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Post Game Thoughts: Oregon State

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Cal’s offense can’t score against one of the weaker defenses in the Pac-12 as the Bears fall to 1-3 in conference play.

Oregon State v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

The parallels between 2016 and 2019 are striking.

In 2016, Sonny Dykes had lost many games as Cal’s head coach, but over time he was winning more frequently, and when he lost it was mostly to teams that Cal was expected to lose to. But when he lost to Oregon State, 47-44, it was the first time since 2013 that he lost to a truly bad team (OSU would finish 4-8) in a game Cal was significant favorites in. Worse, Dykes’ biggest failure was exposed in the most glaring way, as Ryan Nall gashed another bad defense at will. Doubly worse, it was that game more than any other that denied Cal a bowl game.

Three years later, we’re in a similar spot. Justin Wilcox’s inability to build a functional offense cost Cal a game in which they were significant favorites.

When we look back at this game after the season, maybe things will look differently. Maybe OSU will continue their rise from the ashes. Maybe Cal will win 2 or more games anyway, rendering this particular game less critical. Maybe this game is just a bump in the road towards building the type of program everybody wants Wilcox to build in Berkeley.

Or maybe this is the first game where a significant portion of the fan base started to have their doubts, 2.5 years into what has otherwise been a strongly supported tenure for Cal’s head coach.

Offense

Efficiency Report

13 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1-2), 6 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 downs), 1.3 points/drive

The true nadir of the Cal offense under Wilcox will probably always be the Cheez-It Bowl, for obvious reasons. But I would posit that averaging 3.7 yards/play and managing just 17 points against Oregon State’s defense should be in the conversation. The Beavers haven’t held an FBS opponent below 31 yet this season, which includes a game against Stanford’s backup quarterback and broken offensive line. Cal barely managed half that total.

On injuries

The Cal offense is broken, in the literal sense and probably in the metaphorical sense. Cal ran 76 plays, and 14 of them lost yardage (18%). Add in another 7 runs for no gain (9%), plus 19 incomplete passes (25%), and you will find that 40 of Cal’s 76 offensive plays (53%) either gained no yards or went backwards.

How much of that is caused by the loss of Chase Garbers, Michael Saffell, Will Craig, Gentle Williams, and Kekoa Crawford? That’s hard to say.

Let’s start with the obvious: Oregon State’s front seven had their way with Cal’s broken, reshuffled offensive line. Cal averaged just 2.3 yards/running back carry and Cal’s quarterbacks were constantly under near immediate distress. Linemen were beaten in one-on-one battles, and particularly by any sort of blitz or stunt, as Cal seemed to particularly miss Saffell’s ability to organize line protections.

Meanwhile, Modster played similarly to what we saw against Oregon, mixing in impressive, on-the-money downfield throws with questionable decision making and short pass accuracy. And while his scrambling was a critical component of Cal’s offense, he had just as many plays where he either abandoned the pocket prematurely, held the ball too long, or stepped up into the pass rush.

So, on one hand I think it’s fair and right to point out that if Cal still had all or most of their starting offensive lineup, that the Bears win this game and are probably sitting at 6-1 on the season, with bowl eligibility already clinched. But nobody makes it through the season without any injuries. While Cal has been unlucky, it’s also true that Cal’s offensive coaches have consistently struggled to get guys prepared to succeed immediately . . . or even to play at an average level immediately. Was it thrilling when everything suddenly seemed to click into place for Chase Garbers? Yes! Was it concerning that it took a full season of on-field reps for that to happen? Also yes!

In other words, you don’t have to choose. It is entirely reasonable to point out that injuries have significantly lowered the ceiling of possible performance from Cal’s offense, while also pointing out that those injuries shouldn’t be this crippling.

I’m not sure how you game plan around these injuries, but this probably wasn’t it

There was essentially one successful play type that Cal ran yesterday. That play? Throwing the ball downfield.

When Cal did that, there were three potential good outcomes. 1) downfield completion 2) Refs call holding/pass interference on the defense 3) Modster breaks contain and scrambles for yardage.

True, it’s fair to point out that these play calls hold the significant possibility of a drive killing sack, which happened on roughly 20% of Cal’s QB drop-backs. But it’s also true that Cal’s collection of RB hand-offs and swing passes were wildly ineffective. Like, “why even bother trying?” ineffective. Just damn the torpedoes and throw the ball deep*. It’s not a coincidence that Modster averaged 5.6 yards/attempt but 12.6 yards/completion.

Did Cal do that? Not really. Or, more accurately, not nearly enough. I haven’t gone back and charted the game, but we all saw Cal’s designed run game struggle for the 5th game in a row. Cal is now 116th in the nation in yards/rushing attempt, and that number includes the QB scrambles.

In terms of things that need to be cut out of the play book now? How about slow developing QB handoffs on short yardage plays, which haven’t worked all season. For that matter, zone reads without any particular indication that the QB is making a read probably need to go as well. My favorite drive of the game may well have been Cal’s first, failed, drive of the 3rd quarter, because it included Modster’s only zone read keep of the game (15 yards) and Cal’s only QB sneak attempt of the season so far (successful conversion).

*Is it possible, even probable, that this gameplan would also fail? Yeah, I think so. I don’t think there’s a game plan to address Cal’s roster situation. But I’m down for seeing something a bit outside the box at this point.

On Spencer Brasch

Spencer Brasch got 9 snaps in a must-throw situation with OSU knowing they could tee off as pass rushers. I’m not going to even bother speculating on what that means should he be forced to play significant snaps the rest of the way, except to note that he did not look entirely in over his head.

Also, it would be a bummer to have to burn Brasch’s redshirt if it just meant throwing him to the wolves of the Pac-12 without a healthy line to block in front of him.

Defense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 3 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 9 punts, 0 turnovers, 1.75 points/drive

So here’s a weird and frustrating dichotomy:

  1. Nine Oregon State drives ended in a punt. On those nine drives, the Beavers ran 37 plays, gained 33 yards, and managed three total first downs. None of those nine drives featured more than one first down. Allowing less than a yard/play against an above average offense like OSU’s is as dominant as it gets - many good defenses don’t even shut down FCS offenses like that.
  2. But OSU had three other drives, and those drives went for 62, 78, and 80 yards each, featured 15 total first downs, and ended in three touchdowns.

For 75% of the game, Cal’s defense was perfect, unimpeachable, impregnable. For 25% of the game, Cal’s defense just couldn’t quite stop the Beavers from dinking and dunking their way down the field on three long touchdown drives. Those three drives included seven 3rd down conversions from OSU, chances that the Cal defense had to either force a punt or hold OSU to a field goal attempt. Chances that could have turned a loss into a win, or at least a loss into an overtime game.

Is it fair that the Cal defense was perfect for 75% of the game, and OK-but-not-good-enough for 25% of the game? No, of course not. Life hasn’t been fair for the Cal defense in 2.5 seasons.

Another game without a turnover

The problem with playing a style of football that depends on forcing turnovers is that defenses don’t fully control their ability to create turnover-generation chances.

Jake Luton has only thrown two interceptions this year. He’s a veteran quarterback with the accuracy and decision making that you would expect out of a 5th year senior with playing time across four seasons.

And the Cal secondary played really well. To the extent that Cal gave up much of anything, it was usually on misdirection plays (reverses, end arounds) or on short passing plays to RBs and TEs when linebackers were responsible for coverage. But it’s hard to force a QB to throw an interceptable ball unless you have an elite pass rush, and Luton didn’t.

Special Teams

(A healthier?) Steven Coutts helps Cal narrowly win the field position battle

Honestly, the difference is pretty negligible, but 40 yards net/punt is greater than OSU’s 38, and so Cal did win the punting battle for the first time in a while.

To be fair, Cal was aided greatly when Jesiah Irish fumbled two long, returnable punts. But Cal also helped their own cause thanks to two nice returns from Nikko Remigio, who is increasingly able to grab an extra 10 yards when given the space.

Coaching

Turtling with a lead is not a viable strategy

Avi spent some time Sunday afternoon looking at Cal’s scoring splits across quarters and noted that Cal basically just doesn’t score points in the 4th quarter anymore. Most of that is explained by Cal’s bad offense. But some of it I think is Cal’s inherent conservatism any time they have a lead.

Consider: When Cal grabbed the lead in the 3rd quarter, the Bears had another two possessions before OSU grabbed the lead back. What did Cal do with their two chances to either add to the lead or at least burn some clock?

3 plays, 6 yards, punt
3 plays, 4 yards punt

To be fair, Cal did try to throw the ball a few times, which resulted in one incomplete pass and a couple Modster runs. Regardless, Cal under Wilcox has long ago established a pattern wherein the offense really doesn’t try very hard to score when they have the lead in the 2nd half. When I first complained about Cal’s tendency to sit on leads after the near collapse vs. Ole Miss, I wasn’t expecting Cal to lose three straight games where they held 2nd half leads, but here we are.

Big Picture

In some ways, this season has gone exactly as many might have imagined. 2 Wins over the non-P5 teams on the schedule, then a bunch of coin flip games against P5 teams that have gone the way you would expect coin flips to go. Sure enough, the average margin of victory against major conference opposition is -2.4 points/game.

The problem here is the offensive trend, and the fact that Cal has now come out on the wrong side of their coin flips more often than not. 17 points at home against ASU’s defense was concerning but understandable. 7 points against Oregon’s excellent defense was alarming but also explicable considering the timing and the circumstances. 17 points at home against Oregon State’s bad defense should set off significant alarm bells.

Because even if Cal’s defense is exactly as good down the stretch this year as they were last year, this level of offensive production won’t win many games. Quite frankly, Cal was lucky to win as many games as they did last year, and unless something unexpected happens on offense they will need to play perfectly to win games.

And perfect is too high a bar. The Cal defense is good, but not top 5-10 teams in the country good. The defense played A- games against ASU, Oregon, and OSU, and Cal went 0-3.

I wrote this a month ago, when Cal sat at 4-0:

In the category of more mundane goals, a bowl trip seems all but assured. Sure, there are teams like last year’s Colorado team that collapse to miss out, but I have a hard time seeing this team finish 1-7 over their last 8 games.

When your offense was already in the depth danger zone, losing your first string QB, your all-conference level center (which forces an already short-handed line to reshuffle), your top WR, and potentially your second string QB has potentially dire consequences. Perhaps “going 1-7 and missing a bowl after an 0-4 start” level consequences.

The defense is good enough that Cal could squeeze out another two wins. But if the offense is again back to competing with Rutgers and Northwestern for the title of ‘worst P5 offense in the country’ like it was last year, those two wins are far from guaranteed. Which means that we face the very real specter of what some anticipated as a break through season turning instead into a nightmare season.

I don’t know which 11 players will be healthy enough to walk onto the field in SLC next week to face a Utah defense that’s just a step behind Oregon’s defense in the Pac-12 pecking order. But Cal’s coaching staff is going to have to find a way that allows those players to move the ball and score points.