Post-Game Thoughts: Oregon Football
Another week, another close loss that leaves Cal ruing missed chances and costly mistakes.
Everything about this game felt like 2020 all over again. Oregon team with conference title expectations? Cal team in the middle of a lost season? Oregon team with all the pieces, except they have an iffy QB prone to inaccuracy? Cal team that can wring juuuust enough offense to win a game? Everything was right on script:
And then Oregon TD, Cal punt, Oregon TD, Cal melodramatic turnover-on-downs, game over.
2021 has not been a whole ton of fun, has it?
9 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 4 punts, 2 turnovers (2 downs), 1.9 points/drive
This section looks a whole lot different if Cal manages points on their two scoring opportunities that ended in 4th down failure
A simple question to determine how successful the Cal offense will be in any given game:
Does the opponent have effective outside pass rush threats?
I mean, it’s not the ONLY factor, but it’s probably #1. TCU’s pass rush is mediocre, Cal moved the ball well. UW, shockingly, doesn’t have any effective outside linebackers, and Cal moved the ball well. But Washington State and Oregon both have effective edge rushers and Cal’s line wasn’t really able to cope.
Against WSU, it didn’t feel like Cal game planned for being unable to pass protect, and so when WSU got pressure the Cal offense melted away. Against Oregon, it was clear that the offensive staff had explicitly game planned knowing they wouldn’t be able to pass protect very well, and so Cal’s offense consisted of a bunch of designed runs and short passes*. And Cal actually executed those plays pretty well!
The problem is that when you limit your offense to mostly short plays, you’re forced to execute at a high level across 10+ plays. To Cal’s credit, they did that a few times, and managed to wring 17 points (and nearly 24!) out of an offense that had very little explosive ability.
*And a whole bunch of offensive holding, to the point where I wonder if Cal game planned to intentionally commit holding and DARE the refs to call it on every play.
Cal fans were more than a little fed up with the Thibodeaux love-fest that the ESPN broadcast put on, and I don’t blame us for that; it made the game significantly less fun to listen to.
The problem? The announcers were right. Thibodeaux dominated the 2nd half. PFF credited him with an insane TEN QB pressures in just 25 drop backs.
It’s not that he crushed the Cal offense by himself - Cal was able to produce three sustained drives out of five in the 2nd half after all. It’s more that he was directly involved in almost anything good that the Oregon defense did in the 2nd half. It’s a rare talent that can create that level of consistent pass play disruption as a rusher, even against a struggling offensive line. He was the best player on the field.
At least we have Jeremiah Hunter
Hunter was Cal’s only explosive threat, with three catches of 21, 26, and 31 yards, representing three of Cal’s five completed catches that travelled more than 10 yards downfield.
And they came because he has an impressive combination of skills. He has an ability to get his defender off balance or going the wrong way with impressive body control and route precision, he’s got great balance and footwork, and he has a good improvisation ability to get open on scramble drills.
9 drives: 3 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 2 punts, 3 turnovers (2 fumbles, 1 downs), 2.7 points/drive
On one hand, nobody this season has held Oregon to fewer points. On the other hand, there were some noteworthy reasons that maybe doesn’t say a ton about the ability of Cal’s defense to slow down future opponents.
Firstly, Oregon only had nine possessions, which is a notably slow pace. Some of that is a credit to Cal’s ability to eat time offensively; some of that is to Cal’s credit as a defense, as they forced Oregon to run a lot of plays to move down the field for most of the game.
But Oregon entered today’s game averaging 2.65 points/drive, and they hit that average despite two of their nine drives ending in fumbles in Cal territory. The Cal defense gets credit for forcing and recovering those fumbles, but the reality is that if Oregon does a better job of holding onto the ball then this game is probably decided well before Cal misses their chance to tie it at the end.
A solid first seven drives, a disastrous final two
Oregon racked up 322 yards in 51 plays on their first seven drives (6.3 yards/play), but when the game was on the line and they needed to score to win, they easily raced down the field twice, in 12 total plays for 132 yards (11 yards/play). Of those 12 plays, exactly one play was unsuccessful.
What happened on those last two drives is going to be the focus of my defensive film review column later this week, but suffice to say that Oregon leaned on their run game and zone read with Dye and Brown dicing the Cal defense.
Three more special teams penalties
A kickoff offsides and two return blocking penalties, all of which negatively impacted field position. I don’t want to discourage Nikko from returning kickoffs, but honestly against competent opponents the downside pretty clearly outweighs the upside.
But on the bright side, a nice day punting and a critical long field goal
I don’t want to sound like I’m damning with faint praise, but four punts averaging 43 yards/kick, all fair caught, is pretty solid. So is successfully hitting a 45 yard field goal. So while there were clearly some frustrating plays from special teams, this was almost certainly the best day the unit has had since 2019. Make of that what you will!
Going for it on 4th down: Good. Play-calling like you’re planning on going for it: Better!
In the early 2nd quarter, Cal faces a 3rd and 4 from the Oregon 30. If Cal fails to pick up the conversion they are facing a ~47 yard long field goal, which isn’t a very high probability. You should be planning to go for it on that sequence.
And maybe Cal was planning on going for it! It’s impossible to say! Oregon blitzes on 3rd down, and Chase tries to throw a hot route to Kekoa Crawford. Crawford is running a go route and doesn’t cut his route short, and it’s incomplete.
Throwing it in that situation isn’t indefensible, but if you know you’re going to go for it on 4th down, running the ball makes all kinds of sense; you might pick up the conversion anyway, and if you don’t you’re probably making the 4th down play easier because you’ll be closer. But Cal isn’t any closer, and Garbers is sacked on a clear passing down.
On goal-to-go playcalling
Play 1: empty set; Tonges is very open, Garbers mis-fires
Play 2: Garbers keeper; there was zone read action, so either Garbers makes the wrong read to keep or it was just a fake. But I don’t know why you would limit your options? If Garbers hands off, it’s at worst no gain and probably a few yards. Instead we go backwards.
Play 3: Pass play; Garbers has one chance to hit an underneath receiver for the first down, but he hesitates and the window closes. Presumably nobody else is open but we can’t actually see the rest of the endzone on the broadcast. Garbers throws it away.
Play 4: Thibodeaux immediately blows the play up but Garbers makes a brilliant improvised shovel to get the first down.
Play 5: Garbers roll out, but a Duck is quickly in his face. Garbers still manages to hit Remigio in his outstreched hands but he can’t pull it in.
Play 6: QB keeper with two pulling blockers. Coleman and Tonges get caught up in the wash a little bit and don’t get much push, Garbers can’t break a tackle and only gains a yard.
Play 7: All out Oregon blitz up the middle. If Garbers immediately gets rid of the ball to Crawford in the right flat or Brooks running a swing route to the left, Cal might score. Garbers hesitates and the play is then doomed.
You know, it’s funny; when a QB locks into his first read, we fans will often criticize, but it’s also true that sometimes you just need to throw the ball as soon as you can to your first read, because by the time you decide to wait for another option the only choice left is to take a sack or throw the ball away.
Regardless, it’s hard not to criticize the decision to not run the ball to any of Cal’s backs. If the zone read play was indeed an actual zone read then the issue was that Garbers made the wrong read. But passing the ball, when Oregon’s pass rush had been so successful, was going to be a dangerous proposition. Five of Cal’s seven plays inside the ten were pass plays; four of those five were negatively impacted by Oregon pressure.
Still, when I replay every play, I saw a reason why it might have been successful. You can see the idea behind each one. But were those actually the plays that had the highest chance of success? Hard to answer yes to that question.
All five of Cal’s losses could have been wins. Maybe not easily, maybe not just by changing the result of a single play. But even the Washington State game saw Cal drive into scoring position and fail to come up with points multiple times.
It’s silly to expect Cal to win every close game. It’s cruel that Cal has instead lost every close game. I don’t think I would characterize each loss as a coin flip, exactly. Nevada probably wins that game 60% of the time. TCU wins maybe 75% of the time. Washington, maybe 45% of the time. Oregon, probably 80% of the time. You get the idea. The problem is that Cal hasn’t cashed in on ANY of these games.
If Cal is sitting at the mid-way of the season 3-3, I doubt anybody here would be jumping for joy. That’s still not particularly good against a mediocre schedule and a very down Pac-12. But Cal would probably be on the path to bowl eligibility with a couple of wretched teams still left on the schedule. It would be very similar to 2017, and 2018, and 2019.
But Cal is instead 1-5, and this year isn’t like 2017, 2018, 2019. Bowl eligibility is very unlikely. It’s hard not to assume that Cal’s poor record has negatively impacted recruiting.
So two questions for you to ponder at the mid-way point of the season:
Do you agree with my premise that this team isn’t meaningfully different than prior Wilcox teams, except unluckier in close games?
If Cal had managed to grab wins in two of their five close losses, would that be good enough for you?