Post-Game Thoughts: Notre Dame Football
Cal's bid for a road upset over a traditional power is derailed by trouble in the trenches
It’s been a long, long time since I’ve been in a college football stadium with 70,000+ fans. If wikipedia is to be believed, the last time was Big Game in 2008, back before Cal reduced capacity at Memorial Stadium.
Maybe I should be mad, frustrated, heartbroken. Hell, just escaping out of South Bend was an ordeal and a half.
But my overriding mood following Cal’s all-too-familiar defeat to Notre Dame was gratitude for being able to make the trip, and happiness that I got to enjoy it with 50-odd friends and acquaintances who made the trip out.
12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1/2), 6 punts, 2 turnovers (2 downs), 0.7 points/drive
What’s kind of amazing, honestly, is that Cal never really figured out how to scheme around an offensive line that was overmatched on nearly every play, and yet still managed to turn 4.4 yards/play into 17 points.
Cal did that in part by making their successful plays count. Cal had a TON of plays blown up by pressure, and they resulted in six sacks and a bunch of throwaways. But when Cal DID manage to get a positive play, it was more often than not a solid gain. Cal’s average gain per completion was a healthy 11.5 yards, and Cal’s gain per run (sacks removed) was 6.4 yards. That’s an indication of the skill position talent waiting to have a chance to excel, if Cal can just provide them with the ball and a little bit of space.
But when your line allows pressure events on 30 out of 48 drop backs(!!!), and struggles to block for running plays, your offense is going to struggle massively. The rest of this season is going to be defined by how Cal addresses their offensive line problems.
Jack Plummer confounds the scouting report
Mea culpa time: I didn’t think Jack Plummer had that kind of scrambling performance in him. Facing near constant pressure, Plummer did a generally spectacular job of moving in the pocket and knowing when to cut and run, and those plays kept Cal in the game. There were plays where Plummer appeared to have psychic powers and moved away from a rusher that he didn’t appear to have eyes on.
After the game he was critical of his own accuracy, and he certainly missed throws that you would expect him (and most college QBs to hit). If you asked me to speculate, I can’t help but assume that the literal pressure of Notre Dame’s pass rush and the psychological pressure to get the ball out as quickly as possible before pressure broke down may very well have had something to do with his accuracy issues.
Can a quarterback get used to being under siege? I guess we’ll find out.
I simply don’t understand the role of the tight end in Cal’s offense
Cal had 71 offensive snaps against Notre Dame, and gave a combined 85 snaps to tight ends. Would you like to guess how many times the tight end pass blocked on those 85 snaps?
Per PFF, three total snaps - two from Keleki Latu and one from Jermaine Terry. Meanwhile, Cal’s tight ends received a combined two targets in the passing game.
If Cal isn’t going to use their tight ends to help pass block in a game where their quarterback is hit nine times and hurried another 21 times, and those tight ends aren’t going to be a frequent target in the passing game, then what exactly is their role in the offense?
I mean, if Musgrave came out today and said that Cal wants to get their tight ends more targets, but couldn’t do it against Notre Dame because there was too much pressure, I’d understand . . . but that means that you need to keep them in to help protect so that Plummer can maybe have a shot to get the ball to anybody downfield rather than ending up on his back or running for his life.
How screwed is the offense the rest of the way?
The bad news: it’s incredibly hard to win football games with offensive line play like Cal experienced Saturday.
The good news: Notre Dame might be the most talented defensive front Cal faces the rest of the season. The Pac-12 isn’t exactly full of dominant defensive linemen. Utah probably has the best set of pass rushers, but they’re not on Cal’s schedule.
Maybe there’s some hope for improvement. Cal played true freshman Sioape Vatikani for the last 31 snaps of the game, and he wasn’t completely overwhelmed, particularly considering the situation he stepped into.
But you should probably brace yourself for drives blown up by an inability to block generally, and pass protect specifically, in every game the rest of the season. At so the real question is the extent to which Cal can scheme around this clear deficiency, and the extent to which Cal can capitalize on the sustained drives they do manage.
I go back and forth between thinking that Cal needs to radically rethink their scheme and strategy to get around this limitation, and thinking that there is no scheme or strategy to get around this kind of limitation.
12 drives: 3 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1/1), 7 punts, 1 turnover (fumble), 2 points/drive
This was a three phase game for Notre Dame.
Phase one: We trust our back-up QB! We are going to try to run our normal offense! (results: five punts and a fumble, 1.1 yards/play)
Phase two: We acknowledge that our QB is absurdly limited. We are going to run the ball on almost every first down and throw the ball no longer than 5 yards past the line of scrimmage. (result: 24 points in five drives, 43 plays for 259 yards, 6 yards/play).
Phase three: We have a lead, Cal is comically overmatched on offense, let’s sit on the ball and watch them get sacked (result: two punts to close out the game).
Kudos to Notre Dame’s offense for 1) recognizing their limitations and finding a way to score points regardless, and 2) finding a way to sustain five drives of seven plays or longer. Notre Dame’s strategic shift was really their only choice, but the result easily could have been a bunch of drives that went nowhere if Cal had been able to stuff some of those first down run plays.
A really excellent defense with one flaw
Cal has an excellent defense - probably a top 25 defense, perhaps even the best defense in the conference. SP+ has Cal ranked 17th in the nation, one spot below Ohio State and one spot ahead of Ohio State! Cal largely throttled a UNLV offense that scored 50+ points in their other two games, and the defense did about as well as can be expected against a team with the talent level of Notre Dame, when the offense is providing zero support.
But the defense does have one weakness:
As has been the case for basically the entirety of the Wilcox era, Cal struggles to create disruption and penetration along the defensive line. It’s not something that you can scheme for on every play. Sure, sometimes you can throw an exotic blitz on a clear passing down, but for the most part you need to win one-on-one battles in the trenches and Cal struggles to consistently do so.
Not all teams can take advantage of this relative weakness. UNLV and UC Davis couldn’t, but Notre Dame had the offensive line talent to scratch out 24 points despite a functionally nonexistent downfield passing game.
If Cal could ever build even a P5 average offense, this relative weakness would be easily ignored. Unfortunately, that’s not the case. It doesn’t feel right pointing this out, but if your best path to winning requires you to hold your opponent to 14 or so points, every little thing matters.
A good old fashioned midwestern punt off
In a game that featured 13 punts, Jamieson Sheahan won the battle with a net average of 42.5 yards/punt to Notre Dame’s 40.3. It didn’t end up playing a major role in the game, because 7 of those 13 punts came in the first quarter when neither offense was doing anything at all, but Sheahan’s excellent punt out of the end zone in the 4th quarter gave Cal a prayer when what at the time seemed like a surrender punt guaranteed to end the game as a competitive contest.
The frustrating reality of special teams randomness
Dario Longhetto, previously 6-10 on kicks of 40+ yards, bonged a kick off the upright for a field goal miss from 45 yards. Blake Grupe, previously 18-30 on kicks of 40+ yards in his career, nailed a 47 yarder.
Reverse those two results, and it’s 21-20 Notre Dame throughout the 4th quarter. Maybe that doesn’t change the ultimate outcome of the game, maybe it does. But it’s worth remembering that these 60% proposition kick attempts deeply impact these kind of low scoring rock fights. Sigh.
Regarding that ‘surrender’ punt
Following a near safety on a sack, Cal faced 4th and 15 from their own two yard line with a little under 3:00 left in the game and with one time out left. Cal elected to punt the ball . . . and it worked as well as the decision could realistically have worked. Notre Dame ran three plays and punted the ball back for a touchback, meaning that Cal exchanged 1:41 of game time for 18 yards of field position and a fresh set of downs. And Cal was able to parlay that into what would eventually be a nearly successful Hail Mary.
So it was a good result. But was it good process? I guess I just can’t find enough outrage to criticize this decision, in part because going for it on 4th and 15 from the 2, knowing how the offense had performed up to that point, is absurdly unlikely to succeed. The reality is that Cal was very doomed either way, and it was incredible that they almost cashed in on the 1% chance that they had at that point to potentially tie the game.
In the post-game press conference, Jack Plummer said Cal would’ve gone for 2 if they converted the Hail Mary
Which I think is the right call, even though the offense had struggled. But maybe it’s for the best this didn’t come to pass, because I think ~7 Cal fans in the away section would have died in the immediate aftermath, regardless of the result of that hypothetical two point conversion.
Regarding the refs
I’m not going to spend a ton of time dwelling on this in part because Avi already covered it and in part because I don’t think the ref calls changed what was going to be the ultimate outcome.
The two egregious calls were the celebration call, and the offside call. Both directly contributed to Notre Dame’s first half touchdown drive, by providing ND with good field position and then a 2nd bite at the apple on that drive.
But the game was lost when Notre Dame outscored Cal 17-7 across the first six drives of the second half. In a more just world, Cal would have entered halftime up 10-0. But the refs aren’t the reason Notre Dame figured out how to move the ball after the half, and they aren’t the reason Cal could only barely scratch out seven points in six drives after halftime.
Cal, with a non-conference schedule of FCS, G5, national power, is 2-1. This was the most likely result, and what all of us were likely expecting since the schedule was announced.
Except that Notre Dame is as weak as they have been since they went 4-8 in 2016, and Cal was handed an unusually great shot at knocking off a historic power on the road. If you watch Wilcox’s press conference, you can feel his disappointment in the missed opportunity.
And while we had a strong sense that this was already an issue, Notre Dame laid bare the full extent to which Cal’s offensive line may hold the 2022 Bear back all season long.
Meanwhile, the Pac-12 appears to be significantly improved from recent seasons. USC has one of the best offenses in the country. Kalen DeBoer has revived UW. Washington State has a concerningly good defense. Oregon isn’t good enough to hang with Georgia, but beating BYU is an indication that they’re probably still a favorite to finish near the top of the conference. Oregon State has a legit frightening offense.
Thanks to a soft first half schedule, Cal has time to figure some things out and maybe still earn wins. The Bears could probably come out with wins against Arizona at home and Colorado on the road even with their current flaws, and I have a lot of confidence in Cal’s ability to at least turn their trip up to Wazzu into a low scoring rock fight coin flip.
But the 2nd half of the conference schedule is brutal. Cal will be solid-to-heavy underdogs in five of six games.
It’s time to see if this coaching staff has the juice to find solutions to a massive, glaring problem that threatens to derail the season.