The Novel: Cal vs Colorado Football (2021)

In which the Bears return to dominant, methodical, bland, predictable, and winning football. How beautiful it was.

There might not have been so many there to attend it, and they may have had to entice students with the offer of paid-for textbooks next semester, but the Bears played a fantastic game in front of those who were still there on Saturday, strangling Colorado 26-3.

Until the last two years, it was the kind of performance that had been a regular under Justin Wilcox – dominant, methodical, bland, predictable but winning football, and the kind that was promised consistently entering the season, as Andy had pointed out; and it is hard not to see why there can be an immense appeal in 7-5 football, because of it. A few times a season, you will be definitely better than the team you line up across, beat them handily, and feel really good afterwards.

That was Saturday: workmanlike football over a Power 5, conference foe, no late dramatics necessary, the first of its kind since before COVID. (Yes, *that* is how long it's been. Not since the Redbox Bowl have the Bears beat Power 5 competition so handily, and if you don't count that on the basis that it was a postseason game, then it'd be the 2019 UCLA one before it.) Cal scored on their first four possessions – they passed the imminently surmountable hurdle that was the 21 point marker heading into the half -- tacked on another field goal for good measure, and Colorado never even came close to threatening.

The romance of college football lives in afternoons like this one - fall Saturdays that are purposefully booked for old friends and fight songs and afternoon revelry, for the nostalgia of a time when you could love the program with a fearless intensity. When you get to a certain age, that feeling becomes more and more precious.

It was enough, briefly, to overcome the bitter regrets of what might have been; how the season might have turned if this was their performance at Nevada, because so much of the game felt like what was promised: the front seven was dominant; the rushing attack hummed behind Brooks and Street (and Garbers), the tight ends – nearly all of the seven who played managed to contribute something -- and on the day he became Cal's all time leader in rushing yards at the QB position, Chase did exactly enough to win, and never was asked for anything beyond that.

Squint a bit, and the outline of a good program was here, and you can see why the coaches felt so adamant they could have competed this season. Imagine Brett Johnson running the twist that was David (Darius) Long’s sack, and Garbers scattering a few more of those open completions deep in previous weeks. Imagine that Mike Saffell was spearheading the performance at the line. It's a pretty picture, and enough to have won them three more games this year (UW, TCU, Nevada) at least.

Truthfully, and despite those very real and valid what ifs -- try not to think about how they were four yards away from the game winning field goal against UW, since Longhetto did hit from 51, for example -- what matters is they still won. They are getting better.

In a season that’s been short on our ability to say both, what a joy that is.

***

Without another win next week against Oregon State and its haunting, Michael Myers-like presence over the modern program, this game cannot matter so much. Despite their actually posting a winning record against the Beavers since 2013 (4-3), the larger span of the history between these two teams often involves Cal in a horror show (see: 2007, and 200…you get the idea). But, if they did find a way past Jonathan Smith’s team, then they’re 3-5 with eminently beatable Arizona in town --  get that far, and we can talk. A bowl probably wouldn’t change my long-term outlook on the Wilcox era, and would probably be more of the kicking the can down the road again…but it still would be nice, though.

***

Absolute bummer to lose the talent of Jaxson Moi during the game. Imagined him making a very similar impact to what you’ve been seeing out of Ethan Saunders this season. Doubly hate it that it’s to Stanford, but that’s the game – so after the massive Derek Wilkins win in a head-to-head, you can see how quickly momentum has left in recruiting at the moment. Still not going to let it take away from the win too much though. Try, anyway.

***

This week’s small, self-indulgent thing in the column: a brief moment to thank to all the guys I talk with, who are equally big influences on this Novel as I put it together. This week, much of it transpires from the talks on Twitter I have had with Nick, Piotr, Rob, Lester, and in the past, too many others to list. I miss and love you guys very much.

Subscribe to Onlenams, I guess.

II. Offense

They played generally well, and didn’t need to do much better, but if there is something to find fault in -- and of course there is -- among them is the second half struggle to score any points of real consequence, as they dropped from 8.5 to 4.0 yards per play in the second half. Some of this looks better if they don’t flag Collin Moore for a soft OPI, or give Marcel Dancy a touchdown instead of a knee down, but it does continue a trend of the Bears not being able to be able to finish sustained offensive production.  

Chase played excellently, and probably close to what the platonic ideal of what we want him to do – 22 of 29 for 225 yards, 2 touchdowns, and 96 more on the ground on 10 carries, some designed, others, improvised. As we have seen many times, this has been the recipe for success with him – keeping it manageable and controlled, with the green light to take off if it’s really there. The first quarter run, I half expected him to slide, but he found an angle to cut back and turn it into nearly 40. That being said, a little bit of caution: they won’t always be able to get away with a gameplan that consists of only 8 throws of 20+ yards, compared to 7 behind the line of scrimmage and 13 from 0-10 yards, routes that Colorado seemed surprisingly ill-equipped to defend. Pushing the ball will be a bit more important as teams ultimately adjust off this tape, and approaching some of the better ones in the back half of the schedule. (Potential opponent Graduate Assistants doing game research and coming across this column, do not read this: Bill, please stop asking Chase to throw the comeback from across the opposite hash.)

Now, onto some other things:

  • 16 in-game minutes is too many for Jeremiah Hunter to get his first touch. This will become a W4C Hivemind-column staple.

  • Internally, I have heard, unprompted that program is thrilled with the progress of Keleki Latu (Oladejo was another mentioned to me), and it’s easy now to see why the former popped up, with his first career touchdown catch on a Smash concept to the right side of the field. Colorado is playing with one high safety here, who is too late to get over and defend the throw from the top. Latu came into the program still a little light, but you can kind of see what they’ll have in another year or so after S&C; he’s set to take on a lot more responsibility with Tonges, Moore, and Reinwald set to move on at minimum. A gorgeous block from Brooks to keep Chase Garbers uprights on the Latu touchdown, btw.

  • Jermaine Terry is a bit further behind in development and still can play a big role next season too, so it was good to see the game was firmly in control enough for him to get his first catch.

  • Look, Marcel Dancy deserved that touchdown.

  • The third and 1 call that was a fake QB run into pitch was such a gorgeous design that it’s a disappointment they burned it now, instead of against one of the remaining rivals. In the larger scheme of things, Wilcox has game managed in decently – going for it as necessary, playing aggressively and with the mindset to win, which has made it more frustrating when the margins have let him down. On Saturday,  choosing to go for another score with 30 seconds in the half was rewarded with a Longhetto field goal, and across the other sideline, Karl Dorrell couldn’t even figure out how to approach identical 4th and 1 situations in midfield.

  • Cal played a lot of this look that I don’t remember seeing as much of in previous weeks (or at least, executed well out of it): the even strength, one TE offset on each end of the line. Out of 12 personnel, this doesn’t declare a favored side of the formation either way, and they motioned into this look on the Reinwald touchdown.

  • Those Reinwald and Latu throws were the only two Garbers took to the deep right all afternoon.

  • Even when it’s been going badly, let’s not forget to enjoy the small and truly, unimpeachably great things this season: the arcs of Trevon Clark, Marqez Bimage, JH Tevis, and Jake Tonges.

III. Defense
Credit is due, where credit is due – this was the first Peter Sirmon game where, top to bottom, the team has played well and completely in control. A few early hiccups aside with bad angles, but pressure was consistent throughout, they rolled aggressively where necessary. Brendon Lewis had a tough day at the office.

There’s a grab bag of excellent statistics to pick through in the wreckage of Ralph, which I will admit I had too much fun gathering:

  • 0.9 yards per play for the Buffaloes in the second half, or less than the amount of you or I directly falling forward on our faces.

  • In the fourth quarter, an average Colorado snap lost yardage.

  • The longest Colorado play occurred late in the first quarter, when Brendon Lewis hit Jarek Broussard for 21 yards.

  • *checks earpiece* Sorry, I’m being told Colorado did make it into the end zone after all – they did end up totaling 104 yards on the afternoon, an amount good enough just to make it to paydirt. On 46 plays.

  • 26(!) recorded stops by the Bears on said 46 plays – *Stops defined as plays that keep the offense off schedule.

  • Colorado entered the game allowing pressures on ~40% of dropbacks, and Cal just about matched that benchmark, on only six blitzes. Ten total guys recorded a pressure of some sort.

  • Even among strong defensive performances the last five years, this was outstanding. A quick perusal of the team history, and I couldn’t find any performances that resulted in the Wilcox-era Bears allowing less than 240 (the Evan Weaver INT for the win game against Washington a few years ago).

Look, you can’t just shout out one person when it’s those kind of group numbers, so let’s just do as many as we can:

  • Obviously a game ball to Elijah Hicks, who was an absolute force in all phases, and was rewarded with a sack and an interception.

  • Nate Rutchena’s fourth down stop in the first quarter, helped made possible by Daniel Scott holding strong at the point of attack on the right side.

  • Two sacks for Cam Goode after he spent last Friday terrorizing Anthony Brown to no avail has to feel just immaculate.

  • PFF didn’t end up liking Trey Paster’s performance, but he put together an excellent run of play early and flashed a bit early; his playtime has ticked up as the season has gone on, with 42, 44, and 23 (of 46 total plays) in the last four games. As he grows a bit, he could offer a nice injection of athleticism into the middle of the field with the Iosefa pairing. This was Cal’s first choice LB pairing in the spring, for what it’s worth.

  • MARQEZ BIMAGE!!! What a guy, what a season he’s having.

  • Wreaking some (Halloween) havoc upon the Buffaloes offensive line were the veterans up front: JH Tevis, Luc Bequette, and Darius Long* (sheesh, missed it twice) picking up his first sack on a nasty designed DL pressure. Cal doesn’t have their ideal personnel here, but they’ve done a bang up job.

  • Orin Patu, who has played significantly fewer snaps than hoped this year and made a few high-profile mistakes on the ones he has played, snagged a sack and three pressures in just EIGHT snaps. An excellent sign in the audition to replace Cam Goode next year; and he definitely showed that much talent to win it all the way back when he came in. (Kaleb Elarms-Orr looks set to compete for that spot next year also, whenever he returns from his knee injury.)

  • The cornerbacks largely weren’t even needed to be tested, if you’re wondering how that went down the field.

IV. Special Teams

While not as consequentially bad as they have been in other games (see: TCU’s botched PAT) – more on Super Dario Longhetto in a moment – the Cal Bears did keep true to form by drawing up two new mad libs special teams errors: an unsportsmanlike conduct penalty on Slater Zellers, and a long return given up to the *checks notes* son of Jerry Rice.  

We’re gonna close with SUPER DARIO [future photoshop goes here], who is 2 of 3 from 40-49 yards this season, and 1 of 2 from 50+. Those are pretty solid numbers that would play absolutely anywhere, and he’s having to do it through some snap troubles this year.

Felt real good to do this one. Thanks for reading.