Post-Game Thoughts: Cal Football v. Nevada

We all have to learn how to do the football thing together again

For those unaware, I watch home games from Section R. This section is sandwiched between the Cal band and the Young Alumni section, and is technically part of the student section. But in the last decade, there have never been enough students to need Section R, so we can move in, enjoy a great view, and spread out to our heart’s content.

We rolled into Memorial Stadium at around 6:45, after a wonderful afternoon reunion at the tailgate. While it felt a bit odd after two years away, for the most part it felt no different than other game. We plopped down in an empty Section R and settled in to wait for the game to start.

And then something weird happened. Already, 45 minutes before kickoff, a surprisingly large number of students were already in section S and SS on the 50 yard line. And they just kept flowing in, filling in section RR behind the band and pushing into section R. Suddenly, we were surrounded by a bunch of teenagers for the first time . . . well, ever.

It was equal parts exciting and awkward. The students were almost entirely freshmen and sophomores who were just happy to have something resembling a real college experience, and to the extent that the student section even has traditions any more, they weren’t aware of them. They received limited direction from one solitary Mic-man, who for all I know may have been attending his first Cal game as well. For reasons unknown, the Cal band didn’t play on the field during pre-game (no way to distance in the North tunnel?!). The last decade of mostly losing football had seen the slow erosion of institutional fan culture, and the pandemic season may have destroyed what little was left.

But dammit, they were there, and they wanted to have a good time, and it was up to Cal to show them a good time. For one quarter, the Bears delivered.

And then for three quarters the offense descended into a morass, the weather got cold, Cal fell behind, and all that enthusiasm slowly drained from the students watching 3-and-out after 3-and-out.

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1-2), 5 punts, 2 turnovers (1 interception, 1 downs), 1.5 points/drive

I don’t blame you at all for thinking that Cal’s first two drives were awesome. 24 combined plays, 135 combined yards, 13:13 total time off the clock, averaging 5.6 yards/play. But as we were discussing this style of offense in the stands, my immediate reaction was: this style of offense will work against Nevada, but it won’t work against Washington or Oregon.

Almost everybody aesthetically loves a long, sustained drive. The problem is that it’s really hard to consistently execute long, sustained drives. Inevitably you’re going to make a mistake on a play and/or your opponent is going to make a great play, and then you’re behind schedule, and then the drive ends. Unless you run the triple option, your offense needs to have some ability to create explosive plays to be successful against the better teams on the schedule.

At the time, I was pretty confident that Cal could sustain enough drives to beat Nevada, but almost immediately Cal started making enough mistakes to kill drives. A holding penalty here, an errant pass there, and all of a sudden Cal barely managed a first down across two quarters.

Play calling, QB play, offensive line play, or WR play?

So: why can’t Cal create explosive plays in the passing game? I can’t say that I felt like there was only one culprit, so let’s go one by one:

The line wasn’t giving Garbers ages to throw, but neither was he under immediate distress. WRs weren’t getting wide open downfield, but there were occasional opportunities.

The harder part to parse out is QB decision making vs. playcalling. There were times when it looked like there were opportunities to make plays downfield that Garbers elected to avoid in favor of safer passes. But there were also times when Cal faced downs and distances that seemingly would call for deeper routes, and yet when the ball left Chase’s hands nobody was further than 10 yards downfield. And there were times when Cal sent guys downfield, and they were open, and Garbers threw uncatchable balls.

In short, there are so many things that seemingly went wrong in the passing game that I can’t be sure how Cal would go about fixing things.

Can the run game succeed long-term if the passing attack can’t succeed?

Cal handed the ball off to running backs 21 times for 158 yards for 7.5 yards/carry, which is excellent. Putting aside the debate about run/pass balance, the important question is whether or not Cal’s line can bring that same level of blocking against bigger, more talented defensive lines in Pac-12 play. Because unless and until Cal demonstrates that they can threaten down the field, teams will stack the box and do what they can to shut down the running game.

Defense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 2 touchdowns, 4 FGA (3-4), 4 punts, 1 turnover (interception), 2 points/drive

Carson Strong and his receiving corp were legit

Watching Cal’s offense struggle to throw swing passes and WR screens would have been frustrating no matter what, but seeing that while also watching Carson Strong and Nevada throw the ball all over the field was maddening.

Nevada really demonstrated the value of being able to threaten the entire field. Sideline go routes, slants, crossing routes, tight ends up the seam - name a route and Strong could make that throw, and Cal had to defend it. And while I’m sure the Bears weren’t perfect, any defense outside of the national elite are going to give up yards against an offense that versatile.

The play that drove the point home was a perfect 46 yard sideline bomb to Tory Holton that Chigozie Anusium defended as well as he possibly could have. It was an NFL level throw that was the big play in one of Nevada’s two TD drives.

So ultimately I was fine if not necessarily wowed by Cal’s defensive performance. Nevada’s 5.7 yards/play is only narrowly better than their worst performance the nine games they played in 2020 (5.4 yards/play vs. SDSU and SJSU).

As expected Cal shut down the Nevada running game. Perhaps more concerningly Cal didn’t get as much pressure as I had been hoping to see, sacking Strong just twice in 42 dropbacks.

But ultimately it was a defensive performance in line with what we’ve seen across four years under Wilcox, which is to say good enough to win a game.

Special Teams

Three critical plays that helped swing the game

Just inside a minute to play, Cal faced a 4th and 2 at their own 41. Cal punts the ball 38 yards, Romeo Doubs returns the ball 38 yards, and Nevada started from the same spot, as if Cal had attempted the conversion and gotten stuffed. Nevada only drove the ball 23 yards, but that was far enough to get a 35 yard field goal that probably wouldn’t have happened if Cal had stopped Doubs from returning the punt.

Early in the 3rd quarter, Cal again punts, and this time a short 34 yard punt from Jameison Sheanan is returned 16 yards. That’s a net of only 18 yards. Nevada only drives 25 yards in 9 plays, but it’s long enough to earn a 49 yard field goal.

Then, late in the game, Dario Longhetto misses a 40 yard field goal.

Add 3 points to Cal’s score with a made field goal, and subtract 6 points from Nevada if they hadn’t received great field position from two iffy punts and two good returns, and maybe this game ends differently.

Coaching/Game Theory

A disastrous decision to decline a penalty

On 3rd and 18, Nevada is called for a holding penalty. Rather than accept the penalty and push the Wolfpack backwards, Cal declines, and Nevada attempts and makes the 49 yard field goal mentioned above to put Cal down 8.

It would be one thing if Nevada didn’t have a field goal kicker who had already demonstrated that he had a good leg. It would be another thing if Nevada really needed a touchdown and a field goal did them no good. It would be another thing if your defense had been awful and you really didn’t think you could stop them on a 3rd and 28(!). But none of those things were the case, so I don’t really understand why you would decline that penalty.

It’s hard to be aggressive when the offense is struggling, but sometimes you have no choice.

There were a couple of occasions when Cal faced short 4th downs just short of midfield, and my preference would have been to go for it . . . but I also recognize that the offense wasn’t exactly firing on all cylinders and there might have been too much risk for conversion attempts like that.

But when you’re down 8, and your offense had previously gained 53 yards on 18 plays across five failed drives, and you finally get a drive that gets you near the goalline, you have no choice but to go for it on 4th and 3 from the 6. You need 6 points, and you need the opportunity to go for two, because there’s no guarantee that you’re going to get another opportunity to tie the game.

As it turned out, Cal got three more drives, but only one of those three drives got into Nevada territory, which really underscored the need to capitalize on rare opportunities.

Big Picture

Here’s what I wrote two years ago when Cal won a hideous game against North Texas:

Cal’s ability to turn each and every game into a horrible low scoring slog is great when you’re facing Washington and USC, teams that have been recruiting at a nationally elite level. It’s less great when you’re playing teams that you are expected to beat. No, Cal didn’t lose to BYU or North Texas, but if they can’t improve on offense they will eventually slip on that type of banana peel.

Well, here we are. Two years later and flashes of competent offensive production have been few and far between, and Cal has now lost a game to a lower conference team when even average offensive production would have won the game easily.

Understandable in the first season or two under a new coach. Less so in year four, with a roster featuring a slew of juniors and seniors.

There is probably a meager case for optimism, which would go something like this: Cal just played the best QB they will face this season, and Nevada may end up with a better offense than anybody in the Pac-12 North other than Oregon.

But when optimism is based on how bad everybody else looked . . . well, that’s some pretty sour grapes.

The reality is that there were low-level rumblings of dissatisfaction with Justin Wilcox last year that was entirely muted because of how clearly last year was a joke of a season. Now that the Bears have been given something akin to a do-over, with a full off-season of practice, the rumbling has erupted into very vocal discontent.

The only way to silence the discontent is to win football games. If Nevada is as good as we all now have to hope they are, and if the Pac-12 North is as bad as week 1 made it appear, I’m not going to discount the possibility that the Bears turn things around.

But for that to happen, you need to assume a head coach fixes an offense that he has been unable to fix in four years. For the same reason that it was entirely reasonable for fans to give up on Sonny Dykes ever fielding an average defense, it’s entirely reasonable for fans to give up on Justin Wilcox ever fielding an average offense.