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Post-Game Thoughts: North Carolina

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The Bears grab a surprisingly ugly win thanks to four interceptions from the resurgent Cal defense.

NCAA Football: North Carolina at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Cal won the turnover battle 4–0 and held the opposing offense to three first downs over the opening 45 minutes of the game. That should be the formula to a blowout victory in which the fourth quarter is an exercise in tedium and back-up playing time.

Thanks to a concerning offensive performance, that wasn’t exactly the case. Cal’s win was never truly in danger—ESPN’s win probability never went below 99% even after UNC’s second touchdown—but the events of the fourth quarter certainly tamped down on typically hopeful expectations.

If this game is a true representation of Cal’s performance level the rest of the way, then it looks like we’ve somehow managed to pull a complete 180 from the final year of the Dykes era, with a top of the conference defense and a bottom-of-the-conference offense. But we all know how deceptive one game can be.

Offense

Efficiency Report

13 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1–2), 8 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 1.3 points/drive

3.4 yards/play. Five different 3-and-out drives. Just two drives longer than 50 yards. Four sacks and 50% passes completed. Just 10 points scored without benefiting from turnover-influenced field position. By any measure, this was a dire offensive performance. Looking just at the raw stats and ignoring opponent quality, it’s the second-worst offensive performance of the Wilcox/Baldwin era, with only last year’s debacle in Seattle vs. UW standing out as worse.

The obvious first question: Just how good is the UNC defense? Last year UNC’s defense was mostly mediocre across the board, though they were young and injury-ravaged. Their biggest obvious strength was a defensive line with four returning upperclassmen starters and it’s fair to say that UNC won the battle of the trenches pretty decisively, collecting 4 sacks and 10 total tackles for loss. But UNC also has lots of young guys forced into action last year back. It’s not hard to squint and imagine that UNC’s defense will end up being pretty darn good.

Still: Cal’s offensive line also returned everybody and also is supposed to be pretty good, and they pretty comprehensively lost their battle with UNC. There will be front 7s in the Pac-12 with as much talent as UNC. Simply stated, the Cal line will have to perform much better than they showed in the first game of the year.

Two different aspects of a functional offense were missing

All last year, we collectively bemoaned the fact that Cal just wasn’t capable of stretching the field vertically on offense. Due to injuries and talent limitations, Cal simply wasn’t a big play offense—and the ability to pass downfield is the life blood of an above-average offense. It was the primary reason why I was conservative about how much better this unit could get when I previewed of the offense.

The hope was that Cal would develop a downfield passing game over the offseason or, failing that, get even better at executing run plays and the short passing game that Cal used to move the ball last year. The latter isn’t going to be awe-inspiring, but would be enough to approach Pac-12 average production in support of a potentially great defense.

I’m not shocked that Cal still can’t throw the ball down the field with any consistency. I am a little bit shocked that the offense, at least for one game, appeared to badly regress at executing the simple stuff. I’m talking about 5-yard slants, 10-yard outs, and other pretty basic throws that Cal’s collection of quarterbacks struggled to convert, in addition to a general struggle to open up running room for Patrick Laird.

That inability allowed UNC to crowd the line of scrimmage. There’s a reason that Laird had so little room to run, a reason that Ray Hudson had a defender right on him on a simply short slant. The “easy” plays are so much harder when the opposite defense isn’t at all concerned about your ability to go over the top.

We’ve added a pretty ugly data point, but it is still just one data point. I would expect the Cal offense to look more like it did against, say, Arizona or UCLA last year rather than UNC on Saturday. But there is very much still a hard ceiling in place on exactly how productive this offense can be.

On Quarterbacks

In this individual game, the McIlwain offense outperformed the Garbers offense which outperformed the Bowers offense. BUT. McIlwain’s eight plays hardly even counts as a sample—and the spread is small enough across the board that it’s pretty easy just to throw up the shrug emoji.

The reality is that both Bowers and Garbers missed on throws that decent college quarterbacks need to make. Bowers, in particular, missed throws that we have seen him make in the past. There’s a pretty big gap between the 59% completion percentage Bowers managed last year and the 47% seen in limited action against UNC.

If Bowers and Garbers are equally inaccurate, I guess you would lean towards Garbers due to his mobility and the chance for improvement from a redshirt frosh. But we also have an entire season’s worth of evidence that Bowers can play significantly better than he did on Saturday—and that does mean something.

Or maybe we’ll install the triple option for McIlwain over the next week of practice. ¯\_(ツ)_/¯

Defense

Efficiency Report

14 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1–1), 7 punts, 4 turnovers (all interceptions), 1.2 points/drive.

The Cal defensive performance can be easily split into two sections. For the first three quarters of the game (excluding a pointless end-of-half run), UNC ran 42 plays, gained 99 yards, managed three first downs, turned the ball over four times, averaged 2.4 yards/play, and has a success rate of 12% (national average success rate is ~40%). I do declare—excuse me while I fan myself!

One of those three first downs required a fourth-down conversion. One 44-yard pass represented nearly half of UNC’s offensive production. It led to a field goal, which meant that the Cal defense was “only” outscoring UNC by 4 points through 45 minutes of football. For three quarters, the defense put up maybe the single most dominant Cal defensive performance against a major conference opponent that I have ever witnessed live.

Then the fourth quarter happened—and UNC managed two touchdown drives of 92 and 85 yards, which turned Cal’s defensive performance from historic to merely very good. In the post-game press conference, Justin Wilcox explained:

We were calling some things that if they ran the ball we knew we’d probably be a little bit softer but those aren’t the times to play zero coverage man-to-man and let them throw a fade over the top of you, so there’s some of that going on. That doesn't excuse missed tackles or missed assignments, which we had some of that. You gotta find a way to get a stop somewhere in those drives.

Essentially, Cal went into some version of a prevent defense and were reasonably content to allow UNC short gains underneath knowing that the Tar Heels had to score three touchdowns in a quarter if the Cal offense didn’t score any themselves. And it worked out, though it wasn’t exactly a fun way to end the game. UNC actually ran the ball 18 times on those two drives, which tells you what the Cal defense was showing—we’re willing to exchange short gains for a running clock.

Considering how utterly dominant Cal’s defense had been to that point, I’m not sure going softer was necessary, but UNC had to maintain long drives just to have a chance at an onside kick recovery just to have a chance, so I guess it ended up working out just fine.

It’s also worth noting that Cam Goode left the game with an apparent ankle injury early in UNC’s first drive of the 4th quarter. I’m inclined to blame UNC’s two TDs on conservative defensive play-calling rather than Goode’s absence, but it’s also true that Goode’s disruptive play on the outside was a critical aspect of Cal’s defensive performance.

The power of success at the point of attack

Cal somehow ended the game without a sack and with only two tackles for loss. But in this particular case, I don’t think the raw numbers illustrate how much disruption the Bears got from their front seven.

Two of Nathan Elliott’s four interceptions were caused in large part due to pressure. Each of Jaylinn Hawkins’ interceptions came after linebacker pressure (Funches and Goode respectively) to say nothing of a number of bad throws or busted plays caused by consistently solid Cal pressure, which was generally created with four-man rushes. That plus 18 rushes of 3 yards or fewer (most of which came in the first three quarters) indicates better penetration and push from the defensive line, which was the single biggest defensive question mark entering the season.

The power of cornerbacks who can play on an island

Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks combined for five pass break-ups and were the primary reasons that UNC’s passing attack averaged less than four yards/attempt. Save for one long reception that was probably more on Cal’s single deep safety, UNC got nothing down the field. Beyond the immediate value of an incomplete pass, it also allows Cal’s safeties to play more aggressively towards other threats in the running game or passing game.

Bynum was particularly impressive in his individual battle with Anthony Ratliff-Williams, a redshirt junior who is probably UNC’s single best individual athlete. In situations like that, having a CB who can play a key target one-on-one and win the majority of those battles is a luxury that many teams don’t have.

Special Teams

Hello new specialists!

Greg Thomas and Steven Coutts played in their first and second Cal games respectively, and as you might imagine had mixed games. Thomas looked good on a 35-yarder before later having a 47-yard kick blocked, and I still haven’t seen a replay to try to figure out if it was a low kick issue or a blocking issue.

Coutts, on the other hand, had plenty of work. Cal had more punts against UNC than total possessions against Stanford! Coutts’ average of 33.6 is pretty low, but that number was influenced by a number of intentionally short punts because Cal’s offense stalled around the UNC 40. Coutts’ short punting was pretty solid—high, short kicks with no chance of return placed inside the 20. His longer punts were much iffier—either too short or too long without a hang time, which allowed a 27-yard return in response. That will be an area to watch the rest of the way.

Coaching/Game Theory

What in the world are we going to do with fourth downs in opposing territory?

Cal punted three times from inside UNC’s 40-yard line. That is typically a move that I hate, for obvious reasons. Steve Coutts executed those three punts pretty well—and Cal still only gained an average of 29 yards on each punt.

But what are the options? Cal’s offense hardly looked likely to convert fourth-down attempts yesterday and they have an inexperienced walk-on kicker who probably isn’t going to be nailing 55-yarders. There are no good options . . . other than the hope that Cal’s defense will be so good that they’ll stop the opponent wherever the offense happens to give them the ball.

Big Picture

The hope: Game 1 is a legitimate indicator that the Cal defense has taken a big step forward. When the offense reverts to their 2017 mean, it means we have a ferocious defense and a low-risk, mistake-free, vaguely competent offense in support. Cal wins a bunch of games 24–17.

The fear: Game 1 is a legitimate indicator that the Cal offense hasn’t made any progress—and any team with a decently disruptive defensive line can stymie most drives. Meanwhile, Cal’s defensive performance was as much influenced by UNC offensive ineptitude and the potential loss of Cam Goode lowers the ceiling for how good the defense can truly be.

Either way we’re probably in a slog towards bowl eligibility because Cal’s schedule features six or seven more games that are trending towards being one-score games. It’s still true that this schedule features two likely wins (Idaho St./Oregon St.), two likely losses (USC/UW), and a mess of games that will swing the season towards success or failure—depending on your own expectations.