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Post Game Thoughts: Oregon

The Bears, battered and bruised, fight to the bitter end in Eugene

California v Oregon Photo by Abbie Parr/Getty Images

Outgained by 150 yards. 26 to 12 first down deficit. 1.5 yards/play deficit.

Nothing about how this game played out suggests that it was or should have been close. While watching, I kept expecting Oregon to run away with the game. when I look at the box score it reads like a decisive defeat.

And yet, there Cal was, holding the ball at midfield, down just 3 points, with about 10 minutes left in the 4th quarter.

Am I thrilled that the Bears are forced to play these types of games, that injuries and lack of depth and transfers and lost recruiting battles means that this is the only way to try to get wins? Hardly.

But I don’t know too many other teams that could lose 70% of their starting offense and then take a borderline top 10 team to the wire on the road based on an uncanny ability to ugly up any and every game.


Efficiency Report

12 drives: 1 touchdown, 2 FGA (0-2), 7 punts, 2 turnovers (2 interceptions), 1.4 points/drive

How many injuries does it take before you just throw up your hands in despair?

Gentle Williams, Will Craig, Michael Saffell, Valentino Daltoso, Kekoa Crawford, Chase Garbers, Marcel Dancy, McCallan Castles. For the majority of the game, Cal was playing without eight players off of the offensive two-deep. And of those eight, seven were expected to start when fall camp opened.

When you lose your quarterback and 80% of your starting offensive line to injuries . . . honestly, what would you expect to happen? How do you even pretend to try at objective analysis? Maybe this type of injury hellstorm could be overcome if Cal were USC or Oklahoma or some other program with easy access to recruited talent and/or an established, successful offensive system. But we all knew that this was a fragile offense that couldn’t really afford injuries. We’ve gotten, roughly, all of them.

After two years of declining offensive production culminating in a disastrous Cheez-It Bowl, in the eyes of Cal fans this year was a referendum on the offensive brain trust. For many, perhaps it still is. But considering that the offense was showing significant positive signs before the injury situation became untenable, I don’t really think it’s fair to use much of this season to determine what direction to go on offense.

What can we say about Devon Modster?

This was a cruel first start for Devon Modster. Oregon is currently 5th in the country in yards/passing attempt allowed, 4th in QB rating allowed, first in defensive SP+ . . . the Ducks are almost certainly the toughest defense on the schedule, potentially by a wide margin.

So we need to grade on a scale. But even keeping in mind the curve, this was a tough performance to get a good handle on. 17-34 against Oregon’s defense isn’t necessarily the worst completion percentage, but it was weird watching Modster mix brilliant, Goff-level throws with inaccurate throws on short routes. Three of those NFL level throws (the sideline bomb to Duncan, the endzone wheel to Brown, and the seam route to Tonges) were brilliant plays that earned Cal a touchdown and a field goal attempt (sigh). Big plays are hugely valuable, and if it’s something that Modster can consistently bring to the table, there’s reason to think that Cal will be able to score some points under his leadership.

But inaccuracy on the short throws matters too, and goes a long way towards explaining why Cal struggled so badly to sustain drives. When you don’t have a functional running game, the short passing game has to be on point to string together first downs.

It’s possible that Modster’s inaccuracies will diminish as he gains experience within Cal’s offense and builds timing and chemistry with his targets. But it’s just as possible that he simply won’t show the down-to-down accuracy needed to sustain drives. And if that’s the case it’s going to be even more important that Cal maintains some level of explosive passing so that the offense produces some points.

We may well be riding Modster’s arm through the regular season

The offensive line is down 4 starters, Dancy is injured, and Chris Brown was injured earlier in the year. Cal is currently last in the Pac-12 in yards/run, and that includes games where Cal was healthier. Even when you consider that Cal mostly faces bad run defenses the rest of the way, the running game is very, very unlikely to be consistently productive.


Efficiency Report

12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1-2), 4 punts, 4 turnovers (1 interception, 2 fumbles, 1 downs), 1.4 points/drive

Well, we got the vintage 2018 performance we were hoping for, right down to the complete and total lack of offensive support. The Cal defense started shaky, relying on turnovers to end long Oregon drives, then stiffened in the 2nd and 3rd quarter, before lack of offensive support and poor field position finally became too much.

The Takers were back, and Cal will need them to stay

To state the obvious, this game isn’t close into the 4th quarter unless Cal forces turnovers on Oregon’s first three possessions. And keeping in mind Cal’s battered offense, it’s probably a safe bet that Cal will need the defense to manufacture scoring opportunities for the offense to win games the rest of the way. Or pitch shut outs. That would be OK with me!

This felt like a return to form for the Cal secondary, even if the ‘only’ got one pick. There were very few instances in which Oregon receivers were particularly open downfield, and a significant percentage of Oregon’s passing yardage came on shorter passes and yards after the catch.

Herbert is too good to throw many passes that might stand a chance of getting picked, so we’ll all just have to hope that less talented quarterbacks make more mistakes against Cal in the future. Maybe even a defensive touchdown, for a little 2018 nostalgia?

A credible job against the best offensive line in the conference

On the first two drives of the game it looked like the Ducks were going to pave Cal in the rushing game. Oregon’s first 14 running back carries gained 97 yards - in other words, 7 yards/carry.

But late in that second drive, the Bears must’ve figured something out, because Cal turned things around. Kuony Deng cut into the backfield to force a 2 yard loss. A few pass plays and a scramble later, Cal stopped Oregon runs on 2nd and 3, 3rd and 2, and forced a fumble when Dye got stopped and he tried to desperately reach the ball for a first down.

The rest of the way? Oregon’s running backs got just 67 yards on 20 carries (3.4 ypc).

Getting pressure on Herbert was a tougher battle, but Cal got a sack and hit him a few times. Herbert, like any legit NFL prospect, knows how to move in the pocket and buy himself enough time, so expecting the pass rush to get to him a ton probably wasn’t a realistic expectation. But all in all, this was a solid performance against a tough assignment.

Special Teams

It’s good to have Steven Coutts back, but coverage is still an issue

For the first time this season Steven Coutts handled 100% of the punting duties, and for the most part he helped out his defense with solid punting, though he benefited from a few kind rolls.

But we have a rough combination right now. Consider the following two stats:

Cal, yards/punt: 38.5, 113th in the nation
Cal, yards/punt return allowed: 10.8, 99th in the nation.

The nominal advantage of a short punt is that it’s not supposed to be returnable, but Cal is somehow allowing lots of decent returns despite not getting a ton of distance on their kicks. Sure enough, Cal allowed a 24 yard return on a 38 yard punt (net of 14) that set up Oregon just 30 yards from the end zone. Three plays later the Ducks held a lead they would not relinquish.

Greg Thomas is still a solid college kicker

By that I mean automatic from inside 30 yards, very good but not perfect from 30-40, and maybe a bit better than a 50-50 shot from 40+. That’s pretty typical of a college kicker.

The bigger issue is in how he’s used. More on that below.


Missed underdog strategy opportunities

Midway through the 2nd quarter, Cal is leading 7-0. But there is a necessary qualifier - Cal is +3 in the turnover battle. As good as the Cal defense has been playing, the Ducks aren’t going to keep shooting themselves in the foot. Oregon points are inevitable.

Devon Modster just slid too early on a scramble that could’ve been converted for a 1st down, so it’s 4th and 2 from the 15. Scoring opportunities are going to be rare, and Cal probably needs to maximize all of them. I think Cal should’ve gone for the conversion.

True, 3 points have value. If Thomas hits that field goal, then the game might be tied to start the 4th quarter, and Cal’s final drives might be to tie the game rather than trying to cut into a two score deficit.

But that field goal wasn’t a sure thing, which has to play into the calculation. As it turned out, that drive was the 2nd of just THREE drives that passed the Oregon 40 yard line.

Cal has to do something else with their 3rd/4th and short plays

Twice in this game Cal faced 3rd and 1, and both times they handed the ball off to Chris Brown, and both times he was stuffed, and that’s just two more data points in a longer run of struggles converting short yardage 3rd and 4th downs. I think the simple reality is that Cal’s beat up offensive line isn’t yet good enough to win one on one battles when the defense knows exactly what’s coming.

Which means that Cal needs to do something different in those situations. The second example, I was begging before the play for Cal to maybe run play action and try to get something downfield, because even if Cal converted the 3rd and 1 on a short run it’s not like Cal was likely to sustain a long, multi-play drive down the field anyway. Taking a shot on a play where the opposition might not have expected a pass is an example of the type of underdog strategy I wish the coaching staff had considered.

For that matter, for much of the 2nd half Cal seemed to get conservative with their offensive play calling. The first half saw Cal take lots of shots downfield, but those shots stopped coming until Oregon took the lead in the 4th quarter. To be fair, Cal’s drives were so short (Cal only ran 9 plays in the 3rd quarter before Oregon took the lead and one of those series was killed by that bad snap) that they didn’t have many opportunities to do much of anything.

Big Picture

First, we have to say goodbye to our 2019 Rose Bowl hopes. The Ducks are two games ahead of the Bears in the loss column and have the tie-breaker. Unless you think the Ducks are going to lose three of their last seven games (and Cal goes undefeated), hopes of a Pac-12 north title are dead.

I think most of us came to terms with that reality last week, when Cal lost the game and their quarterback in one agonizing night. But falling to Oregon makes it official, even if north contention was never a very likely scenario at any point this season.

Now that the formalities are out of the way, let’s talk about everything Cal DOES still have to play for. Bowl eligibility. Three rivalry games. Cal’s first winning conference season since whichever year Tedford last pulled it off. Sending off a bunch of seniors that revived Cal’s defense in the best way possible.

With the possible exception of a road game in Utah, there is not a single game left on the schedule that isn’t winnable. On the flip side, there isn’t a game Cal can’t lose either, as OSU has revived themselves behind a legitimately scary offense and UCLA and Stanford come on the road.

The bye week comes not a moment too soon, and we’ll all no doubt be spending the next two weeks hoping that Kekoa Crawford will be back, that Valentino Daltoso and Michael Saffell aren’t out for the season, and that two weeks of practice might help whichever starting 11 are ambulatory gain some chemistry.

Our larger ambitions for this team that were probably never realistic are dead. Now there’s no choice to appreciate this team for what they are and how they do it, despite a run of bruises and bad luck that might cripple a lesser bunch. Lucky for us there’s plenty to appreciate.