A game that will live in infamy
That’s my guess, at least. There are certain college football games that live on in the memory because of how bad they were. Auburn 3, Mississippi St. 2. Oregon State 3, Pitt 0. The 2008 Crapple Cup.
Will this game live on in the same way? It certainly will in the minds of Cal fans and I think it’s possible the game will linger nationally as well. On one hand, why would anybody care about a low-level bowl game between 7–5 Cal and 6–6 TCU? And 10–7, while a gross score, doesn’t exactly catch the eye as wildly bizarre.
But this game had what most low-scoring slog-fests don’t: incident. Absurd incident after absurd incident, building into an absurdity crescendo. Four quarterbacks, nine interceptions, bizarre play calls, hilarious penalties, and the so-sad-it’s-funny trappings of being named the Cheez-It Bowl as the rotten cherry on top.
If you’re reading this, you probably watched the game and know what happened. I don’t think I can adequately describe all of the weirdness that occurred. There was enough weirdness that national SBNation decided to collect it all in one convenient list. Nam offered his own list of weirdness.
For me, it starts and ends with the scoreboard. Cal and TCU came in more than 20 points below the already amazingly low over/under of 38.5 . . . in a game that went to overtime.
15 drives: 1 touchdown, 0 FGA, 9 punts, 5 turnovers (all interceptions), 0.47 points/drive
Cal offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.44 points/drive
TCU defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.94 points/drive allowed
6, 13, 13, 19, 13, 7
After removing safeties and defensive touchdowns, those are the offensive points that Cal has produced in the final six games of the season. That’s 12 points per game and a total of seven touchdowns. If you wanted to be a cynic, you could point out that one of those TDs was a garbage-time score against Stanford and many of the others were heavily influenced by field position generated by the defense.
I always assumed that the 2001 Bears, led by Tom Holmoe, would stand the test of time as the worst offense in my personal Cal fan history. And maybe that is still the case. After all, the 2018 Bears averaged 21.5 points/game compared to 2001’s 18.27. But I also don’t think that the 2001 Bears got 44 total points from defense and special teams—and if you remove those points from the 2018 total, you’re left with just 18.15 points/game. The point is that the 2018 offense has to be put into the conversation, which speaks volumes by itself.
This season saw Cal swing between a conservative offense that couldn’t move the ball, but didn’t turn it over into an offense that kinda moved the ball, but turned the ball over frequently. Against TCU, Cal combined the worst of both worlds, failing to move the ball while also turning the ball over on a third of their possessions. The results were exactly as disastrous as you might expect.
Cal entered the game ranked 123rd in offensive FEI and 121st in offensive S&P+. Both rankings will likely decline when they’re recalculated after bowl season. As you are likely already aware, FEI measures efficiency on a per-drive basis, while S&P+ does so from a per-play basis. By any metric, it’s almost unfathomable that the Cal offense gets worse next year. The defining question of the offseason: How much improvement is really possible?
Wither the quarterback position, wither the offense?
With 3.5 weeks to prepare and a near season’s worth of playing time, Chase Garbers gave probably his worst single-game performance. And for those inclined to question the ability of Cal’s offensive brain trust to develop and prepare quarterbacks and put them in a position to succeed . . . well, this is a pretty disturbing data point.
To be clear: TCU is a very good defense. Probably the second-best that Cal and Garbers have faced this year. That Cal would struggle to sustain drives is not shocking. The problem, of course, is the turnovers.
Garbers’ three interceptions were all bad decisions combined with iffy accuracy—problems that haven’t typically plagued Garbers all season long. It’s hard to look at the performance as anything other than a regression and they led to the decision to play Chase Forrest for the rest of the game.
At the time I didn’t particularly disagree with the switch. Garbers’ previous nine dropbacks (2–7, 7 yards, three interceptions, two sacks) were so disastrous that something drastic probably needed to change. But as the second half wore on and it became increasingly clear that Chase Forrest wasn’t the answer either, I was increasingly hoping that the coaches were working with Garbers, calming him down and preparing him to re-enter the game.
Regardless of which QB Cal went with, it was shocking to see Cal continue to lean so heavily on the passing game despite how wildly ineffective (and in the end, destructive) it was—a general strategy decision summed up by an overmatched Chase Forrest throwing an overtime interception from a play where Cal bizarrely lined up five wide with nobody else in the backfield one play after Forrest narrowly escaped what would have been an awful sack. Just consider the run/pass ratios after halftime from both Cal and TCU:
Cal: 15 passes (including sacks), 15 runs
TCU: 7 passes, 38 runs
One team recognized their weakness and came up with a radically different game plan—and it won them the game. The other team tried to continue doing the same thing that failed in the first half, then watched it fail again in the second half.
After the game ended, I tweeted out that it felt like Cal’s offensive coaches had ran out of ideas. Considering Cal’s in-game injury and depth-chart issues (more on that below), this maybe would be understandable. But taken in the larger context of Cal’s slow offensive devolution both in-season and during the Wilcox era, it’s hard to find reasons for optimism in 2019 beyond repeating “Devon Modster” while rocking back and forth in the fetal position.
A tiny point in defense of Cal’s offensive performance.
If, prior to the game, you told me that Kanawai Noa, Vic Wharton, and Patrick Laird would all basically not play in this game, I’d have told you that we’d probably score about six offensive points. Granted, baked into that projection is that I already knew what Cal’s very low offensive baseline was. But it’s not a coincidence that 114 of Cal’s 264 total yards (and three of their four longest drives in the game) came on Cal’s first four offensive possessions, when Noa and Laird were still in the game. And there’s a tragic aspect to both injuries: Noa’s last mention in the box score is the spectacular, body-sacrificing 30-yard catch that set up Cal’s only touchdown. Patrick Laird’s last box score mention in a Cal uniform? Tackling a TCU defender after an interception.
15 drives: 1 touchdown, 2 FGA (1/2), 6 punts, 6 turnover (4 interceptions, 2 downs), 0.67 points/drive
Cal defense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.52 points/drive allowed
TCU offense 2018 average, pre-game: 1.56 points/drive
What more can you possibly ask of a defense?
Cal allowed two scores on 15 TCU drives. One of those scores began on the Cal 33 due to a long TCU punt return and the other began on the Cal 40 in overtime.
I guess if you wanted to be a big dumb jerk, you could point out that the TCU rushing attack occasionally found space and managed to go for 4.4 yards/run against a Cal defense that only allowed 3.6 yards/run on the season. TCU’s two scoring drives combined to feature 16 plays and 15 of those plays were runs. I’ll admit that I’m a little surprised TCU was able to move the ball at all on the ground late in the game considering that they abandoned any pretense of trying to throw the ball.
Still, these are the tiniest of quibbles. If Cal’s offense was remotely functional they’d have scored enough points that this game wouldn’t have even sniffed overtime. Hell, if the Bears had just spiked the ball three times after that goofy triple-pass interception and kicked a field goal they probably would’ve won in regulation.
Making a run at the best defense in Cal history in 2019?
Cam Bynum announced after the game that he will return for his redshirt junior season. He will presumably be joined by Elijah Hicks, Traveon Beck, Ashtyn Davis, and Jaylinn Hawkins in the secondary. Rusty Becker and Chris Palmer are the only departures from a rotation of 7–9 defensive linemen. Alex Funches is the only graduating OLB, but his departure is mitigated by the return of Cameron Goode and the arrival of four-star JC transfer Kuony Deng. Evan Weaver announced on Friday that he’s returning for his senior season.
All of this is to say that if Cal can adequately replace Jordan Kunaszyk, then 2019 is set up to be one of the greatest defenses in Cal history.
Jordan Kunaszyk, the avatar of Cal’s defensive turnaround, isn’t exactly an easy guy to replace. 147 tackles is kind of a lot. But needless to say, the defensive coaching staff has more than earned the benefit of the doubt. Also, whichever player(s) get JK’s playing time will be surrounded by a ton of experience and talent and probably won’t need to be asked to be an immediate difference maker. Maybe it’s Evan Rambo or maybe it’s one of six inside linebacker freshmen recruiting the previous year—Evan Tattersall* is the most likely among the group.
The bottom line is that one of the best defenses in program history is returning almost everybody and regardless of the other side of the ball, that’s reason enough to get absurdly excited.
*Cal, of course, maintaining its reputation as “Linebacker U, but really specifically for guys named Evan.”
Steven Coutts was excellent, but perhaps for one kick
The numbers don’t look great because Cal was constantly punting from plus territory, but Steven Coutts was excellent. Of his nine punts, seven of them were caught at the TCU 20 or further back; the other two kicks netted 44 and 45 yards, which is excellent.
One punt, of course, went 47 yards to the TCU 9, where Jalen Reagor eluded multiple defenders for a 58-yard return that set up TCU’s only score in regulation. I’m inclined to blame the coverage team moreso than Coutts for maybe outkicking his coverage. Maybe we should blame Reagor for sandbagging us all by appearing too injured to make explosive plays until this particular return.
Smothered by TCU’s punting unit
It’s disappointing to receive six punts and have zero return yardage, but it’s worth noting that TCU’s punt coverage team is very stingy with allowing return yards this year and their punter probably benefited from the thin desert air.
Ashtyn Davis, student of the game
Davis and the rest of the Cal defense played so well that Davis and the special teams unit only received two kickoffs. One was a touchback and the other oddly died on 7-yard line, where Davis kneeled out of bounds before grabbing the ball to cause a TCU out-of-bounds kickoff penalty. OK everybody, raise your hands if you knew that rule prior to the play!
Inevitable discussions about the offensive coaching staff
I really don’t like talking about firing coaches, even if it’s a pretty normal part of the college football ecosystem. But when one side of the ball is so clearly sabotaging a team’s chances of victory, that discussion is inevitable.
And if nothing else, this game really clarified things. Just think back to the entire bizarre year of Cal quarterbacks. Does anybody think that Ross Bowers, Brandon McIlwain, Chase Garbers, and Chase Forrest were used in ways that maximized their skill sets or generally put in positions to succeed? Does anybody feel like the Cal coaching staff coached the quarterbacks such that they improved as they gained more playing experience?
I am obviously not qualified to say what needs to be changed. But that there needs to be change of some kind is blindingly obvious to anybody who can decipher a box score or click on ranking tabs at cfbstats.com. And in the same way that the Sonny Dykes era was going to be defined by his ability (or lack thereof) to find a defensive coordinator, so too will Justin Wilcox’s success or failure hinge on his ability to find a way to build an at least Pac-12 average offense. He has overseen two straight seasons of extreme regression on offense—and if that doesn’t change then a once-in-a-generation defense will be wasted.
It’s criminal that an elite defense only resulted in a 7–6 season. It’s a miracle that this team clawed out seven wins without a remotely functional offense. Are you glass half-full or glass half-empty?
What matters right now is that the Cal program has the opportunity to pour more liquid into that 50%-full cup. Almost everybody is back in defense—and the coaches brought in enough JC and transfer talent on offense that you can maintain hope for some level of offensive turnaround.
The 2018 season will be remembered for many reasons—the defense as a whole, a ball hawk secondary, ball carrier–consuming ILBs, a quarterback merry-go-round, an upset win over UW, and ending the USC streak. One of the most delightfully ugly bowl games of all time is the weird smelling cherry on top.
But right now, what matters is if 2018 will also be remembered as a stepping-stone year towards something greater as the Wilcox era moves on.