Post-Game Thoughts: Colorado Football

Is Cal's win over the Buffaloes a turning point game, or just beating up on an overwhelmed opponent?

I had a grand time on Saturday at what honestly felt like Cal’s annual FCS game. The stakes were low, there was no stress, the crowd was carefree and happy, and it was quickly clear that a win was not at all in doubt. When Elijah Hicks came over to conduct ‘Sons of California’ with the entire team cheering him on, it was easily the happiest Cal football had made me feel since Evan Weaver stoned Stanford on 4th and 1 nearly two years ago.

The critical question following a very workmanlike win over Colorado: To what extent is this game a reflection of improvement from Cal vs. Colorado just being That Bad?

Because Cal’s defense throttling the Colorado offense was absolutely on the table. Hell, this was only a semi-joking prediction I made a week ago:

Cal’s 2nd drive of the game resulted in their first touchdown, and lo, it was indeed plenty to beat a Colorado team that has one of the single worst offenses the Pac-12 has seen in quite some time.

After Cal finished up holding Colorado to 104 yards over 46 plays, Colorado fell to 127th in the country in yards/play, narrowly ahead of New Mexico, Southern Mississippi, and Navy. But it’s also true that Cal held Colorado to their 2nd worst offensive output of the season. So there’s something to the idea that what Cal did to Colorado was more than just badness in Boulder.

Offense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 2 touchdowns, 4 FGA (4-4), 4 punts, 0 turnovers, 2.6 points/drive

There’s a pretty obvious first half/second half split here, with Cal scoring 23 points in five drives (4.6 points/drive, excellent) in the 1st half and three points in five drives (0.6 points/drive, ghastly) in the 2nd half.

Of course, it’s not very Wilcoxian to try to score with a 20 point lead, and I’m not all that convinced that Cal did try. Cal ran the ball 21 times vs. 15 passes and I don’t particularly recall Cal going downfield with any of those passes. Maybe this is about my brain seeing what I expect to see when I watch Cal with a big lead, but I doubt the offense was going full-bore, whether conscious or unconscious.

A bounce back day for the entire offensive line

Per PFF, Cal’s line allowed 10 pressure events in 37 drop backs, which isn’t exactly amazing, but it’s a vast improvement from the 10 pressure events that Thibodeaux created by himself in 30 minutes last week. Even better, 8 of those pressures were only hurries, and Chase was only hit twice and never sacked. When Chase was hurried, he scrambled very effectively.

And unlike prior weeks, the pressures were spread out across the line, with nobody allowing more that three each.

The other good news is that with the possible exception of USC, pretty much everybody left on the schedule struggles to create consistent pressure and aren’t full of effective edge rushers. In short, the rest of Cal’s schedule is full of defenses that range from not good (USC, UCLA) to downright terrible (OSU, Arizona, Stanford). The Cal offense just put forward a solid performance against a defense at least as good as anybody left on the schedule.

And so the Bears will go as far as Chase can carry them

Another game, another offensive showing in which Chase played a role in about 75% of the offense, passing or running for 325 of Cal’s 449 total yards. 2nd place? Chris Brooks, with just 81 total yards. This is Chase’s offense, for better or for worse, and against Colorado it was more than enough. It’s going to have to be for the rest of the season.

Defense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 0 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 7 punts, 2 turnovers (i interception, 1 downs), 0.3 points/drive

Colorado’s sole points came on an 18 yard drive that started in Cal territory thanks to a 67 yard kickoff return, so honestly this was functionally a shut-out in that the only points the defense allowed can’t really be blamed on the defense.

Any way you slice the numbers you paint a picture of defensive dominance and offensive futility in the extreme. Colorado didn’t have a single drive with more than two first downs. Only two drives crossed the 50, and only one drive made it there for non-special-teams reasons. Colorado ran 46 plays, and exactly one play went longer than 14 yards. You get the idea.

Domination at all levels

When you hold a team to roughly 100 yards and 3 points, that means you did everything well, and that certainly applies here. Cal dominated a Colorado offensive line that just got their position coach fired, to the tune of 17 pressures on just 26 drop backs. Meanwhile, Cal’s secondary throttled Colorado’s wide receivers, allowing exactly one pass completion further than 10 yards downfield.

It’s one of those games where the other team is so thoroughly dominant that nobody on Cal’s defense particularly stands out as an individual because Colorado got shut down so quickly they barely got to run any plays.

But if anybody stood out, it was Elijah Hicks, who punctuated a dominant game with a swooping interception. If there was anything noteworthy about Cal’s scheme, it was that the Bears were much more willing to push their safeties towards the line of scrimmage against Colorado’s offense, and both Hicks and Daniel Scott made a number of plays in both the passing and running game that were more aggressive than usual. I don’t know if Cal will have the guts (or if it’s even a good idea) against stronger offenses like Oregon State or UCLA, but in this particular game it was both effective and fun to watch.

Special Teams

Dario Longhetto: secretly pretty good kicker?

The Cal field goal kicking unit has been a consistent challenge over the past two seasons, with a parade of blocking and snap/hold issues. But maybe Cal actually has a solution at the hardest/most important part of the whole operation?

Dario Longhetto was 4-5 on kicks last year, with his only miss a block. Longhetto is 7-9 this year, with one of those misses a 55 yarder that came up narrowly short.

In other words, Longhetto has attempted 14 total kicks and has missed all of one kick (a 40 yarder vs. Nevada) that would fall under the ‘should make’ category. Meanwhile, Longhetto has now nailed four kicks from 40+ out. For an offense that still struggles to convert 4th downs, having a reliable kicker can be a pretty big deal.

Coaching/Game Theory

A reminder that it could be so much worse

I’m pretty confident in saying that while I have occasional quibbles with Justin Wilcox’s game management, he is comfortably in the top 3rd or so of college coaches, and this weekend was another stark reminder, as coaches in charge of losing teams made baffling losing decisions.

On Friday night, Jedd Fisch’s Arizona Wildcats led Washington for most of the game and were running the ball down Washington’s throat. Twice, they faced 4th and 1 in their own territory. Twice they punted. Twice, Washington scored on the ensuing drive. With absolutely nothing to lose, Arizona punted literally and figuratively.

And on Saturday, Karl Dorrell faced an early 4th and 1 from midfield and punted. Then, a drive later, facing an identical situation, he ran the ball rather than run a QB sneak, and Colorado got stuffed.

The first decision was lame, the 2nd decision wise but with a less optimal play call. Either way, Colorado squandered literally the two best drives they would have all game long.

Big Picture

It’s been a long, long time since Oregon State and Cal played with the Beavers entering as clearly the better team. OSU started as 2 point favorites despite playing on the road, and Jonathan Smith has finally finished an offensive overhaul that makes the Beavers legit scary to face.

As a result, OSU might honestly be the best team Cal will face the rest of the year. USC has more athleticism, UCLA on the road is probably a tougher game, but Oregon State is certainly the best coached team left on the schedule, and maybe the best, period.

Which means that if Cal can win, if Cal can provide a piece of evidence that suffocating Colorado is the start of a trend and not a one-off, then the 2021 salvage operation has some real hope behind it. Beating Oregon State would probably turn bowl eligibility into a near 50/50 proposition rather than a pipe dream.

It’s going to be tough. Remember when TCU shredded Cal’s defense on the ground? Oregon State’s rushing attack is probably better. Meanwhile, OSU’s weakness is on defense, but counting on the Cal offense to consistently execute and not have a lull over a quarter or two is risky.

But if Cal beats OSU, then surely they would beat an already-dead Arizona team the week after, right? Thus, the Bears would suddenly be 4-5 entering the final three game stretch against our California rivals, with bragging rights and bowl eligibility on the line. Boy does that sound fun.

Beat OSU, and that’s all on the table.