If you took all of the various reactions to this game, you could roughly place them into two broad categories.
The first? Resigned acceptance at the vagaries of fate. What exactly did you all expect to happen with a 3rd string true freshman getting his first start on the road against a domineering Utah team? Does it suck that we’re in this situation? Sure, but there wasn’t much that anybody could have done about it, and overwrought reactions aren’t warranted or useful.
The second? When a team that is specifically built to NOT get blown out gets blown out, while simultaneously ending a two decade streak of not getting shut-out, many are going to seize on this game as a signal point game. Regardless of the exact circumstances, losing like that in the 3rd year of a coaching tenure means something.
Which side do I fall on? Jeez, I dunno. Read on and decide for yourself, I guess?
9 drives: 0 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 9 punts, 0 turnovers, 0 points/drive
What do you even say about this? It was nice to not have to do any math for this particular efficiency report. I’m barely going to type anything under the ‘Offense’ header because analysis from this game is pointless. Why? We all know why:
Truly an impossible challenge
Down two quarterbacks
Down three starting linemen
Down three WRs
Down a starting tight end
But the running backs are healthy! Which doesn’t matter because unless you have Barry Sanders you kinda need players to block for them.
Now that we’re playing safeties at wide receivers and a converted walk-on on the offensive line, we’ve reached the injury hellstorm point of no return. Maybe a bye week means that Cal at least gets their wide receiver crew back and healthy, since the pass catchers have generally been the brightest spot on that side of the ball, but I’m not getting my hopes up since fate has clearly decided where this season is headed.
Spencer Brasch looks like a promising QB
Judging him on his numbers considering the situation is pretty damned pointless. What we saw from him were skills that might be useful if he ever helms a functional offense. Those skills include decent arm strength and accuracy and solid foot speed. I didn’t get the sense that the offensive play calling was designed for him to make a ton of decisions, but he seemed as decisive with the ball as one could reasonably be considering his throwing options.
9 drives: 5 touchdowns, 1 FGA (0-1), 4 punts, 0 turnovers, 3.9 points/drive
Utah scored five touchdowns in six drives, then proceeded to remove starters and otherwise stop trying. In other words, the 3.9 points/drive Cal allowed, (already the single worst mark of the Wilcox era!!!) is also a generous figure based on Utah shutting the offense down early. Utah’s points/possession while Huntley played? A shocking 5.8 points/drive.
Utah finished the game averaging a robust 6.6 yards/play, but that number was up at 8.4 before they called the dogs off after going up 35-0. This was a dominant performance by the Utah offense, and for the first time this season Justin Wilcox can credibly blame the defense just as much as the offense for a Cal defeat.
Another measure of Utah’s dominance? The Utes scored touchdowns on 5 straight drives. During those 5 drives, Utah only faced three 3rd down conversions longer than 2 yards, and none longer than nine yards. Utah almost never went backwards, almost never had a bad play, almost never got forced off schedule, and on the 2 or 3 occasions when they did they immediately made a play anyway.
So what happened?
Well, some of Cal’s problems were things that we already knew about, that Utah ruthlessly exploited. Some of it came from uncharacteristic mistakes from players that Cal typically relies on. In short, everything went wrong.
Let’s start with the problems we already knew about. Zack Moss went for just short of 7 yards/attempt on 17 carries, as Cal’s front seven again struggled to hold up on running plays against the point of attack. Because this was Utah and because Moss is the best tackle-breaker in the conference, he was able to break a few for longer runs a bit more often.
Meanwhile, Cal again struggled with pass coverage over the short middle of the field, most frequently when linebackers were responsible for pass coverage. True, that long Moss pass came on a ‘broken’ play, but the idea that Moss, of all people, is the uncovered guy suggests that it was more than just Utah getting lucky. Meanwhile, Moss had a couple other pass catching gains and Utah feasted on crossing routes all game long.
In terms of uncharacteristic stuff, we can talk about Cam Bynum getting beaten over the top in 1-on-1 man coverage, or Evan Weaver whiffing on a tackle when he had Moss squared up.
What does it mean for the rest of the season?
Cal’s defense is unlikely to be gashed like this again. That’s true because this was an outlier performance, and true because Cal’s last four games are all against offenses very different from Utah’s. And I mean that both from a scheme perspective and a personnel situation. USC and Wazzu are both running versions of the Air Raid, Chip is Chip, and while Stanford WANTS to do what Utah is doing, injuries/lack of talent mean that they aren’t nearly the same challenge.
But this is further confirmation that the weaknesses this defense has are real and unlikely to change within this season.
Punt punt punt punt punt punt punt punt punt
Nine punts, only one of which was returned, for a > 40 yards net average. Pretty good! Shame that it was rendered entirely irrelevant by the rest of the game.
Also, Cal received three punts and six kickoffs, without returning any of them. In a game at altitude, that’s probably not surprising or concerning, but it certainly continues a pattern wherein the return units struggle to create opportunities for returns.
A test of philosophy and resolve
I try hard not to put too much meaning into post-game press conferences. Wilcox has a pretty set script to his pressers, particularly after defeats. ‘Starts with me,’ ‘next man up,’ ‘effort isn’t enough,’ ‘we’ve gotta execute,’ etc. etc. All of which is fine and good.
The question is whether or not the coaching staff can keep their players, and their recruits, bought into their vision for this program. The biggest reason that Cal is in the situation they are in on offense is because, so far, the coaching staff has struggled to attract and retain offensive talent. It was an exodus of talent that forced the coaching staff to bring in a bunch of JC transfers this off-season.
Now, after another season with a broken offense, it’s another year where the pitch to keep players committed to Cal might be tough.
So what does this all mean?
The grim reality is that if it hasn’t happened for a coach after three years it’s really unlikely to ever happen.— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) October 27, 2019
There’s this ingrained idea with many media and fans that coaches can’t be fully judged until after their 4th year in a program, and it’s obvious why that’s an attractive attitude. After all, Justin Wilcox’s first full, true recruiting class (2018) are only true sophomores right now. How exactly is it fair to judge the current coaching staff before they get their own recruits in place?
That perspective, while kind, ignores that most coaches inherit talent that is more or less in line with the average history of the program.
For example - if you remove their first, transition recruiting classes, Sonny Dykes averaged a recruiting class that ranked 7.6 in the Pac-12, with a composite recruiting ranking of .844. Justin Wilcox’s average rating for his first two full classes (2018 & 2019) has been 8th in the Pac-12, with an average composite recruiting ranking of .855*. In other words, Justin Wilcox’s recruiting has been largely identical to Sonny Dykes’ recruiting.
*Interestingly, Cal’s 2020 class currently has an .854 average recruit rating, almost identical to Wilcox’s previous two classes, but is ranked 5th in the Pac-12 in part because Cal’s class is larger than their conference mates, and in part because USC and UCLA are badly struggling with their recruiting classes compared to their historical average. Will that last through the early signing period?
Which means that Wilcox’s current performance has been managed with a roster of talent roughly as talented as the future roster that Wilcox and his staff have been recruiting over the last few seasons.
So when I say “If it hasn’t happened for a coach after three years, it’s really unlikely to ever happen,” what I mean is that within three years a coach typically demonstrates the level of team performance and recruiting that he is likely to continue to deliver in the future.
Is that fair? Yes and no. Lots can happen in three years outside of a coach’s control. A coach has very little control over his 1st year roster, and if injuries ruin a year or two there’s not a ton a coach can do. But college head coaches are also absurdly compensated for their job and they all face the same injury roulette. They’re also given a huge number of scholarships to compensate.
Justin Wilcox will be Cal’s coach in 2020, and probably beyond. In terms of personality and comportment, he’s a great fit at Cal. This isn’t me arguing for any sort of regime change.
But if you’re asking me what I expect from the current era of Cal football, I’ll just say that when you get three years of good-defense, bad-offense, with an annual fight for bowl eligibility, that’s what I’m going to expect in the future.
As noted above, Justin Wilcox will probably be given a wide latitude by Cal’s administration to prove me wrong and show that he can produce more than ~.500 football at Cal. I hope that we’ll look back on the 2019 season as a one-off, injury-fueled disaster. How the coaches handle the roster over the next few months may well go a long way towards determining which direction this goes.