Something worth mentioning from the start: It’s amazing that Cal was close enough that coaching decisions in the fourth quarter mattered enough to be worth challenging.
Washington State low key dominated. The Cougars gained 122 more yards, averaged 2 yards per play more than the Bears, had a significantly higher success rate, and didn’t lose the field position or the turnover battles. Per the 5 factors box score, this stat line wins Wazzu this game 99.4% of the time. Under more normal circumstances, Washington State probably wins a ho-hum game by 14 points.
But this is a team and a coaching staff that have the unique ability to turn each and every game into a low possession slog that gives the Bears a chance to fluke out a win in the fourth quarter, presuming Cal isn’t turning the ball over multiple times.
More on that below
10 drives: 1 touchdown, 3 FGA (2–3), 4 punts, 2 turnovers (interceptions), 1.3 points/drive
Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.61 points/drive
Washington State defense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.21 points/drive allowed
I didn’t count Cal’s final possession of the game, in which they had to drive 91 yards in 27 seconds, because that was just never going to happen and isn’t a valuable barometer of the offense at this point. Even excising that drive, Cal again failed to even reach their season points/drive average—and failed to reach the 20-point plateau for the fourth time in five games.
The numbers are grisly. 95th in yards per play, 113th in points per drive, 127th in plays of 30 yards or more, and 116th in both S&P+ and FEI (the holistic, strength-of-schedule-adjusted metrics).
Avoiding turnovers grants a historically good Cal defense a shot to steal wins. It’s frustrating that the ceiling is so, so low.
The inevitable McIlwain discussion
Brandon McIlwain got ~15 snaps at quarterback. On plays in which he directly impacted the play (as a runner or as a thrower) Cal averaged 3.85 yards/play. Of course, 35 of those 50 yards were on one deep throw to Moe Ways, which was perhaps the best throw McIlwain has uncorked this season. Otherwise, McIlwain got about a yard a play and also tossed a really, really bad interception.
During the broadcast, the announcing crew mentioned multiple times how Beau Baldwin wanted Brandon McIlwain to earn more playing time and I guess I understand that line of thinking. Cal is one of the least-explosive offenses in the country and they aren’t consistent/talented enough to move the ball 4–5 yards at a time. Brandon McIlwain is probably the only player on the roster who has the talent to create big plays. When you’re playing an offense of the caliber of Washington State and you’re almost certainly going to need to score 20 to 30 points, doesn’t it make sense to play the guy who might be able to make plays because a chance to score 20+ points (even with a huge turnover downside) is better than a guaranteed 10–13 points without turnovers with Garbers?
Of course, understanding the reasoning is very different than agreeing with the reasoning. Because we already had three games’ worth of evidence that the potential upside of McIlwain is rarely there and the downside is omnipresent. For every 20+ yard run from McIlwain, there are three or four turnovers. Maybe McIlwain does have explosive-play potential, but that potential has very rarely actually turned into actual production.
Here’s the critical question: How much can coaching improve a quarterback’s baseline accuracy? Experience and practice can certainly improve a QB’s understanding of the playbook and thus on-field decision-making. But many of McIlwain’s most damaging turnovers have been physical errors in which he makes the right decision, but significantly overthrows an open target. I’m no football expert, but anecdotally it just seems like inaccurate throwers (your Blake Bortles and Josh Allens) stay inaccurate.
The secretly disappointing aspect of Cal’s offense
Washington State has a pretty good pass defense, in part thanks to a disruptive secondary and in part thanks to a consistent, solid pass rush. That they shut down a Cal WR corps without Kanawai Noa is, frankly, unsurprising.
No, the comparatively vulnerable half of the WSU defense is against the run. And save for one Chase Garbers scramble and another Chase Garbers zone read keeper, Cal didn’t get anything going on the ground. McIlwain had a long gain of 5 and took a couple of bad sacks. Laird averaged 2.2 yards per play.
Again, this probably shouldn’t be a shock. Without Noa, why wouldn’t the opponent crowd the line, pack the box, and dare Cal to go over the top? We’ve talked about it all season and Wilcox has talked about it in his post-game pressers . . . there’s a reason Cal’s offense is as bad as it is. Good units create positive feedback loops where success in one area creates opportunities for success in other areas. Cal’s offense is experiencing the mother of all negative feedback loops.
10 drives: 1 touchdown, 2 FGA (1–2), 5 punts, 3 turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 downs), 1.9 points/drive
Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.43 points/drive allowed
Washington State offense 2018 average, pre-game: 3.42 points/drive
I’m trying to decide if holding WSU to two TDs and two FGAs flatters Cal or is just another indication of how good this defense is.
On one hand, WSU gained a ton of yards. Cal only forced one 3-and-out possession during the entire game and WSU raced to at least midfield on almost every drive. On another night, the Cougars might easily score 30 points.
But Cal did stiffen multiple times and probably held WSU to close to the absolute minimum of points production based on total yardage. WSU “wasted” 67 yards on a missed field goal, 36 yards on a missed fourth-down conversion, and a combined 95 yards on long drives that ended in three points rather than seven. When you’re playing a Mike Leach team that is the most mistake-free Air Raid he has ever had in Pullman, about all you can really do is keep every play in front of you, be opportunistic with their few errors, and try to stop them when the field gets restricted inside the 20s. Cal operated the upset strategy about as well as could be expected.
The best version of the Air Raid
Seriously, I don’t have a ton to say that’s new about the Cal defense, other than to say that they played pretty darn well. But I have so much to say about this version of the Leach Air Raid.
Cal had three pass break-ups and an interception. Two of them were batted passes by defensive linemen, plus plays made by Evan Weaver on WSU screens. Cal’s excellent DBs didn’t have a single pass break-up—normally this would be an indication that they had a bad game, but that’s obviously not the case. Cal held Gardner Minshew II and the Cougs below their conference average in terms of completion percentage and yards per play and only allowed one TD through the air.
It’s just that they don’t make mistakes. Previous Leach QBs would sometimes hold onto the ball too long or step up into a pass rush or misdiagnose a coverage. Minshew never takes sacks, rarely makes a dangerous throw, and is boringly accurate. Cal certainly made him work harder for his yardage than usual, but on so many plays it felt like Cal covered really well and still gave up a solid completion.
Thank God Minshew’s only got one year to play in Pullman.
Iffy, but little that truly swung the game
- WSU misses a short field goal
- Greg Thomas hits two 40+ yard field goals in tough conditions
- Ashtyn Davis almost breaks a long return
- Cal allowed a long kickoff return that allows WSU to squeak in a field goal before halftime.
- Whatever that kickoff return was after WSU scored the game-winning TD.
- Greg Thomas misses a 47-yard kick.
Bad item #2 wasn’t really going to matter anyway and Bad item #3 isn’t particularly fair since I’d happily take a college kicker that makes 66% of his 40+ kicks.
Also, something worth considering: Cal hasn’t tried a fake anything all season long. This is entirely acceptable if we’re saving everything awesome for USC and Stanford.
A maddening thing that maybe isn’t on the coaches?
Cal’s second-to-last possession was a three-and-out in which Chase Garbers threw incomplete deep on second and third down. This not only gave WSU the ball back, but with more than enough time on the clock. Then, when Cal had to go 91 yards in 30 seconds, Garbers threw underneath to receivers who were doomed to fail even if they did everything right.
And in cases like these, I’m never sure if I should be blaming the play calling of the coaching staff or the decisions made by a quarterback to throw to a certain receiver.
Cal wasn’t scoring on their last drive regardless, so I’m not going to spend any more time thinking about that possession. But Cal’s second-to-last possession could have—at a minimum—ran off enough clock so that WSU couldn’t score before overtime and failing to force WSU to at least use their timeouts was an unforced error.
Oh Righteous God of Fourth-Down Decision Making, why hath thou forsaken us when we have been nothing but devout to thee?
Cal’s first and only touchdown drive required a fourth-down conversion on a pretty nifty end run that featured a perfect seal and Malik McMorris erasing the only edge defender with a chance. The subsequent touchdown was the least Cal deserved for their righteous aggression.
And again, with the game on the line, Justin Wilcox eschewed a 35-yard field goal and trusted his senior to get a yard. Patrick Laird came through with a tough run . . . only to see Cal turn the ball over on the very next play.
Another huge upset win that Cal had no business stealing but somehow almost did. Cal needed help from the refs (+55 yards and an absurd six first downs via penalty*), a bad missed field goal, a perfect execution of the bend-but-don’t-break defense, and one of the most bizarre exchanges of turnovers you’ll ever see . . . just to put themselves in position to steal the game at the end.
It didn’t happen, and that stings. The way the game slipped away, in particular, stings. That Cal’s offense is so incapable of taking advantage of their defense stings.
And yet, this game was strangely encouraging. This was probably Cal’s toughest game of the season and certainly the best team Cal will play on the road this year. In back-to-back weeks Cal has taken on two quality opponents with vastly different styles and played them both essentially to a standstill.
We all know the transitive property is dangerous. But Stanford is 0–2 against the Washington schools. USC barely beat WSU at home back when they were much, much healthier and with the help of some iffy ref-ing. There is zero reason to think that Cal can’t, at a minimum, play USC and Stanford close such that they will have the chance to win the game in the final quarter.
That will require the Bears to not shoot themselves in the foot and I’m speaking both to coaching decisions and to on-the-field mistakes. This week, I’m oddly happy that the game was even close enough that unforced errors played a role in the final outcome.
If they play a role in Cal defeats against USC and Stanford, few fans will be in the mood to move on.
*Think back on this game the next time you tell yourself that Cal never gets any luck from Pac-12 refs.