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Post Game Thoughts: UC Davis

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The Bears survive after sleepwalking through the 1st quarter, with stiffer tests lying ahead

NCAA Football: UC - Davis at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

For 16 minutes and 37 seconds, this was the least fun Cal football game since perhaps this game. Over the first quarter and change Cal had as many turnovers (3) as first downs. Cal’s longest passing play that didn’t end in a turnover was 5 yards, and Chase Garbers was 3-8 for 16 yards. Thanks to a 30 yard net punt, a holding on a kick return, and a fumble, special teams had consistently provided horrible field position. The defense was OKish but allowing 10 points and 94 yards early wasn’t exactly encouraging either, and Davis seemed to be finding both running lanes and open receivers.

In short, everything was awful.

Then, early in the 2nd quarter, Cal found a downfield passing game, the defense shook off the rust, and Cal outscored Davis 27-3 the rest of the way, out-gaining the Aggies 401 to 170. If Cal had wanted to, they probably could’ve stretched the lead more, but Justin Wilcox has pretty consistently shown that a two+ possession lead in the 4th quarter means that he’s going firmly into a conservative, clock-killing shell.

So which is the real Cal team? The group that self-sabotaged for a quarter of the game, or the group that thoroughly controlled a high level FCS team?

The answer, of course, is both.

Offense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 3 touchdowns, 3 FGA (2-3), 3 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 fumbles), 2.25 points/drive

If you remove that wretched 1st quarter, you could squint and get a little bit excited. Cal’s first four drives of the season were a calamity, but from that point forward Cal scored 27 points across six drives, then shut it down in the 4th quarter. If Cal put up this type of performance against, say, Arizona State, the reaction would probably be ‘job well done!’

Of course, UC Davis isn’t Arizona State. The Aggies are a top 10 FCS team, but that ranking is based more on their high scoring offense than their defense (55th and 60th respectively in FCS scoring defense and yards/play allowed in 2018). In fact, if pressed I would guess that UC Davis has the 2nd worst defense on Cal’s schedule (poor, poor Oregon State).

A downfield passing game is the lifeblood of a modern offense, part 5,296

I realize that I’ve made this point ad nauseum over the last 2+ years, but the contrast is just so stark between a team that can pass downfield and a team that can’t/won’t.

On the first offensive snap of the game, Cal ran a benign WR swing pass against a UC Davis defense that was stacked up along he line of scrimmage and gained zero yards. On 2nd down, Garbers attempted a short pass to a tight end about five yards downfield into double coverage, but the ball was batted down at the line of scrimmage. And on 3rd and 10, without appearing to even look downfield, Garbers threw a swing pass to Chris Brown that was never ever going to gain 10 yards, and Cal punted.

After hearing all about how much better Cal’s passing game was going to be this year, this was a deeply demoralizing start to the game. Not only did Cal start the season with wildly safe passes . . . Cal couldn’t even execute those wildly safe passes. The offense looked exactly as neutered as it did in 2018.

The next few drives only deepened the fear that nothing had changed. The first time Cal went downfield, the result was an interception, apparently caused by a miscommunication between quarterback and receiver*. It was exactly the type of thing you fear when you turn over a significant portion of your skill position talent and have to turn to true freshmen and former walk-ons for major playing time.

The 2nd time Cal went downfield, somebody got open and Garbers hit the target . . . only for McCallan Castles to drop the ball. Garbers’ first nine attempts led to three batted passes, one near interception, one actual interception, one drop, one fumble, and exactly ONE pass completed beyond the line of scrimmage. Yes, that pass was the fumble.

And then, over the rest of the game, Garbers was 13-19 for 227 yards and two touchdowns. Yep, you read that right. 12 yards/attempt, five passing plays for 20+ yards, and no disasters. Sure, there was still the occasional inaccurate pass mixed in, but it felt like the training wheels had come off.

Presumably, the Cal coaching staff realized that UC Davis didn’t have a prayer of getting to Garbers on the pass rush. The Aggies recorded exactly zero sacks or QB hits, and rarely even forced Garbers to move in the pocket. Kekoa Crawford’s 37 yard touchdown was a classic example of how somebody is going to eventually come open if a quarterback has eternity to pick his spot.

With Cal able to stretch the field passing the ball, space opened up for Chris Brown and everything else about the offense looked better. Why it took so long for Cal to even try to go downfield mystifies me, but at least they did figure it out.

Chase Garbers, 2nd-4th quarter QB, is a guy that can win lots of games behind this defense. Chase Garbers, 1st quarter QB, is the same guy leading the broken offense we saw over the 2nd half of the 2018 season.

Can Chase Garbers, 2nd-4th quarter, show up when the opposing defenses start getting a whole lot scarier, and when he’s not going to have as much time as he needs in the pocket? Tune in next week.

*Wilcox described that play after the game as a ‘bad decision’ but also said that the receivers need to help Garbers out, so I guess a little bit of blame to go around?

Chris Brown, legit feature back?

Two years ago, Patrick Laird came out of nowhere to rush for 191 yards against Weber State, and proceeded to prove it wasn’t a fluke the rest of the 2017 season.

One year ago Marcel Dancy ran for 7.3 yards/attempt against Idaho State, then ended up redshirting.

In other words, lighting up an FCS team isn’t a guarantee of future production. But it’s hard to see this as anything other than encouraging:

Chris Brown was the MVP of the game, going for nearly 200 yards on 36 carries and looking capable as a receiver out of the backfield. He generally seemed to pick the right cuts, consistently broke tackles, fell forward, and made the most of what the line gave him. He’s probably not going to be breaking nine tackles against the Huskies, but it’s clear that running back is the least of Cal’s concerns on offense.

Defense

Efficiency Report

13 drives: 1 touchdown, 2 FGA (2-2), 8 punts, 2 turnovers (1 fumble, 1 downs), 1 point/drive

One can debate how much blame the defense should get for allowing the first touchdown of the game, and if you decide that’s not on the defense you can cut that points/drive number in half. On one hand, it’s only 21 yards. On the other hand, this is a defense that sets very high standards for itself, and will be faced with similar scenarios later this year. If you asked Evan Weaver, he’d tell you that those 7 points are on the defense.

But after allowing those first 21 yards, the Cal defense did, well, exactly what they did all last year. No big plays, lots of broken up passes, and few sustained drives allowed. UC Davis averaged just 3.9 yards/play, and never looked like they had anything they could lean on for consistent offense, whether passing or running the ball.

And the UCD offense, as noted above, is almost certainly a top 10 FCS attack, which means shutting them down is probably equivalent to shutting down a mid-tier Pac-12 attack. Or at least, so I hope.

A lack of backfield disruption

Understand that when attempting to evaluate the Cal defense, we are necessarily forced to pick at nits and find relatively minor things to improve.

With that in mind, Davis ran 68 offensive plays, and Cal managed 5 total tackles for loss. Only 1 in 10 Davis runs were negative plays, and only 2 in 38 pass attempts resulted in sacks. The Bears did collect 5 QB hits, so it’s not like Maier was just sitting in the pocket as long as he wanted, but the general concern about consistent line penetration is probably going to continue to be a thing this year.

Welcome to Cal, Kuony Deng

12 tackles (9 solo), 2 pass break ups, 2 QB hits. If Jordan Kunaszyk had another year of eligibility and put up that exact stat line, you wouldn’t blink. He was essentially what was advertised: a tall, rangy, athletic defender with a knack for being around the ball. Cal might have concerns on the line, but as great as Kunaszyk was last year I don’t think we’re going to see a drop off on the inside.

The turnovers will come

In total, the Bears forced just one turnover on Saturday, though saying that it was forced is perhaps generous considering how much trouble UCD had with the handoff on the play. It’s probably a bit disappointing to see no interceptions against an FCS team, no?

Except Cal was playing a senior QB who knows how to take care of the ball. Maier only threw 13 picks last year despite attempting 585 passes, an interception rate of 2%. Even then, UCD’s offensive game plan seemed pretty conservative and didn’t take many downfield shots, probably in deference to Cal’s secondary.

Even then, the Bears still managed to break up eight passes, which is a good sign that your defenders are around the ball. Eventually those tipped passes are going to fall into the hands of the #takers rather than harmlessly to the ground.

Special Teams

Better after a disastrous 1st quarter

Like the offense, special teams took some time to warm up. A fumbled kickoff, a net 30 yard punt, and a holding penalty on a kick return all conspired to hand UCD plus field position throughout the 1st quarter, which the Aggies gratefully turned into 10 points.

From that point forward, things improved. Dario Longhetto’s punting in place of the injured Steven Coutts was solid, Greg Thomas hit 2 of his 3 long field goals (I think we’d all take 66% from 40+ yards, right?) and Nikko Remigio managed one really nifty punt return and another two positive returns.

Really, can we just pretend that the entire 1st quarter never happened?

Coaching

I hope that shutting down early doesn’t ever bite us

A pretty consistent feature of the Wilcox era has been shutting down the offense (and to a lesser extent, the defense) whenever the team us up by 2 or more scores in the 4th quarter. We saw it in both games against UNC against BYU last year, and against FCS teams generally. In a few of those games, that means watching the opponent score a late TD against a prevent defense, then attempt an onside kick that fails.

In this particular game it meant 3 passes out of Cal’s final 21 plays. I get that playing this way reduces the risk of catastrophic turnovers and gets the clock to move more, but I suppose I watched too many insane Sonny-Dykes-era games to ever feel confident just running out the clock with a two possession lead.

Big Picture

I hate trying to analyze FCS games, but they do mean something. When Cal had to come from behind and only beat Portland State by 7, it meant something. There’s probably a reason that Washington smashed their top 5 FCS opponent while Cal comparatively struggled. But in the end, this is the main thing I took out of Saturday’s game:

This is definitely still a defense-first team that is going to try to win low-scoring games by playing low risk football. This is still a team with an offense that is probably going to be turnover prone, mistake prone, and struggle to sustain drives. This is still the most fundamentally sound defense in the country, but they might end up as perhaps a top 15 defense rather than a top 5 defense because they just don’t have enough disruption along the lines to dictate terms to their opponents.

What’s different around the margins? Cal has more depth and talent at tight ends, and that might augment the passing game. There’s probably more speed at WR, so there’s maybe some big play potential if Garbers can get them the ball. Cal has a running back that will break more tackles, and that could pay dividends in the run game. Maaaaybe Cal might get a few more positive plays on special teams. But those potential improvements might not show up against FBS competition and they might be offset by inexperience and questionable depth at offensive line.

And so we start getting real answers next week in what I personally think is the toughest game of the year. A win would be spectacular, and immediately announce Cal as a contender in the North. A loss would be . . . well, losing is never fun but missing out on the toughest game on the schedule is kinda expected.

So, tons to gain and not much to lose? Sounds like fun, let’s go.