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Cal football still can't break through its ceiling
The California Golden Bears are headed for a very painful stretch if they can't figure things out after another gritty Arizona State win.
Cal won! Let’s start with the positives.
Jeremiah Hunter kept Cal’s offense moving for most of the first three quarters, hauling in the nicest of Sam Jackson’s throws in for two critical catches (one seen above), one a touchdown, the other leading to another Cal touchdown. Hunter has toughened it out in a very work-in-progress offense, and has made big plays every week to jumpstart the Bears when they needed points. And Hunter’s dogged effort led to a critical pass interference that burned a critical final few minutes.
Jaydn Ott was bottled up for much of the first three quarters, but he took control in the final possession, particularly on the last major Cal drive where Cal ran on 15 of 18 plays. We’ve all been impressed by Ott’s breakaway speed, but he proved today that he could be a workhorse in a very constrained setup, and he got the necessary first downs that drained the clock.
Kaleb Elarms-Orr continued his breakout campaign with a 15 tackle performance to leap himself to the top of the Pac-12. Hovering on all run lanes and landing some crucial short yardage stops, Elarms-Orr provides Jackson Sirmon with a crucial backmate to ensure the Bears run defense remains mostly stout up front. Credit to the Cal defensive line for bottling up ASU’s run game and making them one dimensional for most of that game, and became pretty critical in turning two ASU red zone opportunities into field goals.
On obvious passing downs, the Cal secondary did their duty, broke up significant passes, with Matthew Littlejohn getting a major interception, and Nohl Williams, Patrick McMorris and Jeremiah Earby all breaking up passes. Lu-Magia Hearns III also came up huge on an ASU 4th down stop, setting up the first Cal touchdown.
Lachlan Wilson had a Player of the Game performance, booming punts that pinned Arizona State’s beleaguered offense back nearly the entire game, including four drives starting inside the ASU 13. Those long fields made the difference, particularly when Cal forced turnovers and made scoring points easier. Mateen Bhagani nailed an early mid-range field goal that turned out to be the difference.
Even Justin Wilcox had some great game management, calling a timeout to call out the 12 men on the field penalty on ASU’s touchdown. The Bears also rightly went for it on 4th and short multiple times.
Cal, as a team, gutted it out. The Bears were 0-9 in their last nine Power 5 games that went down to the final play. It was nice to see the defense get a final drive go in their favor, and the offense have a nice long possession to close it out.
For that, I’m happy. Cal won a football game. Not every win is going to be pristine or perfect. The other team has got players too. Arizona State clearly knew this was one of their more winnable games, and Kenny Dillingham threw everything at the wall to try and get this one. It was hard fought and hard played and Cal earned it.
But it gets hard hard now. This will not be good enough going forward.
It starts at offensive line and quarterback, where the Bears surrendered pressure after pressure against a very average Arizona State defense. Sam Jackson V found pressure in his face on half his dropbacks almost immediately, with one mistake after another from members of the pass protection unit. When Jackson and the running backs had a nice early run in traffic, penalties brought them back.
ASU was also able to be aggressive because they don’t feel at all worried Cal’s passing game will burn them. Jackson has not yet proven he can handle an unclean pocket. Nearly a dozen footballs found the turf or the sidelines with receivers in positions to make plays. Jackson did not throw interceptions, but the accuracy remained a problem. The offense just couldn’t do anything for much of the game unless the defense handed them huge field position advantages.
Cal’s offensive identity still is very much in flux, as Jake Spavital still seems hesitant to really let Sam loose running-wise. Perhaps this is the function of having two inconsistent signal-callers, but it does feel like Jackson’s legs could be used more effectively to open up running lanes for Ott and company and improve spacing. Up to this point, the offense looks just as malfunctional as previous Justin Wilcox offenses.
Cal’s defense got stops, but its lack of pass rush reared its ugly head as the Sun Devils poured on the yards. Nate Burrell managed one pressure that led to a crucial pick, but for the most part they were stifled. Arizona State could not get anything going on the ground but substituted it with short passes that eventually yielded big plays. Trenton Bourguet was not great but found receivers like Cam Skattebo, Elijah Badger and Melquan Stovall short in the soft spots of the zone, and they found their way to big plays that way.
Cal could not separate themselves. Everytime Cal made a big play, Arizona State would immediately respond with a touchdown, a huge defensive stop, or some opportune big play like a kickoff return. Cal could not build momentum at any point and had to stay grinding.
The Bears lack of recruiting success and offensive coaching continuity seemed to show itself for yet another week. Arizona State, despite not being a finished product, at many times looked like the more athletic team on defense and the better-coached team on offense. ASU got several explosive plays identifying defensive gaps in underneath coverage, leading to huge yards after catch. And the Sun Devils blew past Cal’s offensive line when they were forced into standard passing situations.
That basically leaves the Bears with below-average quarterback play, below-average offensive line play, below-average pass rush and a pass defense that is giving up way more yards than previous incarnations.
Cal survived today because ASU has significant deficiencies of their own. Cal now plays five teams in a row with elite lines and/or QBs starting Saturday night.
This is not the time, the place, or the year for those sort of gaps.
You’ve heard it all before. The way Cal is playing is just not cutting it. Justin Wilcox knows it. The coaching staff knows it. The players know it. The fans know it.
The California Golden Bears will be playing six top-25 quality programs in their final seven games. That is anomalous, and outside of Cal’s control.
What is inside their control is the way they’re playing, and if this is the type of play-to-play execution they bring, they will get dog walked.
Cal fan enthusiasm for this game was unsurprisingly dim, particularly coming off the heels of a distressing Auburn result, an alarming Idaho performance, and the Washington beating. The stadium was half-full for much of the proceedings, and students and alumni started leaving at halftime with the game very much in doubt.
The sad part is it’s hard to come up with a reason for them to stay. Any Cal fan with an even cursory knowledge of college football knows this isn’t good or interesting enough. Cal cannot have hour-long stretches of the offense doing absolutely nothing anymore, not when it’s important to drum up enthusiasm in the future. It cannot continue to happen every week against even the most middling of competition, because ACC teams are happy to muck it up like this and drag you down into the mud.
This was a crucial year for Justin Wilcox to show Bears fans that Cal was ready for a new era. Maybe things turn around in a far easier ACC gauntlet, but the Bears don’t simply want to win seven games every year. They want to compete for something more.
Through one month though, it’s been mostly the same identity, with the same problems, with the same limitations, with the same ceiling. The Bears didn’t really do anything today to change that perception.
If solutions aren’t found soon, this season is coming crashing down next week.