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Post Game Thoughts: Washington State

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Behind a revitalized offense the Bears broke a 4 game losing streak and provided hope down the final stretch of the regular season

Washington State v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

When your team loses four games in a row, boy does everything feel hopeless. You forget that sometimes, things do in fact go your way.

Sometimes, the other team’s QB air mails a throw to the safety. Sometimes, the other team’s secondary takes an hilariously bad angle on a running back swing pass. Sometimes, the other team screws up a protection on a critical 4th and 3. Sometimes, the refs accidentally call the penalty on your opponent when it was supposed to be on you.

Which isn’t to suggest that this was a lucky win. Cal out gained WSU badly on a per/play basis even counting a pointless final touchdown drive against a prevent Cal defense. It’s just a reminder that this Cal team, when at least moderately healthy, has too much going for it to not take advantage when they get a few bounces.

Why it is that these sort of things always happen to us against Washington State, I can’t answer. But I’ll take it.

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 5 touchdowns, 1 FGA (0-1), 3 punts, 1 turnovers (1 fumble, 1 downs), 3.0 points/drive

Removed: Cal’s final drive of the 1st half, when they didn’t really try to score with 40 seconds to play, and Cal’s final kneel down to end the game.

If you’re wanting to grade the offense separately from special teams, you might reasonable argue that the offense ‘earned’ 38 points, the amount Cal likely would’ve scored without blocked kicks, which would amount to a rather stunning 3.5 points/possession

So let’s just get this out of the way: This was an excellent offensive performance, without qualifications. No, this wasn’t good for Cal, or good, but less impressive because it was against Wazzu’s defense. Cal’s points/drive and yards/play (7.1) compare favorably with what Utah, Arizona State, Colorado, and Oregon all put up on the Cougars.

Maaaybe Wazzu’s defense is now so bad that they will make every Pac-12 offense look similarly successful. But something tells me that if this game were played 2-3 weeks ago, Cal wouldn’t have put up 30+ points.

Cal had the personnel to allow Modster to succeed, and Cal put Modster in a position to succeed

Thanks to the return of Michael Saffell, Cal’s offensive line was able to provide solid protection. Thanks to the return (at least, for a half) of Kekoa Crawford, Cal added a critical downfield threat to the offense. And thanks to a revised game plan that provided plays and reads better suited to Devon Modster’s skills, Cal was able to move the ball really well in the passing game.

Some of what Cal was able to do well had to do with WSU’s obvious weaknesses - angles and tackling on the 2nd level. When Cal was able to get guys in space (Brown’s rushing and passing TDs, Polk’s TDs) they made WSU’s tacklers look just as bad as UCLA did. But Cal’s play calling also did a great job of opening up downfield shots for Modster to take. He didn’t hit on all of them (as his post-game presser alluded to) but they picked up some big chunks early and almost got a few more later that forced WSU to respect the downfield throw.

Can Cal pull off something similar against their next three opponents? Harder to say. WSU is the worst defense in the conference. Stanford and UCLA, at least, are clearly below average. If Cal’s pass protection can hold up against USC and gives Modster time to take downfield shots, then there will be plenty of room for optimism for Stanford and UCLA.

Defense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 1 touchdown, 2 FGA (2-2), 4 punts, 4 turnovers (1 interception, 1 fumble, 2 downs), 1.2 points/drive

Removed: Wazzu’s final, wildly pointless touchdown with :05 left on the clock trailing by 3 scores.

FWIW, the points/drive math is 13 points/11 drives, to remove the impact of the general special teams insanity this game produced. You could also further argue that Cal’s defense shouldn’t be credited with 3 of those points since they came on a 6 yard drive aided by turnover-related field position, so if you wanted to argue that Wazzu was at more like .9 points/drive, I wouldn’t quibble.

In short, a great defensive performance. I ultimately think that looking at points rather than yards flatters Cal’s defensive performance just a tad, but what this game does illustrate is the importance of drive finishing. Cal lost to ASU and OSU because those teams finished off nearly every single long drive with touchdowns. Washington State had one long drive end in a field goal, and another that would’ve been a field goal except that the Cougars were compelled to go for it (and royally messed up their 4th down play) due to game state. That’s a lot of wasted yards, and needless to say this game looks much, much different if WSU gets 14 points from those drives instead of 3.

Strengths and weaknesses

What you saw against Wazzu was again a good illustration of the major strength and relative weaknesses of the Cal defense.

Because, as noted above, this was a good-not-elite performance from the Cal defense. WSU was able to get yards, but not consistently and not from everywhere on the field.

When WSU tried to go to the perimeter of the defense, they were stoned. Cal’s cornerbacks are good at everything you need from CBs, but they are particularly good at play diagnosis and tackling. So the Bears didn’t allow many downfield receptions to the outside, and they were like heat seeking missiles whenever WSU threw to the outside flat.

But when WSU was able to move the ball, it was because they found success throwing into pockets between zones over the short middle of the field, where Cal’s inside linebackers have struggled to slow down passing offenses. Now, because Weaver and Deng are excellent tacklers, Cal was generally able to keep these plays for short gains and live to fight another down.

Special Teams

Well, that’s a new and different problem

Two blocked field goals, both with very low trajectories as the cause. Maybe Greg Thomas had some other low kicks before that managed to get past the line anyway, but this particular issue cost Cal a combined 6 points (3 point swing in WSU’s favor when Cal lost a point and WSU got 2, then 3 potential points lost on the blocked field goal) and there have been a bunch of games over the last few years where that would’ve been enough to turn a win into a loss.

Coaching & Errata

One questionable punt

On 4th and 3 from their own 49 yard line, with just less than 5:00 left in the 2nd quarter, Cal punted. Steven Coutts had a decent punt that was fair caught at the 15, but then WSU drove 85 yards without too much trouble for a touchdown, then missed a 2 point conversion to tie the game.

To that point in the game Cal had two touchdown drives (though one was just a single play) and three failed drives (though one was due to a fumble), and I guess it’s reasonable for Wilcox to be gun shy trusting his offense after everything we saw during the four game losing streak. But Cal also had been averaging 7.7 yards/play to that point and their defense had been playing plenty well, it seemed a questionable strategic decision to pass up a scoring opportunity and give WSU a chance to put a score on the board before halftime.

But Cal didn’t turtle!

Following a fumble, the Bears take advantage of field position and score a touchdown on their first possession of the 3rd quarter. The lead is nine points, before a long WSU drive ends in a field goal to cut the lead to 6. There’s 18:27 left in the game, and Cal has a lead.

Thanks to some WSU indiscipline, Cal earns a field goal attempt that’s blocked, then WSU goes on another long drive that ends on a failed 4th down.

Now there’s 10:31 left. Even worse, thanks to penalties the Bears are backed up to their own goal line. In previous situations, Justin Wilcox will call for a bunch of low-risk plays that will keep the clock running. But Cal calls multiple pass plays. One is a near completion to Trevon Clark. Another turns into a long Modster scramble. The last one is the game winner, a beautiful screen to Makai Polk that made me and the rest of the crowd at Memorial lose our minds.

At least we don’t have to deal with Mike Leach

Mike Leach is a fraud.

Now, before I get into why, let’s start with what he IS good at. Mike Leach is maybe the best quarterback coach in college football, a guy who can turn anybody with half an arm into a dude who can throw 50 completions in a game with a basement level interception rate. And because quarterback is the most important position in the game, that means that Leach can build a competitive team even in some of college football’s toughest places to win.

But everything else about him is blown up mythologizing, either from the media or from himself. He doesn’t seem to do a particularly good job managing the rest of his team. His defenses and special teams are typically awful, and he’s fired multiple coordinators in the middle of a season. He’s consistently a jerk, which he gets away with . . . because he’s a jerk in an entertaining fashion? Meanwhile, the rest of his public image is built on self-aggrandizement from a guy who clearly thinks he’s smarter than everybody else about every topic under the sun, regardless of whether or not he actually has a damned clue.

A military commander who thinks he’s a genius, gets a ton of credit from contemporaries, but leads a series of failed campaigns, and refuses to take any blame for his failures? Mike Leach is Franz Conrad von Hötzendorf.

A wild day from the refs

Weird/bad things that jumped out without even rewatching:

-A ref getting nailed by a Wazzu pass over the middle
-An awful roughing the passer penalty that ended up costing Cal a ton of potential field position.
-Awarding a penalty against WSU that was committed by Cal, which has led to an official suspension. This mistake may have made a material difference, in that it cost WSU 27 57 yards of field position on a drive that would end on a field goal, 18 yards away from Cal’s end zone.
-Too many reviews to count, some wildly necessary because of surprisingly bad on-field calls, many wildly unnecessary.

Big Picture

Boy, the way the schedule falls this year sure does make for a wide range of potential fan reactions so late in the year.

Usually, after 9 games you pretty well know where a team is and how the season will go. But Cal happens to be sitting right on the razor’s edge of fan expectations, with the three most important games of the year* still left on the schedule.

*If you’re one of those fans who really hates Oregon or really values beating Washington, fine, that’s your prerogative, but let’s not pretend that your opinions are consensus. Screw Stanford most of all, then USC, then UCLA. The order is non negotiable.

If Cal loses each of the next three games this season will be viewed as a disaster, a regression from last season that wasted a great defense, didn’t even qualify for a bowl, and didn’t provide any rivalry wins.

If Cal wins each of the next three games the Bears will have ended the worst Big Game streak in history, started a winning streak(!) against USC, finished with a winning conference record for the first time in a decade, and accomplished a California sweep for the first time in a very, very long time that I’m too lazy to look up right now. It would mean 8 wins and a very nice bowl trip, and would restore the sense that Wilcox is building something more than a team that will continue to struggle for 6 wins each year.

Of course, it’s more likely than not that we’ll get something in between those two extremes. I think the majority of the fan base would probably be fine with 1-2 and getting the goddamn axe back in Berkeley, and a 2-1 finish with wins over Stanford and UCLA would still probably constitute Cal’s best season in a decade.

In short: These next three games matter, in every sense of the word. These are the games that build good will and engagement or build disillusionment and ennui. Three games, three weeks, all played in the best state in the union, all winnable and loseable in equal measure.

Let’s see what kind of legacy Evan Weaver and the seniors can leave behind.