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Post-Game Thoughts: Idaho State

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Cal overcomes a slow start to control ISU in all three phases of the game.

Idaho State v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Frustrating first quarter aside, this was pretty much a perfect FCS game. Cal emerged with (as far as we’re aware) zero injuries of consequence and they were able to see a bunch of back-up players in action to try to determine the optimum line-up to use to win Pac-12 games. Oh, and they won the game, which I guess can’t be 100% assumed.

Offense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 4 touchdowns, 5 punts, 2 turnovers (1 fumble, 1 interception), 2.6 points/drive (1.3 points/drive last week vs. BYU)

Not included: Cal’s 1-play, 4-yard touchdown drive after Nikko Remigio’s long punt return, and Cal’s final kneel down to end the game.

For the first three drives of the game, Cal was a frustrating combination of error-prone and conservative. Then the offense finally opened up a bit; five of the next eight sustained drives resulted in scores (and a fumble killed a sixth) and the game was over. Am I thrilled that it took a quarter for the offense to shift out of neutral against an FCS team? Hardly. But it’s much, much better than never turning that switch on in the first place.

And the way it happened opens up some fascinating questions about the depth chart and playing time.

Chase Garbers, accurate quarterback

There are a billion skills a good quarterback wants to possess. Knowledge of the offense. Mobility. Pocket presence. Good footwork. Ability to make progressions. Manipulating defenders.

But the number one skill I want to see from a new QB starter is just basic, play-to-play accuracy.

On Saturday, Chase Garbers went 20–25 passing. An 80% completion rate is pretty solid, even against an FCS team. Here is a list of his incompletions:

  1. A 20-yard pass down the seam that Ray Hudson drops
  2. A short pattern that Vic Wharton drops
  3. A scramble throw that Garbers throws while sprinting full out to his right that Moe Ways almost catches but traps.
  4. A tightly defended down field wheel route that grazes Jeremiah Hawkins’ fingers
  5. The interception that hits Ray Hudson in the chest moments before a safety crushes him in the back to pop the ball back up in the air.

Every single throw touched the target in the hands. Every one!

Of course, it’s true that the playcalling was still pretty conservative. 15 of Garbers’ 25 completions were within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage. But it’s also true that he was able to find success downfield at a rate that would make for a much more dangerous offense than last year if it could be replicated against better opponents. 5–9 on throws 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage—with every single one of those throws potentially catchable—is a very encouraging development.

Chase Garbers will make mistakes this year—it’s inevitable from a redshirt freshman. But I suspect that those inevitable mistakes will be mistakes of inexperience rather than mistakes related to a lack of Pac-12–level arm talent. And it very well might be the case that the ceiling of Cal’s 2018 season is tied into whatever Garbers’ developmental ceiling is in one year of playing time.

Mistakes hurt more in a struggling offense

The list of unforced errors that killed scoring opportunities on Saturday is a long one: two dropped passes, one fumble, one dropped snap, a holding call to negate a big play, and a few plays where it looked like two players were running/blocking different plays.

As of right now, Cal’s offense isn’t sharp enough to overcome those types of errors, and I’m sure this is the type of stuff that Justin Wilcox is thinking of when he says that the coaches have stuff to clean up during the bye week. It’s hard to completely erase physical mistakes like dropped balls/fumbles, but the fewer Cal has, the greater chance they have of sustaining a few critical extra drives. If our destiny is to play games where 24 points might be enough to win the game, those extra scoring opportunities are so, so valuable.

Time for a playing time shake up?

What do Chase Garbers, Brandon McIlwain, Jeremiah Hawkins, Marcel Dancy, and Ian Bunting all have in common?

All of them started the season outside of the starting eleven on offense, and all of them stepped up to produce against Idaho State.

We already have plenty of evidence that the Cal coaching staff is utterly without nostalgia when it comes to setting the depth chart and determining playing time. Last year, Darius Allensworth was the most productive returning member of the secondary but started the season on the bench. Patrick Laird stepped up with a huge game when Cal was struggling with Weber State and remained the primary running back the rest of the season. 2018 has seen more of the same.

In most of these cases, it’s probably going to be a case of how to split playing time. Patrick Laird won’t need to amass 35 touches and carry the offense single-handedly. Vic Wharton won’t need to play every snap. Cal can play match-ups and stay fresh when back-ups step up like they did on Saturday.

Probably the single most important question is at running back. Last year, Laird was the #1 back because he averaged 5.9 yards/run, always made the right cut, hit every hole decisively, and broke tackles. This year, Laird is only averaging 2.9 yards/carry and simply doesn’t look like the same runner who produced so much for an otherwise struggling offense last year.

Meanwhile, Marcel Dancy made (I know, FCS) Idaho State look bad. He broke a tackle or two on almost every single one of his 11 runs on Saturday, flashing the type of speed and elusiveness that this offense desperately needs.

Defense

Efficiency Report

14 drives: 3 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1–1), 9 punts, 1 turnover (1 interception), 1.64 points/drive (1.2 points/drive last week vs. BYU).

Not included: ISU’s drive that ended the first half

For the third game in a row, Cal’s defense was close to perfect for three quarters before letting off the gas a bit at the end. In this particular game, a healthy percentage of that let-off can be attributed to playing what looked to be a mostly third-string defense. So, if you prefer to discount possessions without Cal’s first-stringers involved, you could reasonable argue that Cal allowed .83 points/possession. The advanced stats that filter out garbage time would certainly agree with that decision.

Again, Cal showed a level of defensive dominance that is impressive even considering FCS opposition. Here are ISU’s first 12 drives (again, meaningless end-of-half drive removed):

3-and-out
3-and-out
3-and-arm-punt
3-and-out
One long reception, 3-and-field-goal
Two penalties for first down, punt
3-and-out
8 play, 18 yards drive, punt
Short TD drive extended by PI
3-and-out
1st-down-and-out
3-and-out

In the first half, ISU had exactly one play longer than six yards. That play was the only play in which they gained a first down without the aid of a Cal penalty.

Hell, ISU’s third-quarter touchdown required both a short field off a turnover AND an iffy pass interference penalty to extend the drive on third down. If nothing else, this entire game illustrates how very difficult it is to ever get a shutout. One Cal mistake (and a pretty excellent pass from ISU) got the Bengals 3 points and a nice play by the ISU defense and the refs helped them get another score. And when your defense plays well enough to maybe get a shutout, it means that you’re probably going to win in a blowout and get a chance to play back-ups with less experience—and they’ll probably allow a score or two.

The acceptable downside of playing more aggressively on defense

ISU’s one explosive play is worth considering in greater detail. On that particular play, a few different things had to happen to allow such a long play.

Cornerback Elijah Hicks was lined up right at the line across from Mitch Gueller, who ran a go route and got a step behind Hicks. Left-side safety Ashtyn Davis had already moved up close to the box at the snap—which was presumably designed to offer run support against ISU’s run-heavy offense—but it left some space vacated over the top for Gueller to run into and potentially exploit. Cal’s right-side safety, Jaylinn Hawkins, was too far to the other side to have a fair chance to break the pass up and ended up taking a shallow angle that took out Hicks rather than the WR. Luckily, Ashtyn Davis’s track speed saved the touchdown and allowed the defense to force the field-goal attempt.

Cal’s defense has, so far, played much more aggressively. Hicks lined up directly across from Gueller. Davis cheated forward in run support. These positional decisions makes it much much harder for offenses to consistently get the type of short gains that most offenses rely on to move the ball. But it also means that, if the offense executes properly, the defense can be vulnerable to shots over the top.

For this play to work as well as it did it still required a pretty solid throw from Tanner Gueller and a bad angle from a safety. And if I’m a Cal coach, I’m happy to trade a long bust or two in favor of lots of 3-and-outs and/or turnovers. But will Cal play as aggressively against a much more talented, dangerous Oregon offense in two weeks?

Special Teams

A very encouraging day

Very good special teams things that happened:

  1. Ashtyn Davis kickoff-return TD
  2. Niko Remigio long punt return
  3. Greg Thomas 44-yard field goal
  4. Blocked PAT
  5. Steven Coutts averages 45 net yards on four non-touchback punts, all at sea level!

Items 1, 2, and 4 can perhaps be chalked up in part to FCS level competition. But I think it’s also fair to note that Ashtyn Davis has looked close to breaking a kickoff return in Cal’s first two games and Nikko Remigio wasn’t one of Cal’s two consensus 4-star recruits for nothing.

Greg Thomas has now looked solid enough on each of his kicks that it’s probably reasonable to trust him from within 40 yards and consider using him on longer kicks when a 4th-down conversion isn’t realistic.

The special teams unit will have to prove themselves against higher-end competition, but all you can ask from FCS games are encouraging signs.

Coaching/Game Theory

The worst punt of the Wilcox era

4th and 10 from the ISU 35 and Cal punts for a net of 15 yards after a touchback. Honestly, our defense is good enough that the 15 yards of field position shouldn’t have prevented the consideration of a 4th-down attempt. But really, I’d just as soon see a 52-yard field goal attempt. Against an FCS team there’s zero downside to seeing just how much leg our new kicker has in live game conditions.

I’ll overlook this because Wilcox twice attempted longish 4th-down tries and Cal converted both of them.

Who’s gonna redshirt?

This is a harder question to answer now that players are allowed to participate in four games and still maintain their redshirt status. But after three games, I think we can safely guess which freshmen are likely to play more than four games, and which will be limited in the action they can see.

Likely to play more than four games and thus NOT redshirt:

  • Nikko Remigio (WR/PR), Joseph Ogunbanjo (OLB), Christopher Brown Jr. (RB)

Unlikely to play more than four games barring weird injury situations:

  • Every other true freshman

My method here is pretty simple—Ogunbanjo and Brown are the only two freshmen to see action in every game so far and Remigio (inactive vs. UNC) is probably our first-team punt returner now. Everybody else probably won’t play unless injuries force emergency action, but I think this team has enough depth and experience at most positions that it might take multiple guys going down at once to force a burned redshirt.

Big Picture

Business: taken care of. For the second-straight year, Cal emerges from non-conference play 3–0. Now we all get to take a week off and watch Stanford/Oregon, USC/Wazzu, and ASU/UW while the Bears sit at home practicing and getting healthy. In two weeks, the Pac-12 gauntlet begins. Let’s talk about that gauntlet!

Based on three weeks’ worth of potentially misleading evidence, this is the weakest the Pac-12 has been in some time—and this is the kindest Cal’s schedule has fallen in some time. Cal gets Colorado (at home) rather than Utah and a busted Arizona rather than an oddly frisky ASU. USC might be worse than their Kiffin/Sarkisian nadir and UCLA is going through a Tedford-to-Dykes-style transition nightmare. OSU is still in the middle of a deep rebuild. We know next to nothing about both Oregon and Washington State. Behind Washington and Stanford, the Pac-12 is wiiiiiiiide open. Somebody is going to step up and have the chance to compete with those two teams for a conference title.

In two weeks, Cal Football will play their biggest game since College Gameday visited Salt Lake City for Cal/Utah in 2015. If Cal wins, they will be granted immediate legitimacy as a threat in the Pac-12 North, along with near-certain bowl eligibility.

If you’re a Cal fan and it’s at all possible to get to Berkeley, the Bears need you in Memorial Stadium in two weeks. This might be a turning-point game—a road mark in Cal history. The game when the Justin Wilcox era truly began. The game when the Cal Football fanbase roared back to life after years of neglect and contraction. A game where the Cal defense throttles the best offense in the Pac-12 while a bevy of exciting new contributors on offense does enough to get the win.

On September 29th, we find out who these Bears really are.