Cal football can't hold the line, again, at Washington State
The Bears are deficient at all the wrong places to win big football games.
The California Golden Bears are a pretty simple football team this year.
It’s a formula that appeared against UNLV, replicated against Notre Dame, and returned after a surprising Arizona performance.
They have a lot of great skill players. They have some talented offensive talents who can make plays. They have a gamer of a quarterback who can make some nice intermediate or deep throws. Their defense remains solid, particularly in coverage and making a stop when they have to.
But they have clear line problems.
And without good lines, you can’t go very far in college football.
Cal lost to Washington State in hapless fashion for the second straight year, and the formula was pretty similar in both games—the relentless Cougars front disrupted the Cal offensive line with often only six in the box, used their speed on the edge to overwhelm the Bears before they could really get their offense moving, plugging gaps with four man and occasional five man pressure, and letting the backline win with heavy tackling in the sticks.
Washington State proved to be smarter than Notre Dame in one respect though—no outside gaps. Everything inside. Keep everything contained between the hashes. That meant no long scrambles for Jack Plummer, and no toss plays for Jaydn Ott to really break the perimeter.
Thanks to that, plus some pretty solid Cougar special teams, Cal only crossed the Washington State 45 twice today (which happened on both of their scoring drives). Plummer managed only three rushes for four yards. Cal went three-and-out five times.
Cal ran a bunch of power plays to try and unleash the defense, and WSU found its way into the backfield on what felt like two of every three possessions, or stuffed the line for minimal gain. Cal attempted wide receiver screens to soften the middle and Wazzu’s corners blew up the WR blocks, leading to minimal gains. The Bears got some quick passes out but the pressure was so great that Plummer’s accuracy wavered, leading to very little YAC on short and interemdiate passses.
On the defensive end, Washington State was held in check for most of the first half, the defensive line held up better than they did in previous weeks by getting early pressure.
But by the second half, they were worn out, and soon the rest of the defense followed suit. Washington State ran a similar scheme early on to Cal with a lot of short throws, but Cam Ward had far better protection, and you can’t give Cam Ward that much time. By the second half the Cougars were humming away, running a ton of empty set to spread out Cal’s defense and negate pass rush. Eventually they even activated the run on the clinching drive, Cal could not tackle in space well enough, and the Bears were toast.
Head coach Jake Dickert (DC at Wazzu last year) and defensive coordinator Brian Ward (DC at Nevada last year) seemed to combine forces to replicate the results from two of Cal’s most embarrassing offensive efforts last year. Both found the vulnerable areas on Cal’s line and exploited them to maximum gain, mostly due to great talent, but also due to poor adaptation and adjustments from Cal.
Football is still a line game, and if one side enjoys any sort of significant advantage upfront, they win.
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“Coach, your QB appears to be in danger.”
The most alarming aspect of Saturday’s game was the treatment of Jack Plummer with Cal trailing 28-9.
Plummer appeared to get injured on a late drive after more Wazzu pressure, limped around for a play, got hit AGAIN, THEN stayed in the game and limped some more, THEN fell down without contact while bleeding from his leg, THEN limped into the medical tent as the teams changed possessions, THEN came back into the game when Cal got the ball back, playing a few snaps before getting pulled for Kai Millner.
What. Was. That?
After a very terrible week for the NFL with regards to QB injury management, that was a bad look that could’ve (and might have) gone very badly for Justin Wilcox if your best option at signal-caller just ended up getting seriously hurt. We’ve seen a QB injury sink a Cal season one too many times.
Hitting the breaking point
Justin Wilcox was peeved after Saturday’s performance, and you could see all of that going in every direction. There were two obvious targets of his ire: An offensive line that returned to looking like five guard monte, and a offense that made mistakes throughout the entire game.
Angus McClure is definitely in trouble. While he has brought a little nice recruiting lift in 2020 and a few nice saves at the end of the 2021 cycle, the concerns about his overall coaching that dogged him at UCLA have followed him to Cal. The offensive line has logged its third bad performance in four games, and these shellackings are the primary difference between 3-2 and 5-0.
Bill Musgrave is similarly in a tough spot. While it’s difficult to figure out counters when your offensive line is overmatched, the pass scheme seemed to rely heavily on short passes without any concepts to start testing Wazzu in the intermediate game. Cal’s pass game was a mixture of short, very short, and long, with very little in-between, making it easier for the Cougars to scheme aggressively in coverage and in rush.
Cal threw short of the sticks on multiple third downs. Cal’s 3rd down road stats are horrific—at times, we feel like a two down team when we leave Berkeley.
Cal did not even consider going for it on 4th down no midfield in multiple occasions. It was a very passive gameplan that didn’t effectively counter Wazzu’s weaknesses, particularly in deep coverage.
This was not a great Peter Sirmon game either—the Cal defense could not generate rush to save their lives, and seemed hesitant to mix up blitzes, instead relying heavily on Ward to make mistakes. Ward made two big ones, so it did pay some dividends, but with the Cal offense not having it, the defense really didn’t have the juice in the second half.
Some of this is obviously scheme-dependent—Washington State has great speed at wide receiver and a fast throwing QB. But the Cougars have given up a lot of sacks this year, and Cal’s inability to put Ward on the ground or under pressure and let him sit in the pocket was the big difference.
Bears in the spotlight
Jack Plummer’s stats seem to reflect a good football game in terms of efficiency and productivity, and he did have a few good passes on that one 4th quarter drive, but the gameplan dictated short passes so that made the performance look a little better than it was. Plummer went 15-18 on passes of five yards or less, and 9-10 on passes behind the line of scrimmage. Plummer spent most of the game dinking and dunking, but the softening really didn’t lead to sustained offensive drives as the Cougars held their own.
Jaydn Ott still remains Cal’s best weapon despite the Cougars limiting the explosiveness. He had a still fairly solid 16 carries on 69 rushing yards and had some nice runs on one drive, but Washington State kept the explosiveness on lock.
Where he really showed off his versatility was in the pass game, logging 40 yards after catch from quick passes to the sidelines coming out of the backfield. Hopefully in future games we can see more Ott operating on the move rather than sitting in the flat.
Jeremiah Hunter had a huge game, arguably his best at Cal, piling up 79 of his 109 yards off of two straight throws from Plummer on the only touchdown drive for the Bears. Cal really needs to find more ways to unleash Hunter in space.
Collin Gamble was Cal’s best defender on the game. Washington State targeted him and Gamble held up most of the game, logging five stops and seven tackles in coverage.
Kudos to Daniel Scott and Craig Woodson for interceptions that took points off the board for Wazzu. Xavier Carlton got good pressure that forced Ward out of the pocket and made him make a bad decision on one of those interceptions.
Jamieson Sheahan had a great game, pinning Washington State inside the 20 three times and averaging 43 yards per punt. He’s currently 7th in FBS in punt average.
Cal stats of sadness
This is the 19th Pac-12 game in 41 games in the Justin Wilcox era that Cal has failed to hit 20 points. Cal is 2-17 in those games.
Cal has failed to reach 4 yards per rush (FBS average 4.4) in 11 of their 19 games in the Bill Musgrave era. Cal is 3-8 in those games.
Cal has now lost nine straight games outside the Bay Area.
Cal failed to score a touchdown for just under 99 minutes of football action against Jake Dickert’s Washington State defense the last two games. That’s six-and-a-half quarters.
The Bill Musgrave/Angus McClure offense has not surpassed 17 points in its last five non-Bay Area games, averaging 12 points per game.
In his tenure, Justin Wilcox drops to 2-13 in Pac-12 games outside the state of California.
This is the eighth time in 59 games in the Justin Wilcox era that Cal has finished in single digit scoring. Jeff Tedford had nine single-digit efforts in his 139 games. Sonny Dykes had one single-digit game in 48.
Ott took all of Cal’s carries at running back, and aside from a few snaps from Decarlos Brooks played most of the way.
Mo Iosefa, who has played sparingly this year, got a surprising start this week at inside linebacker over Nate Rutchena. Ryan Puskas (who started last week) did not play.
Thanks to all those who played bingo with us this week!
Glad Avinesh has written about the very poor treatment of Plummer by Wilcox after Plummer was clearly injured but gamely tried to make plays using, essentially, his one non-injured leg, after being left in the game that Cal could never win, given we were down by more than sixteen points with only three minutes left.. I think I have written about three comments on this subject (this being the fourth).
For a college game it was an abominable way to treat an obviously injured player playing on pure guts alone. Hope Plummer will be able to be back for the next game. He may not be because of his injuries.
Musgrave and McClure must go! Wilcox needs to set aside friendships and do what's best for the program and his tenure at Cal. A young OC with innovative ideas is needed to take advantage of the young offensive talent we have and to exploit the aggressive Pac-12 defenses. Otherwise, these young men might be looking to go elsewhere. McClure has worn out his welcome here. Next man up. It's the BYE week. Do something now, Wilcox!!!