The Novel: Cal Football v. Nevada
In which the Bears do not finish the job
It felt, familiar. Almost normal, last night.
For the first time since late 2019, Memorial Stadium welcomed fans, hosted merriment throughout the day. Friends and families gathered again in Strawberry Canyon to watch the program they love – or in the case of the students, the one they’d like to – as the Bears marched out for yet another 7:30 PM kickoff, filled with a hope that they would be serious contenders, now that the COVID-impacted 2020 was behind them.
It felt, familiar. Almost normal, last night, when all of that good will dissipate after the first hour, by way of all of the familiar trappings of the Wilcox era: nearly three quarters of non-functioning offense, playing down and ultimately losing a game that could have been a statement, in a fashion close enough to rationalize away.
But, since this is his fifth year, and the fourth with the same quarterback at the helm, such a thing is harder, if not impossible to excuse. The Bears had constructed a fair case – internally, where they convinced a lot of talent to return; externally, selling the fanbase on the idea that this team, which beat the 2020 Pac-12 Champions to avoid going winless, could compete on a more even playing field – for improvements this year, only to faceplant immediately once given the opportunity to prove said improvements had occurred.
In 2016, when I walked out of Reser Stadium after the final whistle and a 47-44 loss, I knew it was over for Sonny Dykes. That made me later to recognize so than most, but I have never been someone who rushed to conclusions as a writer, and that night, clearly and definitively, the explanations had run dry; the last vein of belief had ruptured. There was, for any Cal fan leaving Corvallis, only the sinking feeling of knowing he would still be coaching into the future, and eventually, taking us nowhere while doing it.
As that feeling starts to creep in again, and we wonder about how far Wilcox might be able to go, it should be said that there is still a long way to go this year and a lot of things can happen in that time – including, the chance of a win next Saturday. Wilcox, to his credit, has always prepared his teams to play hard, especially when their backs are against the wall; the aforementioned Oregon win, despite going winless to that point, is a fine example. Plus, there remains, mathematically, the possibility of winning a conference no one seems particularly well-geared to taking, based on week 1’s results.
The issue is whether he will ever be consistent enough at the helm to produce a good – read: not middling program, and Nevada was another growing check on a list of no’s. There is a contingent of folks online who are starting to advocate for his firing based on this, but a split is something I don’t think will happen this year -- the finances now, like they were in 2016, strongly suggest a level of safety. Barring a complete collapse this year, from top to bottom, he looks safe heading into 2022, and only another mediocre year then could possibly lead to action from the AD.
All that remains is a flickering hope, as we wait for the future to unveil itself, after another home-opening loss to Nevada, in a year filled with 2’s, 0’s, and 1’s.
How familiar it all feels.
At the time when I wrote this, it was after the North Texas game, where Garbers went 9 of 22, for 129 yards and a touchdown. (He also, notably, added 70 yards on 18 carries that day.)
The next week, he would march into Ole Miss and play one of the best games of his life, get injured in the one after that, and then return in time to go 3-0 against Stanford, UCLA, and Illinois to close out 2019 – performances that left the fanbase with some fair hopes that he might be the guy to carry the team forward in the conference.
But in the five games – four games in the COVID shortened season, and last night -- he’s played since that time, Garbers has only crossed 300 yards once, and his running has largely disappeared altogether, swinging the pendulum back toward that original tweet: a lot has to happen for him to play his best. It’s been easy to conjure up excuses for the lack of development: a new OC last year, injuries up and down, and so on, and so forth. Still, by this point in his career, you would have liked to see more, and the sample of games that are wildly mediocre is rapidly eclipsing the portion of brilliance he conjured up in 2019:
The numbers seem obvious, in their indication that he isn’t comfortable pushing the ball down the field. We can point to a lot of possible reasons as to why (constantly injured personnel, OL shuffling, etc), but when this is your second year with the OC, you would have hoped he is more comfortable doing so, and that just didn’t happen against the Wolfpack.
Beyond the skittish nature with which he played on Saturday, there were a handful of throws that were downright unacceptable from your senior quarterback: one third and two into the dirt, another that should have been picked off but miraculously ended up in the hands of Nikko Remigio, and then four throws at the end of the game that didn’t even cross the sticks. Many of these were open, and despite the frustrating nature of the playcalling – more on that in a moment – he still needs to be good enough to make those throws.
So, am I placing the entirety of the blame on Chase? No. As I said before, he can be a serviceable Power Five starter, if a lot of things go well. Once again, that was not the case -- the offensive line was extremely poor (and penalty prone), especially with three returning linemen. If Chase is unable to get the ball down the field, some of it is due to the inability to protect him consistently.
Did the playcalling help him? Some; a lot of those throws were easy, makeable, even if they didn’t stretch the field and were frequently smothered. Did they do all they could? Absolutely not, and that goes to my next point, about getting away from the run game. Cal enjoyed a massive, 30 pound advantage across their entire front, and were absolutely massacring Nevada early, yet decided to flip those ratios midway through the second and third quarter, when they could not buy a first down with any of the cryptocurrency in their pocket.
I also disagree with the way they rotated the backs – almost no Chris Brooks, one random DeCarlos Brooks carry, successful or not, was an odd inclusion -- but the decision to suddenly go away from the run game was both baffling and frustrating, especially when they got into the red zone late in the fourth quarter. The less you need to ask Chase to do right now, the better – and that’s not anything anyone wants to hear starting a senior, but it is what it is (because I don’t think there’s a better option immediately just waiting), and they had plenty of opportunities to support him further.
III. Defense, Special Teams, and Other Things
The gameplan this week against Strong felt like they wanted to largely drop coverage, with different guys flashing pressure and dropping at different times, to give him different things to look at. When combined with the self-inflicted mistakes of Nevada’s receivers – seven drops that could have made the game a lot less close – this nearly ended up being enough. They also managed to get the ball back twice in the final 15 minutes, keeping it at a one possession game. It wasn’t great, but it was enough to win.
Tackling continues to be an issue – and it wasn’t so much that Nevada tore it up on YAC, but just that initial wave of guys consistently coming up short that extended a few things. PFF tallied McKenzie, Iosefa, Drayden, Deng, and Goode with multiple missed tackles apiece. Iosefa, for my money (and I’ll update this once I get a chance to review some more film later in the week) was the most disappointing guy based on how well he performed in spring, versus what we actually saw against the Wolfpack – he looked really frequently caught out and lost.
It wasn’t a game for McKenzie, but you can see his size at work. There’s a good player there in a year.
Collin Gamble didn’t have an excellent night, but they did start getting him some safety help in the second half, particularly when Miles Williams made a difficult run from the left hash to the right sideline to get there in time for an interception. (Cal was burned on a similar situation in the first half, when the safety didn’t get there from the right hash to the left sideline.)
JH Tevis was the most disruptive guy on the evening; played a tough role when Cal went to their two down linemen packages – he lined up next to Luc Bequette when the Bears were in 2-4-5, and I think made his presence known really well.
Covering big receivers may also be an issue for this team going forward. Turner dominated the middle of the field, and had he caught the ball better overall, this might not have even been that close.
The early returns on special teams indicate not that much improvement over last year. Nikko is still a plus returner, which is nice, but the kicking game was definitely behind that of Nevada, and punts were nearly blocked several times.
IV. A quick personal note
For those of you guys who might not know me, I used to write with this group of guys a long time ago, before I moved on to Cal Rivals to do this column, plus handle a bulk of the recruiting analysis.
For those of you guys who do know me, I’m sorry.
So I’m back now, if you haven’t heard – just to do a final year of writing, because I didn’t want the last things I wrote to constantly be couched in trying to account for COVID. A bit of a retirement tour, in that sense; and my original hope was that I’d be spending my final season writing about a legitimately good Cal team, although that seems…rather in flux at the moment.
Anyway, I will aim to update this space throughout the week, as I slowly work my way through the tape, since my day job as a teacher (and the fact that I am set to publish Sundays, rather than Mondays), doesn’t allow for much more than that; so check back for a mid-week update to this column, when I will point out a few more nuances and hopefully add some play diagrams and such.
I also do write more than just college football things, but we’ll see how I feel about plugging that as we go along.