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Post Game Thoughts: North Texas

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Another day, another offensive slog, another win.

NCAA Football: North Texas at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

What is there to say at this point? The team was just atomized. Oklahoma could have named their score. Chip Kelly’s offense has been broken since 2015 with no consistent signs of life since. The fan base is broken. Matching last year’s 3-9 record would feel like a win at this point.

Oh wait, sorry, this isn’t a UCLA blog, can’t believe I’d make a mistake like that. Let’s start over.

Beaten by a non-power-5 team that’s 11-15 over the last two seasons, that has already lost badly to Utah (for the 9th time in a row)? Last week was clearly a false dawn. Slovis has played admirably considering the circumstances but a true freshman just isn’t going to hold up against higher end defenses, and there are plenty more on the schedule.

Dammit, I did it again! What is wrong with me?!

We were never going to admit it, but it was clear that this team has been on the decline since 2016, and only the increasingly mediocre Pac-12 hid that fact. Well, the reality was just brutally exposed for all the world to see. Utterly blown away, made to look better because UCF stopped trying to score. No defense beyond Adebo. No offense beyond Costello. No injury excuses like last week. Honestly, we can’t even feel confident about reaching bowl eligibility. What’s going on?!?!?

OK, I’m done with this bit. Justin Wilcox’s Golden Bears played a prototypical Justin Wilcox style game, and beat North Texas in a hideous game. Every game will be hideous. If you’re here that means you’ve at least accepted, if not fully embraced, the ugly some time ago. You can’t pretend to be shocked any more!

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 2 touchdowns, 3 FGA (3-3), 5 punts, 1 turnover (Downs), 2.1 points/drive

3.97 yards/play. THREE POINT NINE SEVEN!

For context, here is the total defense stat sheet from North Texas in 2018. Pay particular attention to the column on the far right:

North Texas 2018 defense

Now, the Mean Green had an average Conference USA defense in 2018, and lost a couple of key guys to graduation. The defense probably isn’t as good this year as last. They allowed 6.42 yards/play to FCS Abilene Christian, and 7.19 to SMU earlier this season. The last team to produce fewer yards/play against North Texas than Cal did on Saturday? 2017 UTEP, a team that went 0-12.

Am I happy that the Cal offense produced one legitimate (though penalty aided) touchdown drive to start the game? Yes. Am I happy that special teams and defense set up the offense with amazing field position, thus allowing the offense to tack on an additional 13 points without doing a ton more? Of course!

But I don’t think it is possible to view this game as anything other than one of the worst offensive performances of the Wilcox era, an era defined by impotent offensive performances. This is the first time Cal has been held below four yards/play by a non power conference school, and there is little evidence to suggest that North Texas will have a defense that is above average nationally.

A return to earth for a battered offensive line

For the 2nd week in a row Cal played without three anticipated opening day starters. But unlike last week, the Bears looked like a line missing three anticipated starters. The Cal running game never got going, and Cal’s running backs averaged just 3.5 yards/carry and Cal frequently had to resort to QB runs to keep the chains moving.

There’s optimistic chatter that Valentino Daltoso will be back in action next week at left guard, where Cal rotated between Henry Bazakas and redshirt freshman Brandon Mello. If he does return, that will hopefully help stabilize the line. But I think it’s also true that teams will increasingly be able to exploit Cal’s line, now that teams can game plan knowing who’s out due to injury.

The value, and frustrating reluctance, to throw downfield

Almost every single time Cal threw the ball downfield in this game, something good happened.

On the first series of the game, a nice throw to Kekoa Crawford on a corner route set Cal up inside the 5. Cal’s 2nd touchdown came when Nikko Remigio got really open and Garbers threw it up to him. Jordan Duncan had a nice 27 yard grab on a 3rd and long that helped kill the clock late in the game. A long pass to Gavin Reinwald should have been a touchdown but was instead a drop. And Cal drew three different pass interference calls, two of which resulted in key gains on scoring drives.

Not once was a downfield pass even close to getting intercepted.

And yet, Chase Garbers frequently held the ball for a long time, took two sacks, and scrambled rather than throwing the ball on a huge number of drop backs. I’m not sure how many of Chase’s 18 runs were designed, but my presumption is that every run that wasn’t either a zone read keeper or an empty set draw was a scramble that could have been a throw.

To Chase’s credit, he’s really good at picking up yards when he decides to run, a dimension that maybe only he can bring to the QB position. But there were more than a few times when half the people in our immediate vicinity in section R (myself included) were yelling “throw it to [open receiver!]”

This isn’t really something I can say definitively because the Pac-12 broadcast didn’t really show anything happening downfield, but: we were playing North Texas. Dudes were open, and if they weren’t they were probably in a decent spot to make a contested catch.

Here’s what Wilcox said in the post-game presser when asked about Chase’s tendency to not take chances downfield:

We don’t talk to the quarterbacks and receivers and running backs about not turning the ball over, I think we talked about this analogy before, you don’t tell the guy going to the free throw line don’t miss the free throw. You teach them really good techniques, you teach them sound decision making, here’s your rules, and then go play. We don’t go out there with the ball say ‘don’t turn it over don’t turn it over don’t turn it over,’ we don’t coach like that, we don’t play like that . . . we don’t want any of our players playing with fear. The expectation of success has always got to trump the fear of failure. So we’re not going to play that way.

Defense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 5 punts, 2 turnovers (1 fumble, 1 interception), 1.5 points/drive

I suppose this gets at how accomplished the Cal defense is, but I actually came away from this game reasonably impressed with the North Texas offense. Tre Siggers and Torrey DeAndre were both slippery backs who fought through a bunch of arm tackles and always managed to fall forward. Mason Fine had some zip and made some tough throws without having a ton of dudes open. The offensive line mostly held up.

And North Texas only managed 4.6 yards/play and broke only one big play.

A test for Cal’s 2nd teamers, and the possibility of a Pyrrhic victory?

For the first three series of the game, Cal played their first string defense and proceeded to allow 11 yards on 9 plays, forcing a turnover and a pair of 3-and-outs. Absolute domination.

From that point forward Cal started liberally mixing in back-ups at pretty much every position group. In total, 22(!) different Bears registered some kind of stat on a defensive possession.

On the bright side: Cal was able to get a bunch of younger guys real experience, and they mostly held up. North Texas’ long touchdown was actually the fault of a poor angle taken by a starting safety, and Cal only allowed 10 other points the rest of the way, so it’s not like the 2nd and 3rd stringers were getting gashed or otherwise looking out of their depth. Hell, UNT’s final touchdown drive was extended by a super iffy PI call on Trey Turner.

But it’s also true that Cal’s defense went from dominant and suffocating to merely very good, and North Texas was able to move the ball, if slowly and in fits and starts.

More than that, it’s also true that Cal might have injury issues. Cam Goode, Tevin Paul, and Ben Hawk Schrider all evidently picked up injuries of some kind, which is why OLBs Joseph Ogunbanjo and true freshman Braxten Croteau were in the game when North Texas had a chance to drive for a potential game winning touchdown.

I doubt I need to convince you that if Cal is going to reach their ceiling, having a healthy Goode and Paul is really necessary. Ogunbanjo and Croteau are likely to be valuable, productive players . . . next year, or the year after. Expecting freshmen to provide the same production as the vets is just not fair.

Of course we will not get any information about any of these players, which means it will be more interesting than usual to see which 11 players trot onto the field when Ole Miss gets the ball for the first time Saturday morning. I’m keeping my fingers crossed.

Special Teams

An essentially perfect day

Perfect being a loaded term. No, Cal didn’t return every punt or kickoff for a touchdown. But Saturday was about as good a total special teams performance as you’re ever likely to see. Greg Thomas nailed his 3 kicks, from distances that ranged from ‘should-make’ to ‘easily-missable’ with accuracy and extra leg to spare. Dario Longhetto had good length on all his punts. The coverage units on both punts and kickoffs did not allow a return of any length or consequence (except one that was called back for a penalty anyway). And Nikko Remigio and Jeremiah Hawkins each had long returns that set Cal up in UNT territory twice.

In other words, Cal made a large number of positive plays without making a single negative play, and earned themselves a massive +17 yard starting field position advantage, which might be the largest number I’ve seen from the Bears since I made rudimentary efforts to calculate it.

And considering that UNT outgained Cal both in total yards and yards/play, one could argue that special teams (and, of course, a +2 turnover margin) may have been the difference between winning and losing.

Coaching

The inevitable, unpleasant specter of another QB controversy

If you’re inclined to believe in the advanced metrics, as of this week Cal may have the worst offense in Power 5 football. This is following a season in which Cal pretty definitively had the 2nd worst power 5 offense, ahead of only sad sack Rutgers.

When results are so dire, the possibility of a QB change will inevitably hand in the air.

Devon Modster wasn’t eligible for North Texas. It’s my understanding that he will be eligible either this week for Ole Miss or the week after for Arizona State. Every single practice report indicated that Chase Garbers legitimately won the job by playing the best through spring and fall camp. I’m hardly in a position to dispute that.

But games are not practice. Sam Darnold, Khalil Tate, and K.J. Costello all previously lost camp battles in the fall before later proving to be the best game quarterbacks on their respective roster.

Is it possible that the coaching staff can work with Chase Garbers to improve his on field performance? Absolutely. Is it possible that, even with the current production from the passing game, Garbers is still the best QB on the roster? Also yes.

But it’s also true that if the passing game doesn’t improve quickly there’s going to be very little to lose from trying out a different option*. And it’s also true that over the next two weeks Cal will be facing two teams with very stingy defenses, the kind of defenses that might shut down an offense and lead to a coach to try to find a spark off the bench.

Cal is 3-0, and beating Washington opens up unexpected paths to possible Pac-12 North contention. How this coaching staff successfully or unsuccessfully handles the offense generally and their QBs specifically may well determine exactly how far this team gets. I don’t envy them their task.

*Some will no doubt raise last year’s QB carousel experience. Yes, the Brandon McIlwain experiment didn’t work, but McIlwain and Modster are very different quarterbacks, and Modster didn’t have a single interception in 79 attempts at UCLA. Suggesting that he might be a turnover waiting to happen because of what happened last year doesn’t strike me as an evidence based argument.

Big Picture

There seems to be a divide among Cal fans at the moment. Some are happy to note that this team is 3-0 with a huge road win already on the ledger, and wonder why others can’t enjoy that. Some see this team as largely identical in performance to last year’s 7-6 outfit that wowed and frustrated in equal measure, and are bracing for the other shoe to drop.

I’ve long been an advocate of enjoying wins as much as possible, but let’s be honest: real concerns based on concrete evidence can’t be waived away just because of a 3-0 record, and Cal very much struggled to put away two teams that shouldn’t be a struggle for a team that has hopes and dreams beyond scratching out bowl eligibility. So far, this team has performed roughly identically to last year, in that every game is a close game that can swing based on the vagaries of turnovers, penalties, and random big plays.

The best part about the Wilcox regime is also the worst part: The fact that almost every game turns into a low scoring coin flip.

Consider: over the last nine games of Cal football, the Bears have averaged 18 points/game and have given up 16 points/game. 6 of those 9 games were decided by 6 points or less, none by more than 14 points. Only once did either team score more than 27 points, and for that to happen Cal needed two defensive touchdowns (vs. Colorado).

In other words, Cal is approaching nearly a full season of football in which every single game is like this:

Cal’s ability to turn each and every game into a horrible low scoring slog is great when you’re facing Washington and USC, teams that have been recruiting at a nationally elite level. It’s less great when you’re playing teams that you are expected to beat. No, Cal didn’t lose to BYU or North Texas, but if they can’t improve on offense they will eventually slip on that type of banana peel. When every game finishes 23-17, it’s only a matter of time until you make that one more extra mistake that gives up that one extra touchdown, and then you lose 24-23.

The ‘easy’ wins (other than perhaps Oregon State) are now off the schedule. Nearly every single game on out will probably be a close, low scoring thriller that might swing on any number of plays. And I hope to Oski that Cal ends up on the right side of those games more often than not. But I’m not going to convince myself that this team is something that they are not until they start putting up points and pulling away from teams. And if you’re trying to convince yourself that Justin Wilcox has some sort of magic in him that allows these Bears to win every close game, I would note that Cal is 7-6 in his tenure in games decided by 8 points or less.

I’m sounding more pessimistic than I want to sound. The Bears are 3-0, and our annoying rivals are decidedly not. I’ve been deriving an immense amount of enjoyment out of the current version of Cal football, because of their bizarre ability to churn as many wins as they do without a functional offense. In fact, in a perverse way, much of my enjoyment is coming precisely because of Cal’s obvious weaknesses. We essentially beat Washington without a downfield passing game! I didn’t even know that was possible!

But I’m not going to pretend the Bears are something they are not until they provide evidence of offensive growth. Going 2,000 miles east and putting away a similarly lopsided team by scoring 30+ offensive points would be the kind of evidence I’m yearning for.