Cal can't win yet another close game against Washington, as the season spirals downward
The Bears are finding it impossible to win one-score football games.
There are two staples of the Bill Musgrave experience at Cal.
One is that he appears to be eternally jetlagged when he has to travel on a plane.
Cal has yet to win a football game outside the Bay Area in his tenure. The Bears are now 0-10 after the Colorado loss last week in true road games since 2020, when Musgrave took over as offensive coordinator and Angus McClure became the offensive line coach, with barely any impressive offensive performances in those efforts.
The other: Cal cannot win a close game to save their lives.
Cal dropped their seventh straight one-score game (games decided by a touchdown or less) against a Power 5 team to Washington, a team that the Bears thankfully happily played up to for most of the game after playing to the bottom of their potential in Boulder.
Bill Musgrave’s offenses cannot seem to put the ball in the end zone in the final minutes of a close game—the last such time was against Washington in 2021. Cal has scored three points in those situations in their last five one-score Power 5 games. Musgrave is 2-10 in one-score games at Cal (the Bears beat UNLV this year in a one-score contest), and 1-9 overall.
Nearly all of these defeats have been uniquely tragic in their own way.
The Cal “does not travel” phenomena continues to hold true. Cal’s offense has been on a steep decline away from Berkeley, but does seem to roar its way back to life in some form at Memorial. The Cal defense was strong for most of the first half, and then the Cal offense made a game of it in the second half.
But as is always the case, making a game of it seems to be all that this very damaged Cal team is capable of doing against good teams. The Bears are now 6-21 against winning teams in the Justin Wilcox era, going only 1-7 the last two seasons.
I watched most of the Cal-Washington first half at the wedding of everyone’s favorite Cal personality, Nam Le. Congrats to my good friend and his lovely wife Allison!
It was my job to prevent him from watching the Cal game. Although I failed at that because this man yells louder than me to do things he wants to, Cal did eventually make him stop watching most of the Cal game to enjoy time at his post-wedding party, because Cal was doing nothing to make anyone interested in watching the Cal game.
To summarize the first quarter, the Bears defense stopped Washington a lot. Then the Cal offense proceeded to do nothing.
It was the third straight mind-numbing display of Cal first half football. Cal has scored THREE points in its last three first halves.
Most of the early offensive regression doesn’t just come with the usual playcalling weirdness. Right now, the Cal offensive line is currently on pace to be the worst unit in Power 5 college football.
With Matthew Cindric now out for the season, Cal has three offensive linemen who are just struggling to execute on even the most basic pass protection sets.
Our writer Piotr pulled the numbers from PFF+: Three of Cal’s starting offensive linemen are currently in the bottom 40 in pass protection in college football. Not the Pac-12, not Power 5, all of college football. There are about 700 offensive linemen a year with significant enough college football snaps, and we managed to bury three starters in the bottom. Wowzers.
You can see how Cal struggled for an entire half to adjust to Cindric’s absence. Here are the split stats at halftime:
Washington: 245 yards, 14 first downs, 6 third down conversions
Cal: 83 yards, 4 first downs, 1 third down conversion
And yet somehow the Bears were able to find some life in the second half! They managed a few decent plays by upping tempo (finally) and mixing up run and pass successfully. Jack Plummer made some very good throws under considerable duress. J.Michael Sturdivant had his best game as a Golden Bear, Mason Starling made some nice grabs before sadly getting injured, Mavin Anderson had an incredible touchdown grab.
But the bad offensive line made it impossible to really sustain that consistently. Washington managed pressure on Plummer on 30% of Cal passing dropbacks. Cal running backs rushed for 71 yards on their three scoring drives, with Jaydn Ott and Decarlos Brooks forming a nice tandem in getting movement downfield. They rushed for 18 yards on all the other Cal drives, as the line could not generate push and would let a free rusher into the backfield on nearly every run play.
It’s a bad place.
The Cal defense did their job, kind of. They stopped Washington from reaching the end zone, forcing three field goal attempts. And they generally gave the offense ample opportunities to stay in range.
But when it came time to close, they could not stop the steady churn of Husky drives down the field, and eventually the dogs started mushing past the barriers.
The hidden fact is that low number of possessions are masking how very average this Cal defense has become.
Cal blew coverages on the last two Washington touchdowns. That would never have happened a few years ago with the prime Takers. Cal is giving up yards and 3rd downs at an alarming rate, suffocating the time the offense needs to score. Cal is getting a pressure occasionally off a blitz and making a few run stuffs when needed, but opposing quarterbacks like Michael Penix Jr. were able to generally survey and dissect as needed.
By some metrics, the Cal defense is showing its mediocrity in too many ways. Namely, that Cal has the worst pass rush in college football. PFF+ is not the be-all, end-all, but these eye-test stats are bad, bad, bad.
Injuries, schemes, and lack of talent have taken their toll. Nearly every Cal lead taken in the last month has been blown by the Cal defense almost immediately. It is the worst kind of dispiriting for both units, who seem to be losing trust in the other to help them when they need it the most.
So Cal has finished the manageable part of their schedule. They had the second easiest schedule in the Pac-12, behind UCLA’s Pasadena scorch tour.
And they are 3-4. (Stanford, which had the hardest schedule in college football according to Sagarin, is also 3-4.)
Colorado went back to giving up 40 points in rather easy fashion against Oregon State. Arizona has the worst defense in Power 5. Notre Dame has more in common with Cal this season than their usual blueblood kindred, and they lost to Stanford and Marshall at home. Washington State and Washington are better but fairly beatable.
Cal went 1-4 against this group. That is a failure.
Nick has summarized this better than me. I wish I could be hopeful, but there is nothing I’ve seen over the last three games to indicate that Cal is going to change very much these next few weeks. Even a competitive Washington performance doesn’t help, because we’re turning up the difficulty sliders to finish 2022, and we simply do not have the juice to keep up.
Justin Wilcox has decided to ride tight with his current staff. He hired Steve Greatwood to assist Angus McClure, who has to know his time is probably up at the end of the season. But with Cindric out, Cal just doesn’t have any bodies to make up the difference. It’s just hard to watch a Cal team wasting pretty solid offensive talent because they can’t block at all.
Bill Musgrave was probably dealt a slightly unfair hand because of how bad the line got, and did have a better offensive performance this week, but it’s clear that his gameplanning is not doing this line any favors. There is no acceptable barometer for managing three points in ninety minutes of football these last three games.
Peter Sirmon managed to click the light on his defense midseason last year, and the Cal defense started playing like gangbusters around this time. But the light has stayed off this season, and Cal’s defense is far too close to being middling than it should be, despite a solid amount of talent. If it doesn’t click now, these final few games could also be a referendum on his own abilities to ceiling raise the Cal defense when the offense stays eternally capped.
And then there is Wilcox, who is now testing the waters of true donor and fan revolt. A lose out isn’t just possible, it’s one bad Big Game performance away from happening, and it’ll be hard for him to recover the program in time to save him, even if he isn’t going anywhere. Beating four of the worst USC and Stanford teams of our lifetime won’t be enough anymore, not with David Shaw showing faint signs of turnaround and the LA programs likely to be cresting upward. With Sonny Dykes entering the top ten, with Ron Rivera on the hot seat, with Troy Taylor taking Sacramento State to unprecedented heights, with plenty of young coaching talent in the conference, the hunger for something new is growing more fervent.
Wilcox will be back next year, with likely a new offensive reboot and a hope that his formula of defensive competence can still carry the day. It’s what happened when Cal went from Baldwin to Musgrave, so I expect that Wilcox will stay true to that formula.
But with every program in the Pac-12 save one or two trending upward, apathy is setting in on this version of Cal football. We talked about the script flipping on Wilcox-style football in 2019—if Cal stopped winning these low-scoring games, there wouldn’t be much to keep fan interest from bottoming out. Well we’re here, and the holes are being dug.
Basically: When Marshawn Lynch calls out the football program and athletic department, you best be listening.
Third times a charm for OC. Let’s GoGo get the right guy!!!
For the first time in my nearly 37 years on this earth, I will be willingly skipping two home games in a row. Our AD is a buffoon of mind-boggling proportions, our head coach can’t get a damn offensive coordinator hire right to save his life (and refuses to fire a single under-performing assistant, even if only to publicly make the point that mediocrity is not bleeping acceptable), and, based on the current recruiting class, the program’s direction continues to look bleaker and bleaker. With so many people in power within our athletic department appearing to not really give a shit, I just don’t have it in me to keep investing. A two hour drive to watch us a) get waxed by oregon or b) inexplicably play somewhat up to our competition only to find a way to give the game away is not how I’m going to spend my Saturday. Instead, I’ll be keeping my fandom at home and taking my wife to her homecoming at sac state to watch an entertaining and well-coached team, led by a man who would probably give his left nut for cal football, but who will likely never be our coach because of the utterly insane contract given to Wilcox by Jim “the empty suit” Knowlton. Instead, this off-season, we’ll find another re-tread offensive coordinator like Bill Musgrave - a guy who is 54 going on about 80, and based on every interview I’ve seen with him, appears to be the least inspirational person on the planet. Seriously, the only thing that guy inspires me to do is fall into a coma. I’m starting to think it’s no coincidence that Wilcox’s most successful season came with guys like Gerald Alexander on the staff. This program needs a serious injection of that kind of energy, or we may fall into a hole we just can’t get out of.