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Post Game Thoughts: RedBox Bowl

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The Bears close the 2019 season on a high note with a win over Illinois in Santa Clara

NCAA Football: Redbox Bowl-California vs Illinois Stan Szeto-USA TODAY Sports

It was an odd, subdued atmosphere in Tech Money Park. The Bears took what turned out to be a mostly decisive lead late in the 2nd quarter, added to it quickly in the 3rd quarter, then mostly sat on Illinois, who didn’t really force Cal to do much of anything else. Meanwhile, a mostly sedate Cal crowd basked in the sun on an unseasonably warm day, content to watch the Bears cruise to a deceptively easy looking win. It all felt very vacationy to me, even though most of the Cal fans in attendance didn’t have to drive very far to take in the action.

But for whatever the game may have lacked in tension it made up for in happy time narratives - the Bears got to finish up a satisfying season with a win, sending out a core group of seniors on a high note.

Offense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 5 touchdown, 0 FGA, 5 punts, 0 turnovers, 3.5 points/drive

Removed: Cal’s final drive of the game, up 15 with 1:40 left on the clock

The good: five dominant touchdown drives covering 404 total yards
The bad: five drives that gained 36 total yards, two first downs, and ended in punts

In other words, the Bears were all-or-nothing to an impressive degree, and this game was won via drive finishing. Cal’s touchdowns game on plays of 4, 1, 3, 2, and 6 yards. Goal line execution!

If, say, that 4th down pass to Chris Brown is dropped, or Cal settles for a couple of field goals instead of touchdowns, then we’re all sweating the 4th quarter every time Illinois gets the ball rather than sitting back and relaxing with a multi-score lead.

Chase Garbers gets us all hyped for 2020

I don’t think anybody is going to mistake Illinois’ defense as particularly noteworthy competition, but the bottom line is that Chase and the Cal passing attack pretty well shredded the Illini. 71% completion rate, 8.8 yards/attempt, and 4 touchdowns without a pick will win you lots of games. And more importantly, this is the 4th full game from Garbers that ranges somewhere between solid and borderline all conference level production.

But how do we put Chase’s post-North-Texas surge in context? Obviously, there’s the raw numbers, helpfully provided by Piotr:

Nam’s got the PFF data:

Of course, both raw data and PFF data over small samples can be impacted by small sample sizes and schedule strength. After all, Chase’s full games have come against Ole Miss, Stanford, UCLA, and Illinois - teams that went a combined 18-27 in games when they weren’t losing to Cal. Not exactly a murderer’s row of defenses.

So I took a look at the passing defense game logs of those four teams (linked below) to see how Chase and the Cal passing offense fared compared to everybody else on the schedule for each team. Here’s the list of QBs/teams that, in my subjective opinion, meaningfully outproduced what Chase and the Bears put up:

Ole Miss: Burrow and LSU, Tagovailoa and Alabama
Stanford: Slovis and USC, Herbert and Oregon, Gabriel and UCF
UCLA: Pretty much everybody, UCLA’s pass defense was awful
Illinois: Maybe Adrian Martinez and Nebraska? I don’t think QB rating is a very useful stat, but Chase put up the highest QB rating that Illinois allowed this season.

So you have three games where Chase is only outperformed, by-and-large, by elite QBs and elite offenses, and one ho-hum performance against a crummy UCLA defense that allowed pretty much everybody to shred them at some level.

Yes, Chase’s numbers are a bit boosted by playing a bunch of middling to bad defenses. No, we don’t really know how he might fare against elite units. But we do know that, relative to other offenses, the Cal passing attack under Chase has been producing at just a small step behind the type of high end offenses we would love to see at Cal.

But the line is still an open question mark

There was some late season optimistic chatter about Cal’s offensive line, and not without reason. After a middle third of the season wracked by injury, the line found a bit of cohesion and solid play, though it’s worth noting that, again, the uptick coincided with a bunch of bad teams and defenses popping up on the schedule.

But the line struggled to consistently open up space for Chris Brown and the running backs against Illinois, with more than half of their 26 carries going for 3 yards or less.

The bottom line is that Cal finished last in the Pac-12 in sacks allowed and 11th in yards/run. It’s reasonable to hope that between known quantities (Saffell, Curhan, Daltoso), young players thrown into the fire (Cindric and Mettauer) and guys returning from injury (Craig, Williams) that Cal’s new OC and line coach can find a pretty solid starting 5 that could easily improve on 2019’s showing, and hopefully with a bit more depth.

Defense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 2 touchdown, 2 FGA (2-2), 5 punts, 2 turnovers (1 interception, 1 downs), 1.8 points/drive

Removed: Illinois’ final, pointless, 5 play drive that started on their own 8 with 29 seconds left.

Again: drive finishing. Illinois drove to the Cal 40 yard line or further eight times, and only scored 20 points, which is a miserable conversion rate. 450 total yards for just 20 points is horribly inefficient, and turned what could easily have been a close game into a 2nd half exercise in clock management and deficit protection by the Bears.

Cal dared Brandon Peters to beat them . . . and he did more often than I expected

The Bears spent all game long crashing hard on zone reads, crowding Illinois’ RB run game, and shifting looks when Illinois threw the ball. And darned if Brandon Peters didn’t gain 80 yards on 6 rushing attempts while also making a bunch of really impressive throws that I didn’t think he had in him.

But on the flip side, the Cal defense pretty well shut down Illini running backs (3.2 yards/carry with a long of just 12) and forced just enough incompletions such that Illinois had a hard time driving all the way to the end zone even if they did a good job picking up chunks through the air from time to time.

Are we seeing a shift in the strength of the Cal defense?

As noted above, Cal’s front 7 shut down Illinois running backs, and while the Cal pass rush wasn’t dominant, they came up with just enough big plays to swing the game - Johnson’s sack and forced fumble killed one drive, and Ben Hawk Schrider’s hit late in the game directly led to Cal’s only interception. Meanwhile, Cal’s secondary was more inexperienced without Ashtyn Davis and will be more so without Traveon Beck, along with any other potential NFL attrition.

Special Teams

Why do coaches allow players to ever return kickoffs?

Six kickoffs (three by each team) were returned in this game. Just one return made it past the 25 yard line, and the average starting field position on those six returns was the 21 yard line. This is not a trend unique to this game. Always fair catch and #bankickoffs.

A punt game win!

Steven Coutts outkicked his Illini counterpart by 6.4 net yards/punt, thanks to a couple of nice bounces, a couple of boomers, and a couple of nice returns from Nikko Remigio (who may increasingly be a weapon as a returner in his true junior year). A nice bounce back win for a senior who had a tough, injury impacted season.

Coaching

Wilcox aggression and Baldwin goes out with a bang

One of the bigger plays of game was Cal’s 4th and 3 touchdown, which gave the Bears a clear halftime lead. From a risk/reward perspective it made sense go for it, in part because Illinois wasn’t likely to drive 97 yards in 40 seconds and in part because an 11 point lead is more valuable than a 7 point lead. And the subsequent play call (three WRs, one TE, and Brown as a RB running a swing route) didn’t suggest any sort of special play call. It was just Cal’s coaches, confident that their offense could execute a pretty basic play on 4th down.

And so we bid adieu to Beau Baldwin, who leaves Berkeley after three seasons marred by injuries, transfers, and general personnel issues up and down the offensive depth chart. Those who waited for Eastern Washington Beau to emerge got teased with Cal’s intermittent production when Garbers was healthy, and between last year’s JC/transfer heavy skill position recruiting class and this year’s freshman-heavy offensive recruiting, it’s entirely possible that the fruits of Baldwin’s most lasting contributions at Cal haven’t actually happened yet. Either way, it’s nice to part on a high note.

Big Picture

For the first time in 11 years - when Cal last played in the Whatever-name-the-only-Bay-Area-bowl-game-has Bowl - the season ends with both the Axe and a bowl win. That combined with the amount of experience and talent Cal returns means that this will be the happiest, most optimistic off-season for Cal fans in a long, long time.

That optimism will no doubt be altered one way or another by various coaching and roster changes over the next nine months, but the basic narrative has been set: Cal as dark horse Pac-12 north darlings after the recruiting powerhouses of Oregon and Washington.

I can’t even begin to hazard a guess as to Cal’s chances in 2020. Too many unknowns, both for the Bears and for their rivals. I’m just happy to bask in the glow of a fun season, while dreaming about the possibility of greater things in this nice, shiny, new decade.

Go Bears!