Post Game Thoughts: Oregon Football

The Cal defense pitches a 2nd half shut out for a victory that was most improbable

Photo courtesy Section 925

If you happened to be watching the Write For California live stream during the Oregon game at halftime, you might have heard me get a bit ranty. After a solid first half, the Bears found themselves with the ball and a 4 point lead with 2:08 left before halftime. The Bears didn’t make any meaningful effort to score, and one punt and one blown coverage later the Bears were kneeling out the half trailing by 3 points.

The core of my rant? When you’re playing a team like Oregon, you can’t play the game as if scoring 20something points is enough. The Ducks entered the game averaging 38.5 points/game. They scored 28 points or more in 10 out of 14 games last year. When you play Oregon, you should be operating from the mindset that you’re going to need to score in the low 30s, at a minimum.

And then the Cal defense held Oregon scoreless across SEVEN 2nd half possessions. The Ducks couldn’t score into the 20s, let alone into the 30s. The Price-Is-Right-Bidding-Rules offense cobbled together one touchdown drive, closed shop for the night, and that was somehow enough.

And one week bemoaning Cal losing in unfortunate fashion, the Bears do the exact opposite:

It turns out that when you get outgained by 97 yards total, get outgained by 2.7 yards/play, and allow your opponent to enter your territory twice as often (6) as you do (3), you don’t tend to win very many games. But 6% of the time you do!

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 3 touchdowns, 7 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 1.9 points/drive

Removed: Cal’s final drives of both the 1st and 2nd half, which consisted entirely of kneel downs.

Cal’s 3 touchdown drives: 219 total yards, 73 yards/drive, 5.9 yards/play

Cal’s 8 other drives: 71 total yards, 9 yards/drive, 1.9 yards/play

One good way to win a game in which you were statistically dominated? Capitalize on every single one of your (likely limited) scoring chances. Cal had only three drives that could remotely be categorized as successful, but each one ended in the end zone. If even one drive ends in a field goal then the Bears probably lose. Meanwhile, Cal’s other 8 drives were dire.

Let’s talk about THAT drive

You know the one I’m talking about. The one that took 19 plays, covered 80 (really 85, after an early false start) yards, and took 9:51 off the clock in the 2nd quarter.

If you looked at those numbers and determined that the Bears hired a triple option coordinator, I wouldn’t blame you. Scoring a touchdown when you average 4 yards/play on a drive covering most of the field is pretty amazing.

The drive required the following plays to be converted:

4th and 1
3rd and 1
3rd and 7
3rd and 8
3rd and 10
4th and 1

I’d like to say that this drive was some kind of offensive mastermind. But THREE of the plays listed above were converted thanks to Oregon penalties including a 12 men on the field call on a punt, while a 4th came via a Chase Garbers scramble after nobody came open.

This is the line between a touchdown and another futile 3-and-out: Oregon putting one extra guy onto the field. This is the line between a touchdown and a field goal: Kayvon Thibodeaux trash talking.

I’m thrilled we turned all this into 7 points, but it’s not really convincing me that they offense turned any kind of corner.

Defense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 6 punts, 3 turnovers (2 fumbles, 1 downs), 1.4 points/drive

Part of the reason I was ranting about Cal needing to score more was that Oregon’s low score was in part because the Cal offense chewed up a ton of time and limited the number of possessions the Ducks had to score. Oregon only got the ball five times in the 1st half despite receiving the opening kickoff, and if Cal had been able to run more plays in that ill-fated drive with 2:08 on the clock they might have held the Ducks to just four possessions.

And yet, in those five possessions, Oregon had three 75 yard drives. An optimist might have argued that two Oregon drives relied upon blown coverages for big chunk plays, and that Oregon was struggling to consistently move the ball. But it’s also true that Oregon has Joe Morehead as their offensive coordinator, and he’s the kind of guy who has shown a consistent ability to force teams into blown coverages by attacking weak spots in zone coverages or forcing defenders into impossible choices.

And then the Cal defense played perhaps the greatest half of defense in the Wilcox era. 7 drives and 34 plays defended, 117 yards and 3.4 yards/play allowed, three turnovers forced, zero points.

Would the Bears have won the game had they not forced (and then recovered) two fumbles? Well, both came not long after Oregon crossed midfield, so who knows if the Ducks cash in on one or both scoring opportunities.

From blown coverages to making a freshman look like a freshman

Oregon’s 17 first half points largely came from two plays - a 3rd and 16 blown coverage turned into a 39 yard touchdown pass, and a 67 yard wheel route to Travis Dye that had all of Cal twitter debating precisely what went wrong.

Luckily, whatever happened on those two plays, Cal locked down the Ducks in the 2nd half, holding them to 117 yards on 34 plays (3.4 yards/play). Oregon’s struggles largely came down to Tyler Shough, who went 7-15 for just 60 yards in the second half. Shough generally looked less comfortable in his reads, had accuracy issues, and had multiple passes broken up. To the extent that Oregon got ANYTHING going through the air, it was from simple short crossing routes that Cal generally managed to hold to short gains . . . if they didn’t force game-changing fumbles.

Special Teams

Punting redemption

Oregon’s best starting field position? Their own 35 yard line. That’s probably the best way to reflect a strong day from Jamieson Sheahan and the Cal punt unit. In a day full of punting (13 in total) the Bears held their own in the field position battle largely thanks to a bunch of unreturnable punts from Sheahan. They weren’t boomers like some long ones occasionally seen from Oregon punter Tom Snee, but they were all a solid length and there wasn’t a return of any significance.

That differs from Nikko Remigio, who had three returns of significance. Unfortunately, the longest of the three was wiped out via another questionable special teams penalty. This one was a hold on DeCarlos Brooks that seemed like the kind of text book arm tussling that happens (and gets ignored) on pretty much every special teams play. Luckily Cal scored on the ensuing drive anyway, so that particular flag didn’t have any real impact.

Coaching/Game Theory

Kick or go for it?

The situation: it’s 4th and 5 from Oregon 25, and there’s just a touch over 2 minutes left in the game.

If you go for it and make it, you’re going to be able to run off at least three more plays, which means you’re going to be able to force Oregon to use their final two timeouts and then run 40 seconds off the clock at a minimum, and if you can get off five snaps you win the game.

If you kick a field goal and make it, you force Oregon to drive the length of a field for a touchdown, but you’re voluntarily giving Oregon the ball back with a chance to win the game. But a 42 yard field goal is obviously far from a sure thing, even if the kick isn’t blocked.

For me, this decision was marginal enough that I could defend any decision. As it is, Cal had a guy open at the sticks, and Garbers just threw about a foot too wide. Still, considering what we had seen from the Cal offense all game (and really, all season) long, I’d have probably attempted the field goal.

When you need a yard, just QB sneak it

Come on people, this isn’t complicated. When you need a yard, by far the most successful answer is to put your QB under center and plunge forward a couple feet.

Big Picture

And so Justin Wilcox continues is habit of grabbing a marquee win or two each season . . . often amidst a bunch of losses that range from understandable to deeply frustrating.

Beating top 10 Washington State is great, but less fun when it’s the filling in a 1-5 stretch of football.

Beating Washington and USC is great, but it’s frustrating that they were bookended by losses to UCLA and Stanford

Beating Washington and ending the Big Game losing streak is great, but going through an ugly 1-5 stretch in the middle of the season is painful.

And now, executing a successful smash-and-grab against Oregon is great, but losing two imminently winnable games thanks to high profile errors is less so.

Of course, there are circumstances and context that all matter. The state of the program and the roster when Wilcox took over, injury hellstorms and COVID disasters.

Next year will be year 5, and Cal fans will be expecting a team that can deliver wins like what they saw Saturday night against the Ducks, but without the head scratchers against Stanford and Oregon State. And this program won’t be able to take another step forward until that happens.