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Post-Game Thoughts: Arizona

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How does Cal move forward from here?

NCAA Football: California at Arizona Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

A universal football truth: you can’t turn a scoring opportunity of your own into a defensive touchdown for your opponent and expect to win a game.

Arizona, of course, is where Cal goes to find maximum punishment for every mistake. Brandon McIlwain has Kanawai Noa quite open 10 yards downfield. Throw the ball two feet lower and Cal has a first down in easy field goal range.

Instead, the ball is two feet too high, Noa tips the ball, and the tip falls right into the hands of an Arizona player. That exact type of pass is picked off, what, 15% of the time? And get a long return even less frequently and then when the returner fumbles, it bounces directly into the arms and stride of another defender only this time because of course?

But the truth is still the truth, no matter how bizarre the circumstances: In a remotely competitive game, you can’t turn a scoring opportunity into a touchdown the other way and expect to win a game.

Offense

Efficiency Report

13 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1–1), 4 punts, 6 turnovers (3 interceptions, 1 fumble, 2 downs), 1.31 points/drive

Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.72 points/drive
Arizona defense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.21 points/drive allowed

For the second week in a row, Cal actually produced respectable per-play production with a little bit of explosiveness. 6.2 yards/play is nothing to sneeze at considering the kind of offensive production we’ve seen during the Wilcox era.

But that was entirely given away and more by a maddening series of mistakes from pretty much every player who stepped onto the field on offense. Cal committed 13 penalties. 10 of them were by the offense and all of them were either false start or holding. Cal also had to blow two time outs because they couldn’t get the snap off in time—and that doesn’t get into the physical mistakes that killed multiple drives.

On quarterbacks

Let’s compare:

QB rate stats, 2017 and 2018

Probably the biggest overarching question for the entire season is which quarterback or quarterback system is more likely to produce points. The coaching staff made a bold choice to replace the incumbent upper-class starter with two inexperienced players . . . and I honestly still don’t know how I feel about that decision.

Last year, Ross Bowers was mostly a low-risk, low-reward quarterback. With some rare exceptions (the second half against USC, his one interception against Stanford) Ross wasn’t a guy that was going to win you games, but he also wasn’t going to lose them either.

So I understand why the coaches might what to make a change to see if they can’t find a higher ceiling of performance with other players on the roster. Chase Garbers is probably a more accurate downfield passer. Brandon McIlwain is inarguably one of the better running quarterbacks in the conference, if not the country.

And to a certain extent, the change has worked. Cal has maintained about the same level of passing offense as last year, but they have added the extra dimension of an effective QB run game to the mix. That is the primary reason that Cal’s QBR has gone up this year, as that metric includes QB running as an input.

The problem, obviously, is that Cal has seen a turnover-rate uptick—and those turnovers have been disastrous, game-swinging turnovers. And those turnover haven’t been off-set by a significant increase in offensive explosiveness. As CGB friend @OivatootaviO put it, we now have a high risk, low reward offense.

The conventional wisdom on Brandon McIlwain as a quarterback was/is that he simply isn’t accurate enough—and that makes him too turnover-prone. And after two games in which he received the lion’s share of the playing time, it’s hard not see that conventional wisdom as correct. And it makes me think that Cal had it right in the first three games of the season: Chase Garbers should be Cal’s primary quarterback and Brandon McIlwain should be a change-of-pace option with a specific package of plays that work to his strengths as a player.

Regardless of who lines up behind center, the coaching staff needs to find a way to get the team to execute the offense while cutting down on mistakes, both small and catastrophic.

The offensive line must get better, but is that likely?

Perhaps the most disappointing unit on the field was the offensive line, which committed nine of Cal’s 10 offensive penalties and couldn’t block well enough for Cal to convert critical 4th-and-short rushing attempts. The line also allowed two sacks (one of which led to a fumble) and five tackles for loss. Against a defense on the level of Arizona, it’s hard to not see this as a significant under-performance.

Hopes were high for Cal’s offensive line, which was returning a ton of experience and features three seniors. But by the same token, it’s probably not realistic to expect a ton of improvement from a unit with so much playing time.

The line will probably bounce back and have better games, but over the long run of the season, the line is likely to continue to impress and frustrate in equal measure, trading off well-blocked plays with mistakes that hinder drives.

Defense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 1 touchdown, 2 FGA (1–2), 5 punts, 2 turnovers (1 interception, 1 fumble), 1 point/drive

Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.56 points/drive allowed
Arizona offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.96 points/drive

Cal held Arizona to 1.3 yards below their per-play season average, allowed just two plays over 20 yards, and—after an iffy first two series—utterly stoned a middling offense. It was a performance that raised Cal’s defensive S&P+ rating to 6th in the country. It should have been enough for an easy, multi-score win. That it resulted in a loss is really, really statistically unlikely. Like, a 7% chance.

Thanks almost entirely to Cal’s defensive effort, the Bears were more explosive, more efficient, and did a better job finishing drives. According to the Five Factors box score, games with the same underlying numbers as Cal/Arizona sees Cal’s performance resulting in a win 93% of the time. Hence my immediate post-game reaction.

Playing non-runner Khalil Tate does help

The honest reality is that unless and until Arizona is able to deploy Khalil Tate as a consistent running threat, they do not have a good offense. J.J. Taylor is an OK running back, but their line is average and Tate isn’t an accurate enough passer to punish teams for stacking the box to slow down Taylor.

And sure enough, that was more or less what happened against Cal. The Bears stopped Taylor on standard downs and Tate didn’t make nearly enough plays on passing downs to sustain drives. Tate was a bit more accurate than usual, but also more conservative in his throws than usual and outside of the first touchdown of the game, had virtually zero success as an actual downfield passer.

So yeah, you don’t want to make too much of Cal’s defense throttling a limited opponent. But still, it says something important that Cal’s defense can do that so completely.

Special Teams

More conditions-assisted performances

It was a mostly low-impact night as Cal spent more time turning the ball over than punting or kicking. Thanks to the thin desert air/altitude, most kicks sailed through the end zone or hung up to prevent returns and so the field-position battle was basically even. This was Cal’s last game of the season in conditions that make kicking the ball easy, but so far results at sea level have been solid, so let’s hope for more of the same.

Coaching

On mistakes

Just really disappointing and unacceptable, starting with me. It’s my job to make sure our team is ready to play. We’ve got to give them opportunities in every phase to be at their best, and we weren’t.

Justin Wilcox generally says the right things in post-game press conferences. It’s hardly a secret why Cal lost a game that they should have won easily and he and his coaching staff know what needs to be fixed.

The question is to what extent the problems on offense can be fixed. This is Cal’s fifth game and the offense hasn’t performed well in any of them. Football seasons are cruelly short and there isn’t much time left in which to change things. I think we’ve seen enough flashes over the last few weeks to think that it’s possible to cobble together Pac-12 average production and avoid crippling mistakes, but if I’m trying to determine what is most likely, I’m leaning towards the five games worth of evidence that says that this offense isn’t capable of getting out of their own way often enough to move the ball securely.

4th and 1 from the 3

20/20 hindsight being what it is, Cal obviously would’ve been much better off with a field goal than the zero they put up on that drive. As above, Wilcox took direct blame for the decision backfiring, though he correctly pointed out that the offense really should be able to get a yard and that the defense had earned the trust of being able to stop Arizona from driving down the field. And he almost dropped a Herm Edwards–esque “play to win the game”, which would’ve been awesome.

Really, to my mind this is another demonstration that Cal’s offense is reasonably effective when they can keep a defense guessing and off-balance, but that Cal isn’t nearly as good at executing plays when opponents know what’s coming.

Anyway, I have no problem with Wilcox electing to go for it on this play, nor on 4th and 2 on the Arizona 37, though I will admit that Cal’s inability to convert short-yardage plays is disturbing. There were much bigger reasons why Cal failed to win this game.

Big Picture

Do you want the optimistic take or are you leaning towards wallowing for a little while longer?

I got a few dark laughs out of Cal’s seven-spot improvement in the S&P+ rankings, a reflection of Cal’s per-play domination and the mostly random nature of turnovers. There’s a logjam of eight Pac-12 teams ranked between 33rd (Wazzu) and 53rd (Cal). Four of those teams are still left on Cal’s schedule. Now, S&P isn’t gospel (the numbers have Oregon ranked a bit too low for my tastes, for one example), but they are generally about as objective a measurement we have available.

The point is that other than Washington, there isn’t anybody left on Cal’s schedule that the Bears can’t beat if they can clean up their act, protect the ball, and generally get back to playing the type of football that Justin Wilcox aspires to.

The Cal defense will probably continue to keep Cal close against most everybody on the schedule, even in games in which the offense is utterly dysfunctional—like Saturday, when the offense had turned the ball over five times and gave up a touchdown and yet still had a chance to drive for a win in the last 5 minutes of the game despite it all.

Granted, the concept of needing to fix pretty significant issues just to have the chance to play a series of coin flips down the stretch isn’t exactly the most encouraging prospect. But the season is still not even halfway done and this team has a chance to correct their mistakes and turn in an encouraging season.

Unfortunately, what happened in Tucson made things more difficult. Like always, I suppose. Beating the life out of a nearly lifeless UCLA would be quite the tonic for the soul. Let’s do that.