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Post Game Thoughts: Arizona State

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In front of a big crowd, Cal suffers a painful defeat, with injury added to insult.

Arizona State v California Photo by Thearon W. Henderson/Getty Images

In 2018, Chase Garbers averaged 5.8 yards/pass attempt, and Cal’s offense was dysfunctional.

Over the first three games of the 2019 season, Chase Garbers averaged 7 yards/attempt, and Cal’s offense was . . . better, but still pretty problematic, particularly considering the opposition.

Against Ole Miss and ASU, Chase Garbers averaged 8.3 yards/attempt. For the first time in ages, on the road against an SEC team, Cal’s offense was more responsible for a win than Cal’s defense. Against ASU, in four possessions, Cal had scored one touchdown, had three other drives killed by dropped passes and/or sacks.

In other words, low scoring numbers aside, Chase Garbers was playing really well for the 2nd game in a row. To suggest that Cal would surely have won had Chase played the rest of the way is the kind of unprovable thing fans like to say to make themselves feel better . . . but I think it’s safe to say that the Bears would have been slight favorites.

We all know what happened instead.

Cal has not announced Chase Garbers’ injury status. But when a guy lands on his throwing shoulder like that and comes out from the locker room in a sling, the writing is on the wall. I’m operating under the assumption that Chase Garbers’ sophomore season is over.

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 5 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 downs), 1.5 points/drive

This offense still (obviously) isn’t good enough to get away with mistakes

Even with a healthy Garbers 2.0, Cal only managed to scratch 7 points of offense thanks to a series of mistakes that weren’t on the quarterback. Dropped passes and blown blocking assignments abounded in the 1st half, and if the Bears around Garbers had performed at a higher level Cal might have built a lead that the defense would have been able to protect regardless of how dysfunctional the 2nd half offense ended up being.

In another universe you could see those mistakes as somehow encouraging - fix them and you still have an offense that was getting receivers open - but mistakes have been too frequent for the last few years to harbor realistic hopes that they will truly get ironed out, even WITH a healthy Garbers.

A bizarre day from the run game

For one unexpectedly glorious drive, Cal ran 12 run plays for 63 yards and a touchdown. That’s a healthy 5.25 yards/run average. Unfortunately that drive represented exactly half of Cal’s total rushing yards (sacks removed), and Cal averaged just 2.9 yards/carry during the rest of the game. A fan might reasonably ask why Cal didn’t run, or more successfully, during the rest of the game.

But I think the more interesting question is how exactly did Cal manage to run so well for that one drive? Because ultimately, it was that drive that was the outlier, not the rest of the game.

The inevitable quarterback discussion

14 passing attempts does not a credible sample size make, but suffice to say that Devon Modster was put it a tough spot and struggled.

The great irony of this game is that Cal somehow scored more points with Modster under center in the 2nd half than they did with Garbers in the 1st half. This is obviously wildly misleading, because 3 points game when Cal drove zero yards after recovering a fumble, and the other drive was entirely running plays.

Modster’s 1.6 yards/attempt is meaningfully worse than Cheez-It numbers, and the level of inaccuracy he showed on pretty basic throws is disturbing. He almost by definition will be better because his 2nd half performance wasn’t in line with anything he’s shown earlier in his college career.

This is probably a discussion better kept for the bye week, but this game was not exactly an encouraging data point for the ability of Cal’s offensive coaches to prepare quarterbacks, which isn’t exactly a category with encouraging data points anyway.

Defense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 3 touchdowns, 3 FGA (1-3), 2 punts, 1 turnover (fumble), 2.4 points/drive

The new bend-but-hopefully-don’t-break defense?

Last year, Cal’s defense allowed 317 yards/game and 4.6 yards/play. This year, those numbers have ballooned to 366 and 4.9, even though 40% of Cal’s schedule so far hasn’t been P5 competition and even though most of Cal’s schedule has been made up of mediocre offenses.

In other words, the Cal defense has, so far, clearly regressed. The 2019 Cal defense is still pretty good about big play prevention, but they have allowed a ton of sustained drives and have relied upon (and have perhaps been fortunate that) their opponents failed to maximize red zone opportunities.

Against the Sun Devils, Cal’s tight wire act finally came due. After a first half of plus territory failures, ASU punched it into the endzone twice after the half, most obviously including a back-breaking 15 play, 75 yard drive.

Watching it, I kept expecting the Cal defense to make a play (or for ASU to screw up) but that play never came.

Got any theories as to why the defense is struggling relative to last year?

As is usually the case, there are a few. Injuries obviously play a role here. Cam Goode and Tevin Paul both returned, and they each had a ton of tackles and a sack each, but their absences were certainly felt against Ole Miss and towards the end against UNT, and who knows if they’re 100% now? Traveon Beck might be the best nickle/slot CB in the nation, and Cal doesn’t appear to have a particularly obvious replacement. Aaron Maldonado got spot minutes, but Cal obviously has issues at nose guard. There are other players rumored to be playing through various nicks who might be operating at less than 100% themselves.

Meanwhile, Kuony Deng is clearly talented but he also isn’t yet the same player as Jordan Kunaszyk was, and that makes Cal’s biggest vulnerability (consistent run chunks up the middle) even more of a concern.

In short, this is something close to a worst-case scenario for this defense. They’re struggling at some of the few positions that saw talent graduate, and they’re picking up injuries at positions that lacked depth. The fact that they defense is still performing at a borderline top 25 level despite these challenges shows you how high the floor is for their performance. The problem is that the Cal defense has little margin for error. There’s a reason all of the previous four games were so close.

Special Teams

Punting no longer appears to be a strength

Cal averaged a net of just 31 yards/punt on Saturday, thanks to having one punt blocked and allowing 3 of the 4 other punts to be returned for some amount of yardage. One of these punts handed ASU a free field goal attempt that they thankfully missed. Dario Longhetto seems to usually get solid distance, but I haven’t seen a ton of hangtime and as a consequence his kicks are frequently returnable.

In addition to poor net punting, Cal also allowed a long kickoff return that set up the Devils for a relatively short 50 yard touchdown drive. In short, Greg-the-leg’s 47 yard field goal was really the only notable positive on a day where Cal special teams failed to grant the Bears good field position while also granting their counterparts scoring chances.

Coaching

An opportunity to sustain a drive, spurned

On the very first drive of the game, Chase Garbers was already 3-4, and his only incompletion was a dropped pass. Unfortunately, that drop came on 3rd and 3 from the ASU 45, and Justin Wilcox sent out the punting unit. If Chase Garbers’ recent performance against Ole Miss and early start were at all real, going for it on 4th and 3 from that spot on the field is a clear call. You go for it.

Cal gained 25 net yards on the punt after a decent return by the Devils, and ASU scored a touchdown on the drive anyway. Cal’s lack of gumption was quickly and rightly punished by the football gods, and a potential scoring chance in a game where one scoring chance could be the difference was given away for nothing.

Big Picture

When I say that this was coming, what I mean is that:

  1. Cal was lucky to be 4-0. They were 3-0 in close, 1 score games, and unless they started playing better it was inevitable that they were going to come out on the wrong end of one of these games.
  2. All of the advanced stats agreed that Cal was more like the 45th best team in the country, not the 15th best. A regression was inevitable.
  3. And why did the advanced stats not love us? For a few reasons, but one reason is that the defense was giving up a ton of yards but comparatively few points.

Of course, there are the rare teams that win all their coin flip games. If Chase Garbers doesn’t land on his throwing shoulder, Cal might well be 5-0, still sitting at 15th, celebrating a thrilling, fan-base rebuilding win on Friday night and contemplating what an upset win over Oregon would mean.

But now, everything has changed. The loss of Garbers may end up proving more consequential than the loss of the game itself, and the rest of the season may well rely upon Devon Modster and his ability to step up as Cal’s new starting quarterback.

Coming in cold to face ASU’s defense is rough. Getting your first start of the season against Oregon in Eugene, in a year when the Ducks are Pac-12 favorites and carry a top 10 passing defense into the game . . . well, that’s cruel and unusual. This is a trial by fire, and I don’t think I’ve been as pessimistic about a Cal game in at least two years. Vegas certainly thinks that pessimism is warranted.

Beyond Oregon, the fear is that Cal’s defense doesn’t return to their 2018 levels of performance, and Cal’s offense under Modster and a beat up offensive line returns to 2018-or-worse levels of production. If that worst-case scenario comes to pass, there is no easy win left on the schedule, and a few games that start to look downright daunting.

It’s hard to speculate right now, because we have so little data on how a Modster-led offense might perform.

All I really know? Football is a cruel game.