The best games are the hardest to write about, because there’s so damned much that deserves attention. If you’re trying to recap this incredible game, what’s your lede?
You might want to start with the fact that this game was delayed nearly three hours and was seriously in danger of being postponed or perhaps even cancelled. There were a couple of occasions when official-ish people tweeted out and then quickly deleted reports that the game was going to be called, or played at 1:00 pm Sunday, but in the end it was played.
But it’s probably better to focus on the events on the field, so maybe you would choose to lead with much maligned Chase Garbers and the Cal offense, who spent a half putting up near Cheez-It Bowl numbers, then improbably rallied for 17 points and 228 yards in four 2nd half drives. That, of course, includes a stunning drive that ate up the final two minutes of the game and turned a loss into a win.
But I don’t think any lede is more important and more fitting than Evan Weaver. The leader of the team, a walking avatar of Cal’s defensive turnaround, and a spurned Washingtonian who clearly wanted this win more than any other. 14 solo tackles, 18 total tackles, a forced fumble . . . Weaver was everywhere, a one man berserker army hell bent on destruction. It’s rare for one man to take over a football game, rarer still for a defensive player. Weaver was that man.
10 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (2-2), 6 punts, 0 turnovers (WOO!), 2 points/drive
Last week we were all generally pretty disappointed when Cal put up 2.25 points/drive against a likely-middling FCS defense (the Aggies let San Diego go for 3.18 points/drive on them on Saturday). But to follow that number up by nearly matching it against UW’s defense? I did not see that coming.
The difference between THIS offensive performance and a typical offensive performance in 2018? Drive finishing. Cal’s six failed drives saw the Bears manage just two first downs. But Cal’s four successful drives all ended in points, two of them ended in touchdowns, and another may as well have been a touchdown drive, except Cal only needed 3 points anyway. With our defense, finishing drives equals winning games.
How in the world did the offense turn things around?
In the first half, Washington dominated Cal on the edges of the offensive line, particularly on passing downs. Considering that Cal was missing starting left tackle Will Craig and rotating different players at the position, it’s not surprising that Cal struggled on the edges. Unfortunately, those edge struggles combined with Cal’s (unsurprising) inability to go downfield against UW’s relatively veteran secondary completely overshadowed Cal’s moderately successful run game. Cal’s first four drives saw the Bears run 16 plays . . . and gain 21 yards. Yikes.
But you need to split things out. Cal gained 71 yards on 15 carries in the first half. That 4.7 average isn’t earth shattering, but it was a damned sight better than Cal’s 0.7 yards/play on non-scramble QB drop backs. Cal’s passing game was murdering any chance that the run game might be able to produce anything.
So what changed? Cal made a few adjustments, focusing on plays that might work and abandoning plays that would lead either to a desperation holding penalty or a Garbers maiming.
Specifically, Cal found three key players to target.
Kyler Gordon is a 4 star redshirt freshman cornerback. Talented, but maybe not quite ready for a starring role. Josiah Bronson is a former walk-on senior DT who saw limited action last season and Benning Potoa’e is a senior OLB who transitioned to DT this season. Both solid players, I’m sure, but using a combination of former walk-ons and players switching from another position is usually an indication that there are issues at a certain position group.
Last year at these positions, Washington had 2nd round CB Byron Murphy, 5th round CB Jordan miller, 4th round DT Greg Gaines, and Pac-12 honorable mention lineman Jaylen Johnson.
And Cal targeted those relative weak spots constantly. Gordon was targeted at least four times in the 2nd half alone on my re-watch. Twice he allowed Kekoa Crawford space for easy 10 yard stopping routes. Once he didn’t spot ball and allowed Jordan Duncan to make a sidelines grab for 19 yards on Cal’s final drive. And on the very next play he got called for a soft pass interference that gave Cal another 15 yards.
As for Potoa’e and Bronson? They were UW’s interior linemen, and Cal spent the entire 2nd half running various successful plays attacking the interior line. And on just about every successful run in the 2nd half, center Michael Saffell was pushing an interior Washington lineman five yards upfield. Sometimes UW’s LBs or safeties would come up and fill and Cal would only get 4-5 yards, sometimes Brown or Dancy would break a tackle or two and get longer chunks.
Of course, it wasn’t entirely Saffell. McKade Mettauer and Matthew Cindric looked good as well, and Cal’s tackles (at various times, Daltoso, Curhan, and Bazakas) held their own to prevent edge defenders from blowing up plays before they developed. And Cal’s tight ends also had some critical blocks, with Jake Tonges and Gavin Reinwald both flashing with impressive edge seals. And Brown and Dancy had to make that blocking work by making the right reads and maximizing yards after contact. Hell, in some cases the blocking didn’t really work (see Dancy’s 2nd TD) and the running backs made is work anyway.
Cal handed the ball off to either Brown or Dancy 15 times in the 2nd half. 11 times, the play was successful by either gaining 4+ yards or by going for a 1st down. Two plays were unsuccessful. Two other plays were Brown’s goal line runs in the final minute, one of which was quite possibly a touchdown.
In short, Cal found two things that could work and didn’t really do anything else for the entire half. It won them the game by a point.
Is this at all sustainable?
Cal completed one pass that traveled further than 10 yards downfield - the above-mentioned sideline toss to Duncan on the final drive. Other than that there were three underneath completions to Crawford, one three yard throw to Duncan, two 5/6 yard throws to Hawkins and Polk, and 4 screens/swing passes to Brown. Cal still very much does not have a downfield passing game.
It takes a really, really good offensive line and really, really good running backs to be able to run the ball against a defense that knows they don’t have to respect the downfield passing game. Quite frankly, I didn’t think it would be possible for Cal to run the ball like that against UW’s defense without that threat. Even if this isn’t quite the same defense UW had the last few years, it’s still a tremendous feat.
But I’m not convinced it’s sustainable. Will Craig is hurt, and we don’t know if/when he’s coming back. The interior linemen played their hearts out last night, but offensive line depth is looking paper thin.
I guess we’re going to find out.
10 drives: 1 touchdown, 4 FGA (4-4), 2 punts, 3 turnovers (1 INT, 1 fumble, 1 downs), 1.9 points/drive
Really, what was amazing about this game is that Cal held the Washington offense to just 4.6 yards/play, but Washington still managed to get 23 first downs and 348 total yards in a low total possession game (more on this in the coaching section).
Bend but don’t break
Very few teams have the combination of talent and execution to consistently break down the Cal defense. Washington came very, very close.
On one hand, Cal’s defense did their usual thing by completely eliminating big plays. The Huskies managed just two plays of 20+ yards, with a long of 25. That’s worse than Cal’s notoriously unexplosive offense managed!
One the other hand, Washington was still able to move the ball pretty consistently. Ahmed Salvon just kept picking up small chunk after small chunk. Eason was able to find receivers for 10 yard gains a decent amount of the time. Washington drove into Cal territory eight times!
But they just couldn’t punch it into the end zone. The Huskies were doomed by having to settle for four field goals.
Teams left on the schedule who can run the ball on us the way UW just did
Utah, for sure. Oregon probably. After that . . . USC and WSU want to throw the ball. Oregon State has a great running back, but probably doesn’t have the line. Ole Miss and ASU’s lines are dysfunctional, as is (shockingly) Stanford’s. I haven’t scouted North Texas but it seems unlikely that they have the horses. UCLA did it to us last year, so I guess I shouldn’t dismiss the possibility, but they look awful.
Which is to say that there is a very specific way that our defense is vulnerable (other than a pro level QB making pro level throws, which literally every college defense is vulnerable to), but it requires a specific set of talent and execution that not many teams can be expected to have.
A rough day for the punting unit specifically and for field position generally.
Cal punted 6 times and averaged 27 net yards per punt, which is . . . yikes. One punt was a solid length, but was a line drive that Aaron Fuller returned for 19 yards. One punt was a shank, a couple others were really short . . . only one of Cal’s punts was decently successful. Getting back a fully healthy Steven Coutts would be a good sign.
Combine those punting troubles with one long UW kickoff return, and that’s how UW gets a +9 yard advantage in average starting field position. That number would actually by -12 if you take away field position from drives as a result of turnovers. It was a rough day for Cal special teams, except that Greg the leg hit two glorified extra points, obviously including the game winner.
An epic battle
Honestly, watching a good UW offense try to break down a great Cal defense is really fun and interesting in isolation, shame that I'm so nervous about it because the Cal defense has so little margin for error.— Nicolas Kranz (@NorCalNickCGB) September 8, 2019
Washington figured out pretty quickly in this game that they could pretty consistently gain small chunks of yards on the ground, and so that’s what they did. Even if that meant running for four yards on 3rd and five, then converting the 4th down attempt.
On the other hand, UW showed just enough in the passing game that Cal couldn’t completely sell out to shut down the run. But UW was also clearly not super comfortable throwing the ball further than 10 yards downfield, particularly after Cam Bynum’s interception and a couple other close calls involving Ashtyn Davis and Traveon Beck.
And so the entire 2nd half was this chess match between UW’s offensive brain trust and Cal’s defensive brain trust - UW trying to figure out how to sustain long, multi-play drives without the ability to gain chunks, Cal trying to figure out how to stop a team that could get 3-4 yards on most plays and wasn’t afraid to use all four downs to sustain a drive.
When a contest is as close as this is, it can come down to sequencing and chance. One UW drive nearly ended in a pick when Eason threw an awful goal line duck on 2nd down, but then easily could have ended in a touchdown when a wide open receiver narrowly missed landing in bounds, forcing UW to settle for a field goal. Another drive might’ve ended in a touchdown if UW hadn’t false started on 4th and one from the two yard line.
Suffice to say - this game was played on a razor’s edge, with tons of inflection points across the entire game. I’m getting reflexively nervous just thinking about it again.
Kudos for not screwing up at the end
I don’t think that managing a goal-to-go situation at the end of a game is a super hard coaching thing . . . but I’ve also seen coaches do lots of bizarre things in similar situations. I wasn’t ever really worried about Wilcox’s process, and appreciate that he took a shot at getting the touchdown (and running clock) on 3rd down rather than just kneeling for the field goal. It’s nice that I don’t really worry in these situations any more.
Images of the Game
A reminder of what this fandom does to us:
If we’re talking about bowl eligibility, you would think that taking an unexpected game like this one would render that question academic. The team that just handed Washington their 2nd home loss since the midpoint of the 2015 season isn’t going to go 3-7 or worse the rest of the way. Right?
And if we’re talking about loftier goals well . . . surely if you beat one of the division co-favorites in their own house it would logically follow that you yourself are therefore a contender. Right?
The brain would note that Cal barely survived this particular test, and will face two similarly difficult road challenges later in the year, to say nothing of various other banana peels on the schedule. Our computer overlords haven’t been particularly impressed, because when you look at the numbers under the hood this team still looks largely similar to last year.
But here’s what I know right now: Cal is first place in the North, and they already own the tie-breaker over one of their rivals for the title. They just won in one of the toughest places to win.
Right now, that’s more than enough to keep you dreaming for another few weeks.