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Post Game Thoughts: 122nd Big Game

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Our long national nightmare is over, thanks to Chase Garbers, Nikko Remigio, and a Cal defense that did just enough to hold on.

NCAA Football: California at Stanford Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

With roughly 3:00 left on the clock, every single negative emotion the human species is capable of producing washed over me. Cameron Scarlett had just run for 6 yards on first down to take Stanford to the Cal 27 yard line. Stanford had already driven 38 yards in 7 plays, and I knew exactly what was going to happen. Stanford was going to run the ball on 2nd and four for three yards, and run off 40 seconds. Then Stanford was going to run the ball on 3rd and 1 for the first down, and run off another 40 seconds. Cal would start using their timeouts, but Stanford would run another 5 plays or so and run the clock down to maybe 25 seconds, kick a short field goal, and win the game.

Every miserable moment from the last nine years flashed before my eyes. Every time David Shaw made a bad decision that didn’t matter. Every time Stanford’s PA announcer drove me insane with his over the top attempts to get Stanford fans to pay attention. Every time we took a wrong turn in that goddamn eucalyptus grove or drove home through traffic while the rest of my family probably worried about my mental health.

Every year I wondered why we do this to ourselves.

But then, something shocking happened. David Shaw made a decision that was both wrong and not conservative. Rather than running, or maybe throwing a short pass, David Mills went for the jugular, throwing to Colby Parkinson in the end zone. Evan Weaver (who I had dumbly criticized just minutes earlier) came up with a huge pass break up. Stanford ran on 3rd down but didn’t get it, and had to settle for a field goal with lots of time left on the clock.

One legendary drive later, one sad little 2 minute drill attempt from Stanford later, and there was an explosion of joy and catharsis the likes of which haven’t been seen since 2002.

And I was reminded of so many reasons why we do this to ourselves.

Carrying on the tradition of listening to a Cal Band CD and the KALX special summary of The Play on the drive across the bay to Mordor.

That moment of joy when you find the tailgate in that endless maze of trees and cars in Palo Alto, and the amazing guys who put it together already have a game on TV and a bunch of great food ready to go.

Meeting people for the first time who you’ve only known (or only know you) through Cal internet, and sharing those nervous moments before the game.

My wife, squeezing my leg in sympathy every time a play goes badly because she knows I’m dying inside.

The very understanding Cal fan who offered me a high five after I stood up on my seat, craned back my neck, and bellowed guttural growl of catharsis into the sky after Chase crossed the goal line, then didn’t flinch when I whiffed and fell into the row between us.

My wife again, a legit but much more sane Cal fan, for letting my rush the field and for sharing her birthday weekend with the Big Game every year.

Finding Avi, Reef and Atoms on the 50 yard line and jointly working together to tear a free red shirt apart in celebration, then join in singing the drinking song with everybody else on the 50.

Nearly tackling Nam somewhere on the 40.

Running into my parents somewhere on the 25, then finding Rob underneath the goalpost for a wonderful bear hug, where we gather for a bunch of CGB fam pictures.

We all have spent plenty of time over the last decade bemoaning what feels like the slow decline of the Cal fan base. I’m sympathetic to those concerns. But every Big Game, I’m always reminded of how much this particular game sits as a signpost of community and family, no matter if Cal has held The Axe for years or has been suffering through a record drought.

After the game, my step-father reveal that he decided to not wear his longtime Cal hat to the game, and had instead worn the Cal hat that had once belonged to my now passed grandfather, who attended Cal on the GI bill after WW2 and was in the marching band:

Was this the reason Cal won? Hell if I know. But that’s not the point. The Big Game is special because we make it special, because it’s the time we spend with friends and family even though some of us are not at all well adjusted about a football game. You happen to be reading about my connections. But each of you have your own connections, and together we’ve built this web of a community that pulses with life and passion on the last Saturday before Thanksgiving each year.

Is it rational to care about college football? On one hand, no. But on the other hand, yes, a thousand times over, yes.

Offense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 3 touchdown, 2 FGA (1-2), 5 punts, 0 turnovers, 2.4 points/drive

Cal’s offensive performance can be pretty cleanly split into three phases: 1. The first half, when Cal was able to pretty consistently move the ball and should have put up at least 13 points in 4 possessions 2. The 3rd quarter, when it felt like Cal prematurely turtled and punted 4 times without doing much of anything, and 3. The 4th quarter, when Cal put together two practically perfect touchdown drives when anything less meant overtime at best.

Two new additions to Big Game legend canon

Chase Garbers was involved in 357 of Cal’s 424 total yards, which is 84% of Cal’s total offense.

Nikko Remigio came down with 45% of Cal’s total catches and 55% of Cal’s total passing yardage.

And in the 4th quarter, when only near flawless offense would mean a win, they played their very best. Cal’s final two drives covered 159 total yards and Garbers-to-Remigio accounted for 82 of them - more than half. In a perfect world, the final touchdown would’ve been Garbers-to-Remigio, but Remigio getting the final block to spring Garbers on a scramble is also pretty fitting.

Simply speaking, Stanford didn’t have anybody capable of covering Remigio, who spent most of the day lining up in the slot and torturing whichever Cardinal drew the assignment. Posts, outs, gos, crossing routes - he was almost always open, and Garbers almost always found him. It was the greatest Big Game receiving performance since Geoff McArthur’s absurd 2003 Big Game.

As for Garbers . . . I think it says something about the suddenness of his growth that he put in a legendary performance and yet I suspect that there are higher levels left for him. It took him a while to get in the rhythm of the game, and then Cal’s conservatism seemed to take the air out of the offense in the 3rd quarter. And while Remigio’s return from injury was a huge addition, this is still an offense missing some of their best weapons and with a makeshift offensive line.

But those high hopes are mere footnotes to what matters: two perfect drives to grab the win and send the fans into delirium.

Defense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 2 touchdown, 2 FGA (2-2), 3 punts, 3 turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 downs), 2 points/drive

A classic bend-but-don’t break performance from the defense. Stanford entered Cal territory on seven of their 10 drives (admittedly thanks to field position in some cases) but generally failed to maximize their chances. Part of me almost feels like Cal should’ve held them down more, but at the same time Stanford only scored two touchdowns - one thanks to a blown coverage and one thanks to field position related problems. Defenses can only control so much, and as the game wore on the Bears controlled more and more of the game when Stanford had the ball.

The Takers bounce back to win The Axe

You know, for all the criticism that David Shaw gets for his conservatism, the dude knows what works and doesn’t work on offense. As his offensive line has slowly disintegrated over the last few years, he’s abandoned the run that defined the successful portion of his tenure. And sure enough, at halftime, Stanford had attempted 4 runs in 23 plays, and one of those runs was a reverse pitch to a wide receiver. David Shaw’s Stanford had virtually abandoned the hand off run as a part of his offense.

And so Cal’s defense was going to succeed or fail based on whether or not they could stop Stanford from passing the ball.

That first half hadn’t gone well. Stanford drove into Cal territory four times in four drives. Thankfully the Cardinal only managed 10 points, in part because one drive was derailed by a delay of game (and by Shaw’s unwillingness to attempt a 4th and 4 in plus territory) while another was derailed by a Mills overthrow (and by Shaw’s unwillingness to attempt a 4th and 5 in plus territory).

But it felt like Stanford was close to breaking through - Mills had thrown for 183 yards on just 19 attempts for a very robust 9.6 yards/attempt. Worse, Cal hadn’t felt very close to many sacks OR many pass break ups. It felt like Mills had the time to get his throws off, and Stanford’s receivers were winning their one-on-one battles with Cal mostly playing man to man coverage.

In the 2nd half, Cal appeared to play more zone coverage, and that wrinkle may have both made Mills’ reads more difficult as well as freeing up Cal’s safeties to make some plays. Interceptions by both Jaylinn Hawkins and Daniel Scott kept the Bears in the game during the offense’s 3rd quarter doldrums. They also seemed to spook Shaw and the Cardinal, who stopped throwing downfield for most of the rest of the game and started running the ball more frequently.

Maybe the Cal defense took away anything deep, or maybe Stanford neutered themselves. Either way, Stanford averaged 7.4 yards/play with zero turnovers in the first half, then managed just 3.9 yards/play with two turnovers in the 2nd half. The Cal defense, with zero support from either the offense or special teams for the first 20 minutes of the 2nd half, held, and gave Garbers and company the chance to play hero.

Special Teams

I don’t want to dwell on this section

So, that was rough. Obviously the blocked field goal was a play that could have been disastrous for any number of reasons, but thankfully Cal won anyway. But Cal’s special teams struggles came in just about every phase of the game, and can be summed up in one simple stat:

Cal average starting field position: 19 yard line
Stanford average starting field position: 32 yard line

That margin isn’t 100% on special teams, but Cal’s punt and kick units didn’t help the matter. But this is a happy column so I’m just going to move on.

Coaching and Errata

Embrace the power of the downfield pass!

Maybe the worst thing that could have happened to Cal’s offensive game plan on Saturday was to have some success with designed runs early. On Cal’s first touchdown drive Chris Brown gained 33 yards on 6 carries to go along with a Nikko Remigio jet sweep and a Garbers scramble.

Cal continued to run the ball early and often, including on the first play of every 3rd quarter drive when the game was tied 10-10. None of those runs were successful, nor were non-QB runs generally successful for the entire game outside of that first touchdown drive. Hand offs to running backs gained just 3 yards/carry.

This isn’t exactly a new phenomenon - handoffs to running backs haven’t been particularly successful since the line got beat up and the level of competition went up. For whatever reason (I’d speculate that pass blocking is generally simpler to execute that run blocking) Cal’s very young offensive line is much better at protecting the QB than opening up running lanes, and Garbers’ mobility really covers for any mistakes in pass blocking. Nevertheless, Cal doggedly stuck with handoffs until they couldn’t any more.

Of course, as soon as Cal HAD to score, they opened up the offense, ran a ton of 4 and 5 wide sets, and opened up the field for Chase to make plays with his arms and his legs. Perhaps if Cal had played with that level of aggression for the entire game, the Bears wouldn’t have needed a last minute touchdown drive to win. But I’ll just be happy that Cal’s passing game was able to get the job done when it mattered.

Big Picture

The Axe is back where it belongs and a huge emotional burden has been removed from the coaching staff, players, program, and fan base. I’ve spent much of the last five years bemoaning how the losing streak to Stanford had been sucking the life out of Cal football for ages. That’s gone.

For the sake of this coaching regime and the general health of the athletic department, this win will likely mean a great deal. I don’t think that anybody is going to be jumping with joy over a season that will range somewhere between 6-7 and 8-5, but the difference between a season with a bowl game and an Axe and a season with neither is, for this fan base, vast. That disaster scenario is gone, and hopefully a weekend of impassioned revelry will give the coaching staff some positive momentum for recruiting and program building.

But specific bowl destinations, program trajectory, recruiting momentum . . . all of that can wait for next week, or for the off-season. This week is about savoring something special, sharing your emotions and experiences with the people that matter most to you.

Did the last nine years suck? Of course. But I know what I’ll be reminiscing about for the rest of my life.