One of my tried-and-true college football truisms is that this is mostly a game of minimizing mistakes.
This was a pretty big problem for Cal in their three-game losing streak, when turnovers killed any chance of victory. That experience led to the Cal offense digging 1,000 miles of conservative, defensive trenches made of Patrick Laird swing passes, power hand-offs, and five-yard tight end patterns. Never again would the Bears allow themselves to beat themselves.
But would Cal’s opponents happily throw themselves into Justin Wilcox’s version of the Hindenburg line, wasting thousands of lives on a doomed frontal assault of an impregnable position? Would the opponent make enough mistakes to allow for victory despite a near complete inability to successfully execute on one side of the ball?
You could ask Jake Haener and Chris Petersen.
Or you could ask Toa Lobendahn and Iman Marshall.
And now you can ask Steven Montez, Ronnie Blackmon, and K.D. Nixon.
K.J. Costello? You’re next up.
12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (2–2), 8 punts, 0 turnovers, 1.67 points/drive
Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.51 points/drive
Colorado defense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.21 points/drive allowed
Removed: Cal’s final victory formation kneel-down possession
Cal’s offense exceeded their season average points per drive! Cal’s offense exceeded their season average points per drive! Granted, 10 Cal points came with turnover-assisted field position, with one field goal coming without the Cal offense actually managing a first down. But still!
This production flatters an offense that produced their single worst yards per play number of the year. It’s true—Cal’s 3.3 yards per offensive snap was lower than what they produced against USC, Washington, and every other team they’ve played previously. For that matter, Colorado’s defense held Cal to fewer yards per play than 3–9 Colorado State or FCS New Hampshire (4–7). Yes, Cal’s offense is apparently producing like a middling FCS team.
Here’s Cal’s rather amazing drive summary:
- 3 and out
- A 28-yard drive in which Cal got one first down and then a touchdown—and required two fourth-down conversions.
- First down and out
- 3 and out
- 3 and out (field goal thanks to a fumble)
- Firstst down and out
- 3 and out
- 3 and out
- 3 and out
- Cal gets one first down, but thanks to great field position and one Colorado penalty, they get a field goal
- 11-play, 72-yard touchdown drive that required one fourth-down conversion and another Colorado third-down late-hit personal foul that gave Cal a fresh set of goal-to-go downs.
- First down and out
Cal had just two drives that featured more than one first down—and in both cases, Cal needed fourth-down conversions on each drive. This team is categorically allergic to gaining 10 yards in three plays.
How big of a deal are all of Cal’s injuries?
Kanawai Noa, Michael Saffell, and Patrick Mekari all missed Saturday’s game. Jordan Duncan participated, but didn’t register a catch. And so maybe it shouldn’t have been a huge surprise when Cal’s running backs collected just 54 yards on 23 carries (2.4 yards per carry).
Patrick Mekari played as a true freshman in Jared Goff’s final season and has been Cal’s best, most reliable lineman during the last two years. Michael Saffell was getting lots of buzz as an up-and-coming impact interior lineman. Missing both of them probably limits Cal’s peak performance and certainly limits Cal’s depth. Meanwhile, Cal’s lack of impact pass-catching options has been well-documented—and is the group that can least afford injuries.
The problem is that, with the possible exception of Jordan Duncan, it’s probably wise to assume that none of these players will be participating against Stanford, who generally looked much healthier against UCLA. It’s not clear that there is a whole ton of upside on offense for Cal right now, unless the coaching staff have been saving up every little wrinkle and trick play they’ve got in the playbook. Considering that Cal has played four-straight games in which every little ounce of offensive production was desperately needed, I kinda doubt that there’s anything new saved up.
12 drives: 3 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 5 punts, 4 turnovers (3 interceptions, 1 downs), 1.75 points/drive
Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.45 points/drive allowed
Colorado offense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.08 points/drive
Removed: Colorado’s one-play kneel-down to end the first half and two special teams fumbles that don’t reflect the performance of Colorado’s offense or Cal’s defense.
It says something about the high standard that the Cal defense has set for itself that this game could be, in some ways, viewed as a mild let down. When you allow a team to score into the 20s for the first time since mid-October, it feels oddly disappointing.
Of course, that’s largely a function of Colorado turning their three only decent drives of the game into touchdowns. If Cal stiffens in the red zone and Colorado finishes the game with 13 or 17 points, then this is just another team held in the teens.
Once Colorado stopped throwing pick-sixes on every drive, the Buffs did a decent job of staying ahead of the chains and converting on third down—though as per usual, the Cal defense took away the big play. It was just enough production to briefly scare Cal fans, but not nearly enough to actually overcome five turnovers.
Cal’s secondary controls Shenault
Most wide receivers would probably take a seven-catch, 65-yard performance. But Laviska Shenault Jr. might be the best receiver in the conference. When healthy, Shenault has managed at least nine catches in every game this season except FCS New Hampshire (when the Buffs presumably rested their best player). Cal also held him out of the end zone, something only Utah and Wazzu managed. Add it all up and Cal controlled one of the best play-makers in the Pac-12 better than pretty much anybody else.
Also, kudos to Shenault for managing to pick up 10 rushing yards without a carry, a fascinating artifact of the improvised lateral from Steven Montez. I’m mostly just glad Cal was ahead by enough that I could appreciate that goofy play for what it was rather than worrying about Colorado’s chances of winning.
The beautiful synergy of experience, talent, and coaching
Much of Cal’s post-game media availability involved discussions of how the defense learned from and tailored their preparations for Colorado from the lessons they learned in getting gashed by Steven Montez and the Buffs last year. The result this year? Three interceptions, a season-low completion percentage, and just 5.2 yards per attempt.
With every single major contributor in the secondary, at ILB, and on the defensive coaching staff back, it’s not exactly shocking that Cal is so improved as a pass defense. Still, the results are both obvious and thrilling—and are the number one reason for optimism as another strong passing attack prepares to try to beat Cal’s secondary next week.
In appreciation of Steven Coutts
Justin Wilcox made a point to shout out Steven Coutts in his post-game presser, describing him as a “weapon.” Cal currently sits 24th in the nation in net punting, something that few would have predicted when Dylan Klumph grad-transferred to Arizona (36th in the nation in net punting) over the off-season.
Coutts stepped in and turned a likely weakness into an unexpected strength and it’s a shame that Cal fans will only get to enjoy his punting this season before he graduates. His effectiveness could be incredibly important next week in a game that is very likely to be a field position, ball-control battle.
In appreciation of just not making mistakes
As has been discussed in this space ad nauseam, Cal special teams in the Wilcox era have largely been characterized by quiet competence. Cal hasn’t had a kick blocked, hasn’t given up a return of major consequence, and only has one special teams turnover (a fumbled punt against BYU). Greg Thomas is 7/8 from inside 40 yards. In a game that featured two huge errors on special teams, let’s be thankful that Cal has a unit that occasionally helps to win a game and essentially never helps to lose one.
Fourth-down attempts still make sense even when your offense has produced almost nothing
Both of Cal’s two offensive touchdowns required fourth-down conversions. One was a fourth and one from the 20-yard line, which meant that Cal passed up a 37-yard field goal attempt. The other was a fourth and four from the 36, which was never likely to end up in a career-long Greg Thomas attempt.
That’s 14 points earned when a more conservative coach might have punted and kicked a field goal—and in a 12 point win that’s pretty darn important. Credit to Justin Wilcox for recognizing that while Cal’s defense is great, they’re not invincible and that this team needs to find a way to wring maximum points out of every scoring opportunity because they just don’t come around that often. The offense possessed the ball in Colorado territory just four times, but those four possessions led to 20 points (19, I guess, since a two-point conversion failed) that were essential.
Cal beat a rudderless, free-falling Colorado, roughly matching the pregame point spread. Hooray!
OK, I’m officially done thinking about Colorado. The Buffs are not very interesting, at least in comparison to the game that comes next Saturday.
The Big Game isn’t exactly the difference between a successful season and a failed season, but I think we all know that the difference in perception of an eight-win season with the Axe and a seven-win season ending with a continuation of the longest losing streak in the history of the rivalry is gigantic.
And that’s a tough spot to be in. Neutral observers agree that Stanford is the favorite. The Cardinal probably have the second-best offense in the Pac-12 and the other potential best offenses (WSU and Oregon) both managed to score enough on Cal’s defense to easily outpace the anemic Cal offense.
It’s neither fair nor wise to pin your psyche to the outcome of this particular game that is a coin flip at best. But being a Cal fan means that you signed up to do just that, whether you like it or not.
There are many universes out there where JJ Arcega-Whiteside and a phalanx of 6’4’’ tight ends catch enough jump balls and a healthier Bryce Love offers enough of a counter balance that Cal’s offense simply doesn’t have a hope at keeping up, try as Cal’s defense might to hold them down.
But there are also universes where Ashtyn Davis breaks up and/or intercepts those same jump balls and where Bryce Love is still bashing his head fruitlessly into Evdan Weavnaszyk and where Beau Baldwin really does pull every trick play out of his arsenal to somehow compel the Cal offense into multiple points.
Or the universes where Cal wins 13–12 in a carbon copy of the UW and USC wins, because apparently this coaching staff can engineer a rock-fight win quite well.
I don’t know which one of those universes we occupy yet. I’m going to try really hard not to overreact when we find out which one, because the exact outcome doesn’t change the fundamental reality of what this team is good at and bad at and what they can be next year. I am guaranteed to fail for at least 24 hours after the game.
I hope that failure occurs while shouting “Who’s got the Axe?” while sprinting towards the script Cal on the 50-yard line of Memorial Stadium.