The 2018 college football season is officially underway and everything seems a bit more right with the world as a result. In a game that many saw as a toss up including our own SB nation legend Bill Connelly, the Bears showed shades of defensive dominance at home. There was a lot to like in this game, a fair amount to dislike and a boatload of questions that need to be resolved before the team travels to Provo, Utah next week. At the end of a beautiful day at memorial stadium, a Cal win is a Cal win and we all know we have seen at least a few worse wins (Oregon 2016 anyone?) in our long collective history as Cal fans.
A Tale of Two Halves
First Half: Cal Defensive Dominance, Offense Where Art Thou?
Last year left a lot of us wondering just how good this Cal defense could be with an additional year of development. We got our answer early and often on Saturday, dominant. The Bears defense didn’t allow a first down (!!!) until the second quarter of the game. UNC didn’t cross the 50 yard line until midway through the third quarter. The Cal defense was everywhere, excellent in pass coverage and disrupting the backfield. The Tar Heels looked helpless on offense and there was more than one moment where more than ten Cal fans collectively said giving the ball to the opponent on offense was our best opportunity to score. That is a near perfect depiction of how well the Cal defense started the game.
The stats are perhaps even more incredible.
UNC in the first half ran 28 plays for 38 yards. Just a hair below 1.5 yards per play. Starting quarterback Nathan Elliott had 5 completions for 14 yards passing and three interceptions. His QB rating was hovering around -7 after the first half. The UNC punter was well on his way to a game ball with six punts in the first half averaging 44 yards per punt. Without that effort, Cal’s offense probably finds itself in at least field goal position far more often than they did.
Unfortunately for Cal, the Bears offense had a myriad of their own problems to unearth. Let’s dive right into the three headed quarterback attack that transpired on the field. There is no way, despite what Coach Wilcox said in the press conference, that our game plan could have possibly been to have Garbers see that much time on Saturday. We had an incumbent starter, someone who most have heard took a big leap in the offseason, primed for his second season with an improved understanding of a complex offense. The fact that Bowers saw zero snaps in the second half spells all sorts of questions going into next weeks game but I digress.
Bowers was on the field for the majority of the first half and things just looked off. The offensive line was giving him less than an ideal time to make it through the progressions and Ross looked tentative with the ball. He also made several odd reads on RPO plays that left Patrick Laird facing eight Carolina players in the box. Credit to the North Carolina defense for throwing off our offensive game plan but ultimately something looked surprisingly off with the entire offensive unit. Cal would punt five times in the first half and waste several defensive stops including a turnover while trying to get things sorted out on offense.
Cal’s first half stats were better than UNC’s but far less than what most of us were expecting. Laird was the star with 18 rushes for 72 yards including a touchdown and there were barely any receiving highlights. Bowers was 8 for 15 for 56 yards as well as two sacks and a couple of overthrows.
Second Half: Small Signs of Life on Offense, Stress Inducing Finish
The defense didn’t miss a step starting the third quarter. There were several stand out plays in the secondary by Traveon Beck and more from Cam Bynum. Evan Weaver was making tackles all over the field and ultimately UNC looked like they were going to have to pull a miracle off in order to avoid a shutout.
After showing zero signs of life for the first ten minutes of the quarter, UNC took the ball across the 50 for the first time. Cal’s offense wasn’t exactly doing anything special on their end so the Tar Heels first real threat felt significant. Yet the Bears clamped down again to force a field goal, making the score 17-3.
UNC after three quarters had gained 119 yards of offense on 41 plays and netted three points. By all accounts the game could of, and most likely should of, been put out of reach. Yet the Cal offense still had real issues moving the ball down the field.
Much to the surprise of the press box, Garbers started the second half and started to move the ball downfield well. Garbers was having a lot of success both passing and running however when he was subbed out for McIlwain the drive stalled and never recovered. On the next possession, the Bears offense started to take form. After a series of nice throws, a pass interference penalty and a Patrick Laird run into the red zone the Bears finally took advantage. Garbers found Laird on a short four yard third down pass for the touchdown. Cal led 24-3 and the game looked significantly out of reach. Except it wasn’t.
The fourth quarter the Cal defense regressed (as you might expect given the amount of time they were out on the field) and the Cal offense disappeared. By the end of the third quarter, Cal was out-gaining UNC 271-119. UNC would finish the game with more yards than Cal, 301-279 to be exact. That is right, UNC out-gained Cal 182 to 8 (!!!) in the fourth quarter including two touchdown scoring drives that left Cal fans nearly pulling out their hair. How do you lose a game with a possession differential of +4? Do that.
Ultimately Cal walked away victorious and perhaps we could all drink whatever Vlad is enjoying to help us live in the moment and appreciate an important win at home on opening day.
We won. I’m happy. I’ll worry about the rest of it tomorrow. #GoBears— Vlad Belo (@GoldenBearVlad) September 2, 2018
Roughly 43,000 fans attended the game in Berkeley, the student section was filled to the brim and you have to imagine that defense impressed a lot of our recruits who were in the building. A fine opening Saturday after all.
A Few Parting Thoughts
-The Cal quarterback situation is far from solved. Coach Wilcox wouldn’t speak about it after the game but it is fair to say any of the three of McIlwain, Bowers or Garbers could start next week. Unless your Alabama cycling through Tua Tagovailoa and Jalen Hurts, that isn’t exactly a good thing. You want a quarterback to separate himself and the fact that our coaching staff doesn’t know which direction to go in can negatively impact our offenses effectiveness.
-Cam Goode had an epic pick six to begin the second quarter that ended up being the difference in the game. He is a huge piece for us and went down late in the game. It looked like a foot injury but don’t expect to hear a lot from the staff on that given how past injuries have been handled. It didn’t look great.
-The offensive line shouldn’t get a pass here either. They were beat a lot today in both rushing and passing situations. Typically it takes a line a few games to come together but with our quarterback situation and dependency on the run we don’t necessarily have the benefit of time.
-A big shoutout to the UNC fans who made the trip to the game. The standing ovation they gave their offense after their first first down in the second quarter was awesome. It was great to meet a lot of people who understand what being a great public university is all about.