When Brandon McIlwain’s 4th-and-1 pass was tipped and intercepted, we had a decision to make. UCLA had the ball—up 20 points—with 11:20 left on the clock. What were the chances that a Cal offense that had produced one touchdown in 48:40 minutes of football would produce 20+ points in the final 11:20?
If we stayed, that would mean sticking around until 7:15, walking down the hill, getting dinner, and driving the 90 minutes back to Sacramento, all while thinking about how Cal lost to 0–5 UCLA in a blowout.
My wife and I decided that we’d rather make something of our evening. By leaving early we were able to beat the rush to Le Bateau Ivre, a wonderful spot off of Telegraph that doesn’t get mentioned nearly as often as other great dining spots near campus. It’s one of those low-key fancy places that makes simple things really well for a fair price. Just give me a well-cooked cut of chicken or a well-made steak. It was a delightful, quiet, candlelit meal topped off with creme brulee. Despite our sit down meal we still made it home to Sacramento by 11:00 p.m.
I’m not saying I’m proud of our decision or that I think you should emulate us. But I also have zero regrets and think that, as much as possible, one should strive for happiness in life.
12 drives: 1 touchdown, 1 FGA (0–1), 4 punts, 6 turnovers (2 interceptions, 3 fumbles, 1 downs), 0.58 points/drive
Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.61 points/drive
UCLA defense 2018 average, pre-game: 3.2 points/drive allowed
Rock bottom. Absolute rock bottom.
How else do you describe an offensive performance in which Cal produced a yards/play number (4.3) that would rank between Central Michigan and Rutgers for 128th in the country while simultaneously turning the ball over six times while playing at home against a winless rival? How else would you describe an offense that ran 75 plays from scrimmage and produced one play longer than 14 yards despite ostensibly playing to come back from a deficit for the majority of the game? How else to describe an offense that for two weeks in a row has probably produced negative value on the scoreboard by handing the opponents more points and scoring opportunities than they themselves created?
Ross Bowers is out due to some kind of hand injury. Somewhere in the neighborhood of six weeks since the injury was probably sustained, the news is finally announced/confirmed. Meanwhile, we all got to think that Ross was pulled for a quarterback duo who has combined to put up the worst quarterback rating in the Pac-12. Maybe Ross didn’t want the info out to the public or maybe the coaches decided to be pointless control freaks about it, but I don’t see how hiding that information did anybody any favors—least of all the coaching staff who appeared to be making weird, arbitrary decisions if you didn’t know the incumbent quarterback was hurt.
With this new information, things come into a bit more focus. Were I to guess, I’d speculate that the coaches were hoping that Ross wouldn’t be impacted by an injury to his throwing hand, but that it was quickly clear that he couldn’t be accurate enough and he was pulled. And with Ross taking the bulk of practice snaps during fall camp, the coaches weren’t really sure which of Chase Garbers or McIlwain was the best option. So they played both to figure it out.
Here’s the thing though: I’m not sure they made the right choice.
If you compare their passing numbers, Garbers has a slight—but clear—edge. He has a higher completion percentage, averages more yards/attempt, and has a vastly better touchdown-to-interception ratio.
There are two important caveats to that comparison. 1) A significant percentage of Garbers’ production game against FCS Idaho State 2) Garbers, while an above-average runner for a quarterback, simply isn’t the same threat on the ground that McIlwain is.
Which is where we get to the issue I had with Saturday’s game: McIlwain wasn’t able to get anything going as a runner.
And no, his lack of production as a runner wasn’t because Cal fell behind big and the Bears had to pass to catch up. In the first half, when Cal was never more than two scores behind, McIlwain had TWO designed run plays. Hell, it didn’t even look like Cal was running much zone read either, as most Laird runs looked like zone or power rushes.
Chase Garbers is a consensus 4-star quarterback. He was a legit recruiting win. He may or may not be the long-term answer at quarterback, but he’s almost certainly a better passer than Brandon McIlwain. If Cal weren’t planning on making McIlwain’s legs a key aspect of their game plan, they should have started Chase Garbers. If Cal couldn’t make McIlwain’s legs a part of their game plan because of what UCLA showed on defense (Wilcox referenced UCLA stacking the box in the post-game presser) then they needed to make the decision to put Garbers into the game.
Instead, Cal’s running quarterback managed 12 yards rushing while leading an offense that had nearly as many turnovers as they did points scored.
Whether through renewed focus at practice or just because of random chance, Cal cleaned up their offensive penalties, with just one iffy holding call committed by the offense. But the more problematic mistakes—errant throws, fumbles, dropped passes, missed blocks, failing to get out of bounds, etc.—were rampant.
Only one of Cal’s seven drives when they didn’t fumble or throw an interception ended in a score. Unless and until this offense can execute pretty basic plays, they can’t sustain drives. We have six games of evidence suggesting that they probably won’t start executing much differently.
Cal’s one successful offensive drive featured trick plays and misdirection, a play-calling feature that seemingly would be critical to making this offense work, but has been largely absent. As noted above, Cal isn’t good enough/doesn’t execute well enough to beat teams with basic plays that they can anticipate.
As an obvious example: Pretty much everybody is fed up with running zone read on 3rd or 4th and short. I personally don’t hate the concept—there are many offensive lines in the country that can easily execute a zone read and gain a yard with a very high success rate. But we now have multiple games of evidence telling us that Cal’s offensive line isn’t good enough to win one-on-one running-game battles in short yardage. It’s frustrating in the short term and disturbing in the long term that the offensive coaching staff hasn’t figured this out and gone a different direction.
10 drives: 3 touchdowns, 3 FGA (3–3), 4 punts, 0 turnovers, 3 points/drive
Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.4 points/drive allowed
UCLA offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.37 points/drive
Would you believe that Cal’s defensive performance maybe wasn’t quite as bad as it seemed while you watched it?
UCLA is a bad offense and so far this season they have averaged 5.08 yards/play. Against Cal, UCLA averaged 5 yards/play. UCLA managed to turn that pretty anemic production into 37 points, but 13 of those points came from turnovers/special teams–influenced field position.
Now, giving up 24 points on UCLA’s other drives still isn’t something to high-five over. This was either Cal’s worst or second-worst defensive performance of the year. The thing is that Cal’s defense playing a poor game nowadays means a blah day rather than a 55 point–stravaganza like a few years back.
The problem is that UCLA was able to gain 4 or 5 yards every play with surprising regularity, largely fueled by Cal’s inability to win at the line of scrimmage on running plays. The Bruins ran the ball on an absurd 76% of their snaps and that ratio wasn’t an artifact of UCLA running on the clock in the second half—it was pretty consistent throughout the game.
Joshua Kelley had 21 first-half rushing attempts; 19 of them went for at least 3 yards and none of them went for no gain or negative yards. For truly the first time this year, Cal lost the battle at the point of attack on rushing plays on defense and it meant that UCLA’s quarterback didn’t really need to do much of anything to keep the chains moving.
The converse to all of this is that—as per usual—Cal didn’t really allow many big plays, which meant that UCLA had to string together long drives without screwing up. Unlike Cal (and thanks to consistent small chunks running the ball) UCLA was able to not shoot themselves in the foot.
It doesn’t hurt that UCLA’s only fumble rolled out of bounds and a bizarre deflected pass goes to a random UCLA receiver.
Pressing to make plays?
To the extent that UCLA did make big plays, an issue that Wilcox noted in his presser was some assignment integrity/over-pursuit issues. Considering the context of Cal’s defensive performances of late, one can’t help but wonder if the defense has let Cal’s offensive performances impact how they approach each drive, trying for big disruptive plays to swing the game when the offense has been so anemic.
Two plays really hurt
In the first half, when the game was still close, two special-teams plays swung the game six points in UCLA’s favor. First, a 40-yard punt return gave UCLA the ball basically in field-goal position already. Then, to close the first half, Greg Thomas saw a short-ish kick doink off the upright (after a successful kick was negated due to a UCLA timeout).
Who knows—maybe UCLA scores on that drive even without the punt return and it’s hard to look at this game and pretend that three first-half points meaningfully changes the second half . . . but a 10–3 deficit at halftime knowing Cal will get the ball back certainly sounds nice.
The 180 is complete
Anything the coaches did right or wrong in this game is entirely subsumed by questions surrounding what is going on with this offense, which was already considered above. But something more worth considering:
Cal defensive S&P+ rankings under Sonny Dykes:
Cal offensive S&P+ rankings under Justin Wilcox:
The performances of Cal’s defense under Sonny Dykes resulted in the firing of one defensive coordinator and—to a larger extent—a failure of the entire regime. The performances of Cal’s offense under Justin Wilcox aren’t meaningfully better (and, considering experience/continuity, arguably worse!) than the defense under Dykes.
Now, I think it’s worth considering process over results. The thought process and decision to hire Beau Baldwin made infinite more sense than the processes that led to Andy Buh and Art Kaufman, even if results have been similar.
But at a certain point, the results are the results. Really, the only reason to shrug off this level of performance would be if Cal were recruiting particularly well so that we could say with confidence that results might improve once more speed/athleticism/size/whatever is on the roster. But Cal’s 2019 class doesn’t have any consensus 4-star recruits and to the extent that the class has a strength, it’s on defense and the offensive line.
An offense that returned everybody (except, as it turns out, the quarterback) went from below average to hey-at-least-we’re-probably-better-than-Rutgers and the state of recruiting doesn’t really offer any evidence of a turnaround. I don’t know what the solution is, but it’s going to be really, really hard to argue in favor of the status quo.
The 2018 season trajectory is matching the 2017 season trajectory so far, with one huge difference. After 3–0 non-con starts to each season, Cal’s sloppy close loss and sloppy blowout losses were to bottom-feeders Arizona and UCLA in 2018 rather than to conference title–game participants USC and Washington in 2017.
If we are to assume that Cal’s performances of the last two weeks are fair reflections, then one must assume that Cal will be in a dogfight to win next week in Corvallis and then be heavy underdogs in every other game left on the schedule. In other words, five wins might be a stretch—let alone bowl hopes.
There’s still reason to think that this team isn’t as bad as their record/recent performances—and that reason is that even the worst teams of all time don’t average five turnovers/game, which is what Cal has done over the last three weeks. If this team can stop handing the ball over to the opponent, then there’s a pretty strong chance that they can at least play a couple of close games against meh teams like Colorado and Stanford.
But, while the offense probably won’t keep turning the ball over five times per game, as currently constructed they well might turn the ball over three times per game, which is typically what the most turnover-prone team in the country produces each year.
When Cal lost three-straight games last year, the offense was pretty radically different in the second half of the season and Cal approached basic average-ness over the last six games. With the meat of the schedule still left, I’m not optimistic about a turnaround this year.