Post Game Thoughts: Oregon State Football

Special teams and a sputtering 2nd half offense conspire to cost Cal in Corvallis

In the first half, despite a COVID-caused offensive line shift change, the Cal offense was excellent. The Bears drove into OSU territory on 5 out of 6 drives, and only iffy red zone execution limited them to ‘only’ 20 points. Chase Garbers and Kekoa Crawford were sharing a Vulcan mind meld and the Bears managed six different passes of 15 yards or more, including a few huge plays down the field.

On Cal’s first three drives of the second half, Cal ran the ball 9 times for 19 yards, compared to just 7 passes. And even to the extent that Cal passed the ball, they were short, safe passes. While Cal’s offense sputtered, Oregon State scored 10 points to take the lead.

But thanks to an Elijah Hicks interception, Cal was given a short field that the Bears converted into a touchdown to retake the lead. Cal’s defense gave the offense another favor by forcing a quick three and out. The Cal offense was given a chance to seal the game. What happened?

  • Run for no gain

  • Run for 2 yards

  • Underneath pass, incomplete, wouldn’t have gotten a first down even if complete

  • Punt

Here’s something I wrote after the Ole Miss game last year:

This is kinda becoming a thing now, isn’t it? A few times now in the Wilcox era, Cal actually gets enough offense going to build a 2 score lead . . . and they stop scoring. Last week Cal shut things down such that North Texas got the ball with a chance to take the lead. This week Cal shut things down such that Ole Miss should have had a chance to take the lead, and did have a chance to tie.

But on Cal’s final 3 possessions the Bears ran 10 running plays to just 4 passing plays, gaining just 54 yards on 13 plays. Those who watched WSU/UCLA know that sometimes you just need to run the ball to run a little clock, but it’s also true that Cal stopped scoring, and that left the window open juuuust enough that Ole Miss had a shot to extend the game that they shouldn’t have had. This seems like this habit will inevitably bite Cal.

At some point more than a year ago while sitting in the stands at a home game, either myself, Avi, or Larry described the Cal offensive strategy with the lead as ‘turtling.’ When the Bears get a lead, they retreat into their shell and no longer try to maximize the possibility of scoring points, and instead seemingly try to minimize the chance that something awful might happen. We run the ball more often, pass the ball less often, and stop throwing the ball downfield. The offense withers and dies, only to wake up again as soon as the Bears HAVE to score again.

Sure enough, the offense woke up when they had to. The Bears drove 69 yards in 11 plays and looked set to score the touchdown they needed to win the game. But the problem with only scoring just enough points to win is that it leaves you vulnerable to bad luck. A Chase Garbers pass was deflected at the line before falling into the arms of linebacker John McCartan. Game over.

Random chance that went against our Bears? Sure! But football is filled with stuff like that. The way to immunize yourself against those kinds of plays is to keep scoring. If Cal had scored on any of the four 2nd half drives rather than turtling, then that final do-or-die drive might not have needed to be do-or-die in the first place.

And I can’t help but feel that this tendency is about the gap between the offense Cal’s coaches WANT to have vs. the offense Cal’s coaches DO have. We WANT to be a ball control team that can gain 10 yards on three run plays and grind out the clock to win. But Cal’s offensive line hasn’t been a strength for the team at any point during the Wilcox era, and was even less likely to be a strength against Oregon State with four starting linemen out of the game in the 2nd half.

No, Cal’s offensive strength is giving the ball to Chase Garbers and letting him find Kekoa Crawford and company downfield, or make a play with his feet. Diverting from that strength in the 2nd half against Oregon State was one of many little things that were the difference between winning and losing.

Offense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 3 touchdowns, 2 FGA (2-2), 5 punts, 2 turnovers (interceptions), 2.25 points/drive

If you prefer, you could divide the game into the following:

Points/drive, first half: 3.3
Points/drive, second half: 1.2

I’ve already gone over my frustrations with how the offense was managed in the second half, so I’ll shelve that other than to note that Cal’s 15 RB carries managed just 37 total yards in the 2nd half. This team can maybe find success on the ground when the defense doesn’t know if a run or a pass is coming. But they don’t have the horses to run the ball when everybody knows they want to run the ball.

More generally, I don’t think this team can go full Mike-Leach-Air-Raid in terms of run/pass ratio, but Cal almost certainly will have to throw the ball more than the 53% of the time they did against Oregon State. To repeat: the QB and the WRs are the strength of this offense.

On the offensive line

If you told me that Cal would find out on Friday that three OL starters would miss the game due to COVID protocol, and that they would lose Mike Saffell to injury in the 1st half, and that Cal would score 27 points anyway . . . I’d have gladly taken it. Which is to say that considering the circumstances, I thought the line performed reasonably well.

This game could (should?) have been an offensive disaster, and maybe against a stronger defensive front it would have been. Cal couldn’t consistently run the ball (3.4 yards/run for non-QBs) but they kept the pocket relatively clean and mostly gave Garbers the time to make plays. Chase was only sacked twice on 44 drop backs, a perfectly acceptable rate for what was essentially entirely the 2nd string line.

Defense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 4 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 4 punts, 2 turnovers (interceptions), 2.8 points/drive

It’s really hard to separate Cal’s defensive performance from the field position they inherited. Allowing Oregon State to put up 31 points in 11 possessions is bad. But also, Oregon State scored 21 points from a combined 88 yards allowed thanks to special teams. When the Beavers were actually asked to drive the length of the field they weren’t particularly successful.

What to make of the big plays allowed?

The Cal defense under Wilcox and DeRuyter has generally been defined by big game prevention, and against an Oregon State offense that has been more ground-and-pound, you would have expected more of the same. And yet, Oregon State generally struggled to move the ball but for three plays:

  • Jermar Jefferson’s 75 yard run on the first snap of the game

  • Tristan Gebbia’s 35 yard touchdown pass to tight end Teagan Quitoriano

  • Jermar Jefferson’s 65 yard run that allowed OSU to run out the clock

Oregon State only averaged 3.9 yards/play on their remaining 48 offensive snaps, and relied on field position to score points. But those big plays allowed count too, which is why OSU actually averaged 7.1 yards/play. And I suspect that Cal’s relative inexperience across the defense means that the Bears are more likely to allow big plays than prior defenses under Wilcox.

A few more stops could have won the game

Allowing your opponent to start drives on the 35, 39, and 14 yard lines in your own territory is rough, but Cal still could have held OSU to field goals. Doing so even once would have put Cal in position to win the game at the end with a field goal rather than having to score a touchdown.

Special Teams

A disaster

Where to start? Well, let’s start with punting.

Oregon State punted four times, and averaged 44 net yards/punt, not counting penalty yards. That’s excellent.

Cal punted five times, and averaged 15 yards net per punt. That’s . . . well, I can’t say I’ve ever seen anything quite like that. Even if you removed the blocked punt from the ledger, Cal’s net average was only 25 yards net per punt, which is still disastrous.

Anything and everything that could go wrong, did. One punt was shanked. Another was returned for 36 yards after a missed tackle on the returner. And finally, there was the block.

What happened on the block? I’m not actually sure who erred. Only one OSU player actually attacked the 3 man shield protecting Jamieson Sheahan, so obviously he never should have gotten anywhere near the punt. But it also looked like the shield was rolling out to the side so that Sheahan could run and rugby kick the ball, but Sheahan didn’t seem to follow the roll of the shield. As is often the case, there were probably multiple mistakes that had to compound to create such a terrible turn of events.

Regarding two touchdowns erased

A block in the back and a hold erased a punt return touchdown and a kickoff return touchdown from Nikko Remigio. One made me irate, the other left me shrugging.

The kickoff return hold was an easy call - obvious, and critical for allowing Remigio to escape on the outside. Without that hold, Nikko is probably tackled easily inside the 20 after having trouble snaring the kick. There wouldn’t have been a touchdown without the penalty committed, so I’m not going to have nightmares about that play.

The block in the back though . . . that flag was really, really iffy. The Oregon State defender had overrun the play and was trying to stop is momentum and come back towards Remigio, and the Cal blocker trailing behind had relatively minor contact that was kinda on the side of the blocker’s body, but also kinda to the back of the blocker. Because it wasn’t 100% from behind, and because the defender wasn’t really close to the play, and because the contact wasn’t particularly firm, my preference would be for the refs to eat that flag and let the play go.

Then Cal went run-run-pass-24-yard-punt and OSU scored from the short field. Don’t call that penalty, and that’s probably enough right there to swing this game from a loss to a win.

Hey, at least we appear to have a kicker!

It wasn’t exactly a BOOMING kick, but any college kicker that can hit a 52 yarder is solid. Dario Longhetto’s field goal to end the half was steady and straight, and cleared the uprights by a couple yards. I don’t get the sense that his range would be much further out, but having a guy who can nail a 50 yarder at the end of a half is valuable.

Coaching

I promise I’m done ranting about offensive conservatism

In a strange way I found Saturday’s effort encouraging. The Bears lost Aaron Maldonado for the season, then lost five starters presumably from COVID, then lost Michael Saffell mid-game. Missing SEVEN starters, nearly a 3rd of your starting lineup, is nuts. Coming off what happened against UCLA, I braced myself for a demoralizing blowout loss.

Then the Bears came out and outplayed the Beavers for most of the game, losing because of a few big plays allowed by the defense, from the single most damaging special teams performance I can recall, and from an offense that fully turtled for most of the 2nd half.

I’m left with a weird mixture of appreciation for cobbling together a strong performance in tough circumstances, while also feeling frustrated at the big plays and mistakes that conspired to turn what should have been a win into a loss.

I’m trying to maintain my zen mantra about this entire silly season, but when you’ve been a fan for your entire life you can’t really shut off your lizard brain.

Big Picture

As soon as the UCLA game turned into a rout, I immediately turned my attention to the Big Game. Which is to say that I was looking past Oregon State because winning or losing this particular football game will have next to no impact on my long term feelings about Cal football. If we had beaten OSU only to come back home and lose to Stanford, that win over the Beavers would mean nothing to me.

Conversely, I will completely forget about this dumb, annoying game if we hold onto the axe.

This season is awful and dumb and I hate it and the only positive purpose it can serve is to provide a win over Stanford and another year of bragging rights with axe in hand.