The Novel: Cal vs Oregon State Football (2021)
In which the blog is on TV.
If you are a believer in omens, then Saturday was chock full of them heading into the game: there was a Halloweekend matchup against nemesis Oregon State, already responsible for so many high profile defeats on Memorial Stadium turf, and there was also Jeff Tedford, so often their victim in the 2000s, back in the building to be honored.
At least, if there were witnesses to a crime, there would not be so many, with large swaths of the stadium unpopulated, evidently already committing their time to other spooky festivities.
But, it would not be one of those Oregon State games -- not this time, on this day. BJ Baylor fumbled on the first play from scrimmage, which the Bears promptly turned into a touchdown, and the game was largely undramatic after that -- Cal ran the ball, a lot; the Beavers never got closer than they were in the first quarter, and three turnovers, plus a blocked punt completed the Corvallis horror show. It could have been worse had the Bears tried to score late.
39-25 was the final.
At the risk of sounding like a coach -- something Rob did ridicule me about in our postgame chat -- by itself, this game doesn’t mean anything yet; not unlike like the last one didn’t. It’s undoubtedly a positive trend that the team has embarked on now, but Colorado is one of Pac-12 bullied, not the bullies, and a solid Oregon State is roughly the type of team you figure you should be beating by Year 5. It’s a lot harder to enjoy each of these accomplishments knowing how deep the hole already is -- you flip the Nevada result, maybe even the TCU, UW, or Oregon results, and if the Bears are 5-3 at this point, then more satisfaction could be derived from winning this game, because we would be looking forward to postseason play.
As it stands, they have to beat Arizona, in a state that they have not won in for quite some time, just to get to the showdown against USC, where they could play themselves into realistic bowl contention if they can flip that.
The good news: all of those teams are dealing with major issues of their own.
The better news: the Bears are improving each week, and the confidence is palpable, after they’d secured one, and now two wins over conference opponents. It’s entirely still possible, and if the Bears win out (or even take 2 out of the three California games it would require to make a bowl), then the season can still take on something nearing satisfaction. As to whether or not that changes my long-term outlook on Wilcox, well, win out and we’ll see. At 6-6, I could begrudgingly accept the results of the year; 4-8 or 5-7, and it’s a nice rally, but too little too late.
In any scenario, Wilcox will be the coach for 2022. It’s just a matter of how good we get to feel about it.
That’s all this win does -- give a little more breathing room. The real work is still ahead.
Jeff Tedford deserved better than this.
Sure, the team secured a win over his long-time nemeses, but I mean specifically the way his “ceremony” was handled, or even promoted, which is to say, it was not. Tedford deserves a statue unveiled, clips and highlights played during every commercial break -- an extended video package if they didn’t air one on the Pac-12 Network (I don’t know yet, I haven’t rewatched the game as of writing) -- a meet and greet, a chance to make public comments during halftime, and interviews with former players to say glowing things about him. Maybe a donation on behalf of the university to his charity program, or pet cause.
All of that took me 76 seconds to type, and none of them happened for his return.
Saturday felt really rushed and poorly put together if they meant to truly honor the best head coach of modern times. Instead, they had a ceremony that felt not unlike what the Washington Football Team did for Sean Taylor a few weeks ago.
(For the record, I wouldn’t be opposed to him joining the staff in an advisory capacity, the way he did with the Huskies.)
If you haven’t had a chance, check out the Pac-12’s coverage of the WriteForCal tailgate. Rob will have more to say about this throughout the week, but the truth is, it felt like graduation for the blog: our first national TV mention and appearance (in front of the hundreds who get the channel!), an apparel collaboration with Homefield.
We’ve come a long way, and it has been so great to help play a small part in that, for as long as I’ve been able to do so. And that meant it only felt right to be with them too, by way of last minute flight from Burbank, for the first time in the stadium since my other last minute flight against Arizona State in 2019.
Let’s talk about the end of the first half, where Wilcox’s priority is not to give Oregon State the opportunity to score points, and that’s likely what they were thinking in being so conservative.
But -- if that’s the case, you could have kneeled, because a) Oregon State can only stop the clock twice, and the third kneeldown would have taken you into the half anyway, b) you are largely stonewalling the Beavers at this point, who are averaging 5.5 YPP in the first half with only four explosive plays on their 35 snaps, and more importantly, c) opportunities to take points when you are a team on the margins must be seized (see last week against Colorado, as an example).
This doesn’t bring up the most egregious violation in this sequence though, which is the being caught unawares that you could have called a timeout to give the Jeremiah Hunter play a few ticks for him to get out of bounds. When else were you going to use them?! Everyone in the stands in Section R knew this. Nick looked at me and knew this. Avi looked at me and knew this, and tons of nonwriters did too. No blame should be assigned for Hunter not getting out of bounds -- if Wilcox and company had been more decisive or prepared in their clock management, then Jeremiah wouldn’t have been in that position.
I don’t have particularly strong feelings about the end-of-game sequence. They’re just trying to get out of there without anyone hurt. A TD would look nice for the record books, though.
This was easily Bill Musgrave’s best game calling for Cal yet, and it’s the second straight week we have reasons to think it may be coming together for him finally.
Re-examining an issue that’s been a constant: this week’s 47: 26 run:pass ratio. It won’t always be able to be this dramatically tilted, but in terms of game-feel (a word I think I use more than most writers, certainly), this split is definitely the best he’s done so far, and of course, frustrating if only because many have been screaming shrilly about him protecting Chase Garbers in this exact way -- limiting what you ask him to do, empowering him to use his legs as well -- all season. I can’t think of any blog or twitter communities that have been clamoring for that, though. Nope, not a one.
Secondly, within that pass distribution, you have a nearly ideal calling and execution for any QB in a run-first offense: you hit almost all of your short stuff (10 of 13 for 65 yards from behind the line of scrimmage up to 10 yards), your intermediate stuff (4 of 4 for 80 yards), and enough deeps to keep em honest (3 of 7, 117, 2 TDs and a third one dropped). When blitzed, Chase found the hot more often than not -- there’s one catch to Monroe Young where both guys are immediately on the same page; the New Mexico wideout just turns and sits down in the zone because they both recognize that the ball needs to come out -- PFF tracked him at 8 of 13 for 122, with two TDs against the blitz, which was about half the time.
A couple of really excellent play design moments that’s worth highlighting too:
The motion into the backfield and then out to the left flat by Collin Moore on Brooks’ touchdown shifted all the defenders’ responsibilities, and Brooks, isolated on the other side and running a wheel is lost by all the guys. It’s an easy touchdown.
In a two play sequence at the goal-line late: Musgrave rolls Chase out to the right with multiple pass options, but it’s covered, so Chase takes whatever yardage he can and gets down to the 1 yard line. The next play, Musgrave goes back to the wide side of the field on the left, and sneaks Brooks into the end zone amid all the bodies, where he is also, again lost by the defenders. Some masterful footwork by Chase makes this all happen.
Dialing up a shot after the blocked punt might sometimes be predictable, but you got Trevon Clark in a one on one that you liked, so you take it there. Touchdown.
Other things receiving votes: a noted pattern of rotating WRs into the backfield and then flexing them out, just to mess with the looks and see if they can catch the Beavers unprepared for some sort of match-up; keeping the same base personnel on the field but going no huddle so Oregon State can’t sub; making the WRs defacto TEs on occasion; play-option-passes for the second week; greenlighting Chase to run if it’s not there; designing some actual runs for Chase again; McKade Mettauer’s face paint
Cal also allowed 1 TFL, and 0 sacks. Plus 4 PDs by the Oregon State defense on 73 snaps, and their Havoc rate was 6%. Outstanding work by the offensive line, who seemed to relish the opportunity to run the ball as frequently as they did. 10 of 13 on third and short was also very good.
As usual, the small criticism: continued issues putting the game on ice, particularly in predictable run-run-pass-punt sequences late when the team is trying to ice said game; they did this nearly a second time only to have Chase scramble away on a designed pass to move the chains. That drive would later end in a touchdown, but the point stands. You have to be willing to and ready to put teams away when the opportunity presents itself.
If this makes me a harsh grader after the Bears put up 7.1 YPP and 39 points, then so be it. Grade: A-
First and foremost, the defensive effort to hold a dominant rushing team down to 4.3 yards per carry is impressive. That starts up front -- they played Ricky Correia on clear rushing situations to help with this, and even those JH Tevis and Luc Bequette struggled when they ran it against the 2-4-5, it truly was a team effort to keep Oregon State off schedule, where the Beavers averaged 5.3 yards to go on third down (essentially, no longer a rushing situation) and finished 0-4 on Power situations. From there, with them behind the chains -- and down two possessions most of the time -- the Bears were able to coast on what was their ideal game-state anyway.
It’s not the cast of guys anyone thought they’d be seeing this year on defense (no Brett, no Kuony, no Stanley McKenzie, no Mo or Goode this week), but they’re getting it done. So, hats off to the Young guys this week -- in Isaiah’s first serious playing time, after Collin Gamble went down: 1 of 5, 32 yards, TD, 2 PD. You love to see that, and like Hearns, another DB that was easiest to expect in the slot, and has stepped up outside big time. You can tell how both guys are wired: hyper competitive at each catchpoint, size be damned. Even the TD was not egregious. The Bears might have something here with each.
Another week, another big play from Nate Rutchena. What a great development it’s been to get him contributing -- one of the last guys in his class, greyshirted a year, waited a long time to get his offer because teams weren’t quite sure what to make of him or where to play him, despite tape that showed quick-twitch athleticism and fluidity. When he signed, I guessed he could play at any of four slots, and having found a home at inside linebacker, he’s not even the right size yet to make his full contributions. Neither is Trey Paster! Those are exciting signs to come for the future Cal Bears. You can live with those mistakes they’re making right now.
Can we get Marqez Bimage an extra year? Is that possible?
Femi Oladejo! A game high 7 tackles, four of which were registered as Stops (those off-schedule forcing plays we just talked about up top). Again, the program is really thrilled with his progress, and I admit, I did not see him being ready to play this quickly. It sets up an interesting situation next season, with how many LBs got time this year already -- Rutchena, Oladejo, Iosefa, and Paster all could lay claim, with an Antzoulatos returning from injury and Tattersall still behind them.
Daniel Scott’s numbers look bad in retrospect, but the long touchdown at the end was definitely the work of some Oregon State chicanery. Their player essentially picked off two guys, leaving Hicks in no man’s land to try to pick up the rest.
This week’s special teams hero: Nick Alftin, whose massive, ex-volleyball playing frame caught enough of the Oregon State punt to turn the game. It’s his second of the year, and perhaps I only don’t remember the first one because it was returned for a first down, and I blocked it out of my memory.