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Post-Game Thoughts: Washington State Football
Cal rides a pair of weird fumbles to a weird win over Wazzu
Photo credit: Rob Hwang
Remember what they took from us.
Insane ref decisions. Weird plays. Boggling fumbles. Bad special teams. Mascot hijinks. Injury controversies. Everything Avi covered yesterday.
A dumb, fun, maddening, thrilling, but ultimately unimportant game against Washington State as both teams fight and claw for 6 wins is as fitting a curtain close on Pac-12 play in Memorial Stadium as we could ask for.
11 drives: 4 touchdowns, 5 punts, 2 turnovers (2 fumbles), 2.5 points/drive.
If you wanted to remove Cal’s final two 3-and-out drives, when they were trying to burn time rather than score, I wouldn’t argue too much. That would bump Cal up to 3.1 points/drive. But the Bears failed the objective for each drive, which was to kill time, so I’m fine keeping them on the ledger.
A good offense, not a great offense
4 touchdowns in 11 drives (arguably in 9 ‘serious’ drives) against Washington State’s middle of the pack defense is OK. 5.7 yards/play, when Wazzu has allowed 6 yards/play in Pac-12 play is OK. All in all, Cal has an OK Pac-12 offense! Which we would have been thrilled to know back in August.
But it’s not an offense that is yet good enough to make up for its own mistakes. An offense like Oregon or Washington or OSU or USC can score even when they get called for a holding penalty. Cal, conversely, had two different drives derailed by holding calls. Better offenses can turn the ball over but be confident that they will convert on a high enough percentage of their drives to make up for that mistake. Cal’s two turnovers were nearly disastrous, and would have been if Wazzu hadn’t been even more profligate.
That’s going to be the next step challenge for this unit. Can they either 1) cut out those kinds of drive killing mistakes or, more likely, 2) become more explosive and efficient such that the occasional penalty doesn’t derail the drive.
Another year of development for Fernando Mendoza under Spavital? Another year for Mike Bloesch to both recruit and develop his current guys? An off-season to get the running back room healthy? A key portal addition on the line or at WR/TE? The expectation should be that this unit should be at least a top third ACC offense.
Cal’s tackles won the battle
In my pre-game PFF column, I noted how WSU’s edge rushers, Ron Stone and Brennan Jackson had terrorized Cal’s tackles. Well, Jackson did make a couple plays, most notably the strip fumble as Mendoza was trying to throw. But I think that play is as much on Mendoza for not stepping up another half yard into the pocket, and the bottom line is that Cal’s tackles won more often than they lost in a match-up that was a decisive defeat each of the last two years against the Cougars.
That was enough to be the difference in another game decided by less than a possession, and is another feather in the cap for Mike Bloesch and Cal’s offensive line, which is the most improved unit from 2022.
13 drives: 5 touchdowns, 3 FGA (1-3), 2 punts, 3 turnovers (3 fumbles), 3 points/drive.
(Removed: Wazzu’s final desperation drive ending in a hail mary interception)
This game swung on a straight forward battle: Could Cal’s defense stop Cam Ward from making downfield plays often enough? Wazzu hasn’t had success running the ball all year long and they ran the ball only often enough to keep Cal’s defense honest.
And while Ward got his yards, it took a whole ton of drop backs and Cal’s defense made their share of plays
Juuust enough pressure (and just enough coverage)
There are games where pass rushers will protect a vulnerable secondary, and there are games where the secondary gives an iffy pass rush time to get home, and I think Cal’s performance on Saturday was more the latter. Cam Ward was sacked six times, but a few of those were after protracted plays with lots of time to get a throw off.
But kudos to Cal’s rushers for getting there often enough to kill a few drives, whether via sack/fumble, or via pressured incompletions. David Reese was the star man for the day with three sacks and a couple forced fumbles.
Winning by not screwing up
Cal’s special teams were largely unremarkable, which is exactly where we want them. I could quibble about a line drive punt in the 4th quarter that enabled a 17 yard Wazzu punt return and just 34 net yards, and two kickoff returns that reached the 30 yard line, but that stuff is small potatoes compared to Cal mistakes earlier in the season and Cougar mistakes in this same game.
Maybe it’s unfair to call missed kicks of 42 and 48 yards mistakes; Washington State’s Dean Janikowski is pretty typical of a solid college kicker in that he is very good from inside 40 yards and more of less 50/50 from 40+ yards. It’s unfortunate for Washington State that he went 0-2 in a game where even 1/2 would have meant overtime.
The gods of 4th down aggression favor the bold
Did the Cal coaching staff go for it on 4th down because they knew they had the perfect play call that would get Jaydn Ott wide open (using a pick route that was probably pass interference)? I don’t know! All I know is that those extra 4 points ended up being pretty important! You don’t win games with field goals!
A return of the turtle?
Cal’s final touchdown drive early in the 4th quarter was 5 plays, all of which were handoffs to Jaydn Ott. Cal then kept that theme going for the final three drives of the game, calling seven rushes out of eight plays. The only pass was a roll out incomplete pass. Was Cal a little too conservative? I mean, when you have a three possession lead with 11 minutes to play you don’t need to do much to close out the win, and if Cal hadn’t fumbled the ball they probably end this game with a calm, 10 point win.
The McMorris injury thing
Do I think Cal was faking an injury to slow Washington State down? I doubt it, if that was the case they would’ve done so early and obviously to get a timeout. I can tell you, having tracked Cal’s snap counts all season long, that McMorris is one of two players who has played pretty much every single meaningful snap on defense, and he’s the LAST guy Wilcox wants to lose for a play. If Cal were faking injuries, they’d have a defensive linemen go out, as Cal substitutes them liberally anyway.
I’m pretty confident that McMorris was legitimately hurt (he came out hurt for a few plays earlier in the game), called for a sub, and what Justin Wilcox was thinking was “if my defense has to make a last second sub because McMorris thinks he needs to come off, it means we’re scrambling and out of position, so I want him to stay down so that we can set our defense properly.”
And Cal ended up getting an advantage due to how it played out. If Cal had happened to force an incompletion on the play, then Wazzu would’ve gotten lucky that it would’ve been called back. Such is life.
In short, I think everybody was a victim of circumstance.
Last week, I said the following:
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.
After this past week of games, where Cal beat Wazzu, Stanford got erased by OSU, and UCLA looked awful behind a 3rd string QB in a home loss to ASU, I’m revising my percentages a little bit:
66% chance to beat Stanford x 25% chance to beat UCLA = 17% chance that Cal goes bowling.
If that happens, the 2023 season will be Cal’s 2nd best season under Justin Wilcox both by record and also from a fan satisfaction perspective, as the season would close with two rivalry wins, one of which would be hugely cathartic as a final middle finger as UCLA walks out the door on west coast football.
Anything less will be bitter on so many levels - another losing season, another bowl-less season, one or more losses to rivals that would sting badly. Stanford would sting because it would be a sign that turncoat Troy Taylor has his team moving in the right direction. I don’t need to tell you why a loss to UCLA would sting, or for how long that sting would last.
So here we are, the business end of the season. Time to brace for impact.