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Post-Game Thoughts: Oregon Football
Cal is eventually outclassed and overmatched by the Ducks
Well, the field goal kicking went well! Image via @calfootball twitter
To start - what a relief to hear that Jaivian Thomas appears to be relatively OK following a scary injury, as we all send good thoughts his way as he continues to be cared for.
This game can be split up into two phases: The phase where Oregon came out sleepy and sloppy, and made a bunch of mistakes that kept Cal in the game. This phase was basically the first quarter. When Cal kicked a field goal on a drive that spanned the 1st and 2nd quarter, the score was 14-13, and if the score was all you knew maybe you’d think that this was going to be a competitive game.
But nobody watching the game could have been fooled; it was clear which team was controlling proceedings. And as soon as Oregon stopped dropping the ball and committing penalties every other play, they reeled off a 49-6 run across the rest of the game.
12 drives: 1 touchdown, 2 field goals (2-2) 5 punts, 4 turnovers (1 interception, 2 fumbles, 1 downs), 2 points/drive, 1.1 points/drive
Fernando’s first bad game
This was my take early in the game:
Mendoza followed this up with a couple of nice throws that led to scoring opportunities, so it wasn’t like he was completely overwhelmed all game long. But at the same time I don’t think he ever truly got comfortable or into any kind of groove because of the volume of pressure Oregon created.
The result was more dangerous throws than usual. And while Mendoza’s interception and fumble were created by Oregon pressure, they are also plays where you would hope that Mendoza would make better decisions, either by getting the ball out sooner, throwing the ball away, or eating a sack.
Does this concern me? Nah, not particularly. Give me a Cal QB who starts as a true freshman or sooner and I’ll find you a game where a really talented opponent made him look like an inexperienced starter. If Aaron Rodgers can get benched early in his Cal career, I’m not going to overreact to Mendoza having a rough game against a team that most people (myself included) expect to make the college football playoffs.
The relevant question is not what this game says about Mendoza’s chances of growing into the next great Cal QB. The relevant question is whether or not Cal can build an offensive line that can stand up to a top 25 defensive line. To be clear: Oregon has a good defensive line, but not an elite line. And while I’m generally pretty pleased with the level of improvement we have seen from the Cal offensive line as compared to 2022, this was a step back.
Make of this what you will
Last year, Cal fumbled the ball a mere 11 times, and the opponent recovered just 3 of those fumbles.
This year, in nine games, Cal has fumbled 16 times, and the opponents has recovered nine of those fumbles.
My take: regression sucks.
13 drives: 8 touchdowns, 1 field goal (0-1), 2 punt, 2 turnovers (1 interception, 1 fumble), 2 points/drive, 4.3 points/drive
Removed: Oregon’s 1 play, 1 yard touchdown drive
In theory, I should also remove some amount of Oregon’s second half scoring. Most advanced stats would remove the entire 4th quarter under their garbage time definitions, and Oregon pulled their starters for the final two drives of the game.
Except that Oregon then scored two more touchdowns with their back-ups against Cal defenders who are part of the competitive rotation. So I’m just keeping it all in.
The Cal defense officially gets credit for five stops, but two of them were Oregon turnovers that were functionally unforced by Cal’s defense. One turnover was a dropped pass that popped up into the hands of Patrick McMorris, the other a botched snap that was eventually kicked to Nohl Williams. Kudos to each defender for being in the vicinity to grab a loose ball, but neither play exactly speaks to a repeatable skill that predicts future defensive success . . . as Oregon’s seven subsequent offensive touchdowns indicate.
Not really sure what we’re trying to do schematically
To a certain extent, when you can’t get pressure you might throw your hands up in the air and give up. Cal is 125th in the country in sacks, and only BYU and Virginia are worse among power 5 teams. Give Bo Nix and his receivers time, and they’ll gash most anybody eventually.
But after watching this game, I find myself confused as to what Cal is trying to do on defense in the secondary. When Oregon is facing a 2nd and 37 because of a couple of penalties, Cal plays man free, and leaves a corner in solo coverage near the line, and he gets burned for a big gain that turns into a touchdown because safety help is late. Later in the game, Cal plays a bunch of (what appears to my non-expert eye to be) zone, but they lose receivers left and right.
This is now the 4th game of the year in which Cal’s opponent has passed in excess of 9 yards/pass attempt. Now, I will grant that UW, OSU, USC, and Oregon all have elite offenses with veteran QBs, but at a certain point this becomes about Cal and not the opponent. And sure, if the QB bravely stands in the pocket and delivers a perfect downfield pass while under pressure that falls into the hands of a well covered receiver, you tip your cap.
But much of what we have seen is very much not that. We’re again talking about just utterly not tracking a tight end running through the end zone, being desperately late to a RB on a swing pass, and letting a guy get past everybody on a slant.
I don’t have some kind of obvious solution here, because I’ve watched Cal give up big chunks of yards in every kind of conceivable coverage scheme. Maybe that’s the problem - a jack-of-all-trades, master-of-none situation. All I know is that there’s not much point in having Justin Wilcox as your head coach if you’re going to have what is possibly the worst defense in the conference:
This may not be a fair representation, as Cal’s final three opponents are below average Pac-12 offenses . . . but so are ASU and Utah, and Cal made those offenses look OK already.
Sigh number 1
Prior to the season, I fretted that Cal may have found a strong legged punter who will occasionally outkick his coverage. Well, 9 games in we have the following situation:
Cal average yards/punt: 45.4 yards, 19th in the country
Cal yards/punt return allowed: 14.5 yards, 120th in the country
Cal average net yards/punt: 38.2, 80th in the country
Sigh number 2
Nobody listens when I tell them to always fair catch kickoffs, so we keep starting drives from the 17 yard line for no good reason.
Not that it really matters, but come on
On 4th and 3 at the Oregon 10, trailing 14-10, Cal elected to kick a field goal. My reaction at the time? Field goals were not going to win this game. Of course, in a few drives that opinion was proven both correct and also incorrect. Cal did in deed need touchdowns, but also a single go-for-it/kick-it decision wasn’t actually going to matter in the grand scheme of things.
Look this was never going to be a close game. I’m not sure if I have entered a Cal game feeling so hopeless about Cal’s chances to win, and everything that happened only reinforced that feeling.
But it is a feeling that has as much to do with Oregon and the particular ways in which Cal is a bad match-up against Oregon that made me feel that way. Which is to say that I’m ready to move on.
When conference play began, we started talking about how Cal was facing maybe the most difficult run of games in . . . well, ever?
And that stretch was indeed very very difficult. Cal went 1-5 in this run of mostly ranked teams. But this stretch was supposed to include Washington State, who was ranked back in September.
But the cougars have fallen on very hard times indeed. Wazzu has lost 5 in a row, including bad losses to ASU and Stanford, looking progressively worse each week. So bad, in fact, that Cal opened as 1.5 point favorites.
Which means that Cal actually has a realistic chance to beat Wazzu, then beat Stanford, and then somehow enter the final week of the season with a chance to upset UCLA in the Rose Bowl and go 6-6.
Is that likely? Hell no. I’d put the odds at . . . let’s see, .5 x .5 x .2 = a roughly 5% chance that Cal goes bowling, and I’m probably overestimating the chance of an upset in L.A in this formula.
But for the next two games, Cal is probably slightly more likely to win than to lose, and each game should be competitive and watchable. And then maybe, just maybe, we can earn a nice trip somewhere while flipping UCLA the bird on the way out.
If nothing else, I’m actually looking forward to watching Fernando give it his best shot.