The Novel: Cal vs Oregon Football (2021)

In which they find a new way to disappoint.

I. Intro

In a different time – a time in which they weren’t supposed to be competing already, or in the fifth season of their head coach’s tenure -- the Bears could be happy with how they played Friday.

They played their hand as an out-talented 1-4 team as well as they could, taking the lead in the fourth quarter against the #9 team in the country, on the road.  13 more minutes, and they could have nabbed a historic upset – the kind only seen twice in program history. Considering the circumstances, floundering and bleeding out as they already were, Justin Wilcox and his troupe were still hunting for a turnaround, the way they have followed up so many of their losing streaks; last season’s Oregon result could not have been far off anyone’s minds when Gavin Reinwald put the Bears up by seven, at 17-10.

But the thing with blackjack is, you can’t stay on 17:

And by now, with your own players running the show and loud offseason proclamations of competing, things shouldn’t be left up to chance.

The Ducks, to their credit, certainly didn’t, after that -- remembering what was at stake as the only team with a realistic shot in the Pac-12 of making the playoffs, the hosts finally acted like it, shaking off the sluggishness of the evening to drive five plays, 62 yards for the tying score, and then seven plays and 70 yards for the lead they would ultimately hold onto.

Cal marched, scrapped, and clawed to get within a breath of a tying score – they almost certainly would have gone for two and the win if it came to that – only to, as they have in every key late game moment this season, ultimately bust.

Look, we all know that the house always wins, and truthfully, the frequently ridiculous, often comedic ways in which Cal has lost many of their games the last two years has started to feel like Lady Luck calling in her debts – cosmically course correcting for the small advantages stolen in earlier years. If the Bears are going to be stuck playing a game within a game – racing to 21 in addition to the standard goal of leading at 0:00 – then they can’t afford any of the turnover and declines that they’ve suffered either; the margin for error is infinitesimal now, and while we may bemoan the rotten chances that have befallen them, these exact situations are what good teams manage to avoid.

They aren’t. And if you aren’t going to be on a given week, then it sure as shit helps to have aces.

***

Despite how well they played, challenging all the way into the fourth, that Reinwald touchdown was the only brief moment when I thought they could actually win – and when Oregon drew even right after, the window was closed. Everything else was just for the drama; cruel, unnecessary, and ultimately, at least the fourth time this decade I can recall losing a game on the very last play. Those couple of minutes were fun, though – after COVID made all emotional stakes last season rather meme-like, and this season’s immediate and frequent disappointment, there was an unfamiliar moment of hope, noxious and alluring, as dumb as it was to have it at all.

***

Technically, from this point forward, the Bears can still qualify for a bowl with a 5-1 record down the stretch, but no more attention will be paid attention to that fact until they string some wins together. Bowl? Postseason play? I’m just trying to watch them win a game. *Jim Mora voice*

***

In regards to the emergent argument that the Bears could hire worse – that making a decision on Wilcox in the next year or two might result in them hiring an even worse coach, this way of thinking is not personally all that convincing to me. The stadium needs to be filled, and just as importantly, recruiting has suffered a tremendous dip with all the uncertainty as it is, with the team’s top three offensive pledges reneging, and several others still sniffing around. It’s hard to justify letting him oversee a rebuild again next season, even if the finances dictate that will likely be the case.

II. Offense

With the exceptions of the Nevada and Washington State weeks, I’d say that on this side of the ball, Cal’s output and overall strategy have been more or less acceptable. Too much of this space has been written about odd decisions made within the actual flow of the game, how much they ask Chase to do because he is very limited, and how rough things are once the game moves off the script – they scored again on the first drive -- but year two of Musgrave hasn’t been horrible per se. Things are actually generally better than last year:

The team’s now firmly middle of the pack on this side of the ball, without Gentle Williams or Mike Saffell, and coming off the bye week, had a clear plan on how they wanted to attack Oregon: get the ball out quickly because of anticipated pass protection issues, get the ball to the edges of the field, get Chase out of the pocket, and to run it with intention.  That last one, they did from the first snap, resulting in the best flow between Brooks and Damien Moore yet this season. Neither was able to break a run past 10 yards, but the chains moved consistently on the ground – and perhaps somewhat surprisingly, during clear passing situations, with multiple “and longs” eaten up by the ground game.

This is Chase Garbers’ passing chart from Friday, as gathered by PFF, and you’ll notice: only seven deep shots out of 44 attempts (15.9%), and over half of passes traveling between negative to 9 yards (54.6%), with pretty minimal efficacy anything beyond that. Still, even within the construct of that game plan, there were several throws he had to be able to make, which, of course, is the risk of asking him to do so much.

Unrelated: did you know Cal is averaging 4.89 yards per carry, a number that puts them in the top 40 in the country? I try not to lay awake at night thinking about this.

But, as Friday proved again, it’s the lack of red zone execution that’s murdering the Bears’ hopes of a good season, and that familiar demon reared its head again – Cal’s 72.73% score rate when they reach the red zone ranks out at 112th in the country, and is down from last year’s 78.57%. The crime scene this week: when Cal used penalties, off-script and desperate flicks of the ball, and some surprising decisions to run to get all the way down to the 7 yard line with first and 3 to go. For some brief moments, it recalled, as the Washington game this year did, Chase Garbers’ heroics in the 2019 Lightning Bowl, a last minute drive put together by sheer force of will, rather than through excellence.

Here’s what they did when they got down there, despite watching Chris Brooks rushed twice on the drive for 20 yards. All interpretations are my own:

  • 1st and 3 – Cal has the tight end in line, and the wide receivers all out of frame, empty set for 01 personnel (0 RB, 1 TE). Oregon shows five man rush, and does, which is picked up. The hot is to the tight end Tonges, who looks for the ball after clearing contact. It’s over his head, I believe because Garbers was expecting the fade, instead of the look inside. This is the third throw of the drive that was missed.

  • 2nd and 3 – 11 personnel, TE in the H-Back slot left, twins tight left. This looks to me like QB Power read (he’s looking off the end on the TE side, who doesn’t crash, so he keeps) is for the QB to follow the pulling guard and TE. The only problem: neither of the pullers actually makes contact with the other Oregon DE on the play side. It’s dead on arrival.

  • 3rd and 3 – In this one, the Bears are spread to empty, with two guys toward the boundary, and three toward the field side from the right hash. The Ducks have two down linemen, and three others simulating pressure, ultimately only sending three and dropping eight. This play collapses because neither of the left tackle or the guard can handle the one rusher toward their side, which flushes Chase from the pocket for an incomplete pass. If there was a run to be had, this might have been the one to audible into, because everyone else was standing up, and Chris Brooks was already in the slot.

  • 4th and 3 – A gap pressures kill this play on arrival too. 

Will Craig (PFF tracked at 6 of the team’s 16 hurries, and 10 of the team’s 20 pressures, for a grade of 7.3 in the pass blocking department) in particular had an incredibly rough time once Thibodeaux (1 sack, 2 hits, 8 hurries on 25 pass rush snaps) returned, but he really wasn’t the only one. ESPN’s gratuitous mentions of him were warranted, even if it was annoying, because wherever #5 was, trouble followed, from the interior on out, and it’s part of why it was so frustrating to watch this – they had the wherewithal to try to read option off Thibodeaux, to roll away from his side, to get the ball out early, but evidently, not to actually chip or double team him with the tight ends.  

Can’t say enough great things about what Jeremiah Hunter will become next year, and it’s part of the reason nobody’s really noticed Makai Polk is thriving over at Mississippi State. A real “all parties won” situation, that one. Getting him targets is an absolute must at this point.

Small moment of silence for Collin Moore, who broke his streak of every single reception in his career going for one, and only one yard. Consistency is no longer key.

Your unrelated plug of the week: a small column I finished on Squid Game, and how its representation of capitalism is at the core of its appeal.

III. Assorted Defense and Special Teams

Despite holding the Ducks to a manageable 24 points, it wasn’t an outstanding defensive game – the Ducks averaged 7 yards per play and would have put it in the icebox far earlier without committing ridiculous, ill-timed penalties or their baffling refusal to run Travis Dye more against a team missing several of its best linemen, including their starting nose this year – but because we live in the timeline where those things happened, it was nearly enough. A blood and guts performance again from this side of the ball, as it has so often been under Wilcox, with Bequette, Tevis, Saunders (another guy who will be really good in 2022), and Roberts handling the bulk of the DL snaps in Cal’s 2-4-5.

Just as importantly, they won the turnover battle at +2, which gave them a chance down to the very end.

Fun to see Elijah Hicks in on the first forced fumble, because there has been one Cal Rivals user insisting that he’s afraid of tackling for years. (In a now deleted tweet, Traveon Beck expressed wild incredulity that someone would hold such an opinion, saying that Elijah switched to safety because he enjoyed contact so much.) It hasn’t been the year he hoped for when he returned – it hasn’t, for any of the guys really – but as the last lifeline to the Original Takers, I’m glad he’s been around.

Speaking of the super seniors: this is the first game this year where I think Cam Goode played up to what we hope for of him – he had eyes on Anthony Brown the whole evening, even though he didn’t end up securing a sack on Friday. A menace, to say the least, but he was the only one, with the Bears tallying up only three blitzes on the evening, content to play coverage. Only 13 of Brown’s 34 dropbacks resulted in a pressure, and Goode was five of those alone.

His heir apparent, Patu had a two snap cameo and created a QB hit. There’s no real point I’m trying to make here, just the continual hope that he grows into the player we hope.

Truly impressed by how game ready Femi Oladejo has been, because coming out of high school, I figured him to be a long way off from contributing. Instead, he’s taken things into his own hands to play his way into the rotation, and if there’s any other small joy, to be added, it’s this one:

No Lu Hearns this week, back to Gamble and Anusiem; without being privy to any specific injury information, the size differential was likely to be an issue if he had played, since the Ducks love involving DBs in the run and screen games.

Tackling continues to be an issue in general, though, with too many guys not being able to secure the ballcarrier at the point of attack. Oregon averaged 4.24 yards after contact on the ground. No substantial receiving YAC allowed though, with the exception of Dye on screens. The Ducks are just so limited down the field with Brown at the helm.

While this ended up not impacting the game, getting a Nikko Remigio punt return called back by holding is certainly par for the course with the team’s special teams arc this season. They did hit on a long field goal though. Improvements!