The Novel: Washington Football (2021)

In which the task was decidedly not finished

Chase Garbers got the ball back late, with a chance to win the game in Seattle, and a fanbase dying to see him repeat his 2019 heroics, when he scrapped and clawed his way to a win.

But this is not 2019 anymore, and the way the game eventually played out – an incompetently defended first half that recalled the heydays of #drop50, into another heartbreaking loss where a win was a play or two away -- should make that much obvious. Any hopes that the Bears would simply pick up where they left off, “post”-pandemic, despite a lot of returning personnel, need to be put to bed if they weren’t already. Now that we are a third of the way in, this is a season getting away from them quickly, as it gets increasingly difficult to confidently project anyone being happy with the season’s eventual outcome. Make a bowl, and we bemoan the misses of the season’s first month, if we’re not already drowning in the bitterness of having hoped for more at the start of the year. Any worse, and we have another unsettling offseason until a decisive move (or moves) in the administration is made one way or the other.

Finishing the job, these days, reads more like a plea than a rallying cry – to beseech the team into the act of doing the little things to completion, if to do so at all. This group is demonstrably a tick worse than their predecessors in every place that matters -- in making the small plays that matter, in preventing the mistakes that matter:

These numbers only partially account for execution errors, which, again helped account for the difference on Saturday – this time, in the form of a Mettauer unsportsmanlike conduct penalty and eventual botched field goal attempt when we couldn’t handle the snap; again when Ben Coleman’s facemask penalty was a contributing difference between a Dario Longhetto field goal being too short and sailing over the bar for the game winner. There were other disasters along the way too: a curious 4th and 2 throw to Damien Moore on the sideline, the decisions in when to run (or not), when to use Chris Brooks (or not).

When there is no shortage of pivotal moments that the team falls (and have fallen) short in, despite outperforming the opponent on a per play basis, coming out on the wrong side so consistently is the mark of a decidedly Not Good team. And, true, teams that are Not Good can cover that up to some degree by Trying Hard, and to even rally enough to do so, coming back from a two-possession deficit on Saturday, means they haven’t given up internally; this much is a Justin Wilcox trademark through five seasons.

Being pleased by that reality can’t be enough anymore.

The possibility of December football still exists because the conference consists of largely beatable teams, but you surely cannot guarantee such a thing at this point; it would require Wilcox doing what he’s never done before just to finish 5-3 in Pac-12 play. And if you do believe that’s possible, then whatever positive vibes there might be from this gutsy, second half performance have to be tempered a bit in the face of who they lost: Stanley McKenzie, Nikko Remigio, Jake Tonges, and Damien Moore, each for an as of yet undetermined amount of time.

It’s already a deep hole. The rest is a taller ask.

***

Next week, it’s a date with their peers at the bottom quadrant of conference: Washington State, a team with its own unenviable cluster of issues at the moment. Winnable, certainly; whether or not it alters the arc of the season at all depends on what comes after.

A lot gets made about the normally insane games Cal and Wazzu tend to play against each other, but lately, it might be UW taking the lead as “weirdest opponent”, in between the Lightning Bowl, Evan Weaver’s Touchdown, and now this one. In the last era, there was Jared Goff needing 4th and 3, plus the two goal-line situations for Polk and Sofele in 2010 and 2011 respectively. Tally those up, and over half the time against the Huskies this last decade, something weird’s gonna happen. Either that, or Cal is getting blown out.   

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This point has been made in this column three consecutive weeks now, so I hate that I have to say it for a fourth – Bill Musgrave has done some really good things in scheming the offense, getting Chase good options for check downs, and generally, high percentage passes for him to try, with some really makeable deep shots. This week, he even utilized Garbers as a runner, which has only been something we’ve begged for the last year. All of that, though, puts way more responsibility on Chase than he really has shown he’s capable to handle, because you are just giving more opportunities for him to eventually produce a suboptimal outcome. Saturday, that most noticeably came up in the two interceptions, plus the playcall on 4th and 2 to throw to Damien Moore on the outside.

For a team that plays with so many tight ends consistently, the inability to (or perhaps, outright refusal to) run the ball in “and short” situations did the Bears in on Saturday, long before Damien Moore fumbled at the goal line.  To make matters worse, Moore, who already struggled in a short yardage moment earlier this year, not only fumbled, got dinged up at the end of the game too. The rushing numbers on the night weren’t spectacular, but he’s surely planted his flag as RB1, even sooner than fans of his might have expected. If he misses any amount of time, they’ll miss him even more so for the little things: he was absolutely terrific as a pass blocker, and showed off the pass-catching component of his game in a way he had not really done so throughout his career so far.

Brooks, with only one touch late in overtime, when he is both the bigger and fresher back at that point, was a curious decision.

A big test this week for me was wondering if Jeremiah Hunter was ready to go up against some strong Pac-12 secondaries. Guys, he’s going to be a keeper – 6 catches for 77 was a solid performance on his part, with the interception thrown in his direction the only blemish. If the next good Cal team arrives soon, he’ll end up being a big part of that.  

Pleasantly surprised that Kekoa Crawford returned in force. If Jeremiah Hunter’s performance last week was a push for playing time, Crawford surely is not going to give it up so easily. The Bears are just better when all their senior guys are available, and credit should be given to Burl Toler in developing the group. They’ll especially need him with Nikko Remigio dinged up now.

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Before I drop a few notes about the defense, I do want to slip a quick personal note in here – it feels weird to end my column by talking about this, so I’ll fit it in here where people can quickly skip over it if they don’t feel like reading it.

I do write about things other than Cal – pop culture, creative writing, ponderings about my ethnicity, things of that nature -- in case you’re curious to see what I do outside this context. This brief plug concludes with a little preview of a book I hope to finish someday.

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Cal held Washington to a measly 3.8 YPP in the second half – a number that, if it were a GPA, would be difficult to get you admission to either academic institution. It was the first time the team played decently on this half of the ball really all year (I suppose the first two quarters of TCU might also apply), and particularly encouraging after a first half filled with free runners through the secondary.

Look, explaining some of these struggles is easy: the sack by Ethan Saunders was the first in eight full quarters, a span that included 95 dropbacks – going back Cam Goode’s sack against Duggan in the second quarter of TCU, the Bears went the final 16 pass attempts of that game without one, 55 more dropbacks last week, and then 14 first half attempts, plus nine more third quarter ones, before finally getting a QB down for a loss. (A Cam Goode sack was canceled by penalty during this timeframe, but the point stands. There is a general lack of disruption from the group at all.)

And then, there’s this:

Despite not actually getting to the point of pressuring Morris each time, the increased blitz percentage at least forced him into some general discomfort:

·         Morris under pressure: 2 of 8, 25 yards

·         Morris when blitzed: 7 of 13, 84 yards  

·         Morris second half: 8 of 18, 93 yards

If that massive leap this week is any indication, Cal may have finally adjusted for them not having the defenders to sit back in zone this year, since they are severely lacking guys who can purely win the pass rush up front in base 4.

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MUST: Washington State, Arizona, Colorado

COULD:

DOUBTFUL: Oregon State, USC, Stanford

UNLIKELY: Oregon, UCLA