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Cal finds their QB against Oregon State, remains lost on defense and special teams
The California Golden Bears seemed to have figured out their quarterback conundrum. They haven't figured out anything else.
It took six weeks, but Cal finally seems to have found their quarterback.
Fernando Mendoza has been waiting for his opportunity this season to show what he could do in live action. Sam Jackson and Ben Finley danced back and forth with the job, but neither really distinguished themselves.
Mendoza came in and authored Cal’s best quarterbacking performance of the season, start to finish. He was able to run through his reads and find his targets, particularly Taj Davis and Jack Endries. He avoided sacks and rarely forced the ball into traffic. He targeted the middle heavily to get the intermediate game going. He opened up the offense a bit more for Jaydn Ott and Isaiah Ifanse. And Cal put up 32 points in three quarters, a very solid amount.
Now, the question remains: Why did it take six weeks?
I’d defer to the simplest solution: Practice. Generally, football coaches will pick the player who is performing best in practice in game prep. Jake Spavital has mentioned that Jackson has distinguished himself in the fall, but Finley was not too far behind and Mendoza not too far behind both.
If we want some additional factors beyond the practice field, it’s also likely Spavital wanted to give the guys he brought in as much opportunity as possible. Jackson and Finley were Spavital’s choices in the portal. They fit the scheme and type of offense he wanted to run. So if things were running even, there was likely some internalized pressure by the coaching staff to play both if the competition was even enough.
Mendoza was a Bill Musgrave recruit, and probably had to adjust to Spavital’s style a bit more. There was likely a significant amount of adjustment to adapt in practice to the new offense he wasn’t recruited for, but he has shown he can catch up now and has provided that one performance.
Still, to give credit to Spavital, it isn’t easy to make the decision to bench a quarterback after a win. And Mendoza mentioned postgame that Jackson has been supportive of the change, so it’s good to see the locker room mojo remains solid.
However, after Saturday’s performance it will be tough for Spavital to justify not playing Mendoza at all the first six week. Both him and Justin Wilcox will have to bear the brunt of that criticism. The Auburn result could certainly have swung another way, and Washington would have been a far closer game with competent starting quarterback play.
The Cal head coach confirmed afterward that Mendoza likely has wired up this job for the foreseeable future. Hopefully he can keep up the good performances and give the Bears some hope that an upset or two is on the horizon.
It was a very solid silver lining in a game littered with mini-disasters.
The Cal defense has been the one general constant throughout most of the Justin Wilcox experience. It would ensure the Bears were in low scoring games, that would give an even semi-competent offense a chance to win. That would be the formula to success. Unfortunately, the offense rarely managed to be competent in the previous few campaigns.
Spavital has come in, and Cal seems to be closer to nailing down that side. Unfortunately, the defense has decided to regress right back to the mean, giving up yards upon yards in Pac-12 play.
And on Saturday, they absolutely gave up the game.
Oregon State’s offensive line dictated the game from the start as expected, holding the Cal front seven at bay and allowing steady run production all night long. DJ Uiagalelei could’ve cooked a family set of Top Dogs with all the time he had in the pocket tonight. And by the time Cal did finally manage to send extra bodies, Uiagalelei was comfortable enough to deliver dimes to his leaking tight end or downfield to receivers who beat Cal’s secondary.
Cal’s defense managed one stop off a turnover and an early punt. Oregon State scored on their remaining drives, including going five for five on fourth downs and five straight touchdown drives to put this one out of reach midway in the fourth. Oregon State constantly lived in 3rd and short/4th and short situations, and the Beaver offensive line did the rest. The Cal defensive line gave a little ground, the midline was exploited by tight end play, and the secondary was a step slow as they were against Washington.
The defensive numbers the Bears have put up in the first three games of Pac-12 play are alarming, and do not invite much optimism for a very tough finish to the season (stats courtesy of CFB Stats).
Cal still does not have a sack in Pac-12 play.
Cal is giving up 10.2 yards per pass
attempt (121st in FBS)
Cal’s defense is condeding a 182 passer rating (119th)
Cal’s defense is condeding 7.1 yards per play (119th)
Cal has given up 36 passing plays of 10+ yards (128th in FBS)
Cal is allowing a 69% completion rate (111th)
Cal is conceding 44 points per game (125th)
Those are numbers harkening back to the worst of the Sonny Dykes years, and Peter Sirmon should be doing better. There is solid enough defensive talent to be able to force one or two more stops and give the Cal offense a chance to win it. The Beavers won this side of the football thoroughly and made it impossible for the Bears to keep up.
Imagine having a top ten QB performance of the week and getting thoroughly beaten because the defense gives up the best one. The Cal experience!
And then there’s the special teams, which could not force touchbacks and put Oregon State in good field position nearly the entire game. Gifting the Beavers short fields after Cal touchdowns invited a very aggressive mindset from the Beavers.
Justin Wilcox said as much at his press conference though: The defense and special teams gave this one up. He was at a loss as to why though. Not a great sign for a team that will be significant underdogs in its next four games. But it was definitely the most sharpened critique by Wilcox. Cal giving up two 50 point games in three weeks has to wear at the defensive minded coach, and you have to wonder if that defensive staff is starting to feel real heat.
When Jake Spavital came back to Cal, there was an assumption that the Bears would change their offensive dynamic. And in ways, aside from Auburn, it has happened. Cal is scoring way more points than they have in previous seasons. Even somewhat lethargic performances like Arizona State are still producing more productive offensive outcomes than in year’s past.
Ultimately, it has become a familiar fate post Jeff Tedford. Cal can have one good unit on the field, occasionally two, but almost never three. And often when one unit is good, another unit is equally bad.
The Cal defense isn’t quite bad yet, but it’s teetering that way. The Cal offense has the opportunity to not be bad anymore, but it’s also still probably not good enough. And I don’t want to talk about the Cal special teams, a unit that is at its best when it does almost absolutely nothing.
Maybe it’s as simple as getting more talent via recruiting and the portal, but those are next year problems. Maybe Mendoza providing a new lift on offense could be the difference, although with a damaged offensive line we might have to temper immediate expectations. Maybe if everything comes together, Cal can lift themselves up toward a surprising upset or two.
But Cal is still searching at the midway point of 2023 for playing toward their potential.
Which means that until we see something different, and given the level of competition we will continue to face, more results like Saturdays are likely on the way.