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Post-Game Thoughts: 121st Big Game

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For another year, enforce patience

Stanford v California Photo by Jason O. Watson/Getty Images

For the briefest of seconds, I allowed my heart to overrule my head.

I was not optimistic about this game. The Stanford Cardinal came in relatively healthy and had figured out their new, kinda pass-first offense. The California Golden Bears’ offense was stagnating at best—and would again have to rely on the defense to create scoring opportunities against an offense that knew to avoid just that.

And sure enough, Stanford raced out to a 10-point lead and looked ready to blow the Bears out.

But then the Cal offense woke up enough to scratch out two field goals and David Shaw went really conservative really early and Cal was running the all–Malik McMorris offense to perfection and we were going to drive to take the lead before halftime and then we were going to get the ball to start the half and keep on scoring. The stadium was as full as we’ve seen Memorial in years, the students showed up in force, and the noise was causing Stanford to false start . . . it felt like a throwback to 2002 in so many ways.

And then Malik fumbled while in the process of wringing every extra yard out of a swing pass reception and Stanford turned that mistake into a field goal and a 7-point lead—and my head took back over, as much as I didn’t want to let it.

Last week, I talked about how Cal is a team that depends on taking advantage of its opponents’ mistakes.

The problem is that David Shaw’s Stanford teams don’t really make mistakes. We all love to make fun of David Shaw for his extreme conservatism (MULTIPLE third-and-long draw plays when you have like three or four of the best downfield targets in the Pac-12?!), but it’s a philosophy that will win you lots of games against opponents with less talent at their disposal.

Cal turned the ball over three times; Stanford just once. Cal dropped multiple passes and Stanford didn’t. Cal missed multiple chances at contested catches; Stanford didn’t. Cal missed a field goal; Stanford didn’t.

In a game that was otherwise pretty even, those mistakes opened up the door for Stanford to put Cal in a sleeper hold that the Bears were never going to escape from. And it means that the regular season ends with another bitter rivalry loss.

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 0 touchdowns, 3 FGA (2/3), 5 punts, 3 turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 fumble), 0.55 points/drive

Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.52 points/drive
Stanford defense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.24 points/drive allowed

Removed: Cal’s final 13-play, 75-yard touchdown drive against an extreme prevent defense that tacked on a cosmetic score to cut the deficit from 17 to 10.

If you remove Cal’s final drive, the Bears went for 4.54 yards/play—which is the second-highest total Cal has produced since Chase Garbers took over at quarterback following the Arizona game—and in some ways this was a relatively decent performance. After all, Cal only had two drives without a first down and came up with their longest play from scrimmage of the year.

But unlike in some other games with less efficiency, Cal was unable to maximize their scoring opportunities thanks to stalled drives and turnovers. Seven drives that entered Stanford territory netted just nine points—and that’s just not going to do it against David Shaw.

Is there hope for next year’s offense?

If you squinted juuuuust right, you could kinda imagine what could be a functional downfield passing attack.

Jordan Duncan was back and healthy—and generally looked good. Jeremiah Hawkins was able to get himself open, sometimes deep. We already know that Kanawai Noa is a reliable receiver and Nikko Remigio is a four-star talent with a year of experience under his belt.

Those four players and a sophomore Chase Garbers will have full practices this December and all off-season with which to gain chemistry and understanding. While that group isn’t going to be the second coming of the Bear Raid, it’s not inconceivable that they could be the core of a mediocre offense, which is all Cal needs.

But some issues are going to have to be addressed. Hawkins has got to fix is issue with dropped balls. Noa and Duncan need to stay healthy. Garbers will have to be more decisive in his decision-making and progressions. And other targets will need to emerge, whether it’s somebody currently redshirting like McCallan Castles or somebody unexpected, like another grad transfer in the mold of Moe Ways.

Defense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 1 touchdown, 3 FGA (3/3), 6 punts, 1 turnover (fumble), 1.45 points/drive

Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.48 points/drive allowed
Stanford offense 2018 average, pre-game: 2.59 points/drive

Removed: Stanford’s 1-play, 3-yard touchdown drive after the Garbers interception, because there’s no way in hell I’m pinning that score on the Cal defense.

For two drives, it looked like Stanford was going to run away with things. Stanford’s blockers were opening up running lanes for Love, J.J. Arcega-Whiteside was getting open downfield, Cal’s rushers weren’t getting anywhere near K.J. Costello, and Stanford racked up 10 points and 148 yards on 16 plays.

And then Stanford did almost nothing for their next eight drives, as Cal’s defense gave the offense chance after chance to climb back into the game. Depending on how you feel about Cal’s last touchdown, one could argue that the game was lost as soon as Cameron Scarlett crossed the goal line because Stanford had 10 points and Cal’s offense only produced 6 points against a Stanford defense that was trying.

That will ultimately be the legacy of the 2018 Cal defense: One of the very best defenses in Cal history had to be perfect to earn a win and the amazing thing was that they were functionally perfect so many times.

David Shaw must have been terrified of Cal’s secondary

And honestly, I don’t really blame him even though it was completely lame.

See, Stanford sucks at running the ball (109th in the nation in yards/carry), but excels at throwing (16th in the nation in yards/attempt). David Shaw finally figured that out over the course of the season and Stanford has actually been throwing the ball more often than they run.

But not against Cal, in a game in which Shaw could reasonably expect that the run game wouldn’t be effective (it wasn’t). On multiple third-down plays Stanford elected for wimpy draw plays rather than throws to Arcega-Whiteside and company.

All throughout game week, Shaw talked about how they couldn’t afford turnovers against Cal. And early in the game, Cal got their hands to a few different Costello passes, batting balls up into the air. On another day, one or two of those balls might’ve fallen into the hands of Cal defenders.

I think Shaw got spooked by those plays and sitting on a 10-point lead against the worst offense in the country, decided that it was a bigger risk to try downfield passing than it was to just hand the ball to the broken Cal offense.

He was right.

Special Teams

A field-position win for Stanford

You knew that this game was likely to be punt-heavy and sure enough both teams combined for 11 punts. But Stanford won the battle, averaging 41 net yards per kick to Cal’s 35. Granted, this was largely due to one crazy 84-yard (64 net) punt from Stanford’s Jake Bailey that completely flipped field position at a critical juncture of the game. Bailey (a senior) has been a pretty great punter who has had excellent games against Cal, so I’m pretty happy to never have to see him again.

But there were other little plays that added up. Nikko Remigio had a nice return in the second quarter called back for a hold and Stanford had a solid 21-yard return of their own that helped kick start their only non-garbage-time touchdown.

Stanford also hit three (very short) field goals and Greg Thomas obviously missed one of his three kicks. But I’m not particularly concerned about that missed kick because . . .

Coaching

The single worst game management decision of the Justin Wilcox era

The situation: Cal is facing a fourth and 6 from the Stanford 19-yard line. The Bears are trailing by seven points and there’s about 11 minutes left in the game. Do you go for it or do you kick a field goal?

Justin Wilcox elected to attempt the field goal. It ended up wide left, but that was mostly academic in my mind. Because Cal absolutely had to go for it.

Why? Well, there’s the obvious factor of Cal trailing by seven points in the fourth quarter. Cal needed a touchdown. Even if the field goal had gone through the uprights, Cal still would have needed a touchdown.

If Cal happened to have a strong offense, then I could maybe see the value of kicking there since another touchdown would win the game. But Cal very much doesn’t have a strong offense. Legit scoring opportunities were incredibly rare in this game. Cal “drove” into the Stanford red zone exactly ONCE in nine previous offensive drives on Patrick Laird’s 62-yard run, then promptly went three-and-out and had to settle for a field goal.

Then, suddenly, Cal was handed a golden opportunity to go for that touchdown when Jordan Kunaszyk stripped Bryce Love and Cal recovered at the 23. The coaching staff should have been thinking that they had four plays to get a first down on this drive because this drive was either going to end in the end zone or be a failure.

Even if Thomas hits the field goal, does that help at all? Stanford followed with a 13-play,-7 minute drive that ended in a field goal to put Stanford up 10 . . . but if that field goal had only put Stanford up 7, does anybody feel good with the Cal offense trying to drive 75 yards in 3:30 of game time?

I’m not saying I’m thrilled at the idea of Cal attempting a fourth-and-6 conversion . . . but the Cal offense was going to have to score a touchdown at some point—and that was their best opportunity. The Cal coaching staff passed up on that opportunity and got to watch Stanford snuff out the game without any real difficulty as a consequence.

For the rest of the day I ranted and raved about this decision to anybody who would listen—probably to the point of annoyance. I’m still not thrilled about it, but am willing to acknowledge that, considering the larger context of the game, Cal’s chances of winning were so slim that it’s not worth agonizing over. But Justin Wilcox has been so good about picking his spots to gain equity that it was really jarring and disheartening to see him give it away against, of all teams, Stanford.

Big Picture

With the end of the regular season, thoughts naturally turn to Cal’s bowl game (it’s going to be ugly, folks) or next season. And there will be too much time shortly to think about both. But Big Games are always the toughest to move past.

I was thinking about how Cal fans view the USC and Stanford rivalries, respectively. Some younger Cal fans actually hate USC more, because they never saw Cal beat them until this season. Similarly, I have always hated Stanford (beyond the whole they’re our #1 rival thing) because when I first became a Cal fan, Tyrone Willingham owned us and every season felt futile.

And sure, the USC losing streak sucked, but at a certain point I kinda moved beyond worrying about USC. Put as succinctly as possible, I got used to losing to USC. When Sonny Dykes’s teams lost to USC, my sadness or madness lasted hours at most. What’s the point of negative emotions if you knew exactly what was going to happen?

I’m worried that the same damned thing is happening with Stanford.

To be clear, the gap is narrowing. On the whole, Cal is getting better and Stanford is getting worse. This is pretty empirical, even if this particular Big Game feels like a slight step backwards. But that narrowing gap can immediately start moving in the opposite direction if, say, Stanford develops another impact defensive lineman or solves their run-blocking issues. And Cal has now spurned two good shots at ending the worst streak in the history of the rivalry.

I don’t want to be all debbie downer right now. The seniors who are leaving—who could be the first class in forever with a winning record over four season—deserve better than that. This season, which is undeniably a step forward, deserves better than that. But losing to Stanford doesn’t exactly put one in a place where you feel like doing anything other than moping and dwelling on could-have-beens.

This streak will end, just like every other streak. But it’s going to be a long year until the next opportunity.