What would happen if you played back last week’s game, but without a crazy athletic Cameron Goode pick-6 and against a slightly more functional offense? Basically the same game, but with slightly different wrinkles!
12 drives: 3 touchdowns, 6 punts, 3 turnovers (1 fumble, 1 interception, 1 downs), 1.75 points/drive (1.3 points/drive last week vs. UNC)
Removed from the above - Cal’s final clock killing drive, in which the objective was not to score.
Nobody will mistake Saturday night’s performance for brilliantly executed offense, but it was a meaningful step forward from Cal’s output against UNC. Let’s start with the obvious math: 21 points after sustained drives is better than the 10 produced without the help of turnovers last week. And the jump from 4.1 to 5.5 yards/play is the difference between ‘worst offense in FBS football’ and ‘borderline averageness.’
Juuuuust enough downfield passing game
Cal attempted 35 passes and had a few passing plays that turned into QB scrambles. Despite that, you could count the number of passes thrown more than 10–15 yards past the line of scrimmage on two hands. The vast majority of Cal’s passes were quick outs, slants, or swing passes within 5 yards of the line of scrimmage. Here’s a quick summary of the downfield passes I counted on my rewatch of the game:
- Vic Wharton gets open down the sidelines but Chase Garbers overthrows him by 5 yards
- Four-wide formation and the WRs all run vertical routes to open the middle of the field for Patrick Laird’s match-up against a linebacker. The line gives Garbers plenty of time, Pat blows by the LB, and Garbers nails him 30 yards downfield in the endzone. Probably the single best throw on the night
- Garbers makes the bad decision to try to hit Jordan Duncan deep despite safety help. Thankfully he overthrows it to limit any interception possibilities.
- Kanawai Noa’s wheel route TD was wide open, but Garbers hit him in stride 35 yards downfield—exactly the type of pass this offense needs him to hit.
- Garbers gets a free play thanks to a BYU offside and tosses an off-balance throw deep for Wharton that’s overthrown
- Duncan gets open deep and Garbers underthrows it by 5 yards or so, allowing BYU’s CB enough time to get back and commit a clear PI. Could’ve been a TD, which particularly hurts because the interception was the very next play.
- The Jordan Duncan crazy circus catch on the sidelines 25 yards downfield. Not a great throw, but Garbers gave Duncan a chance to do the spectacular.
Add it all up and that’s 3–5 and two TDs on downfield throws, plus two incompletions that were erased by penalties. It’s a small sample size but the Bears made their few downfield attempts count. For all of the reasons we’ve discussed, Cal will likely never be a team that takes frequent or intentional shots deep. But if they can make defenses pay for their lapses a few times a game, that might just produce enough offense to make their defensive performances stand up.
On quarterbacks, part two
Chase Garbers went 18–28 for 176 yards (6.3/attempt) with 2 TDs and 1 interception, while also running for 45 yards on 5 carries without taking a sack. And I’m going to argue that he actually performed better than the numbers.
First, the incompletions. There were 10. Two were essentially throwaways. Three were batted down at the line. One was dropped. Two of them were overthrown balls downfield. One of them was an overthrown short pass. One was an interception.
Depending on how you feel about balls that are batted down at the line, that’s basically 4 bad throws out of 28. It’s fair to point out that the throws were generally very conservative. But I think that’s a pretty credible performance for a redshirt freshman’s second game, first start, first road game, etc.
The interception is the biggest question mark. Mike Pawlawski on the radio broadcast was of the opinion that Garbers and Laird were running different plays/patterns—and I think that’s probably correct based on the fact that Garbers threw the ball well before Laird turned his head, as if Garbers were expecting Laird to make a cut or end his pattern. At this point, it’s impossible to know what the exact mistake was and who made it, but I’d hesitate to say that the interception is 100% on Garbers.
Brandon McIlwain is the slipperiest Cal runner in quite some time and I absolutely love that Cal’s leading rusher by both yards and carries is a back-up quarterback who saw fewer than 25 snaps. Nearly every play he ran was a successful play until the final two plays that saw a potential game-clinching drive stall out on 3rd and 3 and then on 4th and 2.
McIlwain’s throwing probably caught most Cal fans by surprise—myself included. His two incompletions were a drop and the 4th and 2 mentioned above. He didn’t have a throw longer than 10 yards downfield, but they were all accurate and zippy. If the goal is to make defenses honor the threat of the pass, then mission accomplished.
But perhaps the most impressive thing about this entire exercise was how the constant switching didn’t seem to impact the play of either QB. The most furious switching came in the second half, when Cal was generally moving the ball except for those dastardly turnovers.
12 drives: 1 touchdown, 1 FGA (1–1), 6 punts, 4 turnovers (2 interceptions, 2 downs), .83 points/drive (1.2 points/drive last week vs. UNC).
Not included: BYU’s final possession of the 2nd quarter
Another utterly dominant performance. BYU had just two drives longer than 50 yards and after some dink-and-dunk success in the first half, they went seven straight drives without a first down until their final desperation touchdown drive.
Bend-but-don’t-break, then a brick wall
Honestly, BYU should’ve scored more in the first half.
Four of BYU’s first five drives saw multiple first downs that allowed the Cougars to cross the 50-yard line. Thankfully, three of those drives stalled out before BYU could get into clear FG range and Cal only gave up 3 points before the defense stiffened.
I can’t say for sure if Cal made some sort of defensive adjustment or if the Bears simply started playing better. In the first few drives, BYU managed to stay ahead of schedule and rarely faced anything longer than about 3rd and 5. And other than Cal’s six-blitzer sack on 4th and 5, Tanner Mangum generally had plenty of time to throw, allowing BYU to get somebody open on a variety of short patterns.
But BYU demonstrated the challenge of moving the ball down the field in short chunk after short chunk—when you need multiple 3rd-down conversions on each drive, odds are you’re going to miss one at some point.
What’s impressive from the Cal perspective is that after holding on to minimize damage early, the defense got stronger as the game went on. Cal allowed 182 yards on BYU’s first five drives... and then just 105 yards over their last seven drives.
Good starters, good depth
Defensive players who didn’t start collected 13 tackles, 3 tackles for loss (including a sack), a pass break-up and an interception. Basically every position on defense except for the inside linebackers saw rotation without any obvious drop-off. As long as Jordan Kunaszyk and Evan Weaver can continue to be iron men, then there’s plenty of hope that this defense can sustain high-level performances despite facing high-paced offenses, altitude, an offense that might put them in tough spots, and occasional injuries.
Particular kudos to Tevin Paul for stepping up in Cam Goode’s absence and providing disruptive play off the edge as sort of a hybrid DE/OLB in Cal’s “Grizzly” packages and Traveon Beck and Josh Drayden for their play when Cal went to nickel packages.
Exactly how much has this defense proven so far?
The BYU offense had a nightmarish 2017 that saw basically their entire offensive coaching staff get fired, then Tercel’d their way to 5.5 yards/play and 28 points against a probably bad Arizona defense.
The UNC offense was about as productive against East Carolina as FCS North Carolina AT&T was the week prior.
To state the obvious: Cal’s defense has throttled two bad offenses. We can’t yet say conclusively how bad, but bad they clearly are. Yet Cal did everything one could reasonable ask of them—allow 6 total points in the first three quarters of both games, force multiple turnovers, get big stops on foutth downs, etc. The defense can only dominate whichever offense is on the schedule. There’s a reason they sit at sixth in S&P’s strength-of-schedule-adjusted computer rankings.
But until Cal holds its own against a high-end offense... say, a team like Oregon*... then we won’t really know the true ceiling of this defense.
*If you think that early-season S&P numbers are meaningful, then Oregon might be the only high-end offense Cal faces this year.
Failing to avoid damaging plays
It was a bad day that was almost disastrous. Vic Wharton’s muffed punt obviously stands out, but Cal special teams also committed two penalties and nearly had another muffed punt. Prior to the season, Wharton’s major value as a punt returner was his trustworthiness— because he has yet to display significant skills as a returner. One bad game doesn’t erase a season’s worth of work, but Cal likely can’t afford another muff—better offenses will take advantage.
Altitude made everything else academic
Thanks to near-mile-high conditions that made every kick hang in the air and/or sail through the end zone, there were no returns of note. Steven Coutts had an excellent day, averaging ~43 net yards/punt, but it’s hard to say if that performance will translate to sea-level punting.
4th and 2—kick or play?
4:45 is left in the game, you’re ahead by 11, and you face 4th and 2 from the 20-yard line. Do you go for it or do you kick the 37-yard field goal?
Pros for going for it: If you get the first down, you get to run another three plays, which means either another 2 minutes runs off the clock or BYU has to use their timeouts. With a two-score lead, the game is virtually over.
Pros for kicking: A 14-point lead is virtually unassailable against an offense that has scored 3 points on the game.
Cons for going for it: If you miss then BYU “only” needs a TD, two-point conversion, and a field goal rather than two TDs.
Cons for kicking: You’re not going to run off any clock and BYU is still within two possessions. Also, do you really trust your brand-new kicker to hit a longish kick?
Ultimately, the game situation was such that it almost didn’t matter. BYU still had to do a bunch of stuff right just to get into position to not come close to an onside kick recovery (thankfully not every team has an onside kick wizard like UNC evidently did.)
Cal’s righteous aggression was not punished in this case—and their righteous aggression WAS rewarded when a 4th and 5 attempt was converted and led to a touchdown.
Boy does the 2018 season trajectory look interesting at the moment.
Cal has ground out two ugly wins over teams of iffy quality. Presuming a win over Idaho State, Cal will enter the Oregon game 3–0. Whatever happens against Oregon, they follow that up with @Arizona, UCLA, and @Oregon State—the three Pac-12 teams that appear to be legitimately worse than everybody else. Which means that Cal might actually be favored in six of their first seven games of the year. It’s not hard to squint right now and imagine Cal sitting at 6–1 with Halloween just a week away.
This is, of course, wildly premature. WILDLY! Kevin Sumlin and Noel Mazzone might suddenly realize that they have a Khalil Tate and a trip to Corvallis is a little bit scary with the Beavers showing slight signs of friskiness. And Oregon is obviously a team that could beat Cal even if the Bears come out with a strong performance.
But the point of all this is that Cal has been given an opportunity. They are good enough and the schedule is falling such that if the Bears play up to their ability, they will find themselves playing Important Football Games™ in the second half of the season. That’s only been sorta true once in the last decade or so. These opportunities are rare.
The reality is that we should probably be focusing more on bowl math (looking quite good since we’ll only need to go 3–6 in Pac-12 play) rather than dreams of Pac-12 or even national relevance. But fans (and players) don’t spend all offseason dreaming about the thrilling chance of holding on to beat Colorado by 4 points in late November to clinch a sixth or seventh win.
The Bears are 2–0 and you have my unneeded permission to dream about Washington coming to Berkeley on October 27th with first place in the Pac-12 North on the line.