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Cal football needs to improve in a hurry after a turtling UNLV performance
There isn't much time to get better.
Don’t let the record fool you. The California Golden Bears aren’t a very good football team right now.
And they’re in serious danger of not being good at all.
There were plenty of hopeful signs that Cal was making marked strides when they took a 14-0 lead early against UNLV. The offense was clicking. The defense was smashing. For about 10 minutes Cal looked like they were hitting a gear we’ve rarely hit the past half-decade.
But then a familiar story emerged.
The offense sputtered.
The run game couldn’t get going.
The offensive line performance degraded.
The defense gave up a bunch of third downs, then a big play or two.
And suddenly Cal was fighting for its lives.
If this sounds like a derivative article, it’s because this has happened before. This is the third straight Group of 5 game in the Justin Wilcox era that Cal has started off hot, then proceeded to pack it in.
2019: Cal takes 20-0 first quarter lead against North Texas. Cal scores 3 points in the remaining three quarters.
2021: Cal takes 14-0 first quarter lead against Nevada. Cal scores 3 points in the remaining three quarters.
2022: Cal takes 14-0 first quarter lead against UNLV. Cal scores 6 points in the remaining three quarters.
So Cal has outscored its opponents 48-0 in the first quarter. They have scored 12 points in the remaining nine quarters.
It’s become a common rejoinder among the Write for California staff that Justin Wilcox, when facing a team that Cal is favored to beat, loves to turtle.
The principle is simple: It’s a long season, Cal isn’t the most talented team in the world, so the best way to maximize win outcomes is to reduce the number of plays and situations for Cal to give away tape on their team for future opponents, reduce injury probability, and keep the Bears in a good place to win more games.
This was the ultimate turtling game, and Cal barely held on.
If you want the game theory rationalization for Saturday’s performance, the Bears are holding back on a lot of their stuff for the upcoming Power 5 road trips—Cal was headed to Ole Miss in 2019 and TCU last year, and the marquee matchup to South Bend looms.
But there is a fine line between holding some things back and holding everything back.
Nevada beat Cal and cost the Bears a bowl game. North Texas got the ball back with two minutes left and nearly scored what could’ve been a season-changing upset. UNLV had first and goal with a chance to take the lead with three minutes left, then got the ball back again!
Holding things back does sound good in theory if you want to maximize victory options, but at what cost? Even the worst G5 team can figure out your base offense by halftime. UC Davis nearly figured us out for half of our season opener. If you’re going to shrink the playbook to that degree, you’re playing with deep fire at tanking the season.
The only upside is Cal will probably not go into Notre Dame huffing and puffing their chests, so there’s not much of a concern that the Bears will be flushed up to think they can beat on a staggered 0-2 Irish team hungry for a win.
The downside is a lot of Bears will be going into South Bend with significantly lower confidence than you’d like.
Cal’s offensive line was getting mauled for most of the game. UNLV targeted the strong side (Cal’s clear weak spot), and like UC Davis, created steady and then unending pressure. That is not good juju for a face-off with Isaiah Foskey and one of the most ferocious front sevens in college football in six days.
The Rebels, one of the worst pass rushing teams in college football last season, put up four sacks and 12 pressures on Jack Plummer. Plummer did not perform well against pressure against the Irish last season, and now he’s got to prepare for a year-after sequel of likely more of the same.
Going vanilla did the Cal running backs no favor. Jaydn Ott, continuing his stellar play from the season-opener, had a nice few runs but every other back was stuffed up. Not a really big boost for the Cal run game going into their more serious opponents.
The Cal defense has been in scramble mode to offset the loss of Brett Johnson, and they haven’t really found concrete answers yet. The Bears missed a host of tackles trying to make home run plays until the final minutes, and were often saved by the general mediocrity of the Rebel playmakers.
The Cal special teams regressed with significant mistakes. Mavin Anderson stepped out of bounds at the six on a kickoff. Jeremiah Hunter fielded a punt and got levelled after suboptimal blocking. A punt penalty robbed Cal of yards and time for a end-of-half two-minute drill. Dario Longhetto missed a game-clinching field goal. If Cal is turtling, these mistakes get magnified.
UNLV may be on an upward trajectory, but if the Bears want to be treated seriously, Cal should not be fighting in the final minutes to hold off a Rebel goal-line attack.
Cal is 2-0, but they’re fast running out of bankable games. Aside from a trip to hapless Colorado, they will be playing eight good or very improved Pac-12 teams from the same schedule that produced 5-7 last season. And Cal hasn’t shown any signs of being markedly better this season.
Course correction is needed. Cal can’t just rely on low variance and good defense to fix up their problems. The quality of play has to get better.
Turtles win races sometimes. But not usually.
Cal drops a few spots in SP+ after the UNLV performance ($), with defense still in the top 30, and are now 118th on offense. As of now, this is grading out as a slightly worse unit than the 2018 Cal team. The 2018 Cal Bears would be hard-pressed to win six games in the 2022 Pac-12. Scoring is no longer optional.
Femi Oladejo recovered from a rough week 1 to plug up all gaps and graded out as Cal’s most consistent defender in Week 2 by Pro Football Focus. Craig Woodson is still by far Cal’s best defender through the first two weeks, showcasing the talent many of the Takers believed he was capable of when healthy.
Cal’s 2.88 yards per rush is the third FBS game in a row the Bears run attack has not hit 3 yards per rush (2.88 at UCLA, 2.84 vs. USC).
Jaydn Ott is currently leading Cal in all-purpose yardage. The last freshman to lead Cal in all-purpose yardage was Khalfani Muhammad in 2013. Truly a talent. More touches please, particularly in space.
Jamieson Sheahan is currently averaging the fourth best punt yard average in FBS, and second in Power 5 behind Iowa legend Tory Taylor.
Cal got new videoboards, but for some reason the natural turf is getting more pixellated by the week. Perhaps we will enter the Metaverse in these boards by end of season, where we can store our crypto, sponsored by NFX.
Finally, here’s UC Berkeley Law professor and Berkeley school board member Ty Alper taking in the Bears the best way he can (click on Tweet for full photo).
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