Post-Game Thoughts: North Texas Football
The Bears cruise behind an offensive explosion unprecedented in the Wilcox era
photo credit: @calfootball twitter
I will never take watching Jaydn Ott play football for granted.
It’s tempting to not talk much about him because he’s supposed to be the constant, the dude who we assume will be great while we worry about Cal’s pass rush or the QB battle.
Jaydn Ott broke 7 tackles, and 113 of his 192 yards came after contact. Nearly every run was a thrilling mix of balance, vision, burst, and strength.
One of the reasons I find the college game more entertaining than the NFL is because the running back position still matters in college. In the NFL, every single defensive player is too good, almost never missing a tackle. Only genius iconoclasts like Barry Sanders or Marshawn Lynch can stand out at that level, and the NFL churns through backs as if they are fungible, because they kinda are.
But at the college level, a singular running back can radically change a team. In 2022 Jaydn Ott gave Cal fans hope amidst an otherwise depressing season. Now he’s the undisputed star, and he put his stamp on game 1 by nearly outproducing the UNT offense himself despite not needing to play beyond the first possession of the 3rd quarter.
15 drives: 8 touchdowns, 3 FGA (1-3), 2 punts, 2 turnovers (1 interception, 1 fumble), 3.9 points/drive.
It’s worth noting that the drop-50 scoring volume was in part related to Cal’s fast pace that created a ton of touchdowns, plus a defense that got the offense the ball back immediately, either with a turnover, a 3 and out, or by giving up a long bomb aided touchdown drive. Still, creating scoring opportunities on 11 out of 15 drives is a spectacular outing any way you try to slice it.
The single thing I care most about
Cal’s offensive line allowed zero sacks and zero QB hits, and per PFF only 7 total hurries across 39 pass attempts. Barrett Miller looked capable as a left tackle, and TJ Session looked improved at right tackle. Cal lost center Matthew Cindric to a (hopefully minor) injury mid-game and didn’t miss a beat. New tight end Jack Endries was effective blocking in the run game.
In short, Cal’s blocking was vastly improved. I think we all expected some level of improvement, but 357 rushing yards and zero sacks allowed is almost silly.
Now, North Texas is probably the worst defense Cal will face all season, and yes I’m including FCS Idaho on the list. But last year Cal struggled to block even against teams like UC Davis and UNLV, so dominance over UNT still means something, keeps alive hopes that this offense can produce against tougher opposition.
An offensive coordinator’s dream
On the first play of the season, you hand the ball to your star running back and he breaks tackles for a 41 yards gain. On the third play of the season, you run play action that completely takes out a safety and gives your inexperienced QB a relatively easy 23 yard post pattern touchdown pass. It’s exactly what you schemed for all off-season, and it works to perfection.
What a strong run game allows
Cal attempted 21 3rd or 4th down conversion. 10 of those attempts were 4 yards or fewer, and Cal converted 9 of those 10. Even better, the only failed conversion of 4 yards or less was immediately followed by a successful 4th down attempt
On the other hand, 11 conversion attempts were 6 yards or more, and Cal was successful on just 3 of 11 from longer distances.
Cal’s consistent running game allowed the Bears to mostly stay on schedule and mostly avoid long conversion attempts - 11 may not seem like a tiny number but within the context of a 95 play outing it’s excellent.
You can see why this might be a key focus for this offense against better teams. For as much as Cal’s pass protection may have improved, you still want to avoid clear passing situations if you don’t have a dominant line or an elite QB. Plus, when you get into short yardage conversions, teams have to respect the threat of Ott and Ifanse. Staying on schedule is critical for any team, but I suspect it will be particularly so for this Cal team.
On QB play
There is a part of me that wants to punt on saying anything about Cal’s QB situation for lack of strong evidence - UNT’s defense was bad, and the QBs didn’t need to do a ton in this game.
That’s too glib, and just the fact that Cal got 279 yards from a back-up QB is noteworthy and indicates a healthier QB room than many (myself included!) feared.
I will note that there was a challenging tension to Cal’s game plan. Having the QB run game is a key way for modern offenses to stretch defenses. But the risk is self-evident because QB injuries can be so damaging. Hopefully Sam Jackson will be back in a week, because the athleticism we saw that turned a potential sack into a 13 yard run might be critical against SEC level athletes.
14 drives: 3 touchdowns, 7 punts, 4 turnovers (3 interceptions, 1 downs), 2 points/drive, 1.5 points/drive
It’s always a dangerous game to cherry-pick stats like this, but: if you remove deep completions of 58 and 59 yards to Ja’Mori Maclin, then this is what UNT’s offensive production looks like:
51 plays, 108 yards, 2.1 yards/play
Which would constitute one of the most dominant defensive performances against FBS level competition in Cal history.
Of course, you can’t just ignore two plays, particularly when they directly led to two touchdowns. Ever the perfectionist, Justin Wilcox zeroed in on those two plays as areas of concern after the game. But play by play dominance is what you want to see against G5 opposition, and that’s mostly what the Cal defense delivered.
A TON of rotation
We expected this to be one of the deepest Cal defenses in recent memory thanks to all of the transfer portal additions, and sure enough Cal played thirty different defenders. And this wasn’t just a garbage time factor, as 22 different players got snaps before the last few drives when the game was truly over.
If you’re looking for settled positions, well, it’s really just at safety where Craig Woodson and Patrick McMorris got every snap, plus Jackson Sirmon at LB. Every other position saw frequent rotation. Was that in response to the heat, or something that Cal will continue to repeat in the future? We’ll find out next week.
For those unfamiliar with the concept, havoc rate is the percentage of plays in which the defense records a tackle for loss, forces a fumble, intercepts a pass or breaks up a pass. The Bears did that on 12 of 53 snaps, good for a havoc rate of 23%, which is excellent and also not something Cal has done much over the last few years. That’s mostly been due to a lack of tackles for loss. But 6 such tackles on Saturday, plus six pass disruptions of one kind or another, spoke to a more physically dominant Cal defensive effort.
Was this a factor of weaker opposition? The power of greater depth that allowed for rotation and fresh legs? The Brett Johnson effect (though Brett only got 17 snaps)? Whatever the reason, it’s a good sign, because line disruption was really the main thing that prior Wilcox defenses were lacking.
Well, it was the right game to have kicking issues
Cal could have missed every single PAT and field goal in this game and still won 48-21, so if this was a one-off performance from Michael Luckhurst, then no harm no foul. But there will absolutely be games later on this season in which a field goal or extra point will be the difference, so Cal had better figure out what’s up quickly. Camp reporting had very good things to say about Luckhurst’s leg strength, but the accuracy is going to have to come first before kick distance can become a consideration.
Making changes, getting results
There are plenty of head coaches who have hit rough patches. Those that survive without getting fired inevitably evaluate their program to try to fix what went wrong. Some double down on whatever it was that made them successful in the past. Others make superficial changes - maybe fire a coordinator. Some radically change major parts of their program. Fewer still do so successfully.
Justin Wilcox did just that after the 2022 season went so poorly - we’ve talked about the staff and roster changes all off-season. For one game, at least, we saw the on-field philosophy changes. An up-tempo offense that raced to 95 plays, which is 14 more plays than the previous high under Wilcox.
Justin Wilcox hired Jake Spavital because he recognized that what he was trying to do on the offensive side of the ball wasn’t working. And he’s giving Spavital the latitude to radically change Cal’s style. It’s only one game, but so far the evidence is that this is exactly what Cal needed.
Cal gained 7 yards/play and allowed 4.2 yards/play, an advantage of 2.8 yards/play. That may not seem like much, but it’s a pretty massive advantage across an entire game. In fact, it’s the 4th biggest single game per play advantage in the Wilcox era, behind wins in 2021 over Colorado (4-8) and Stanford (3-9), and a 2018 blowout win over Oregon State (2-10).
You probably get my point: Cal has dominated bad teams before in single games, and that has not portended sustained success in other games.
But it is also true that this is a one game sample, and Cal did exactly what we hoped they would do. If this team is good enough to make a bowl game, good enough to compete with the five Pac-12 teams ranked in the top 20, then dominating North Texas was a necessary step. They cleared that step with flying colors. Thus, two main takeaways:
This game did indeed clearly raise the floor - this team is too good to realistically fear about worst case scenarios that certain doom-mongers might try to scare you with. The floor for this team should be fighting for 6 wins and a bowl.
But if Justin Wilcox succeeds in establishing Cal’s performance against North Texas as the floor . . . well, you have permission to dream about bigger things. You can dream about sending an SEC school back to the other side of the country with a loss. You can dream about a winning conference record. You can dream about ruining the season for Oregon or Washington or USC. You can dream about beating UCLA while they pay 10 million/year for the privilege of not having to worry about losing to Cal anymore.
I like dreaming, and I plan on doing a lot of it for the next week. See you on Saturday, I think it’s gonna be a rager.