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Cal football isn’t going to be what you want it to be

Are you okay with this?

NCAA Football: North Texas at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

After the California Golden Bears upset the Washington Huskies, there was hope that Cal had turned the corner. That this would be the moment that they’d found their identity—a smash-mouth power offense that could emulate the best of Utah and start competing for nine-win seasons.

The skeleton of that vision might at least be in focus. But for these Bears, it’s still ephemeral.

The Cal that showed up against Washington (opportunistic, high-effort, A-game) was not present at all after the first quarter against North Texas. What looked to be a pretty decisive victory soon turned into a 45 minute run-out-the-clock effort against the Mean Green, and it was pretty brutal.

Cal might be an unpleasant opponent to face. That doesn’t mean they’re unbeatable. Talent gaps, coaching question marks, and huge offensive droughts continue to plague this team.

Nevertheless, Cal is 3-0. Cal is getting the wins at all costs. The question is, will that be enough to bring the fans back and retain them for good? Will it be enough to help Cal take those leaps to an eight-nine win team in 2019, and springboard them for future success beyond that?

There are a few dominant streams of thought in terms of looking at Cal’s final three quarters against North Texas.

  • Cal knew their defense wouldn’t blow a 20-point lead and bottled the game to get ready for Ole Miss. Plenty of players were ‘held out’ in the second half, which suggests precautionar measures.
  • The Cal offense regressed back to normal after a fast start and was overwhelmed by a pretty bottom-dweller North Texas defense that nearly conceded 50 to a Sonny Dykes-led SMU squad.
  • Cal rode the high of the Washington game for a quarter, but fatigue caught up to them on a short week (remember, their Sunday was basically wiped out by the late finish) and the Bears were a step slow the rest of the game.

There’s probably some kernel of truth to each viewpoint. Cal used to concede three touchdown leads by the year in the Dykes era; that’s no longer the case. But I doubt Beau Baldwin laid out plans for Cal to score three points in three quarters.

But the real truth might just be the same truth. Cal hasn’t changed much in the last year and a third. A team that’s low on offensive talent and with no major room for error has been beset by injuries, and is forced to gut its way through game-by-game in search of production.

Cal is missing its entire left side of its offensive line, and once Christopher Brown was not allowed back in the second half, North Texas made the Bears pay, blowing up a run game which threw Washington completely off. They played fundamental in the passing game, staying close to wide receivers. Cal receivers still got open—they dared Chase Garbers to make plays—and for the most part he stayed away from attempting even the slightest risky throws. But due to a few more drops (one or two of which could’ve ended the game if caught) and Garbers abandoning the pocket to run after lack of pressure or lack of reads.

Only health can fix the woes in the run game. Cal sat Valentino Daltoso out after playing half of the Washington game, gambling that they’d had enough up front to pull things out. And any injury to Brown obviously would cripple Cal’s ability to do anything offensively—with no run game to respect, there will be very little holding defenses from teeing off on Garbers.

The stats are not encouraging (via CFBstats).

  • 52.9% completion percentage, 117th in FBS.
  • 159.3 passing yards per game, 118th in FBS.
  • 123.6 passer rating, 90th in FBS.
  • 7.0 passing yards per attempt, T-85th in FBS.
  • 30.23% 3rd down conversion rate, 118th in FBS.
  • 10 sacks allowed, 111th in FBS.
  • Only eight red zone trips so far this season, T-100th in FBS
  • Converting only four red zone trips into touchdowns (T-93rd)

No team can hope to enjoy any sort of sustained success with those numbers. It just makes the final last-minute game winning drive against Washington all the wilder.

It calls back into question whether Beau Baldwin really has any recipe that can push this transitioning unit into even a mediocre phase. The Bears have made only a slight improvement from last season with the vestiges of what might be a potent run attack. Wilcox’s loyalty to Baldwin was admirable last year, but what happens if the offense starts wasting astounding defensive performances again?

Cal has to expect more from this unit. The margin for error is so slim.

The Cal defense has now allowed less than 20 points to opposing offenses in nine of its last ten games. The tenth game, they allowed 21 (Cal allowed 23 to Stanford, but 7 of those points was off a late three-yard touchdown drive on a Cal interception).

There does to be one significant change though—the Cal defense has slipped, just a tad. A formula, if not a necessarily easy one to execute, has been found.

Washington, UC Davis, and now particularly North Texas have all noticed the formula for success—hold the ball for as long as possible, and hope for cracks to form (like they did on that busted long touchdown quick pass. Pound the ball on a vulnerable Cal interior, dink-and-dunk for first downs, and there can be some minor success.

The Bears have only been modestly good at run defense and pass rush, which is still a decent step back from where the team landed at last November. The stats and splits are still mostly favorable, and the pass defense remains elite. But there are enough bumps and bruises left exposed in each subsequent contest. More formidable foes beckon.

The Cal defense got considerably more banged up (maybe precautionary, maybe real injury), and once the second-unit started piling up the snaps, North Texas found it easier to move the football. The health of that defensive unit is paramount. Any shake in its foundation and the small margins Cal needs to keep on winning close games evaporate.

The formula hasn’t really led to major point production. Opponents are only starting to creep up to the 17+ point side this season. That means the Cal offense needs to put up 20+ points, which has proven to be anything but easy.

Cal has gamers on the second unit, but with this offense, the Bears need an ELITE defense. Otherwise the coin will flip, and the complaints will become something much louder.

So Cal is winning ugly. Will Cal’s style of play translate to improved fan attendance?

After a promising start against UC Davis, fan attendance dipped notably against North Texas. This usually happens with the out-of-state B-opponent (no one from North Texas really travelled out), and couple that with the much-weaker odd year schedule, and Cal had barely 50% of Memorial Stadium filled at kickoff.

Remember, Cal didn’t fire Dykes because of on the field performance—it was because season ticket renewals fell off a cliff. While fan attendance could be headed in the right direction, how much longer will a fickle, impatient fanbase handle a Cal team that might fails at a higher pace but fails to make a ton of Pac-12 noise? Cal is projected for a bowl game and a winning season, but it’s a lower-tier one, and the Bears still aren’t perceived as being a conference threat for a few more years. The upsets are huge for the program, but Cal has so many more boxes to check off after the malaise of the past decade. Success has to be sustained.

The good news is the rest of the Pac-12 schedule is solidifying as a decent watch. Cal has one marquee game on the home schedule (USC), two top-25 contests (Washington State and Arizona State), and homecoming is the most winnable game left on the schedule (Oregon State). But these are still big ifs. Only the Cal-USC game can be a virtual guarantee for a full crowd.

Cal should fill in the stadium the remainder of the schedule, but what if the fans just don’t show? What happens when the very potential losses start coming? What if the decline of college football attendance is just inevitable as more and more students and alumni opt for the comfort of their homes and their big TVs? What decisions can the Cal AD make to return the Bears back to Memorial?

Cal isn’t going to be terribly different week-to-week. The Bears have an offense that can put up some points, but for the most part they’re content to let their defense do the rest. At the moment, it’s the lowest path of resistance to successful seasons for Justin Wilcox, and with the Bears still in a transition phase out of the previous regime, maybe that’s all we can hope for as the rebuild moves on.

Cal isn’t what fans want it to be yet, and it might not be that way for some time. Cal might be winning, but is winning the way we’re winning going to be enough to bring them back for more?