Post-Game Thoughts: Arizona State Football
Cal holds on for an ugly win over the rebuilding Sun Devils
Photo by Rob Hwang
I’ve talked ad nauseum about how absurdly difficult Cal’s schedule is this year. It’s partly a feeling of wonder because it’s so unprecedented for the Pac-10/12 to be this good, and partly fear because I was not confident that this Cal team would have what it takes to survive this kind of a gauntlet.
Cal had exactly two games against Pac-12 teams that aren’t a top 25 quality team. One of them is Arizona State. The good news is that Cal won the game.
The bad news is that the Sun Devils pretty comprehensively outplayed the Bears. ASU was the better team on the day in most facets that matter. ASU gained 104 more yards and averaged 6 yards/play to Cal’s 4.2. But Cal finished +4 in the turnover column and that was enough to turn a probably loss into a 3 point win.
I’m very happy about that - we Cal fans know well enough to enjoy every win to the fullest and apologize for nothing. But there was nothing that happened on Saturday to suggest that Cal has what it takes to get to even 5 wins this season.
12 drives: 3 touchdown, 1 FGA (1-1) , 7 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 2 points/drive
Cal managed a long drive for a touchdown on the 2nd drive of the game, and went on a long, nearly touchdown drive on their final drive, and in between the nine drives in between their longest drive was a mere 31 yards. Thankfully, two of those short drives ended in touchdowns thanks to turnovers forced by the Cal defense
A near total lack of explosiveness
An exhaustive list of Cal plays longer than 15 yards:
A deep sideline jump ball to Jeremiah Hunter for 31 yards
A reverse to Jaivian Thomas for 16 yards
A 3rd and 28 draw to Ott for 20 yards
A 3rd and 22 draw to Ott for 17 yards
A 20 yard crossing route to Jack Endries
A sideline fade to Jeremy Hunter for 21 yards
Cal had two sources of consistent chunk plays on offense against ASU: sideline fades to Jeremiah Hunter, and handing it off to Jaydn Ott on 3rd and 20+ yards.
This is bad in two distinct ways: bad in terms of the frequency (6 plays out of 75 non-kneel down snaps) and magnitude - even when Cal did get a ‘big’ play, it was really that big.
To what extent can this team lean on the run game?
An amazing number: when you take sacks away from the running column and put them in the passing column, Cal averaged 4 yards/QB drop back and 4.7 yards/run.
True, Cal’s ground numbers are a little skewed by Ott’s two long 3rd down runs against somewhat indifferent 3rd and long defense, but even with those numbers removed Cal ran for nearly 5 yards a pop when handing off to tailbacks. And Cal’s long one-yard-away-from-game-clinching 4th quarter drive was entirely built on hand offs.
It’s clear at this point that Ott and Ifanse are the strengths of this offense, augmented by the occasional threat of a designed run to Jackson and the occasional target for Jeremiah Hunter. If my goal as a coach were to maximize wins and losses THIS year, I might make the zone read the base play of my offense, so that you’re focusing your play-calling to emphasize Jackson’s positives as a mobile quarterback and hiding the rougher elements of his game.
But making that call would negatively impact any chance that Jackson (or any other QB on the roster) might develop as a passer, and you would be placing a pretty major load on a running back room that is still pretty beat up.
More than that, I’m not sure that running the ball even more frequently than the nearly 60% that Cal did against ASU is going to work against teams with better defenses than ASU, which is most of the rest of Cal’s schedule.
12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (2-2) , 4 punts, 4 turnovers (1 interception, 3 downs), 1.75 points/drive
(Removed - ASU’s final drive of the 2nd quarter that ended in a midfield fumble before a probable Hail Mary attempt)
The opposite of a near total lack of explosiveness
Trenton Bourguet is a QB who just doesn’t have a deep arm. He went just 1-2 on passes more than 10 yards down field and it was clear that ASU wasn’t even trying to make that a part of their gameplan.
And yet, ASU managed to complete passes of 34, 17, 66, 52, 30, and 20 yards mostly off of a bunch of misdirection and trickery. That’s a credit to Kenny Dillingham, who managed to find ways to move the ball downfield despite fielding a line that couldn’t run block and a QB who couldn’t be counted on to throw the ball downfield.
The Cal defense made all of the plays that mattered most . . .
Allowing 430 yards to this offense isn’t a great performance, and Justin Wilcox was unsurprisingly frustrated with the busts that allowed ASU to get the big plays listed above. But the Cal defense made the following critical plays:
Holding ASU to 0 yards after Lachlan Wilson trapped them on the 2, setting up a scoring drive.
Getting the stop on a Skattebo run on 4th and 2 at the ASU 31, setting up a Cal TD drive
Getting the interception to set up Cal’s final short TD drive
Getting the final stop after Cal was stopped on 4th and 1 at the goal line.
. . . or got lucky on the plays that mattered most
Twice on 4th and short in goal line situations, ASU commits procedural penalties and elects to kick short field goals. Now, there’s no guarantee that ASU converts their attempts if they don’t commit fouls, but we’re all feeling VERY different if ASU doesn’t self-sabotage on those two plays and adds 8 points to their total.
A clear and critical win
It was not a perfect special teams day - Cal’s return units didn’t contribute anything and ASU got one long kick return that reached midfield and helped set up a short ASU touchdown drive.
But Mateen Bhaghani nailed his only field goal and Cal finished with a massive +9 yard net punting advantage across 11 punts thanks to an excellent day from Lachlan Wilson and a less impressive day from his ASU punting counterpart. That field position played a critical role in the final outcome, both by making ASU drive longer and giving Cal short fields.
This was a game that was close enough that special teams play had a direct influence on the outcome. A performance like what Cal has seen earlier in the year likely would have resulted in a loss, but the Bears specialists did enough to make sure this game didn’t end up like prior games.
Coaching & Errata
Tons of 4th down decision making that went largely in Cal’s favor
There were eight total 4th down conversion attempts, 5 of which that went in Cal’s favor. And while Cal’s 4th quarter 4th and 1 attempt from the 1 technically failed, the extra field position it forced ASU to attempt to cover ended up being vastly more valuable than the 3 points Cal would have hypothetically scored on a made field goal.
I can’t help but suspect that Kenny Dillingham’s extreme aggression on 4th down stemmed from something larger than just winning this single game. In a year zero in a dying conference running a team that self-banned from a bowl they were never ever going to make anyway, the THREE 4th down attempts inside his own territory struck me as an attempt to establish culture in future seasons when he has enough talent developed to actually make those conversions consistently.
If that’s the case, Cal was the beneficiary - the three points ASU gained from drives that included a 4th down conversion were outweighed by the touchdown Cal scored following a 4th down miss. Thanks Kenny!
Cal hosts Oregon State next week before traveling to Utah ahead of a bye week. As a result, Cal fans got to watch a free preview of their next two opponents on Friday night when the Beavers and Utes faced off.
And you could be forgiven for squinting and thinking that if Cal gets some things figured out they could maybe compete against both teams. Cam Rising is still hurt and doesn’t appear to be returning any time soon, to say nothing about a host of other injuries that have badly depleted Utah’s line-up. And yet despite all of those injuries the Beavers still struggled to stamp their control over the game at home.
The problem is that we haven’t seen Cal put forth an encouraging performance since blowing out North Texas (the mean Green still haven’t beaten an FBS team). I’ve seen lines favoring the Beavers by 8.5 to 9.5 points, so this isn’t some kind of foregone conclusion . . . but Cal has failed to cover three weeks in a row.
There are absolutely teams that figure things out as the year goes on. Utah has all but defined their program by in year development. But I’ve seen very little from Cal to suggest clear game over game improvement. And yet, if we’re going to even entertain bowl thoughts, it means pulling at least one upset win over the next two weeks. Will there be any rabbits pulled out of any hats?