Post-Game Thoughts: Oregon State Football

Chase Garbers performs an exorcism on decades of bad Beaver mojo

If a single word could define how I experienced Saturday’s game, it’s catharsis.

Some of the reasons Saturday’s game was cathartic were circumstantial for the program. For the first time since he was fired, Jeff Tedford was back at a Cal game, and it was against an Oregon State team that dealt him some of his most crushing defeats. Turning around and ruining a promising Beaver season felt like some kind of Cal football exorcism.

For myself, and I’d bet plenty of other Cal fans in attendance, it was cathartic because it was the first truly satisfying Cal win we’ve experienced in person since the 2019 Big Game. Sure, beating Sac State and Colorado is fine, but nobody’s going to get hyped about those games. Beating up on a surging OSU, to restore some amount of positivity and excitement about the direction of the program? That means something. Throw in some of the off-field extra-curriculars and it felt poised to be a really memorable day.

And it was a day that 100% completely delivered:

The night finally ended with us getting kicked out of a bar at closing while laughing at the offensive futility displayed by Washington and Stanford. Thanks, Bears - I didn’t need a reminder of why I do this each fall, but it’s greatly appreciated anyway.

Offense

Efficiency Report

10 drives: 5 touchdowns, 2 FGA (1-2), 3 punts, 0 turnovers (downs), 3.9 points/drive

Removed: Cal’s final drives in each half, because Cal explicitly wasn’t trying to score on either of them. More on that 1st half drive below.

Cal’s three punting drives were frustrating 3-and-outs, but one of them featured a drop on a bomb to Crawford and a spurned opportunity to convert a 4th and 1. The offense was grooving all game long and honestly 39 points felt like the least amount they could have put up considered their production and field position.

If Hunter and Crawford both hold on to those deep shots, Cal easily could have entered halftime with 24 or 28 points. Meanwhile, midway through the 3rd quarter Nikko Remigio nearly brought in a contested touchdown catch that instead resulted in a long missed field goal. And obviously Cal’s final drive could have been a touchdown. This is an actual game where the Bears could have dropped 50, and while OSU’s defense isn’t great, it’s not abominable, and what Cal did to them was impressive.

Beating OSU at its own game

Cal ended up executing an offensive game plan that is very, very similar to what OSU has done all year long. The Bear ran the ball nearly 2/3 of the time, consistently gaining 4/5 yards a pop with a number of longer runs mixed in. Meanwhile, when Cal DID pass the ball, it was typically on downs and distances in which OSU had to respect the run, and Cal could effectively run play action. Chase was rarely pressured and hit all of once.

It wasn’t necessarily a dominating rushing performance, but I was struck by the frequency with which Cal’s backs were able to gain an extra 2-3 yards by falling forward or pushing a pile, with or without an extra shove from an offensive lineman. It was the difference between a first down on multiple occasions and a great sign, as the rest of Cal’s schedule features run defenses that are similarly tractable.

And as Cal’s run game started controlling the game, it pretty clearly started sucking up OSU defenders and opened up space in the secondary that Garbers and company exploited pretty easily. Those wheel routes couldn’t have been much more wide open.

MORE WHEEL ROUTES PLEASE

I’ve made jokes for years about how Cal’s offense has been the ‘all swing pass offense.’ Back when Patrick Laird was Cal’s best/only skill position threat, he’d have games with, like, 7 swing pass catches.

So imagine my joy when Cal gets Christopher Brooks WIDE OPEN because the OSU defender bites on a short swing route and allows Brooks to easily get over the top of him.

Defense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 3 touchdowns, 1 FGA (1-1), 4 punts, 3 turnovers (downs), 2.3 points/drive

2.3 points/possession feels a little bit flattering to Cal, in part because OSU’s turnovers made a ton of difference, and in part because OSU had to chase the game and had to lean on their passing game more than they wanted to. But quibbles aside, this was a strong performance against perhaps the Pac-12’s best offense.

A near-vintage Wilcox performance

When the Cal defense has been at its best under Justin Wilcox, it’s been a defense that just NEVER allows a big play. This game wasn’t quite like the best games from a few years ago, as OSU hit on three long pass plays of 30+ yards downfield on each of their three touchdown drives.

And nobody needs to be mad about one of those three deep completions since it came courtesy of the world’s most obvious uncalled OPI:

But what Cal did brilliantly was to shut down OSU’s running game explosiveness. Sure, the Beavers didn’t go backwards very often (only twice, on runs to the edge that got blown up by Bimage and Drayden respectively) but OSU’s long run was just 15 yards. Cal’s linebackers and safeties did a great job of keeping everything in front of them and forcing OSU into the occasional passing down.

A shout out to the Cal defense’s next generation

Isaiah Young, Nate Ruchena, Trey Paster, Femi Oladejo, Lu-Magia Hearns, Ethan Saunders: All dudes in their 1st or 2nd year in the program, all of them asked to step up. And that’s not even included Muelu Iosefa or Collin Gamble, second year guys who would have been playing big roles if they weren’t out injured.

Cal has been remarkably healthy on offense, but has quietly had some bad injury luck on defense. There’s obviously Brett Johnson and Kuony Deng, but Blake Antzoulatos and Craig Woodson have hurt too. And obviously the (hopefully) one game absences from Cam Goode and Iosefa aren’t long term, to say nothing of Gamble’s in-game injury.

While the Cal secondary has mostly been a stable foundation around which to build a defense, the front 6 has been a constant work-in-progress, in no small part due to everybody that got hurt. Some time around Cal’s bye week, it felt like Cal turned the corner a little bit - the coaching staff found a front 6 rotation that works, and some of the younger players grew into the roles that were thrust upon them.

And if there’s an MVP performance from the defense, it would probably go to a guy who played ZERO snaps prior to Saturday. Isaiah Young game in for Collin Gamble and was immediately targeted by OSU, and all he did was allow all of one completion on five targets with multiple break ups including one that led to a pick.

Special Teams

A legit game-changing positive play!

If Cal hadn’t blocked a punt, this would have been a solid but ho-hum day from the special teams unit. Dario Longhetto hit one long field goal and narrowly missed another, and making 1/2 kicks from 45-50 yards out is about what you’d expect from a solid college kicker, so no complaints there.

But oh, that block!

In the stadium, I thought it had been blocked by #33 Myles Jernigan, who got up high above the OSU shield. On the broadcast, Ted Robinson noted that it was an oddly low trajectory from OSU’s punter, which allowed Nick Alftin to get his 2nd block of the season, and while it’s true that the angle was low, I think if it had been a more normal high angle kick then Jernigan would have been the one to get the block instead.

I just love that Cal is more regularly attacking punts. I dunno if they saw something about how OSU blocks at the line of scrimmage on tape or what, but this is exactly how special teams can impact a game.

Coaching/Game Theory

On the last drive of the first half

This game was almost entirely joyful fun, but for one brief sequence of frustration. Cal has just spent the 1st half generally dominating play but failing to take full advantage on the scoreboard thanks to various dropped passes/missed contested catches. OSU then finally converts on a long pass for their first touchdown, and Cal is only up 7. But on the bright side, there’s 55 seconds left and Cal has three timeouts. After looking so good on offense, surely Cal will push for points!

And Cal . . . runs twice, lets the clock run, then throws pointlessly deep when there’s not enough time to do anything with it. After the game, Wilcox basically said he made the decision not to try to score. My read on his comments is that basically they weren’t going to go downfield until there was so little time left that Oregon State couldn’t counter if Cal ended up having to punt.

With the obvious caveat that I’m not the coaches and I don’t have access to the info they do, I don’t really get it. The Cal offense had been moving the ball consistently all half. I could see the argument that maybe you only try for a field goal or something, but Cal didn’t even do that much.

At the time it felt like a turning point, where we failed to take advantage of our time in the ascendency and that OSU would climb back into the game. My wife was 100% convinced that Cal would win from kickoff to triple zeros, and as it turned out the Cal offense just kept right on scoring all game long, but at the time it seemed like a decision that could have loomed large.

Redemption for the coaching staff generally, and specifically Bill Musgrave?

Progress has come in fits and starts, and there have been backwards steps, but it does appear that the Cal offense has finally found solid footing under their new offensive coordinator after an aborted 2020 season.

When Cal began the year with an anemic showing against Nevada that doesn’t look any better in retrospect, it was reasonable to fear that the Musgrave hire wasn’t going to work out. And while declaring victory 12 games into his tenure would be nearly as premature, it’s hard to deny that Chase Garbers is looking increasingly comfortable and confident, and that’s what matters most.

More generally, I’ve complained in the past about how mistake-prone Cal has been, particularly on offense and special teams. Well, over the past few games, mistakes from both units have been rare and largely minor.

For so long, the refrain would be “If only we could play consistent, mistake-free football!” and my reaction was that mistakes were a consistent aspect of Cal football under Justin Wilcox, and so expecting anything different felt unrealistic. Two impressively error-free games don’t undo everything else, but they’re two very welcome data points in the right direction.

Big Picture

I wrote the following last week:

. . . if Cal can win, if Cal can provide a piece of evidence that suffocating Colorado is the start of a trend and not a one-off, then the 2021 salvage operation has some real hope behind it. Beating Oregon State would probably turn bowl eligibility into a near 50/50 proposition rather than a pipe dream.

Well, here we are. And since I should show my work, here’s why you should be optimistic about the rest of the year:

This chart shows yards/play gained and allowed for each Pac-12 team, with FCS games removed. Based on the evidence at hand, Cal has already played the three toughest games on their schedule (UW, Oregon, OSU), and the rest of the schedule is comparatively easier.

While I say easier, I wouldn’t say easy. True, Cal should beat Arizona. But it’s worth noting that Arizona has been competitive in each of their last two games.

Meanwhile, Cal has been playing better than USC, Stanford, and UCLA, but only marginally so. If the Bears continue to play like they have shown in the last two weeks, they will at a minimum be competitive against their California rivals.

The Pac-12 has been just as topsy-turvy as ever, so just expecting Cal to continue to improve and to suddenly just be better than teams like USC, Stanford, and UCLA feels presumptuous:

And yet . . . if Cal can throttle OSU and Colorado, outplay UW in Seattle and lose a heartbreaker, come within two yards of taking Oregon to OT . . . why CAN’T Cal take care of business in the desert next Saturday and then sweep through three rivals that are all going in the wrong direction?

Why not us?