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Post Game Thoughts: UCLA

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Cal closes out an unusually memorable 2019 regular season with another rivalry win over the moribund Bruins

NCAA Football: California at UCLA Richard Mackson-USA TODAY Sports

Due to time constraints, this is going to be a somewhat abbreviated version of this column, and also maybe a little bit more about next season than this particular game because let’s be honest: UCLA is both a bad team and an uninteresting team, playing in front of a thoroughly demoralized and tuned out fan base, and Cal mostly just took care of business in the final game of their regular season.

Offense

Efficiency Report

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10 drives: 4 touchdown, 4 punts, 2 turnovers (interception, downs), 2.8 points/drive

As is often the case when Cal has a successful game, the Bears were very all-or-nothing. Five drives ended after gaining 22 yards or less. Four drives ended in touchdowns, all covering at least 72 yards. The difference between a back and forth game that can go either way, and a relatively comfortable two score win was drive finishing. But as soon as Chris Brown got going and Chase Garbers stopped getting his passes batted down the offense found a groove that held for most of the game.

Flashing the pieces of a really exciting passing attack

There are a variety of reasons that the Cal offense has, on the whole, been bad this year. But the biggest reason is that the offense has no depth and has had a raft of injuries anyway.

So it feels like tempting fate to say that Cal has the pieces of what could be a pretty exciting 2020 passing offense. Knowing that Jordan Duncan is the only WR graduating, consider this potential collection:

Jr. Nikko Remigio, Sr. Kekoa Crawford, So. Makai Polk, Sr. Trevon Clark, Sr. Jeremiah Hawkins

Remigio missed three games. Crawford missed seven and a half. Polk was a true freshman who received very limited action and attention until the last four games of the season. Hawkins missed half the season. Trevon Clark was basically the only WR to play the entire season, and even he was brand new to the offense.

In other words, it’s understandable why things didn’t ever really mesh this season. But every single one of those players brings some level of proven production and skillset to the table. Crawford and Remigio are skilled, athletic, every-down receivers. Polk is an intriguing slot with YAC ability. Clark is a great sidelines/pass interference magnet. Hawkins can stretch the defense with his speed.

Will all five ever play in the same game? Boy do I hope so. If Cal can get all or most of them through to the new season healthy and on the roster then for the first time in the Wilcox era a lack of WR athleticism and experience won’t be a glaring team weakness.

And they’ll presumably have a veteran, junior quarterback to get them the ball:

Chase Garbers since the North Texas game

I don’t know what, if anything, happened between the North Texas game and the Ole Miss game. But it’s worth noting that in 2019, Chase Garbers averaged a pretty awful 5.8 yards/attempt, then against UC Davis, Washington, and North Texas averaged an only marginally better (considering the mostly bad competition) 7 yards/attempt. His career completion percentage sat at a grisly 59.4%, and considering the level of competition his N. Texas performance was maybe the worst of his career. Yes, even including last year’s bowl game.

Since then, he’s been a completely different quarterback. The numbers?

73-116 (63%) for 1,022 yards (8.8 yards/attempt), 7 touchdowns, and 2 interceptions.

Those numbers are only 3.5 games worth of play time, but still. How good is 8.8 yards/attempt? Well, over an entire season 8.8 yards/attempt would rank 12th in the nation. Only one Pac-12 team this season (Utah) did better than 8.8 over the course of the entire season. Yes, that’s correct, it’s better than USC or Oregon managed.

To be fair, most of those stats came against defenses that ranged from moderately above average (Ole Miss, ASU) to meaningfully below average (Stanford/UCLA). Still, those are numbers that Garbers managed despite playing behind a line that finished 124th in sacks allowed and while throwing to a constantly shifting collection of receivers as players came in and out of the lineup due to injuries. And honestly, putting up 8.8 yards/attempt against P5 talent is good regardless of context.

The Cal run game gets going

I’d be remiss if I didn’t give Chris Brown and DeShawn Collins their due for averaging better than 6 yards collectively per carry. Prior to the game I was worried that Cal might lean too heavily on the run game against a team that had been competent defending the run but completely incapable of stopping passing plays. But the Bears ran a good mix of zone and power and Brown again showed that when he gets the chance to go downhill he can break tackles with the best of them.

After a season of mostly finding guys in his face at or behind the line of scrimmage, this was a fun finish. With a line that is returning two all-conference level performers (Saffell and Curhan) and hopefully getting back healthy a bunch of guys that might have that ability themselves, the hope is that games with that level of rushing success might not be nearly as rare next year.

Defense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 2 touchdown, 1 FGA (1-1), 5 punts, 3 turnovers (One interception, two downs), 1.6 points/drive

Control the line of scrimmage, control the game

In many ways, this was a pretty even game. Cal only gained 11 more total yards than the Bruins and the turnover battle was even. And if you remove 6 specific plays from the ledger, Cal’s 6.3 yards/play isn’t vastly ahead of UCLA’s 5.8.

Maybe you guessed which 6 plays I’m talking about - Cal’s six sacks for -47 yards, as compared to ZERO sacks allowed by Cal’s offensive line. Three different UCLA drives ended either in punts or failed 4th down conversions largely thanks to massive negative sacks*. It’s those sacks (plus the line controlling Josh Kelly and the UCLA run game) that allowed the Bears to play an above average defensive game despite some pretty massive tackling issues on the flats and sidelines.

So game balls all around to Cam Goode, Brett Johnson, Lone Toailoa and Aaron Maldonado for dominating a beat up UCLA line.

*Also, big ups to Chris H for correctly picking out UCLA/DTR’s biggest weakness that Cal ruthlessly exploited.

A good/bad day from Cal’s secondary?

On one hand, Cal’s secondary allowed very little in terms of downfield passing. Devin Asiasi found a hole in Cal’s zone coverage on the first play of the game 21 yards downfield . . . and that was just about the only downfield (10+ yards) completion Cal allowed for the entire game. Maybe that was UCLA’s gameplan, but whatever the reason UCLA was unable or unwilling to challenge Cal’s secondary down the field.

Instead they threw a ton of dump offs, screens, swing passes and crossing routes and challenged Cal’s back 7 to tackle in space. Alas, that was a battle the Bruins won pretty decisively. If Cal had tackled well, I don’t know that UCLA would have scored at all (as it is one of their three scores came on a fluky drive assisted by a 3rd down penalty and a freak non-tackle pass play).

Special Teams

Is Remigio instructed to field punts inside the 10?

UCLA’s punter had a pretty excellent day, averaging 44 yards/punt with every single punt falling inside the 20. But I can’t help but wonder what his net average would’ve been if Remigio had let one punt that he fielded at the 5 go, and another that he fair caught at the nine go. Gotta think one or both would’ve bounced into the end zone.

But a nice bounce back game from Steven Coutts

43 yards/attempt and zero punt returns allowed. Granted, he benefited from a friendly roll or two, but there were no shanks or easily fielded punts with no hang time.

Coaching and Errata

On that decision not to kick a field goal

The situation: Cal’s up 10 points with 10 minutes left, facing a 4th and 8 from the UCLA 12. Do you kick a 29 yard field goal to go up 13 points, or go for a touchdown and a 17 point lead?

If you believe ESPN’s win probability tracker, Cal had a 93% chance of victory after failing to convert the 4th down attempt, which tells you something inherently obvious: The choice wasn’t particularly important because Cal’s chances of winning were gigantic either way. Teams don’t tend to come back from 10 point deficits with 10 minutes left when they have the ball 88 yards away from their own end zone.

Personally I would have kicked the field goal, but the decision is somewhere near a coin flip, because the extra three points weren’t particularly valuable in that moment, and a conversion meant either 7 points or the opportunity to run more plays and more clock.

Speaking as the type of person who is liable to get disproportionately upset about marginal decisions: this was an interesting decision, but not one to get bent out of shape over, regardless of which way Wilcox ended up deciding.

Big Picture

There will be time enough for 2019 season postmortems over the long off-season. Thankfully, the Bears still have a game to play even if we don’t yet know who, what, when, or where.

Right now it’s hard to say much other than to echo Avi’s point, which is that the Bears, whatever their flaws, were deeply emotionally satisfying for Cal fans this year. That doesn’t have to say much about precisely how good they were this year, or how good they might be next year. It says just that: The Bears created greatly more than average good memories for a fan base that had been lacking just that for a decade.

Compared to beating UW on Sunday morning, winning a game in the deep south, or breaking the longest Big Game losing streak ever, a road win over a 4-8 UCLA team might not live long in the memory banks. But I personally will always remember my first ever experience watching Cal win outside the Bay Area. And maybe that’s the point - this somewhat unusual team won enough unusual games against enough interesting teams in enough unusual circumstances that they left their mark on Cal fans in a positively unusual way.

Thanks Bears. See you in a few weeks.