Cal plays to the level of their competition in 2022, but never above it
It's an infuriating combination that leads to pleasant performances like USC. But in the end, still losses.
“Where has this Cal team been all year?”
For much of Saturday night’s performance against USC, all critiques of Cal’s 2022 performance were briefly stunned into silence by the fight of the California Golden Bears.
Here’s a look at the players on the two-deep that Cal had to do without on Saturday.
Offensive lineman Matthew Cindric, done for the season.
Offensive lineman Spencer Lovell, out for a month
Offensive lineman Ben Coleman, didn’t play in second half
Wide receiver Mason Starling, out for the season
Defensive lineman BRETT JOHNSON, out for the season
Defensive end Derek Wilkins, out for the season
Defensive end Akili Calhoun, out for the season
Defensive tackle Stanley McKenzie, personal reasons
Outside linebacker Odua Isibor, out two months
Linebacker Mo Iosefa, scratched for the second game in a row
Linebacker Braxten Croteau, out vs. USC
Linebacker Blake Antzoulatos, out since Oregon
Cornerback Lu-Magia Hearns III, injured vs. Colorado
Cornerback Raymond Woodie III, out vs. USC
Nickelback Collin Gamble, out vs. USC
Quarterback Jack Plummer, injured in every football game
That is over one-third of Cal’s two-deep. With this attrition, most college football teams would fall into the earth and call it a day against a top ten team, particularly with Cal’s worst unit all season (the offensive line) having to reshuffle yet again.
And yet despite all that, Cal still kept fighting against the Trojans. The Bears, punchless for another painful thirty minute scoreless stretch, put up 28 second half points, 21 in the fourth quarter. Plummer kept on evading a relentless pass rush and a completely overwhelmed offensive line to throw dimes to all his skill players. Jeremiah Hunter, Mavin Anderson, J.Michael Sturdivant all had awesome games, and Jaydn Ott had his most complete game as a Golden Bear. Even at times the playcalling looked above-average and gave the Bears a spirited chance.
It was a spirited effort by a group of players that had plenty of reason to come in and fold early, but the Bears hung on and made a game of it when possible.
But just as it has been most season, Cal ended up in the “competitive loss” category for the fourth time this season, and the Bears experienced yet another painful come-from-behind failure.
Close game failure has been the story between success and failure of the second stage of the Justin Wilcox experiment. Whether it’s Cal dueling with an opponent or digging out of a deeper hole, the Bears simply cannot win a 4th quarter game these last two seasons. It is openly depressing to go into a close game and have nearly zero hope that Cal can pull it out.
And we have to recognize that Cal again waited until the “too late” period to nab victory.
Even though the Bears put up 35 points and finished within a score of victory, Cal never realistically had a chance to win. The Bears offense took the field in the second half down two scores or more from beginning to end. To their credit, Cal kept it close and got a neat onside kick to tighten it up, but when the score narrowed to one touchdown, the Trojans had no trouble coming right back down the field and scoring to move that deficit right back up. USC’s win probability hummed at a comfortable 80-90% for most of the first half and never dipped below 89% in the second.
But we’re dabbling around the big question that started this column.
Where has this Cal team been all year?
Well it’s the same Cal team we’ve seen the last two years. One that can punch up and lose, and one that can punch down and lose.
It’s been a popular theory that Bill Musgrave likes holding stuff back to give Cal a chance to compete in every game—there’s no doubt the playbook was looser for Cal against USC, as the Bears showed off some looks (Two tight ends from empty set! Misdirection! Weakside throwbacks! Half-rollouts and quick hits!) and pace they hadn’t shown most of the year. And it definitely caught the Trojans by surprise as they conceded some of the easiest touchdowns the Bears have scored all year!
Theoretically, from a full-game perspective, this makes sense. If you want to give Bill Musgrave optimized for a potential 12-0 outcome, improbable as it was.
But there is the double-edged sword in only selectively unleashing the playbook based on level of opponent—it leaves you vulnerable to defeat against inferior competition. There, the Bears run their base concepts or much simpler looks and get completely flummoxed when those defenses are countered.
This is how Nevada 2021 happens. This is how Colorado 2022 happens. This is how Cal blows four games to fired head coaches. This is how Cal nearly blows a win to UNLV. This is how Cal ends up not scoring for a half against a very uneven Washington defense, and gets their first touchdown against Washington State after three quarters.
This is how Cal ends up not doing anything, again for 30+ minutes, letting a 7-0 lead become 27-7 USC before finally roaring to life for the final 25 minutes.
This is how Cal goes 0-11 in true road games in the Bill Musgrave era.
And really, when an offensive line like Cal’s is struggling to execute even the most rudimentary plays, it makes far more sense for the Bears to play the way they did on offense in the successful parts against USC all season than whatever the hell we’ve been watching on offense the past month.
If Cal had played the way they did on Saturday all of this season, it’s likely Cal has five or six wins and we’re just needing a Big Game win to get a middling bowl. Hardly satisfactory, and changes are still needed, but it’s not at all the depressing and dull affair we’ve had to endure nearly this entire season.
The Cal offense maintains an exhausting and exasperating trend the last two years thanks to heady defensive effort—somehow they’re in most games for the majority of it, but eventually the deficiencies show up and the house crumbles. It’s a familiar pattern, it’s just that the Bears showed more punch this time around.
While yesterday’s national ESPN telecast was a kind surprise after the weeks of drudgery the fanbase had to endure before it, it isn’t so kind to know that Cal can just as easily play down again to a far less intriguing matchup in Oregon State and put up another stinker in Corvallis in seven days.
We just never know with Cal. Even if we kind of know.
The Cal defense has also fully regressed from good to average.
Injuries have caught up to them for sure, but in general in Pac-12 play, the Bears simply cannot be counted on to get stops with regularity anymore. The Cal defense has surrendered 28+ points in all but one Pac-12 game this season, giving up the mean amount of points Washington State, Arizona, Oregon, and USC have averaged this year.
It is an all too predictable chain reaction.
The Cal offense finds itself getting kicked off the field for 20 to 30 minute stanzas…
Leading to an undermanned defensive line wearing down from too many snaps and not getting enough pass rush…
Leading to Cal eventually needing to send extra defenders to try and generate rush…
Leading to holes opening up on the defense for capable offensive playmakers to exploit….
Leading to defensive plunges in efficiency by midway through the third quarter.
It isn’t super exciting to talk about this side of the football since the pattern is all too predictable at this point, but this will be Cal’s overall worst defensive performance since Wilcox’s first season. Average is simply not cutting it for a defense that needed to be the premier unit for the Bears to move the needle even a little this season.
Wilcox’s long-time coaching mate and teammate Peter Sirmon was brought in around year two to eventually become the full-time defensive coordinator of this staff. The results obviously hasn’t been as alarming as what we’ve seen on offense, but Cal simply is not producing commensurate results with the defensive talent they’ve gotten through recruiting and via the portal.
One season of injuries ravaging this unit can be excused. A second poor effort without improved offense could have this version of the program tumbling intoo the abyss.
Salute the players!
Jaydn Ott is surpassing some elite company. Here are the true freshman the last 20 years who put up over 600 yards from scrimmage at Cal:
6) Khalfani Muhammad, 2013: 629 yards, 5 touchdowns
5) Keenan Allen, 2001: 632 yards, 6 touchdowns
4) Desean Jackson, 2005: 649 yards, 7 touchdowns
3) Demetris Robertson, 2016: 767 yards, 7 touchdowns
2) Marshawn Lynch, 2004: 775 yards, 10 touchdowns
1) Jaydn Ott, 2022, so far: 938 yards, 9 touchdowns
Jack Plummer's 406 passing yards at USC is the first 400+ passing yard performance by a Cal QB in the Wilcox era. Props to Plummer for gutting it out and playing through clear pain—he looked better against the Trojans and was game for a late comeback. Hopefully he can hold that steadiness through the rest of the season. If he can. Cal should be able to retain the Axe.
Kudos to Hunter, Sturdivant and Anderson for awesome moments through most of the game, cooking USC defensive backs over and over. Monroe Young had a great ending stretch as well, making some nice plays in coverage. It was the first time we really saw the potential this Cal offense could have had all season.
Ender Aguilar got his first start and gutted it out. Everett Johnson also saw a lot of action after Coleman left the game at halftime, and Sioape Vatikani and Brayden Rhome actually performed well in their duties compared to previous efforts.
The Cal secondary made up for the loss of Hearns and Gamble. Craig Woodson cleaned up a lot of mess on the backend and was Cal’s best defender on the night, Miles Williams and Isaiah Young held their own.
Orin Patu generated a significant amount of pressure in passing downs yet again, as did Henry Ikahihifo, both in limited snaps. Cal might have found some additional veteran pass rush talent just in time for 2023.
Ashton Hayes showed off why he could be a versatile threat in the future with some very nice kickoff returns.
Why we must demand more.
I’ve covered Cal football full-time for 15 years. I have not seen Cal compete seriously for a Pac-12 title past the seventh game of the season for practically that entire period.
I've been told I'm a bit negative in my tweeting about Cal sports.
Cal has one of the most forgiving fanbases in college athletics. It is one of the reasons we have rarely accomplished anything in the modern era.
Cal extended our football head coach through 2027 after two straight losing seasons because he declined the Oregon job and we felt we owed him? What other major program does this?
Cal has not been competitive in men's basketball for five years, and insists every new year is a rebuild, meaning the existing head coach is always given an extra year to prove himself, meaning we'll be doing this dance over and over.
Cal still believes in the outdated notion that revenue sports must be judged on its academics to placate the faculty that run the university. This is not how things work in college athletics. Until Cal figures these things out, we will need luck to stumble into success.
We can't afford to be super positive about Cal anymore. The Pac-12 is teetering on the edge. A Big Ten invite will take time. We need to be serious about football/basketball ASAP, fans to donors to AD.
We can't afford good feelings and vibes anymore. It's survival time.