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Post-Game Thoughts: Washington Football
Cal makes as many mistakes as UW makes plays in a crushing, uncompetitive defeat
Picture via @calfootball twitter
I suppose this is worth stating clearly:
I do not believe that Justin Wilcox is the coach capable of achieving the (modest) level of success that Cal fans want to see, nor the level of (perhaps less modest) success necessary to financially save the Cal athletic department. I have obliquely said as much in prior articles, but I may as well be clear about it now.
But, thanks to a long string of administrative failures, Cal does not have the money sufficient to even consider firing Justin Wilcox and hiring a new head coach for, I would guess, at least another year and a half. To the extent that Cal has donor money to tap it is going towards trying to demonstrate that Cal fans care about athletics in a positive way, and not towards paying buy outs.
Since I’ve been aware of this reality, I’ve focused my attention towards reacting to each game and each season within that framework, and desperately hoping for evidence that Wilcox could prove me wrong and finally break through with an above .500 conference season. I wanted him to prove me wrong for my own selfish fan reasons, and for Wilcox himself, who I believe is a good person. You could probably feel in how I wrote about Cal’s win over North Texas how much I wanted Wilcox to turn a corner.
Wilcox, to his credit, recognized that his team’s performance wasn’t good enough, and made a number of changes to try to fix the problems that held Cal back. I think he was right to make all of the changes that he made. Alas, they were not enough to meaningfully change Cal’s on-field performance, and the 2023 Bears do not appear to be meaningfully different from the 2021 Bears or the 2022 Bears.
9 drives: 2 touchdowns, 4 punts, 3 turnovers (3 interceptions), 1.3 points/drive.
Removed: Cal’s final four drives, in which UW was playing back-ups leading by 40 points
If Cal had made two PATs and scored 14 points, you could bump up the points/drive number to 1.6, but seeing as how one of the missed points was on the offense on a 2 point conversion attempt, I don’t know why you would.
More importantly, here’s a ‘fun’ analytical puzzle. Which Cal drives do you think represent relevant data? How do you contextualize that data? By the definition that most advanced prediction systems use, the entire 2nd half of this game would be categorized as garbage time. The definition I’m using is when UW pulled their starters, though even that’s hard to say because it’s not like it’s an entire line shift. Instead, most teams gradually mix in more and more back-ups as the game increasingly gets out of hand, and UW did exactly that. I somewhat arbitrarily cut off the last four drives, when the back-ups made up a clear majority. Your margins may vary.
But the analysis this week might be kind of important, because . . . .
The inevitable QB controversy
There are more than a few Cal fans who are Big Mad that Sam Jackson didn’t play in this game until the game was dead, buried, and covered with 500 million years of ocean sediment deposits.
If you’re somebody in that category, I don’t blame you. I was more nihilistic about it, because it became clear early on that there was not a QB on the roster capable of keeping Cal competitive in this game. I’ve been more agnostic about which QB on the roster might be the best, because I’d seen good and bad things from both Jackson and Finley.
But at this point, I guess this is where I fall: for Finley to be a viable option alongside Jackson, he can’t throw interceptions, particularly back-breaking, defensive-touchdown-risking, short interceptions. Jackson’s ceiling as a playmaker is too high.
You don’t want to bench a guy for one mistake, and I’ve watched more than a few Cal QBs who look like they’re more worried about not throwing an interception than they are making a play down the field. But if those kinds of throws are going to be even an occasional occurrence then you have to play Sam Jackson at QB, if only for the chance that he can learn the offense and harness his higher ceiling.
Cal still has major issues at tackle
The focus is on QB because of just how disastrous each interception was, and because the QB rotation didn’t make a ton of sense. But Finley’s two worst interceptions came when he was under pressure, and that pressure almost entirely came from the edge, where UW’s edge rushers dominated against both of Cal’s tackles.
After three weeks, I was cautiously optimistic about improved play across the line and specifically at tackle, but doubt would remain unless you pass a true trial by fire against the high end teams on the schedule.
It’s not surprising that Cal hasn’t been able to entirely turn around their line performance from the 2022 season in just one off-season, but that doesn’t make it any less frustrating to watch Cal’s QBs get so little time to get a throw off . . . while simultaneously watching Michael Penix sit in the pocket and pick Cal’s defense apart.
8 drives: 5 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 0 punts, 2 turnovers (1 interception, 1 downs), 4.75 points/drive.
Removed: Any UW drives after Penix and the rest of the starters were pulled.
There’s the theory that good offense beats good defense - that the defense is constantly in reaction mode, and if both are evenly matched that the offense’s advantage in setting the terms on a play means that they will inevitably win.
In UW’s first three games, they averaged 4.56 points/drive and a bit over 9 yards/play. Against Cal, with their starters playing, UW averaged 4.75 points/drive and 9.9 yards/play. Which is to say that UW made the Cal defense look like every other defense they have faced this year.
To be clear, I don’t think that Boise St., Tulsa, Michigan St, and Cal all have defenses of identical quality. I just suspect that Washington is so good on offense that they will make all but the most elite defenses in the country look equally inept.
What this game proved is that Cal does not have an elite defense. This wasn’t exactly a shock, but it’s still deeply unfun watching the strength of your team get dismantled play after play.
I think this was more about UW being elite
I think Cal’s defense is a well-coached, disciplined group with lots of good college level players.
I think Washington’s offense is a well-coached, disciplined group with lots of good soon-to-be-NFL level players. And when players at that talent level are on their game, when coaching and scheme are even, their talent advantage wins out.
There were multiple plays where Cal’s defenders were in great position to take away all but a perfectly placed ball, and Penix did just that. There were multiple plays where Cal’s defenders were in great position to take away even a perfectly played ball, but UW’s receivers made a contested catch.
The good news is that UW is now behind us. The bad news is that Oregon and USC have offenses about as good and about as talented, and they’re still to come on the schedule.
Cal could learn a thing or two from UW’s receivers
Rome Odunze and especially Ja’Lynn Polk were both experts as knowing exactly how much physical contact they could get away with, and how to deploy that to create space for themselves to get open.
Pushing off? Illegal. Holding your arm outstretched so that the defender can’t get any closer? Much more of a gray area, and basically never called.
Now, creating that kind of space is only relevant if you have a QB who can throw the ball into that space, but the frequency with which UW used that ability to make catches impressed me either way.
What Cal is doing is not working
Look, I ultimately don’t know exactly what Cal puts into special teams preparation and practice. I’ve had people that I trust who are more in tune with the day to day operations of the program say that more manpower and resources are devoted to special teams than you would otherwise think.
What I do know are a few facts:
Cal didn’t have a special teams coordinator last season.
Cal hired a long time edge rusher coach with no prior special teams experience as their special teams coordinator this year.
Special teams performance as a unit throughout the Wilcox era has ranged from mediocre to disastrous.
And so when I add up the facts that I am aware of, I have no choice but to conclude that, collectively, Cal football is not willing or able to devote the necessary resources to build good special teams play.
This is not something specific to placekicking, because against UW we saw issues in every phase of special teams that have been recurring problems for years. Kick returners who don’t have necessary blocking, nevertheless electing to return kicks without a prayer of getting to the 25. A punt return unit that rarely even attempts returns. A punt return touchdown allowed.
Coaching & Errata
. . . is covered in the intro, and under the QB battle, and under the special teams section, and also below. When you fall behind by 40 points it all kinda becomes a coaching discussion anyway, and I’m not here to beat a dead horse any more than I can avoid.
I did not go into this game with optimism, but I did go in with curiosity, because this game was going to answer a critical question: is this team set up to compete against a brutally difficult schedule?
Alas, you saw the results on the field. Cal will be favored to beat Arizona State and Stanford, and heavy underdogs in every other game this season. 4-8 appears to be the most likely result. If you’re an optimist, maybe you see home games against OSU and Wazzu and dream about an upset win, which is hardly unprecedented under Wilcox. If you’re a pessimist, maybe you worry about losing as favorites against ASU or Stanford, which is also hardly unprecedented under Wilcox.
But right now a bowl path appears all but impossible. Such are the consequences of losing to an Auburn team that just got badly outplayed by Texas A&M. And, as covered above, the financial path to a new head coach any time soon appears equally impossible.
Which means you have no choice but to continue to hope that Justin Wilcox can somehow turn things around, as each game goes by, adding to the evidence that, try as he might, he doesn’t have the ability to make it happen.
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