Post-Game Thoughts: Colorado Football
Picking up the pieces following Cal's most sobering defeat in years
Every week I watch all of the post-game interview videos Cal Athletics puts out. I’m not precisely sure why I do it; it’s rarely a format conducive to insightful understanding of the football game.
I think maybe I do it because it humanizes the folks involved in the football program a little bit. As fans I think we can sometimes make the mistake of thinking about coaches and players as videogame characters that we don’t control, there for our entertainment 12 Saturdays a year.
I think about how I feel as a fan when Cal loses, and then I think about how it must feel being part of the program, investing thousands of hours in a year (and, in the case of the players themselves, your own physical safety) only for those efforts culminating in games like Saturday’s showing in Colorado.
The season is only half over, so it’s a little bit hard to fully contextualize this game, but we’re still going to try.
Cal has never lost a game to an FCS opponent. When Cal loses to a small conference team, they’re usually solid or better (like various iterations of Nevada or San Diego State). Even when Cal loses to really bad Pac-12 teams, there’s usual some kind of critical caveat (like losing half your roster to COVID quarantines.
Losing to a Colorado team that was previously 0-5 with every loss coming by 23 points or more constitutes one of the single worst losses in recent Cal football history, and there’s just no way to make something like that hurt any less.
13 drives: 1 touchdown, 4 FGAs (2-4), 4 punts, 4 turnovers (1 interception, 1 fumble, 2 downs), 1 point/drive
Prior to this week, Colorado had allowed 3.9 points/drive, good for 129th in the nation. In THIRTEEN drives, Cal managed exactly one point/drive. Thus far this season, Georgia is 4th in the nation, allowing 1 point/drive.
Yes, Cal’s offense made the 129th worst defense in the country look like defending national champion Georgia.
And Cal’s points/drive in this game was not an unfair reflection of their per down efficiency, either. This wasn’t a game where turnovers and field position and special teams weirdness handcuffed an offense. Cal managed only 4 yards/play - only UMass has averaged less than that on the season, and only two team defenses have held opposing offenses to such a low number. Cal’s long play was 24 yards, and that play ended in a fumble. Colorado entered the game with 18 tackles for loss across five games, and managed TEN against Cal’s offense.
Considering the quality of defense Cal was facing, this was the single worst offensive performance of the Wilcox era and maybe the worst offensive performance I have watched from a Cal football team in my lifetime as a Cal fan (I’m 37, FWIW).
Was Plummer playing hurt?
This is impossible to know unless somebody within the program tells us, but Jack Plummer was oddly inaccurate all game long just two weeks after suffering a needless injury playing during garbage time against Washington State. He had one of those inaccurate passes intercepted and might have had another picked had there not been an unrelated penalty.
This performance went beyond the offensive line
Dropped passes, fumbles, inaccurate throws, bad blocking from skill position players . . . to be so unsuccessful against a defense like Colorado requires more than just offensive line problems, and that’s exactly what happened. In some ways, this game was a throwback to earlier Wilcox offensive struggles when little errors from all over the roster conspired to hold the offense down across the board.
13 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGAs (2-2), 6 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 fumbles), 1.5 points/drive
For 12 drives in regulation, Cal was basically holding Colorado to their season points/drive average, which is pretty solid considering how brutal Colorado’s schedule has been. Colorado’s only touchdown in regulation came on a drive where 37 yards came on a contested circus catch on a trick play. Then Colorado scored on a circus catch touchdown pass in OT.
Shut outs are rare events for exactly this reason. Even bad offenses will hit on a couple of big plays and score off of them. Colorado had two crazy catches on deep balls, and did very, very little the rest of the game. Remove those two plays and Colorado averages an anemic 4 yards/play, but even with them Colorado was only at 4.8.
The defense was good; they held a very bad offense to 13 points across 12 possessions in regulation, and that should have been enough to win this game by 20 or so points at a minimum.
I don’t know if controlling Colorado says anything useful about how the defense will fair against much better offenses; Cal will face four top 25 offenses, plus a good-not-great OSU offense, and also Stanford. Colorado is not a good measure for any of those teams except maybe Stanford.
But it doesn’t really matter - for as long as the Cal offense is broken, the defensive performance is largely academic.
At the college level, long field goals are coin flips at best
Somewhere around 45 yards and out, field goals at the college level become very dicey. Cal had Dario Longhetto attempt a 48 and a 54 yarder, and missing both was probably a likelier even than making both. Shame it happened in a game where making even one might’ve been the difference.
Hey, good punt returns!
Jeremiah Hunter (get well soon!) and Justin Baker each had multiple solid punt returns, which was the difference in Cal winning the net punting battle on the day. Baker’s longest return gave Cal great field position for their only touchdown drive.
This is the kind of loss that, in nearly any other location would surely end a coaching regime. If you were previously inclined to argue that Cal should stay the course with Justin Wilcox, you would presumably argue that there’s value in his consistency; sure, it’s frustrating to be stuck playing .500 football, but at least he’s playing .500 football!
But losing to a team like Colorado, a team that a .500 football team would beat easily, destroys that argument. Every single result on Saturday points to a Cal team that will struggle to get another win this season. USC, UCLA, and Oregon are all legit top 15 teams. Oregon State comfortably beat the same Wazzu team that comfortably beat Cal with their back-up QB. Stanford just beat Notre Dame in South Bend. Hell, UNLV just got blown out for the 2nd week in a row. Every piece of data that gets added to the pile is a negative. With the possible exception of Big Game, Cal will be a sizable underdog in every game left on the schedule. 4-8 might be an optimistic projection for the rest of the season.
All of this is a reminder that Justin Wilcox failed to take advantage of a down era for the Pac-12, and is about to face the teeth of a revitalized conference in the back half of the schedule.
Wilcox may or may not decide to move on from offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave. Cal fans (and Cal’s administration) will have to ponder why they should allow Wilcox a 3rd opportunity to find an offensive coordinator, and ask themselves why he would be likely to get it right this time around.
Cal fans (and Cal’s administration) will have to ponder whether they are receiving 4.75 million dollars worth of annual performance from their head coach. Cal FANS will wonder what Justin Wilcox did last season to earn an extension through 2027. Jim Knowlton will have to figure out whether or not he can afford to pay Wilcox 3.6 million dollars to not coach at Cal, and also pay somebody else to coach at Cal. Or maybe Jim Knowlton will have to figure out how to market Cal football to fans who have now largely decided that the current head coach is not the answer.
I’ll be very honest right now: I’ve NEVER felt as pessimistic about Cal football generally or Cal athletics specifically as I feel right now. I’ve had all kinds of conversations, received all kinds of messages, from Cal fans who are all but ready to give up on their fandom, and I fully understand why they feel that way. Why you, readying this, might feel that way.
Across the last 14 seasons, Illinois has never won more than seven games in a season and never finished with a winning record in Big-10 play. They are currently 6-1, their only loss was an unlucky fluke, and they might be favorites to win the Big-10 West.
Across the last 13 seasons, Kansas football hasn’t made a bowl game. They hosted Game Day nine days ago and will likely make their first bowl game in 13 years this season.
Across the last 14 seasons, Tennessee finished with a winning SEC record just twice (5-3) and never managed more than 8 regular season wins. They just beat Alabama and are ranked 3rd in the country.
All of these programs dealt with various levels of mismanagement and neglect, and all three are experiencing unexpected resurgence after more than a decade of general irrelevance on the national stage. As calcified as college football is, this type of story happens a few times each year.
Will Cal be that team next year? Will Cal be that team in the near future? The hell if I know. It would require Cal’s athletic department to fix a whole bunch of things in short order. But I know that it’s possible, because if KANSAS can figure it out, Cal damn well can. I reject anybody who says that football success is not possible at Cal.
But if Cal fans decide it isn’t possible, if Cal’s administration decide it isn’t possible, and no changes are made to help make things better, then this year will just be another in a long line of unremarkable, below .500 seasons.