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Regular Season Review: Offense

Making sense of an injury filled, up and down season for Cal’s offense

California v Stanford Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Hey, I’ve got exactly three Mondays before Emerald Bowl Fight Hunger Bowl Foster Farms Bowl Redbox Bowl Monday! That’s just enough time to do a review of the 2019 regular season, going unit-by-unit. We’re starting with the offense, because that’s what I randomly decided.

Raw Numbers

Efficiency stats

Yards/play: 5.0, 113th in the nation
Points/drive: 1.78, 98th in the nation

Component Stats

Turnovers: 13, 16th in the nation
3rd down conversion rate: 37%, 95th in the country
Yards/run: 3.6, 112th in the nation
Yards/pass attempt: 6.9, 94th in the nation
Explosive plays (20+ yards): 46, 111th in the nation

For the 3rd year in a row, the Cal offense was, in the aggregate, both inefficient and unexplosive. But despite a lack of play-by-play improvement, the Bears did take a meaningful step forward in terms of raw points/drive (1.33 in 2018 to 1.78 in 2019). Why? Because Cal was literally last in the nation in turnovers in 2018, with 31. I think most of Cal’s drive efficiency improvement stemmed largely from committing 18 fewer turnovers year-over-year.

Game by game stats

I’m not telling you anything you didn’t already know, but here’s the game by game data. You might note that Cal averaged more than 2 points/drive for the first four games of the season (though that’s not super impressive when it’s against UC Davis and North Texas), then exceeded that mark just once in the next 6 games that saw Garbers play roughly 3 quarters of football, then rebounded back to that previous mark when Chase returned for the final two games of the season.

It’s simplistic to suggest that Cal’s offense was solid when Chase was healthy and abject when he was hurt - that’s unfair to Devon Modster, who entered the lineup at the same time 50% of Cal’s pre-season starters at WR and offensive linemen were also exiting due to injury.

Still, the correlation is hard to ignore. When Chase Garbers played the entire game, Cal averaged 2.2 points/drive. That’s still not great, but it’s much more in line with mediocre conference rivals like ASU and Colorado, rather than the last place in the Pac-12 number Cal put up averaged across the entire season.

What went right?

Chase Garbers learned how to throw downfield

in 2018, Chase Garbers averaged 5.8 yards/attempt, and Cal as a team was utterly lacking in big passing plays. Teams stacked the line with impunity and the offense wilted and died.

For three games, it didn’t look like much of anything had changed. Garbers averaged just 6.2 and 5.9 yards/attempt against UW and North Texas, and Cal still wasn’t producing big plays with any real frequency.

Sadly, Chase only played three more full games over the rest of the regular season, but those three games Garbers collectively averaged 9.3 yards/pass attempt, completing 12 different throws of 20+ yards (and, not coincidentally, Cal went 3-0 in the process).

A cynic might point out that those three games came against defenses that ranged from meh to outright bad, and that’s fair. I would argue that in his limited reps against ASU and USC, Garbers looked equally capable of throwing downfield with confidence.

Garbers will have one more chance to show off his growth as a passer against an Illinois passing defense that clocks in somewhere in between Ole Miss and ASU in the ‘meh’ range, before a 2020 season with much higher offensive expectations.

The Bears didn’t turn the ball over

First, the fumbles. Cal did a pretty good job of not fumbling this year (just 11 in total) and was pretty lucky by managing to recover 7 of their own fumbles, losing just 4. This probably means next to nothing for 2020, as both fumbles and fumbles recovered are pretty random from year to year.

On the interception side of the ledger, Cal threw just nine interceptions. Only three of those came from Chase Garbers, all of which were downfield shots that weren’t (as far as I can tell) examples of bad reads or problematic accuracy. So while Cal’s low fumble rate may not be sustainable, Cal’s low interception rate probably is, particularly if Cal can improve in pass protection - more on that below.

What went wrong

Injures obliterated every single offensive position group

Garbers, Crawford, Remigio, Hawkins, Brown, Saffell, Craig, Williams, Daltoso. That’s almost a starting lineup. Jake Curhan and Matthew Cindric were rocks on the offensive line, but every single other position on offense was a revolving door of injuries that hit particularly hard in the middle third of the season.

Is it realistic to expect an entire side of the ball to stay healthy, and was Cal’s offense going to be above average if everybody stayed healthy? No and probably not. But it’s hard to not look at what Cal’s offense did at their best/healthiest and wonder what they might have done with better luck, and what they might do in 2020.

Line run blocking and pass blocking

This problem is inextricably tied to the injury issues listed above. Losing two projected starters so early in the season is going to have an impact, and to have two other starters in and out of the lineup, probably playing hurt, forcing shuffling of guys across the line . . . well, things are going to get ugly.

And they did. Pick a stat that at some level measures line performance, and things get ugly. Sack rate? 122nd in the country. Power success rate? 107th in the country. Standard down line yards? 106th in the country. Later in the year, when Saffell and Daltoso were back healthy and some of the freshmen started looking less like freshmen things stabilized and there were flashes of promising execution, but the Bears never were a great designed run team.

Way too early expectations for 2020

While the Cal defense might not fall back much in 2020 thanks to some creative roster management, the expectation will still be that the Cal offense will need to take a big step forward.

And the reason is obvious enough: Cal’s offense will be losing exactly two players to graduation who saw snaps in 2019. One was Jordan Duncan, who caught 25 passes for 364 yards in 11 games played. The other is Henry Bazakas, a walk-on tackle who was forced into action at left tackle when Will Craig and Valentino Daltoso both went down due to injury.

In short, Cal is returning something like 95% of their offensive snaps and production. And for a change, a healthy portion of that production is somewhat proven. Chase Garbers clearly has the skills to be an above average Pac-12 quarterback. A bunch of different WRs (most obviously Nikko Remigio, Kekoa Crawford) really flashed athleticism. Chris Brown was a down hill runner capable of breaking tackles if he got any amount of blocking.

Thus, three interrelated questions that will define Cal’s offseason on offense:

  1. Can the Bears get and stay healthy? This one is self-explanatory, right?
  2. Can the Bears build depth? Remigio, Crawford, Clark, and Polk is a pretty excellent starting point at WR - can Cal prepare others to step up if one or more go down hurt? Can the offensive staff better prepare Devon Modster and Spencer Brasch to step in if Chase gets hurt? Will an injury-filled 2019 mean that more players are prepared to contribute on the offensive line in 2020?
  3. If healthy, can the offensive line play cohesively at a high level? Jake Curhan and Michael Saffell played at or near an all-Pac-12 level, but the rest of the line was constantly shuffling among a bunch of players who the staff were probably hoping to give another year of development off the field. Are Will Craig and Gentle Williams going to be 100% healthy come next September? Will players like Matthew Cindric and McKade Mettauer make sophomore leaps after a crash course year of learning on the job?

The 2020 Bears will have by far the highest offensive expectations since Justin Wilcox arrived, because the 2020 Bears will have the best combination of offensive talent and offensive experience/continuity since Justin Wilcox arrived. After three seasons of poor production on that side of the ball, the pieces appear to be coming together. What the coaching staff does with those pieces (and which coaches are around to make those decisions) will likely speak volumes about the long term course of the Wilcox era.