Post-Game Thoughts: Sacramento State Football
Is the Bear Raid offense back? Is (gulp) the Bear Raid defense also back?!
I’ll be honest - I usually dread FCS games. Not because the games are unpleasant, but because they’re kinda boring and then really difficult to write about because it’s often hard to say anything interesting about them.
That’s not the case this year. This year, Cal used a game against Sac State to air it out, and for a second straight week the Cal offense looked very different from almost any other game prior in the Wilcox era. And for the second straight week the Cal defense struggled in a way that was also uncharacteristic under Wilcox.
And so we’re left wondering how real all of this is. Are the Bears going to be bombing away on the Huskies next week? Is Cal’s secondary really this iffy? If so, are there any QBs left on the schedule who can actually do anything about it?
10 drives: 5 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 2 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 downs), 3.5 points/drive
Removed: Cal’s two drives to end both halves, as one was a kneel-down and the other was four plays to run out the clock.
Of Cal’s 10 drives, I would only consider two explicit failures: Two 3-and-outs in the first half. But one of those drives was killed by a holding penalty on a long completion. In every other drive Cal gained at least 40 yards.
Sure, it would’ve been nice if Cal had hit on a couple of near-miss deep shots on their final drive to really cash in on their points, but this was still a pretty comprehensive blowout performance over an FCS defense. If you could somehow erase the Nevada game from our collective consciousness, we would all be pretty jazzed about the offense.
Is this a downfield passing first offense now?!
Some purely descriptive, objective PFF charting stats. In 2020, Cal’s average depth of target on non-screen passing plays was 9.2 yards (112th out of 146 qualified QBs). 17 of Cal’s 113 attempts (15%) were 20 yards or further downfield. 21 of 113 (19%) were 10-20 yards downfield.
Against Nevada, Cal’s average depth of target on non-screens was 7.4 yards. Four of Cal’s 27 attempts went 20+ yards (15%) and 5 went 10-20 yards (19%) It was exactly in line with Cal’s 2020 offense.
Against TCU, Cal’s average depth of target on non-screens was 19.5 yards, and against Sac State it was 15.9. In the last two games combined, 30% of Cal’s throws have been 20+ yards down the field, and 30% of Cal’s throws have been 10-20 yards down the field.
In short, over the last two games, Cal has roughly DOUBLED the frequency of their downfield passing and deep shot attempts as compared to the first five games coached by Bill Musgrave. Hell, over the last two games Cal threw the ball down the field more frequently than Cal did in 2015 with Jared Goff or in 2016 with Davis Webb. His average depth of target from the last two games would lead the nation among qualified passers this year. When you add in the Nevada game Chase still ranks 30th in the nation.
I still don’t quite understand why Cal couldn’t/didn’t pass downfield against Nevada, and that refusal and/or inability cost them a winnable game. But Cal has done so frequently, and with success, since that point. True, one of those games was against Sac State, and since TCU’s only other game is against an FCS team, we have next to zero data about their defense. But just the fact that Cal is making a point to bomb the ball means something, and it opens up an entire new ceiling of offensive production over the rest of the year.
And the run game?
Meanwhile, Cal ran the ball just fine on RB handoffs - 27 carries for 180 yards, 6.7 yards/pop. This is what makes Cal’s insistence on throwing the ball deep all game long so fascinating - they didn’t need to do it. The line didn’t run block as well as it pass blocked, but both were good enough to score points pretty easily. Either throwing long is the offense now, or Bill Musgrave really really wants opponents to think we’re going to throw long.
12 drives: 4 touchdowns, 3 FGA (1-3), 4 punts, 1 turnover (interception), 2.9 points/drive
So let’s start with the good news: Sac State barely even tried to run the ball, and they got smashed. 9 carries to non-QBs for 10 total yards. The Hornets did have some very mild success with QB scrambles and designed QB draws, but even then their long run was a paltry 8 yards.
Now for the bad news: Cal allowed an FCS offense to throw for 408 yards on 7.4 yards/attempt. Most of the damage was done by Jake Dunniway, a JC transfer who played one full game in 2019 and had 13 attempts so far in the 2021 season. It would be one thing if Cal was shredded by an experienced passer with a ton of playing time, but this wasn’t exactly that situation.
Can Cal play zone coverage this year?
Cal hasn’t ONLY played zone under Justin Wilcox, but that’s certainly been the base defense. And in many ways, Cal’s success playing zone coverage is what has defined the defense at its best. Cutting off passing lanes, swarming to short passing routes, fooling QBs with complex looks, all of that has defined the Bears. Watching Cal shut down Mike Leach’s air raid with their zone coverage has been a joy.
But right now, Cal doesn’t appear ready to play that look. They don’t have middle linebackers who appear on the same page and comfortable finding their assignments. Even their veteran CBs and safeties have had not-infrequent hiccups on some sideline patterns.
This isn’t to say that Cal’s man defense has been error free. At least some and maybe all of the pass interference penalties (four in total) came when Cal defenders were isolated one-on-one and had good coverage but didn’t get their heads turned around in time to make a play on the ball.
But generally speaking, our CBs and safeties have kept up with their assignments in man coverage, and have chances to make plays on the ball, and at least right now that feels like the safer strategy.
Lu-Magia Hearns, unexpected man of the hour
Prior to the season, I think most Cal fans would have anticipated that Hearns would be a candidate to redshirt. Undersized at 5’10’’ 160 pounds, the true freshman seemed like the kind of guy who would need to bulk up a bit. But his snap count has grown with each game this season and he both started and played the vast majority of the game vs. Sac State.
And the Hornets decided that throwing at the true freshman was their best path to victory. Hearns was targets on a rather absurd 13 of Sac State’s 55 attempts, with nobody else on Cal’s defense facing more than 6. It was a mixed day in all, but he had his share of pass break ups, made a couple tackles, and generally showed that he belonged on the field. Whether or not he will belong on the field vs. Pac-12 opponents as opposed to Big Sky opponents remains to be seen, but his play was interesting enough that I’m probably going to break some of it down in this week’s defensive film study.
Nikko finally gets one!
After so much penalty frustration last year, it was great to see Nikko Remigio finally break a return for a touchdown. That it came against an FCS team is probably not a surprise, as Cal was able to maintain a couple of strong blocks and the one free defender took an angle that his own speed wasn’t going to be able to cash in. Still, the idea that Nikko has the speed and the instinct to find the right seam and hit it hard is dead on; I hope Cal gives him an opportunity or two against tougher teams.
I’m sure Troy Taylor is a good coach, but what in the world was that PAT play?
Here’s the presnap look. Taking just the playside players into account, I have helpfully counted the Sac St. blockers and the Cal defenders:
The Sac St. blockers would actually do a pretty good job on their assignments, but at least one dude was going to be unblocked, and he shot through space to take the QB down easily. If this was the ‘swinging gate’ PAT formation where you’re supposed to change to a kick formation if you don’t get right right look . . . well, the Hornets didn’t get the right look.
As Nam pointed out last night, we’re in a weird situation here. For two straight games the offense played well enough to win, and the defense didn’t. The defense, playing a number of very veteran players both on the line and in the secondary, and with plenty of solid recent recruiting to fill in gaps and/or press the incumbent starters for playing time.
I don’t particularly think this team is going to go full Dykes, or even half Dykes, but it’s worth monitoring. If this offense is in fact for real, then all Cal would need to do is to have Justin Wilcox fix the side of the ball that he knows best and has always had performing at pretty much every stop in his coaching career.
I say that like it’s simple, but the reality is that there is too much talent and experience on the defense for Cal to actually have the worst defense in the conference. And yet that’s where we are right now, with Cal ranking last in the conference in both yards/play and total yards/game allowed.
True, Cal’s schedule has featured better offenses than the average Pac-12 schedule, but if you watched Justin Wilcox in his post-game presser you know that he’s seething inside about allowing so many yards and points in two straight games.
In short, it feels like Cal has the ingredients available to salvage this season. Ingredients include:
Actual downfield passing and a QB hitting on enough deep shots to get explosive plays and keep a defense honest.
An offensive line that for three straight games ranged from not-a-problem to strength.
A gifted young running back who always hits the right hole and makes the right cut.
A defensively minded head coach with a long track record of building strong defenses.
A ton of experience and proven production on defense, plus a bunch of young players with recruiting profiles ranging from solid to good.
A remaining schedule full of teams that consist of Oregon and a whole bunch of other teams that range from dangerous-but-inconsistent to good-god-cover-your-eyes.
But putting those hypothetical pieces together isn’t easy, and there isn’t a ton of time.
The season gets real next Saturday, it’s time to prove it.