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Post game thoughts: Ole Miss

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Cal and Chase Garbers pass(!) the ball through, around, and over the Mississippi defense en route to their 4th win of the season.

California v Mississippi Photo by Jonathan Bachman/Getty Images

I perked up when Chase Garbers hit Kekoa Crawford on two straight plays over the middle 10 yards beyond the line of scrimmage. My eyes widened when Jeremiah Hawkins jab stepped like he was running a post before cutting back to the sidelines on a corner route just before Garbers launched a pass that hit him in stride to convert a 3rd and 12. By the time Jake Tonges was running wild through the Ole Miss secondary I was in open disbelief.

Chase Garbers followed up arguably his worst performance as a passer by authoring his best. And on a day when Cal’s defense didn’t have their usual stuff, the Bears needed every bit of passing production to hold on.

This is a player that was thrust into the starting lineup sooner than anybody expected, survived a physically and mentally challenging season that ended with a benching in an infamous bowl game, then started with more struggles. One can’t help but assume that all of those tough times made the performance all the sweeter for Chase and his teammates. It’s not hard to see how thrilled his coach was for his breakthrough game:

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 4 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 6 punts, 1 turnover (interception), 2.5 points/drive

As is frequently the case when Cal under Justin Wilcox gets a lead, this is the tale in two parts. Cal scored four touchdowns in their first seven drives, then punted on their final four possessions, just because winning by double digits is a gauche insult to your opponent.

Still though! 6.28 yards/play! Only one 3-and-out! Bunches of long passing plays! This was an offensive performance against a functional FBS defense (sorry Beavers) unlike anything we’ve seen for more than two years, and it could fundamentally change the outlook for the season.

Is this Chase Garbers for real?

This was, by a pretty absurd margin, Chase Garbers’ best single game performance at Cal. Prior to putting up 10.2 yards/attempt on Saturday, his best mark was 9.0 against FCS Idaho St. and functionally FCS defense Oregon State. His highest mark against a functional defense? 6.7 last year against UW. 357 total yards is of course 120 yards more than any other single game, which also came against FBS competition. Cal’s passing offense under the current regime doesn’t do this.

If this kind of performance IS for real, then Cal is at least a dark horse Pac-12 north contender. If this performance is a one-off, then the Bears are back to trying to win games 17-16 and had better hope the defense gets healthy quick.

Points in favor of this being real:

  1. The receivers looked legit: nine different dudes caught passes, and everybody was coming open. Crawford and Remigio both are flashing athleticism and chemistry with Garbers. Our tight ends and running backs are viable targets. Jordan Duncan appears to have found a niche catching contested sideline throws.
  2. It’s reasonable to think that this offense should improve, because other than Garbers basically the entire skill position core turned over.
  3. Ole Miss is probably a competent defense: They mostly played well to start the season, the two deep features 19 juniors or seniors, and they are from the SEC, which usually (lol Arkansas) indicates a baseline level of talent.

Points against this being real:

  1. Ole Miss might not be a competent defense: The defense was baaaad last year, their schedule so far has been revealed to be weaker than anticipated (lol Arkansas) and their players are under a new scheme change with new DC Mike MacIntyre.
  2. This is a one game sample: Everything was working in the passing game. Ole Miss couldn’t get significant pressure, Chase hung in the pocket, his throws were accurate, receivers were getting open, receivers were catching the ball, receivers were making contested grabs . . . it’s wonderful that everything came together, but assuming that it will continue feels premature.

A note on the run game

Cal’s RBs combined for 62 yards on 20 carries, which is . . . rough. Chris Brown only got 8 carries, which is perhaps an indication that he’s not 100%.

The reality, of course, is that the line struggled to make space on running plays. Ole Miss’s defensive strength is stopping the run, and Cal’s coaches seemed to realize pretty quickly that running wasn’t going to be productive, with roughly 23 dropback rate.

In short, this team needs Valentino Daltoso and Chris Brown back at close to 100%.

Defense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 4 FGA (2-4), 5 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 1.7 points/drive

Let’s just get this out of the way: Based on the high standards set by the defense, this was a poor performance, probably Cal’s worst since Justin Herbert looked like an NFL ready QB against the Bears early last season. 6.1 yards/play is a lot to give up to a previously struggling offense, and Ole Miss set their season high for total yards.

The Bears were saved by drive finishing. Seven potential scoring drives netted only two TDs and two FGs, with three empty trips thanks to missed kicks and moronic game management by Matt Luke.

Am I glad that Ole Miss lost 10 yards on a bad snap, then settled for a dumb field goal, then missed it? Yes, but I’m not going to argue that that sequence says anything good about Cal’s defense.

Managing at OLB

On the other hand, there were extenuating circumstances. Cal played down four OLBs, playing Braxten Croteau, Joseph Ogunbanjo, and Nick Alftin (all freshmen) at the position. The trio combined for one solo tackle and four assisted tackles, an indication of how much they struggled to make an impact.

Ole Miss was also happy to exploit Cal’s inexperience, and Matt Corral had plenty of success on zone read RPOs that attacked the edge. One suspects some of those plays might have ended differently if it’s Cam Goode involved.

An uncharacteristically tough day for the takers

348 passing yards allowed and long pass plays of 41, 40, and 30 allowed? Zero interceptions? That’s not normal! One might reasonably surmise that the general lack of a pass rush (3 sacks, 2 QB hits in somewhere around 60 drop backs) may have had something to do with it, but the Cal secondary played below their usual level.

I don’t think this means much of anything long term, other than to note that Cal’s secondary isn’t immune to some of the issues that can plague a secondary when they are facing a QB who has time in the backfield.

Also worth monitoring: Traveon Beck left the game with an injury, with Trey Turner filling in (mostly quite well) at nickel.

Special Teams

Steven Coutts doesn’t appear to be healthy yet

In a day that was light on special teams plays for Cal, the only real point of interest was that Dario Longhetto had three punts that netted 40, 45, and 43 yards respectively. Meanwhile, Steven Coutts had punts of 34, 32, and 13 - none of which ended inside the 20.

Coaching & Errata

Resolving the Parallax Error

Hey, remember a few years ago when the Ohio State Michigan game came down to a 4th down attempt that appeared to be stopped, but then the refs gave Ohio State a first down by a few millimeters?

Welllll, a Michigan fan who actually understands what a parallax error is tried to figure out, with available evidence, whether or not the refs got the call right.

I am equally incapable and equally too lazy to reproduce a similar kind of analysis for the 2nd to last play against Ole Miss. I merely bring this up to make two points:

  1. Anybody claiming to know definitively whether or not that ball broke the plain is lying. An angle does not appear to exist that definitively proves it one way or another.
  2. The person who had BY FAR the best angle to make the decision . . . was the guy who made the decision.
  3. lol we’re never going to win a game normally.

A discussion about lead management

So yes, even IF the refs gave the touchdown Ole Miss would’ve had to convert the 2 point try, then win in overtime. But I think we’re all in agreement that, with a 15 point lead late in the game, it never should have come to all that anyway.

This is kinda becoming a thing now, isn’t it? A few times now in the Wilcox era, Cal actually gets enough offense going to build a 2 score lead . . . and they stop scoring. Last week Cal shut things down such that North Texas got the ball with a chance to take the lead. This week Cal shut things down such that Ole Miss should have had a chance to take the lead, and did have a chance to tie.

This time around, Cal raced out to 28 points after just six possessions. Amazing! On Cal’s 7th possession the Bears stayed aggressive, but the drive was killed by back-to-back sacks that briefly knocked Garbers out of the game before Cal punted on 4th and 5 (see below).

But on Cal’s final 3 possessions the Bears ran 10 running plays to just 4 passing plays, gaining just 54 yards on 13 plays. Those who watched WSU/UCLA know that sometimes you just need to run the ball to run a little clock, but it’s also true that Cal stopped scoring, and that left the window open juuuust enough that Ole Miss had a shot to extend the game that they shouldn’t have had. This seems like this habit will inevitably bite Cal.

Two opportunities for aggression, spurned

Cal elected to punt on 4th and 5 from the Ole Miss 38, rather than attempt at 55 yard field goal or go for the 4th down conversion. That was immediately followed by a 13 yard punt, which made the decision not to go for it or kick seem particularly unfortunate.

Later, Cal elected to punt on 4th and 1 on the Cal 47 when a one yard run would have effectively ended the game. At least in this case Longhetto boomed a punt to the Ole Miss 10 that forced the Rebels to drive 90 yards, of which they managed 89. I know Ole Miss has a good run defense and our offensive line is beat up, but it’s still frustrating to me that we couldn’t convert on 2nd and 2, 3rd and 1, and then punted.

Big Picture

Well, if you wanted to know whether or not this passing performance is real and replicable, you couldn’t ask for a better next opponent. Arizona State is a good defense, but not so good that they can’t be had. The Devils shut down three teams in a row before Steven Montez and the Buffs threw for 300+ yards on their way to a 34-31 win. If Garbers and the Bears do something similar then Cal really should cruise to victory, while also providing a second tangible piece of evidence that this offense could be that average unit we spent all off-season dreaming about

And if they do . . .

OK, I’m going to restrain myself. In the category of more mundane goals, a bowl trip seems all but assured. Sure, there are teams like last year’s Colorado team that collapse to miss out, but I have a hard time seeing this team finish 1-7 over their last 8 games.

But when you’re 15/16 in the major polls, how can you do anything but think about bigger and better things? Surely the only undefeated team in the Pac-12 might reasonably contend for the conference crown?

On that point, the Bears are still just 1-0 in conference play, and Saturday’s win obviously didn’t change that. Friday night means that the real season starts back up again.

I’m admittedly a little bummed ASU lost to Colorado. Having a game between ranked teams on Friday night would’ve been fun. But the task, risk, and reward are unchanged. If Cal can knock off ASU on Friday night while Oregon enjoys their bye week, then it sets up the biggest Cal game in . . . well, at least a decade: two top 20 teams, with the winner taking the driver’s seat in the Pac-12 North.

You’d best get your tickets if you can reasonably make it. We haven’t enjoyed football with these stakes all that often.