For the last three weeks I’ve had the same sort of refrain in my head and in this space which essentially boils down to “We can’t keep on turning the ball over at this rate, surely a turnaround is coming soon . . .” I fully expected Cal to beat Arizona, UCLA, and Oregon State presuming that they didn’t turn the ball over 5 times.
Finally, FINALLY, Cal didn’t lose the turnover battle in hilariously lopsided fashion and thus won. But GOOD LORD did they win this one it in a shockingly dominating fashion:
Top 5 success rate margins (vs. FBS)
- Cal (+38% vs. Oregon State)
- Boise State (+31% vs. Colorado State)
- Utah (+25% vs. USC)
- Fresno State (+25% vs. New Mexico)
- Alabama (+24% vs. Tennessee)
Top 5 yards per play margins (vs. FBS)
- Cal (+4.6 vs. Oregon State)
- Missouri (+3.9 vs. Memphis)
- Air Force (+3.4 vs. UNLV)
- Florida State (+3.4 vs. Wake Forest)
- Michigan (+3.2 vs. Michigan State)
This was more than just figuring out how not to turn the ball over. But as we shall discuss in some detail, exactly how much can we take away from a breathtakingly thorough defenestration of a very, very sad sack team?
11 drives: 6 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 3 punts, 2 turnovers (1 fumble, 1 downs), 3.8 points/drive
Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.43 points/drive
Oregon State defense 2018 average, pre-game: 4.16 points/drive allowed
Woof is the Oregon State defense bad. They just allowed Cal to more than double their season efficiency averages and still managed to improve their own numbers. Of course, it probably should’ve been worse, since Cal blew a goal-to-go possession with an unforced fumble that would’ve pushed their average to 4.45 if they’d converted the touchdown.
Can Chase Garbers make downfield passes against stiffer opposition?
If you look at the numbers with no context, the advantage Chase Garbers has over Brandon McIlwain as a passer is stark. Here are the critical numbers that pretty clearly illustrate the difference:
There are basically two facts you should take away from those numbers. 1) Chase Garbers attempts throws significantly further down the field than Brandon McIlwain, as evidenced in his yards/attempt and yards/completion numbers (and his touchdowns). 2) Despite consistently attempting higher difficulty throws, Garbers has still been a meaningfully more efficient passer.
Even Garber’s interceptions illustrate the difference, as three of Garber’s four interceptions have all been downfield shots rather than shorter throws 10 yards or closer to the line of scrimmage.
But: Exactly half of Garbers’ attempts have come against Idaho State and Oregon State. One of those teams is an FCS team and the other is arguably the single worst defense in FBS football, and that’s where most of his success has come. He’s 37-51 for 458 yards and a 6-1 TD/INT ratio against ISU and OSU (and graded out as the best Pac-12 QB both weeks), and 29-50 for 269 yards and a 3-3 TD/INT ratio against everybody else.
There are clearly reasons for optimism. He’s demonstrated the necessary arm talent at various points, regardless of the quality of defenders Cal faced. I’d give Garbers a pass for not immediately being brilliant in his college football debut against UNC. He wasn’t flashy but made enough throws for a solid win on the road against BYU. He only got 9 throws before being yanked against Oregon. And underpinning all of this is the fact that he is a redshirt freshman with the equivalent of about 4 games of experience under his belt.
But Garbers still has to prove that he can put up a similar level of performance against stronger teams . . . like, say, UW next week or in Pullman the week after or in Cal’s private house of horrors on the road against USC.
Patrick Laird gets the break out game he deserves
If there’s been one player most hurt by Cal’s attempts at changing things up on offense it’s probably Patrick Laird. He lost out on carries to various quarterback keeper calls and also had to spend a bunch of time running into stacked boxes since teams haven’t had much reason to respect Cal’s downfield passing threat.
Again, Oregon State is so unfathomably bad on defense - particularly against the run* - that it’s impossible to say if this is a turning point for Laird and the Cal run game or a one game blip. But if nothing else Saturday was a reminder that, given a bit of space, Laird can pick his way through a running lane and manipulate defenders with the best of them . . . and occasionally do a pretty bad ass Marshawn impression.
*Remember the 2016 Cal defense that finished last in the nation in yards/run allowed at 6.15? OSU this year is allowing 6.74 yards/run!
12 drives: 1 touchdown, 0 FGA, 8 punts, 3 turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 downs), 0.58 points/drive
Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.68 points/drive allowed
Oregon State offense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.35 points/drive
OSU had just one sad lonely drive that went longer than 29 yards, and that drive required a 15 yard Cal penalty and a 4th down conversion to end in success. If you’re not adjusting for opponent quality this was Cal’s most dominant defensive performance of the season, and this season has seen a few strong contenders.
On one hand, Cal throttled an offense that had previously been pretty good. On the other hand, Cal clearly caught OSU in a weakened state. Their quarterback (Conor Blount) entered the game with a shoulder injury and then left the game after a Cal targeting penalty due to a potential concussion. Meanwhile, star running back Jermar Jefferson barely played after picking up some kind of leg injury during practice the week prior to the game.
OSU just isn’t in a place to absorb injuries, particularly to two of their most important players. So, kudos to the Cal defense for doing what they were supposed to do, but the reality is that the degree of difficulty just wasn’t very high.
More disruption than usual
Cal collected 12 tackles for loss (including 7 sacks), 2 pass break ups, and 2 interceptions. That’s a havoc rate of 21.6%, significantly higher than Cal’s previous season long rate of 14.3 and mostly fueled by a pass rush that was much more productive than usual. Cal entered this game with 9 sacks, then nearly matched that total in 60 minutes
Again, this is more about Oregon State than Cal. For as much as the Beavers have shown improvement at the skill positions on offense, their line is still pretty dire, especially in pass protection. They’ve allowed 30 sacks this year, most in the country, and they didn’t look particularly ready to deal with Cal’s various blitz packages.
Another decisive field position win
Cal had a 10 yard advantage in field position, though I think a significant amount of credit goes to the offense, since they finished most of their drives with touchdowns and only had one 3-and-out drive, meaning that even when they did punt it was usually from midfield, thus pinning the Beavers deep.
Still, special teams has to execute to make that count. 7 of Cal’s 8 kickoffs led to OSU starting at the 25 yard line or worse, Steven Coutts pinned OSU inside the 20 on two of his three punts and had a solid, unreturned 43 yard punt on the other. Cal’s punting and kickoff units have generally been excellent this year.
Mistakes, for now, ironed out
Cal played by far their cleanest game of the year. Sure, the weird fumbled snap was bad, and it would be great if the defense could stop committing targeting. But other than those few mistakes, this was a game where Cal could sit back and let the opponent self destruct while gratefully taking advantage with solid execution themselves.
Still though, again (have you noticed a theme here?), we must acknowledge that there is a reason this is the case. It’s so much easier to execute your assignments against an inexperienced, undertalented team like Oregon State than it is to do so against better opposition.
I hope that the narrative story of this season looks back at this week as a turning point. I hope that the humiliation of getting blown out at home by UCLA, the players only meeting, the coaching staff returning to Garbers - that all of that is seen as fixing many of the issues that plagued this team during the three game losing streak. And if that ends up being the case, huge credit all around for diagnosing what was wrong and fixing it. But for right now, beating a glorified FCS team is just that.
This version of Cal is a Cal team that could give almost anybody left on the schedule trouble.
I don’t mean that directly - obviously Cal won’t be beating Washington 49-7. But a mistake free Cal team executing their plays with an extant threat of downfield passing is good enough to give everybody left on the schedule trouble.
And that’s in part because everybody left on the schedule has flaws.
Washington is the best team in the conference, but their special teams are a disaster and they play slowly enough with an iffy enough offense that they often let teams hang around and create games that can swing on a weird play or two.
Washington State’s defense is still pretty iffy and Wilcox and DeRuyter have historically performed pretty darn well against pass-based spread offenses.
USC may not have a quarterback, lost their best linebacker for the season, is young even by USC standards, and doesn’t really excel at any one thing in particular that terrifies me, which is weird.
Stanford is 100% dysfunctional on offense except when they throw jump balls up to JJ Arcega-Whiteside and Kaden Smith, and their defense is merely OK.
Colorado has been exposed as a bit of a schedule strength mirage over the last two weeks and is woefully reliant on an (admittedly amazing) single wide receiver for a huge chunk of their offensive production. Also their only road win this year was a lucky win over a 1-6 Big—10 team, and they are historically an awful road team. And yes, they’re coming to Berkeley.
All of the above, of course, is pretty heavily cherry-picked takes. These teams all have strengths, and we’re all familiar with Cal’s flaws. With the possible exception of Colorado I would anticipate that Cal will be the underdog in every single game left on the schedule. But in many cases the spread will be small and a Cal win wouldn’t be some sort of shock event. Particularly if Chase Garbers plays like he played against ISU and OSU and the Bears generally play a style of football that minimizes their mistakes.
The UCLA game caused many Cal fans to see bowl eligibility as a long shot, and it’s hard to blame anyone for that type of reaction. But there was also enough evidence to suggest that if Cal could fix just a couple of probably fixable issues that they could be plenty competitive in the muddled middle of the Pac-12.
It’s wildly frustrating that mistakes from up and down the program cost Cal an absurdly winnable game against Arizona and led to the debacle against UCLA. This team should be one win away from a bowl already. But that past failure doesn’t have to dictate the future this team can still achieve.
So let’s go do that.