 FGA (0–1), 4 punts, 1 turnover (1 fumble), 2.8 points/drive
Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.08 points/drive
Oregon offense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.84 points/drive
An important question you need to answer: How hard was Oregon trying on offense after they scored their fifth touchdown to take a 35–10 lead on the first drive of the third quarter?
It’s an important question because there’s a pretty big difference between the 28 points Oregon scored on their first six drives and the zero points they scored on their final four drives. Oregon didn’t have to try with a 25-point lead and I’d suggest that the Ducks taking their foot off the gas flatters Cal’s defensive performance.
Evidence that Oregon stopped trying? In the first half, Herbert attempted 14 passes for 167 yards. In the second half, Herbert only threw 8 passes for 58 yards. Oregon threw the ball both less frequently and for much shorter distances. With the game all but won, the Ducks didn’t need to lean on their very effective downfield-passing game to move the ball, electing to run the ball, run clock, and avoid game-swinging mistakes like handing Stanford a free touchdown ARGH I’M STILL MAD HOW COULD YOU DOOFUSES HAND STANFORD A WIN LIKE THAT.
Ahem. Anyway, the 28 points Cal’s defense allowed probably could have been a much bigger number had Oregon needed to put up those points.
Oregon is really, really hard to stop
Above, I talked about how Cal’s D got beaten in a way that hasn’t yet happened this year . . . and yet I generally liked the game plan. Cal was super aggressive against the run and challenged their back seven to win one-on-one battles in man coverage, generally with one safety playing deep.
Despite having the best QB in the conference, Oregon is still a run-first team and their line and skill-position talent make them plenty dangerous. Cal sent a constant flow of linebackers and safeties at the line of scrimmage and generally held Oregon’s running game in check, except for a 45-yard touchdown run and a 74-yard run that may as well have been a touchdown run. So what happened?
On the 45-yard touchdown, it looks like Oregon’s interior line actually screws up a pull and Luc Bequette shoots a gap, but his upfield momentum takes him past the slanting Oregon RB. But that’s the difference between a tackle for a loss and short run. The reason it went for six is because of back end help. Jordan Kunaszyk and Alex Funches both struggle to get free from effective Oregon blocks. Cal’s safety (I can’t tell the number, but likely Hawkins?) immediately diagnoses run and aggressively sprints to the line . . . but kinda runs directly into Oregon’s blockers, allowing Dye to hit the hole with nobody left to stop him from getting to the end zone.
The second long run was more about missed tackles, a rarity for this defense so far. Oregon’s line gets Verdell through the box with an effective block on Evan Weaver. Josh Drayden and Ashtyn Davis both miss chances to keep Oregon’s run within 10 or 15 and when Verdell gets past them he’s off to the races.
Oregon didn’t have many instances in which they were able to successfully block all of Cal’s front seven. On the few times when they did they managed to make them count, which is part of the reason their offense is so successful in the first place.
But even if you stop the run . . .
I still think Cal’s secondary is pretty darn good. But when you combine fast skill-position talent with an NFL-ready arm that can put the ball into a window, well, you’re going to be really challenged to win man-to-man battles.
When Cal did hold down Oregon’s run game, Justin Herbert made it moot. And while it’s maddening to have a guy in position to make a play and watch a ball sail 8 inches past a cornerback’s hands and into the chest of the target, it’s less frustrating than watching guys run wild and unguarded through the secondary a la 2013–2016.
A clear win all the way around
In a way, it’s almost frustrating. If Cal’s offense doesn’t turn the ball over, it’s entirely possible that Cal manages to stay within a possession of the Ducks into the fourth quarter with a chance to steal a win. And if that happened, we would be talking about Cal special teams as the unsung unit that allowed Cal to stay within striking distance.
Cal got big returns from their kickoff and punt units, Steven Coutts did a great job on both of his two punts, the coverage units didn’t allow anything, and Greg Thomas outperformed his Oregon counterpart.
Now, it’s worth noting that one of the big special teams plays was more about Oregon falling asleep at the switch when nobody realized that Vic Wharton hadn’t actually called for a fair catch despite being pretty well surrounded by defenders. Still, it counts.
In total, Cal had a big field-position advantage and if special teams keeps up that level of performance, it will pay off against teams not nearly as good as Oregon.
Obligatory discussion of the QB-switching thing
Now that Cal has lost a game in which two QBs have played, I’m sure there’s plenty of folks of the opinion that Baldwin and Wilcox just need to pick a dude and stick with him. Personally, I still don’t mind the switching generally. It made sense to switch in previous games because both QBs played similarly well and it made sense to switch a bit in this game because both QBs made similar mistakes. I do have one mild concern with how the rotation seemed to be handled in this particular game.
Through the first quarter, Cal switched between Garbers and McIlwain, with a little bit more Garbers than McIlwain. Then Garbers threw an interception at the end of the first quarter and McIlwain got most of the snaps until he himself fumbled. Garbers then got two-straight possessions in the third quarter before throwing an interception, at which point McIlwain came back for the rest of the game.
Maybe it’s just a coincidence that both players seemed to get pulled after committing turnovers. It’s impossible to tell. And I don’t want to get too deep into bad amateur psychology, but I don’t want to get into a situation where both guys are terrified to take any risks for fear of a turnover that’s going to get them benched.
So yeah. We lost a game that we were probably going to lose and, barring a stunning upset of Washington and a few other things out of our control going our way, Pac-12 North contention isn’t really a thing to worry about.
Justin Wilcox referred to “margin for error” multiple times in his post-game presser and I think it’s an important idea. With the possible exceptions of UCLA and Oregon State, Cal won’t have much of a margin for error against anybody in the Pac-12. And against higher-end teams—like Stanford, UW, and Oregon—Cal will both have to give one of their best play-to-play performances while also avoiding game changing mistakes and swing play. That decidedly didn’t happen against Oregon and it turned what might have been a close loss (because Oregon brought something close to their A game) into a blowout loss. Darn.
So this season probably won’t be the story of a big leap in performance. But it can still very much be about a slow and steady build. A jump from five wins to seven or eight is more modest, true, but it’s certainly nothing to sneeze at.
This all sets up one of the biggest swing games of the year. Before the season began, most probably penciled a game against Pac-12 South–favorite Arizona on the road as a likely loss. Now, with Khalil Tate oddly neutered and Arizona looking inconsistent at best, Cal would probably be a favorite on a neutral field.
But Arizona at night sure as hell isn’t neutral. I think Cal has shown enough run defense and Khalil Tate is a bad enough passer that Cal can hold down the Zona offense. But I’m not so confident as to not be scared about what might happen around 10:30 p.m. next Saturday.