Post-Game Thoughts: Arizona Wildcats Football
Jaydn Ott announces himself behind a revitalized offensive line as Cal opens Pac-12 play in style
There’s a relatively new tradition that after a home win, the players spontaneously choose somebody to direct the band as they play ‘Fight For California.’ Due to some post-game miscommunication, the band played ‘Fight’ before the players could gather, so most of the team headed towards the locker room.
But the offensive line had other ideas. After a humbling performance against Notre Dame, the reshuffled line had just spear headed a 599 yard offensive performance. They sent up senior Matthew Cindric, fresh off a shift from center to right guard, and he conducted the band as they played ‘Big C,’ while his fellow linemen celebrated with notable catharsis behind him.
Cal had just paved Arizona for 49 points, tying a 2018 beat down of Oregon State for most points scored in a single game under Justin Wilcox and only the third time in six years that Cal scored 40+ against an FBS opponent. Cal’s 599 yards and 9.1 yards/play is the 2nd most under Wilcox, trailing only last year’s Big Game.
Arizona is very much not Notre Dame, which is to say that nobody expected the offense to struggle in the way Notre Dame’s defensive front was able to exploit. But I don’t think ANYBODY (with the possible exception of a mildly tongue-in-cheek Rob) saw what happened on Saturday coming. So let’s try to figure it out!
11 drives: 7 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 4 punts, 0 turnovers, 4.5 points/drive, CAL RECORD UNDER JUSTIN WILCOX WOOOOOO
(Removed: Cal’s final drives of both halves, neither of which featured Cal attempting to score)
If you want an offense to put up 49 points, easy mode is when special teams and defense give the offense good field position all game long. Hard mode is needing to average 75 yards/touchdown drive, which is exactly what the Cal offense did against Arizona.
When you have a game like this, your offense is probably doing everything right. You’re getting explosive plays where you get behind the defense. You’re churning out long, multi-play drives with 3rd and 4th down conversions. You’re not going backwards (two tackles for loss allowed for just four total yards on 71 offensive snaps). Check, check, check.
Jaydn Ott is the truth
First, watch this video of 100% Ott highlights:
Every single one of these runs is so damned impressive. Obviously the vision and decisiveness of the two long runs to bookend Cal’s offensive explosion speak for themselves. But what about the way he bursts through arm and leg tackles? What about the way Ott deftly sidesteps a charging safety in the run that begins at 0:50? What about the balance to somehow keep his feet churning until Vatikani gives him a push, and then to stay upright AFTER the push? What about this video not including any route running or pass protection highlights, even though Ott has been excellent in both areas across four games?
It’s just immediately clear that he’s a complete back after just four games. Speed, vision, balance, versatility. PFF graded him out as 99.9 on running plays, which is the highest score I have seen for any player in any category ever.
For the first time since Jared Goff, Cal has an offensive player worth the price of admission all on his own. Cal fans, you damned well better show up to watch him play as much as possible, because he’s just that special.
How much was this the line improving vs. Arizona being bad?
Evidence that Arizona’s defense is really bad:
9th in the conference in yards/play allowed last year
Got beaten up pretty badly on the ground last week vs. FCS North Dakota State
Allowed arguably the best offensive performance from Cal under Justin Wilcox
Evidence that Arizona’s defense is maybe not that bad:
North Dakota State is damned good, they run over everybody
Middle of the Pac-12 last year in tackles for loss and sacks, has a pre-season all conference player on the defensive line
Did OK against Leach air raid, gave up a ton of points because of short fields
I do think the Arizona defense is bad, but not uniquely bad. I’d wager they have a better defense than Colorado or Stanford within the conference. But other than Kyon Barrs, their front is pretty weak and they struggle at the point of attack. And the reality is that most (but not all!) of Cal’s future opponents will feature better talent generally, and specifically along the defensive line than Arizona.
But a pre-requisite for playing better against Oregon State or Washington is to outplay a defense like Arizona, and Cal did so EMPHATICALLY.
What about the offensive line reshuffle?
Three big changes:
True freshman Sioape Vatikani started and played the entire way at left guard.
Previous left guard Brian Driscoll shifting to center
Previous center Matthew Cindric shifting to right guard
In the post-game press conference Wilcox said that there was an injury that was part of why Cal moved the line around, but also said that Vatikani earned his playing time. Regardless, the transformation was notable. PFF only credited Arizona with 9 pressures on 28 dropbacks (32%), a massive improvement from the 24 pressures on 48 dropbacks from last week. And the pressure events were much milder; there wasn’t a single play where a dude was on Plummer before he could get through a progression, and there weren’t any sacks. Cal also kept in their tight ends to block more often, and had them chip into routes more often, which generally paid dividends even if it threw off TE route timing on occasion.
I’m going to spend some time later this week trying to figure out how much of Cal’s insane running game performance was blocking vs. Ott being a savant, but suffice to say you don’t go for 354 yards on 9.3 a pop without solid blocking. Wow.
Jack Plummer shows what he can do with a clean pocket
7/10 on throws down the field, accurate on short plays, no turnovers or even anything all that close to a turnover, found the open man, made good decisions, avoided the rush and got rid of the ball on the rare occasions when Arizona got some pressure.
This was exactly the kind of performance we all optimistically envisioned in a world where he gets protection.
12 drives: 4 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1/1), 4 punts, 3 turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 fumble), 2.6 points/drive
de Laura gashes the Cal secondary
27-45 for 401 yards, which is 9 yards/attempt and an absurd 15 yards/completion. Wilcox described the first half defensive performance as the worst he’s seen his defense play, and I’m not inclined to disagree with his assessment.
The performance certainly improved in the 2nd half, as de Laura’s per attempt average fell from 11 yards to 7 yards per pass. That was mostly down to a few more incompletions, as Cal did a better job of giving up wide open receivers downfield and broke up a few more passes.
I’m going to have to watch the game a few more times to get a better handle on what happened, but I think de Laura’s mobility had something to do with what was going on. At times it looked like Cal had linebackers dedicated to de Laura’s running threat, which meant they were less involved in coverage responsibilities. There were various occasions where de Laura made a throw on the run after pulling somebody in on the run threat.
Cal also struggled badly with Arizona’s tight end, who found soft zone spots between linebackers and safeties frequently. Between that and a few really impressive contested catches from Arizona WRs, you get a game where you give up 400 passing yards.
For what it’s worth, I was really impressive with de Laura’s performance. He was hyper accurate, used his mobility to set up his passes, and made a ton of great reads. If he keeps playing like this he’s going to ruin somebody’s season in the desert. I’m leaning towards Oregon on October 8th.
Some weird positional stuff
Cal’s defensive front depth, challenged already due to the absence of Brett Johnson, Stanley McKenzie and Derek Wilkins, has seemingly taken additional hits. OLB Odua Isibor and DL Darius Long didn’t play, and DL Akili Calhoun only got two snaps.
Cal still had 11 players that rotated in along the defensive front either as true linemen or as outside linebackers. But a bunch of those players only got a handful of snaps. I don’t know if that means they got hurt, or if the coaching staff wants to limit their usage to specific packages or situations, but the result was some weird stuff.
For example, on Orin Patu’s strip-sack, Cal had a four man front of Jernigan-Puskas-Oladejo-Patu. In fact, Cal played Oladejo out of position at OLB a ton in this game.
A critical question - was this shift a proactive move because the coaching staff thinks Oladejo can excel at OLB? Or a reactive shift due to injuries? Quite frankly, I don’t think the move worked. Oladejo is a strong middle linebacker but he’s not a great pass rusher, and his skillset is best used in the middle.
Meanwhile, Ryan Puskas and Nate Rutchena got a lot of snaps playing ILB where we would usually see Oladejo, and had a tough assignment dealing with Arizona’s over the middle passing game. I’m hoping that Femi is back in the middle next week.
Not as critical when everybody is scoring touchdowns
Thanks to generally excellent drive finishing by both teams, and due to an early Arizona pooch punt, there were only 11 total special teams plays that weren’t PATs or kickoff touchbacks.
But Cal did get a solid win in the punting category, winning the net punting battle 42.5 to 33.5. And one of Jamieson Sheahan’s punts that downed Arizona inside the 10 turned into a long drive that ended in a punt. There wasn’t much special teams could do today, but they had a positive net impact.
A critical 4th down attempt and conversion
Trailing 24-21 early in the 3rd quarter and facing a 4th and 1 from the Arizona 3, Justin Wilcox correctly determined that this was a game that wasn’t going to be won with field goals. Cal didn’t hesitate to keep the offense on the field and ran a nifty play that freed up Keleki Latu for an easy touchdown. That conversion had the immediate effect of putting Cal in the lead, but later on in the game it put Cal up by 11 rather than 7 for long stretches of the 2nd half. Maybe that bigger lead led to Jayden de Laura forcing more passes down the field, maybe not. Either way, 11 is a way better lead than just 7.
Was it a turtle?
Cal scored a touchdown to go up 18 late in the 3rd quarter, but Arizona answered with a touchdown to return the lead to 11, and Cal went 3 and out on their next two possessions. Thankfully, the Cal defense prevented Arizona from narrowing the deficit. Did Cal ease up on offense?
Well, the first three and out was a run-run-pass-punt sequence (with Ott on the sidelines) that tends to leave fans frustrated. I don’t know if you can argue against running the ball when you’re up 11 in the 3rd quarter and you already have 200+ yards rushing, and the 3rd down pass was blown up by edge pressure on both sides that forced Plummer to throw off his back foot
The next 3-and-out saw Cal gain 28 yards on 4 plays . . . except that a holding penalty turned a +11 play into a -10 play. I think the lesson here is don’t commit penalties vs. don’t turtle.
The Bears are 3-1, with three wins Cal fans were counting on, and one loss Cal fans were expecting.
But the fashion in which Cal lost to Notre Dame, followed by the fashion in which Cal beat Arizona, leaves us with more uncertainty than usual.
Is the real Cal offense the one that barely managed to scratch out 17 points in South Bend, or the offense that gained 599 out of 747 possible yards (80%!!!) on Saturday?
Will we see more of Cal defense that controlled UCD, UNLV, and Notre Dame, or did Jayden de Laura and Arizona show other Pac-12 teams how the Bear defense can be had?
Washington State represents a serious step up in quality of competition, and not just because the Bears will be on the road. But if Cal finds a way to escape Pullman with a win, they will enter a bye week before what should be a win vs. a historically bad Colorado. The possibility of a 5-1 (3-0) record to round out the first half of the season is thrillingly on the table, and would set up an exciting game in Berkeley vs. a Washington team that is very likely to be 5-1 at worst.
More generally, Cal’s offensive explosion opens up something nice: the hope of different possibilities. The soulless number crunchers like your author might try to tell you tha t the Cal offense is likely to regress back to the Wilcox mean against better defenses. But those soulless types don’t understand what Jaydn Ott and company might be capable of.
You just watched the best single game skill position performance since Jahvid Best launched Tyrone Willingham into the Kuiper Belt. You’re allowed - no, encouraged - to dream.
Well. I completed my victory lap. That was a fun 24 hours going through the comments of AZ fans backtracking their comments and name-calling.
I was in the box and not with the guys, but I imagine Nick had a grand ol time yelling one of Larry's favorite phrases.
As noted, there are good reasons to think that the offensive improvement is sustainable. We knew Cal had good talent at the skill positions coming in. The question was if the OL could give them a chance to make plays. In this game it happened, and can be attributed to a reshuffling of personnel. It also happened consistently, over multiple long drives, so it doesn't look like a fluke.
Arizona is probably not a good defense by Pac-12 standards, but if you can put up 49 on them then there is hope against the better teams too. Let's hope everyone can stay healthy.