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Post-Game Thoughts: USC

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The 2018 Bears kill the streak in the only way they know how: ugly and gritty

NCAA Football: California at Southern California Jayne Kamin-Oncea-USA TODAY Sports

The 14-game losing streak to USC was absurd.

We have to start with that fact. Over the last 14 years, USC has the best winning percentage in conference games. They have been the class of the Pac-12, but they have generally been far from invincible. Over the last nine years their average record in conference play has been 6–3. Despite being the best team in the conference, every single other member of the Pac-12 has at least two wins over the Trojans over the last 14 years, with two exceptions.

One of those teams is Colorado, who has only had eight shots at USC since entering the conference and spent much of that time as the whipping boy of the south.

The other team, of course, was Cal.

And for as bad as it’s been for our beloved program over the years, it’s not like Cal has been the worst team in the conference. The Bears have won 53 conference games since 2004, which is just two games behind Oregon State and tied with Arizona and Washington, and 12 games above Washington State. And yet all of those peers have multiple wins over the Trojans, despite some of them not even getting to play USC every season.

To get a 14-game streak like this, you have to be So. Damned. Unlucky. When you have a great team, your opponent has a transcendent team. When your opponent is mediocre, you’re even worse. Injuries for Cal strike just before USC while USC gets players back just in time for Cal.

And more than anything else, USC simply never had an off game when Cal came up on the schedule. A team that, since Pete Carroll left, has been synonymous with self-inflicted defeats to teams with lesser talent has never shot themselves in the foot against our Bears. I don’t want to look it up, but I’d wager that USC probably has, like, seven total turnovers in the entirety of their 14-game winning streak. They just never screwed up.

They finally screwed up. Critical USC mistakes (mostly unforced) that helped Cal win the game:

  • USC fumbles the ball on a play that would have given them first and goal
  • USC snaps the ball into the end zone
  • USC wastes two timeouts dithering over play calls and fourth-down decisions
  • USC CB Iman Marshall barks at the Cal sideline for no obvious reason and hands Cal a free first down when they should’ve punted the ball back with about 4:00 left in the game.

I don’t list these mistakes to imply that USC gave this game away—Cal also made a ton of plays themselves to ensure that USC’s mistakes actually hurt. Most teams make mistakes each and every game. But USC never did against Cal . . . until finally, after playing a near-perfect 28 minutes of football, nearly every mistake Cal was owed from the last 14 losses all started pouring down at once.

A necessary act of schadenfreude to exorcise the streak

A note on fandom

I spent the weekend pseudo-camping at a family property up in the redwoods in Sonoma County and wasn’t anticipating being able to follow the game in any capacity. I wasn’t exactly thrilled to miss the USC game and I was a little bit terrified that Cal would finally win when I wasn’t watching, but a part of me I didn’t like was excited to not have watch another slow motion car crash for four hours.

But since the last time I’ve visited, the Wi-Fi had been significantly upgraded and I found that I could follow the game on my phone. I tried very hard to be a good family member and be social, glancing just a few times as the first half went exactly like every single other Cal–USC first half.

But then, USC snapped the ball into the end zone and Cal actually hit a downfield pass for a touchdown. And even though everything that had happened so far in the game told me that USC was still going to win because one fluke play and one decent pass doesn’t change two quarters of dominance, I scrambled to download the ESPN app to watch the game on my tiny phone, joined by a few other Cal-fan family members.

You just can’t turn it off, even when you’d be better off with a modicum of self-control.

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 2 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 8 punts, 1 turnover, 1.27 points/drive

Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.56 points/drive
USC defense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.14 points/drive allowed

Not included: One awesome 10-play, penalty-aided, clock-killing, game-winning fourth-quarter drive. The 2018 Cal offense: Bad at everything except grinding out two to three first downs to deny the opponent one final chance to score.

Talk about making the most out of your opportunities. Cal’s field position was generally wretched and Cal only started four drives further out than their own 29-yard line. Two of those drives ended in touchdowns and a third ended with Cal kneeling the ball in victory formation. It’s rather incredible to win a game with a long drive of just 50 yards. Still, Cal has been busy winning games with stunningly ugly offensive numbers all season, so maybe this shouldn’t be surprising any more.

For the fifth time in six games, Cal could not reach their season average in points per drive. For the fourth time in five games, Cal could not reach their season average in yards per play (3.57 vs. 5.13). Cal is 3–1 in their last four games. The offense continues to find new depths of inefficiency, but the team keeps on winning.

An example of the kind of thing Cal should be able to do more often

Here’s the pre-snap formation just prior to Vic Wharton’s third-quarter touchdown:

USC has seven dudes stacked up on the line (one is a cornerback in man-to-man coverage on a WR), and four defensive backs matched up in man-to-man coverage on Cal’s four other WRs.

It’s a disrespectful cover-zero, with no safety help for any of their DBs in man coverage. While teams aren’t in cover-zero all the time, it’s not exactly an unusual look either because teams don’t respect Cal’s WRs to win one-on-one battles or Cal’s QBs to hit them with accurate downfield passes even if they do come open. Playing a defense like this allowed USC to rush six guys at Chase Garbers and more generally would allow a team to move a safety up into run support to suffocate Cal’s running game.

And while it’s entirely true that Cal struggles to take advantage of these types of looks, it also feels like Cal should be able to hit plays like this once or twice a game. Garbers isn’t Goff or Rodgers, but he can throw a competent 25-yard pass. Wharton and Moe Ways aren’t MacArthur or Treggs, but they’re competent WRs.

And if Cal can start hitting these types of throws, it would be the perfect complement a defense that only needs a few scores to hold onto a win.

Garbers as a run threat

Here is a list of Cal plays that went for more than 10 yards:

  • Patrick Laird fourth-down run to win the game
  • Wharton touchdown described above
  • Garbers 82-yard run called back by penalty
  • Garbers run for 23 yards that ended in a fumble

First of all, this list should shock you even considering how bad you thought Cal’s offensive performance was. Cal only managed to gain more than 10 yards on a play FOUR TIMES—and one of those plays was called back by a penalty while another was caused because USC was in an extreme defense to try to prevent Cal from gaining the one yard that Cal needed to ice the game.

But I think this list highlights something important, which is that Chase Garbers as a runner is an increasingly critical part of the offense. Not included in the list above was Garbers’s zone-read touchdown or his naked bootleg. Nearly every time Garbers ran the ball, something good happened . . . even if it was sometimes immediately followed by something bad.

As for that penalty, here’s the best angle the TV cameras give us:

Jake Curhan’s right arm was never engaged with Cameron Smith, but his left arm is against Smith’s chest. We never get an angle that tells us if he’s grabbing a chuck of Smith’s jersey, or if Smith simply is slow to disengage from Curhan’s block. Which is to say that it’s impossible to know if this is a good call or a bad call, although I’ll certainly note that it’s the type of grappling play that goes uncalled with some frequency.

Defense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 6 punts, 4 turnovers (1 interception, 1 fumble, 1 downs, 1 safety), 1.17 points/drive

Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.48 points/drive allowed
USC offense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.10 points/drive

USC’s offense produced 247 yards in 41 plays (6.02 yards/play) in the first half. That’s a level of per-play production against Cal’s defense that only Justin Herbert and the Oregon offense managed to exceed.

And thanks to a bad fake–field goal attempt and a fumble, that dominance only produced 14 points. The game easily could have been out of reach. Hell, 14 points felt out of reach, but USC easily could’ve reached anywhere between 17 and 24 points without a whole lot changing.

And while I wouldn’t say that the Cal defense was playing great, it did feel like USC was wringing the most out of their opportunities. Cal kept almost getting to Daniels on the rush, while Daniels made a number of nice throws into narrow windows. It wasn’t going to take a ton to turn things around on defense.

And sure enough, in the second half, Cal’s rush started to find JT Daniels and Daniels started making inaccurate throws and/or bad decisions. And when the dust had settled, USC had just 55 total second-half yards on 31 plays . . . which doesn’t include the 22 yards they lost snapping the ball into the end zone.

Traveon Beck, steely-eyed missile man

I’ve always felt that the toughest job in football is playing defensive back, particularly cornerback. The WR has every advantage. They know when they’re going to break on a route and they know when to expect the ball. You saw the challenges of playing DB when Elijah Hicks was beaten twice on a USC touchdown drive—once when he was playing soft coverage and the USC WR broke inward for an easy 16-yard gain and then a few plays later when Hicks was instead playing press coverage and the USC WR got about a yard of separation for a deceptively easy lofted go route. When the other dude is really fast and he gets to make his move first, he’s almost always going to get a yard of separation even if you do everything right. And if you do anything wrong, it’s probably more like five yards of separation.

The only way to beat that inherent disadvantage is with speed and athleticism and tremendous anticipatory skills. And that’s what allowed Traveon Beck to break up three passes, grab a pick, and destroy USC’s fake field goal—by quickly diagnosing what’s going to happen on a play and then flash perfect straight-line speed to disrupt.

Luc Bequette, needed disruptive force

To the extent that Cal’s 2018 defense has a weakness (it’s all relative) it’s a lack of disruptive play from the defensive line, particularly on pass rushes. Cal’s ranking in sacks is middling and largely dependent on exotic or confusing blitz packages rather than sheer physical dominance.

But unlike in years past, Cal can get a little bit going just with their base pass rushers. Cal has a combined 12 sacks from defensive linemen/rush linebackers and Bequette has been the most disruptive of the group. He came up with a huge second-half sack to set up the Beck interception, forced the fumble to end USC’s late second-quarter drive, and was generally a nuisance in the backfield all night long.

Special Teams

A good day that was nearly great

There were two negative-outcome Cal special teams plays: Ashtyn Davis’ muffed fair catch that led to Cal starting from the 3 and a very iffy block in the back call (Watch as the guy that #3 Elijah Hicks is trailing falls down lunging for the tackle, by my eyes entirely on is own) that negated a 20-yard Nikko Remigio punt return.

Otherwise—steady as she goes. Beck’s fake-kick stop was mentioned above. Chris Landgrebe booted all three of his kickoffs for touchbacks. Cal allowed zero returns for the entire game. And most importantly, Steven Coutts was solid all game long, but saved his very best punts for the second half (nets of 42, 44, and 48) when Cal needed every yard to hold USC at bay.

Remigio, in particular, has been very close to breaking off long returns and is starting to look comfortable and dangerous receiving punts, an exciting development considering how long it has been since Cal has had an impact performer returning punts.

Coaching

How aggressive can you be when your offense is so inefficient and unexplosive?

Justin Wilcox made two conservative decisions that I want to argue against, but simply can’t.

With just over six minutes left in the first half, Cal faced a 4th and 5 from midfield and punted. And with 46 seconds left in the half from their own 10, Cal ran a standard running play and let the clock run out rather than try to mount a scoring drive.

Normally, down by 14 points, I’d advocate trying to do something to try to change the course of the game. But Cal’s offense is so limited that I just can’t argue in favor of anything but the most calculated risk. How can I seriously argue in favor of a 4th-and-5 attempt when Cal averaged 3.57 yards/play and a success rate of 29%? Those are odds that the Vegas house would be envious of. And does anybody really think that this offense had a chance to go 60 yards in 45 seconds when their longest drive to that point was 26-yards-long?

No, those weren’t the moments for aggression, even though Cal badly needed plays that could somehow swing their odds considering the deficit.

I’d like to give credit to Wilcox for deciding to go for it on the game-winning 4th and 1 . . . but when Rod Gilmore thinks you should go for it, that just means that you managed to successfully write your name down on the SATs.

Big Picture

I don’t know if I can emphasize how important this game is for this program.

Most obviously, winning this game crosses off three to-dos at once: bowl eligibility, a rivalry win, and an end to a streak that needed to die for this program to take some kind of developmental step forward.

Psychologically, this is a win that can help rebuild the Cal fan base that has been thirsting for this moment for so, so long.

But my most fervent hope is that this win (and Cal’s earlier win over Washington) gives Cal’s coaching staff something potentially precious—the ability to convincingly pitch recruits. As has been extensively documented, Cal has struggled to convince high-end recruits to choose Berkeley for . . . well, pretty much the entire last decade. As a result Cal has languished towards 7th–9th place in Pac-12 recruiting—and has gotten on-field results to match.

At some point, Cal was going to need a team that got on-field results that exceeded their star ratings. A 6–4 record through 10 games might not turn a ton of heads, but wins over USC and Washington might. Cal’s coaches can now paint a real picture of program momentum to elite recruits—and that picture gets all the better if Cal can pick up another two or three wins against Stanford, Colorado, and in their bowl game. Right now, only Oregon is making waves in Pac-12 recruiting circles and there’s space for another team to start making in roads where a rudderless USC and asleep-at-the-wheel UCLA would normally dominate.

One awful streak is over. Another dies next Saturday. As this era of Cal football makes its mark, I look forward to enjoying the positive streaks they create for themselves rather than looking back and agonizing over the negative streaks that they inherited—and eliminated.