The Novel: Cal vs TCU Football

In which the spirit of Cheez-It lives on strong. For one team, anyway.

I. The Intro

By the six-minute mark of the first quarter, Chase Garbers had already eclipsed the entirety of his Cheez-It Bowl production, putting up 108 yards and a touchdown that ensured, if nothing else, viewers would not be treated to a sequel of the insanity from several Decembers ago.

The senior would eventually finish with a notch over 300 through the air, in a performance that definitely evoked some memories of the 2019 Ole Miss game – like he did in Oxford, Garbers rebounded off a stinker the week before to throw the ball in rhythm, trust the one-on-one matchups he saw downfield, and run when he absolutely needed to.

Recalling that form against TCU still wasn’t enough.  

Cal is 0-2 anyway, squandering his best output from since before the pandemic, and in the process, another two-possession lead, and another game they had the opportunity to win, despite, as my colleague Nick Kranz pointed out, scoring exactly the same amount of touchdowns as TCU.

The last time these teams met, they produced a game that I have best seen described as “football-like substances”, and the visitors did remember to honor the occasion, paying tribute to that familiar incompetence -- and these moments, in the words of one Robert Frost, made all the difference:

·         They failed to convert a 4th and short at the TCU 7, turning their opening drive into no points(*)

·         They settled for six on their first touchdown because of a botched snap on the point after.

·         They accepted a delay of game on their second touchdown to go for two…and promptly threw an interception.

·         They threw, with multiple timeouts available, on a 3rd and 2 from their own 28, leading to an incomplete pass, and eventually, a rushing touchdown to Zach Evans with 11 seconds to go in the half.

·         The aforementioned touchdown was 55 yards.

·         …on the ground.

·         They spent the rest of the game chasing the missed conversions, and when they absolutely had to have one – with a chance to tie the game at 34 – got stuffed at the line of scrimmage.

(* - Personally, I don’t have as much of an issue with this decision – they needed to set the expectation and mentality to win, especially after last week. Good process, bad result.)

You will notice that this list above also leaves off a whole host of defensive errors - inexcusable tackling throughout the back seven, TCU’s 6.68 yards per play average and 20 minutes of possession in the second half – and that is because it is merely a list of the unacceptably ridiculous things that occurred on Saturday. There were plenty of normally ridiculous things too, which fell into the realm of the more common to the more understandable.

And yet, if you nudge a couple of playcalls one way or the other, the case can still feasibly be made Cal should be 2-0. No question that 1-1 would feel infinitely better. That they managed to get so close, despite another run of suboptimal occurrences, and after coming out so flat against the Wolfpack, is because this is the exact type of game Justin Wilcox has made a habit of winning, and nearly did again.

But a team in its fifth season can no longer enjoy the luxury of such rationalization -- not when they profess their own expectations to contend, and especially not when they have already benefitted from getting the COVID-impacted season written off. The reality is that both losses this season can be traced to different units failing to perform, and when that is the case, when issues are cropping up more frequently than they are being corrected, it is just the mark of bad football, not a lack of luck, or circumstance.

0-2, is 0-2, is 1-5 in their last six games, and were it not for a notoriously slow-moving, fiscally-averse athletic department, would be the sound of a seat getting ready to boil.

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I wrote, last week, that the worry with Wilcox was never being able to win an individual matchup, but whether or not he could ever become consistent enough to guide the program to being definitively “good”. That worry can now be shelved for the moment, because the much lower bar – and minimum standard of success -- of bowl qualification is in danger first. To do so at this point, the Bears will need to do what they have never done before with him at the helm: finish the conference slate with a winning record, plus pick up the win next week against Sac State.

In projections, I tend to sort out potential matchups into these tiers: MUST, LIKELY, TOUGH, UNLIKELY, and after two weeks, I’d have the remaining games as follows:

                MUST: Sac State, Arizona, Oregon State

                LIKELY: Washington (odds up after Week 2), Colorado (odds about the same)

                TOUGH: Stanford (odds down after Week 2, when they rolled USC), USC

                UNLIKELY: Oregon, UCLA (both teams have a baseline of talent deeper than Cal does at this point, and both have signature wins over other Power Five teams that Cal does not)

Stealing one of the games in the tough category is a requirement at this point.

Again, the bottom needs to completely fall out before there is any discussion about parting ways this year, and I would surmise the immense disappointment in the fanbase building at this point is two-fold: this is the team we waited two seasons to finally see and it’s not as good as we hoped, and that Wilcox has proven himself to be an affable coach that people want to root for. The program’s infrastructure and recruiting pipelines are much more sustainable now, even managing to make headway with the tier of prospect generally reserved for the conference elite.

That, however, is not a substitute for actually winning games.

II. Assorted Thoughts On The Offense

At one point – a third and six in the third quarter, after TCU had just taken the lead at 21-19 – Chase Garbers dropped back to scan the three receiver formation he had on the left side of the field. The slot receiver ran a go, to clear space and occupy the safeties. The #2 receiver runs a hitch, and then widens out toward the sideline to make the throwing lane as big as possible, and the #1 target, Trevon Clark, just has to cross the face of the DB on the dig, which he does.

It's incomplete – the throw is high, and thankfully, lands in the dirt before the safety can get his hands on it.

But in a microcosm, this is the issue with Chase Garbers, who played extremely well on Saturday overall, and still short-circuited in the third quarter by going 1-6 for 4 yards. Cal went 6 and out on both of their drives coming out of the half, part of why TCU was on the field so long, and eventually compounded itself in the fourth.

This is a throw that has to be made. It’s called perfectly against the coverage, and it is open. The inability to consistently do so is why getting away from the run is so dangerous for this team – the more they have to ask him to do, the less direct game control they’re able to have.

(A big thanks to Jesse Stewart for being my consult on X’s and O’s things. I would say I know a little bit, but I’m obviously not a coach. You can follow him on Twitter at @jessedstew.)

Granted, Musgrave made several odd calls in third and short all game long. Is this a function of him continuing to want to go after the one on ones they had outside? Is it a lack of confidence in the line, which played well in the run game once given an opportunity to get a rhythm at all? He did call a 50-50 game: they were 14-14 in pass-run splits in the first half for 1.6 YPC, and 13-13 in the second, but the timing worked better in the final two quarters, as Cal rushed for 111 yards in the second half, some of it keyed by, you guessed it and demanded it – Chase Garbers’ legs on the ground.

But these are quibbles.

Overall, 27 points, and the amount of explosives put up are more than acceptable. They averaged nearly 8 yards a play on the afternoon, this unit, and also protected Chase very well – there was a sack on a delayed Dee Winter blitz, but at that point, all his linemen were engaged. I think it’s more on him.

No Chris Brooks this week, who was banged up again. Despite all his physical talents, his inability to stay on the field is making Moore the choice at RB1.

Jeremiah Hunter showed out late, and Justin Baker got a small look, albeit in a few situations (another deep shot on 3rd and short) that probably could have been called differently. The best is yet to come with both of them. J Michael Sturdivant and Mavin Anderson also are yet to really get out there.  

III. A few Assorted Thoughts on Defense

Saturday was difficult from the start: the Bears lost Kuony Deng to a lower leg injury on a dirty play in the first quarter, and already a shade thin at linebacker, were forced to rotate a ton of youth against a team that seeks to spread and shred. That meant a lot of snaps for Braxten Croteau, Marqez Bimage, and Femi Oladejo, who played gamely, but the general issues with edge containment from Deng going down only got worse into the second half, then were amplified by the heat.

Still, looking around the conference, and…

Computer, insert picture of the Wolverine longing meme. Attach the photo of Tim DeRuyter.

Fine, I was too lazy to get the actual photo of Tim, but you get the point.

In the last two seasons with Peter Sirmon calling the defensive plays, the eye and stats test both tell the same truth: they’ve started to fall off on this side of the ball. The mistakes are sometimes at the individual level, but the way the game turned can’t only be assigned to tired players. (It should be noted that the rather problematic unit in this game, the linebackers, are partly coached by Sirmon.)

Let’s take a look at some of the third down issues in the second half, and zero in on the drive when the game turned, with TCU taking the lead at 21-19:

·         13:42, 3Q – 3rd and 2 – TCU spread to empty, motions Spielman over to take a jet sweep. Goode recognizes the play, but is unable to get over the block in front of him fast enough, so it goes for 6.

·         12:22, 3Q - 3rd and 12 – 4 man rush, drop seven, Cartwright signals to Duggan presnap, sensing (I believe) that he is not immediately covered. Finds a soft spot in the zone with Drayden dropping back, then gets 16.

·         10:44, 3Q - 3rd and 8 – 4 man rush, Hearns and Scott are on the outside up against Johnston and the second TCU slot receiver. Johnston grabs a comeback route, and I can’t clearly tell what the coverage is here – it ends up with both of them manned up, though, with Scott playing inside leverage to deny the post. By the time the ball is thrown, Scott recognizes the comebacker but the TCU slot receiver kind of subtly screens him off before he can try to undercut. Complete for 10.

·         8:48, 3Q - 3rd and 9 – 5 man rush is picked up, and Chigozie Anusiem misses the jam on the outside against Johnston. There’s no help by design, so this is a death knell and a touchdown, in that order.

Four chances to get off the field, a couple of times guys got beat, only one attempt to really pressure during a passing down. The two TCU scoring drives in the fourth quarter didn’t even get as far as forcing a third down.

There were moments of competence too: 10 Havoc plays (6 TFL, 1 FF, 1 INT, 2 PD), but most of this occurred when they visibly bothered Max Duggan throughout the first half, spooking him to the point where they were able to walk in a pick six by Daniel Scott. Only two of them – a pass breakup by Collin Gamble and a TFL by Goode on back to back plays– happened in the final two quarters, and both occurred by 13:00 of the third quarter. For the final 28 minutes of game time, Cal was unable to produce any impactful play on defense. All of that, is signs of a team that tired. Duggan also played a more active role in the run game in the second half, which is a thing Cal has traditionally struggled with.

The Zach Evans touchdown before the half – Cal had the gaps all lined up, but Orin Patu is slow to react to Evans’ cutback (possibly giving too much respect to Duggan, so he gives up a lot of space), so Evans is into the second level, where his speed overwhelms Hicks, Gamble misses and crashes into Scott, and he’s gone to the pylon, even though Hicks does recover enough to make contact at the three.

The two linebackers that I was most impressed with at the spring game have been either non-existent this season for reasons that can be understood (Patu played four snaps against TCU and the above play was one of them), or just straight up struggling (Iosefa). Yeesh.

Goode and Scott made the most impactful plays for Cal on the afternoon, but in viewing back some key moments, they weren’t immune to the issues that plagued the Bears all game long either: a few times they were washed out of the play. Just an overall, really poor afternoon from pretty much everyone, particularly in the second half.

Assigned missed tackles, per PFF: Oladejo 3, Scott 3, Iosefa 3, 8 other guys finished with 1.

IV. Special Teams

I hate having to have thoughts on special teams. It’s an area where I’ve been conditioned to set expectations so, so low that all I ever ask is that they don’t be a net negative on the game performance.

And yet, this special teams has directly contributed to three out of Cal’s last four losses, dating back to 2020:

·         Stanford – a muffed punt, a blocked field goal attempt at the buzzer

·         Oregon State – multiple key missed tackles, a blocked punt to give good field position to the Beavers, and two critical penalties that wiped out long returns (including a touchdown)

·         TCU – a missed extra point, which kicked off the series of events

This is on top of them trending down in many significant metrics since 2017, by the way. But, more on that later.