How convenient that we happen to get a bye week exactly halfway through the season, giving us a chance to catch our breath and survey the season to date?
(Also, how convenient that we get another bye week in two weeks so that we can squeeze in some basketball preview content! It’s like the Pac-12 schedule was created by and for Cal bloggers! Multi-million dollar extensions for Larry Scott!)
If you recall, I wrote previews back in August for the Offense, Defense, and Special Teams, with ‘Defining Questions’ that would determine how successful (or not) the 2019 season would be. How has Cal answered those questions? And were they the right questions to ask in the first place? Let’s look back!
Defining Question: Can Cal complete passes 20+ yards downfield?
This ends up being a two part answer. The first part is to report the obvious - after a slow start to the season, Chase Garbers exploded with six brilliant quarters of downfield passing against Ole Miss and ASU, and then . . . dammit.
Then, against Oregon, Devon Modster kinda reversed the equation here, completing a number of long throws but comparatively struggling on the short routes that Garbers did reliably well. But that also came against the Oregon defense, and the Ducks are currently 4th in the nation in yards/play allowed and 3rd in scoring defense. In other words, that wasn’t a very fair first test for Cal’s 2nd string QB.
Cal’s 2nd half defenses are Utah . . . and 5 of the 7 worst defenses in the conference. If the Cal offense doesn’t produce points the rest of the way, strength of schedule will not be a valid excuse.
Defining Question: Can Cal do the above without an unacceptable rate of turnovers?
Yes! But how predictive is it?
Cal’s quarterbacks have thrown 5 interceptions, which is almost exactly the national average. But one of those interceptions was an end-of-half Hail Mary that shouldn’t really count, and most of the others were reasonable downfield throws rather than bad decision/high risk short throws. Cal’s QBs have been on the right side of the risk-reward ledger.
Of course, we only have 6 quarters of data for Devon Modster, so we’ll see where his interception rate stabilizes in time.
The question I also should have asked: Is there enough depth on the offensive line?
On one hand, there’s no point in writing a preview and trying to speculate about what would happen if four anticipated offensive line starters leave with serious injuries (here’s to hoping that Michael Saffell and Valentino Daltoso aren’t lost for the season). On the other hand, Cal’s offensive line has been beset by a certain number of injuries each of the last few years. Playing the position is hard enough on anybody’s body that worrying about depth is pretty much always relevant.
The challenge Cal faced is that much of their offensive line depth was probably a season away from being ready for major action. But those guys are now being forced to play. Grading line play is never something I’m super confident about, but my perception is that pass blocking is meaningfully ahead of run blocking, which is why Cal has grown increasingly dependent on making plays in the air to get points on the board.
But again, as noted above - Utah is the only above average defense left on the schedule, so the line has every opportunity to gel as a unit against weaker defenses.
Defining Question: Is this the year that the Wilcox defense creates major backfield disruption?
In short, no. Last year, Cal averaged 5.9 tackles for loss and 2.4 sacks/game. This year, Cal is averaging 6 tackles for loss and 2.3 sacks/game. That’s essentially identical and probably shouldn’t be a surprise. Whatever Cal’s defense gained from having so many experienced front 7 starters back was given away with the lack of a true nose tackle and general defensive line depth. Cal’s defense is still very good, but they still struggle to create backfield disruption at the level that a truly elite defense would expect to produce.
Defining Question: Can everybody stay healthy?
Maybe? Boy was it looking bleak at the end of the Ole Miss game, when Cal was still missing their first and second string OLBs, plus Traveon Beck. But Cam Goode, Tevin Paul, and Ben Hawk Schrider have all returned and looked great against Oregon, as did Traveon Beck. Heck, Cal even has Aaron Maldonado back, though he’s only gotten a smattering of on-field reps thus far.
The Oregon game was probably the first time Cal’s defense had been truly healthy since early in the North Texas game, and it’s probably not a coincidence that the Bears played their best game as a consequence. Between that great performance and getting two bye weeks in October, the Bears are set up for a strong 2nd half of the season.
Defining Question: Can this defense continue to force a high rate of turnovers?
Cal forced 2.2 turnovers/game last year, and that number is down to just 1.5 this year. As feared, the Bears have regressed from a top 10 ranking to a firmly middle-of-the-pack ranking.
The other downside is that after multiple defensive scores last year, Cal hasn’t housed a turnover yet. That type of thing is even more random than forcing turnovers in the first place, but it’s still worth noting.
This doesn’t have to mean that Cal won’t start forcing a ton of turnovers over the 2nd half of the season, though it’s worth noting that OSU, Stanford, and Utah have been VERY turnover averse so far.
The question I also should have asked: Is there enough depth on the defensive line?
I wrote my defensive preview early in fall camp, and was halfway operating under the assumption that Cal would get their nose guards back. As it turned out, only one of the NGs is back with the team, and he hasn’t really had enough time to integrate back into the defense. Lo and behold, Cal has basically been starting a true freshman at the single position on the field that requires the most physical development to play.
That Brett Johnson can hold his own already is wildly exciting for the future, because most true frosh NGs would typically get steamrolled. But interior defensive line has been and will likely continue to be a relative weakness, and Cal will probably struggle to hold at the point of attack on interior runs and struggle to get pressure up the middle on passing downs without exotic stunts and blitzes.
What is Justin Wilcox going to do on 4th down in plus territory?
This has been a problem. Cal’s offense has struggled to convert in short yardage situations, Greg Thomas hasn’t really shown a consistent leg on longer field goal distances, and Cal’s punting unit hasn’t been good at pinning teams back inside the 20 or 10. In short, there have been no good choices.
I wish he’d go for it more.
Can Cal finally develop an effective punt return unit?
The good: Cal is 13th in the nation in average yards/punt return at 15 yards a pop, and 9 of the 12 teams above them have their average yardage numbers goosed thanks to a punt return touchdown.
The bad: Cal has only returned 5 total punts, tied for 111th in the nation. Only 19% of the punts Cal received have been returned. Nikko Remigio has really flashed promise as a returner when he’s given some space to work with, but Cal’s return unit blocking has very rarely granted him that space.
Bonus question: Will the Pac-12 continue to be deeply mediocre?
The Pac-12 is still a ways away from where they would like to be, but I’m going to go ahead and contend that the conference has made some solid steps forward this year.
To start, I think there are only four programs that are worse than pre-season expectations - Stanford, UCLA, Washington State, and Washington.
We could probably have a debate about whether USC, Arizona, Utah and Oregon have met or exceeded their own expectations, but everybody else I think is pretty clearly better than anticipated, highlighted most prominently by Oregon State’s improvement from historically bad to merely normal bad.
And that’s largely the story of the Pac-12 in 2019. With the possible exception of Oregon, there are no great teams, no nationally elite teams. But with the possible exception of UCLA the entire conference is full of good teams, dangerous teams. Georgia Tech? Vanderbilt? Rutgers? The Pac-12 doesn’t have an anchor like those teams.
For Cal, and for everybody else in the conference, that means an entire season of really, really exciting football. Is the Pac-12 the best conference in college football? No, and they’re not particularly close to gaining that title. Are they the most competitive conference in terms of close games? Absolutely.
Of course, you knew that already. Strap in for more heart palpitations and stress, we’re only halfway done.