Post Game Thoughts: TCU Football

Cal rediscovers a downfield passing game, but the defense fades in the Texas heat.

Another week, another game in which Cal dominates on both sides of the ball for much of the first half, before one side of the ball falls apart. But surprisingly, this week it was the defense that couldn’t sustain early success, while Cal’s offense did what would usually be enough to win the game.

I was busy most of the weekend with family obligations, and as such haven’t had as much time to rewatch portions of the game and generally stew over everything. As a consequence, this is going to be a bit shorter, and I’ll hopefully be able to add more thoughts in other columns that will come along later on this week. Also, based on the votes in this Twitter poll, perhaps I’m glad I missed watching live?

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 4 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 6 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 2.5 points/drive

To be clear, I’m calculating points/drive as if Cal’s offense scored 28 points, because we’re trying to judge offensive production and not special teams success here.

Throw the ball downfield, Bears!

Amazing what difference a week will make. How it is that Cal could struggle so badly last week throwing downfield, playing at home against a Mountain West team that wasn’t particularly known for their defense, and then do THAT against TCU on the road?

It seemed like a lot of it was just simply a matter of Chase Garbers trusting his WRs enough to make throws and give them opportunities to make contested catches. One blown coverage aside, it wasn’t like Cal’s WRs were running wide open all over the place. To quote a cliche:

And on a day when the run game never really got going, getting that kind of production from the passing game was the only way to make this a contest. Honestly, even a few of Cal’s failed drives featured near-miss completions on 3rd down, including one that was pretty clearly an uncalled PI on a throw to Kekoa Crawford.

Defense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 5 touchdowns, 1 FGA (0-1), 5 punts, 1 turnover (interception), 2.9 points/drive

By points/drive, this was Cal’s 5th worst defensive performance since 2018. The game can also be nicely split between TCU’s first four drives (2.0 yards/play, zero points, one turnover) and TCU’s last eight drives (7.4 yards/play, six scoring opportunities, zero turnovers).

In this week’s defensive film review I’m going to try to get at answering why Cal was so unsuccessful slowing down TCU after the first four drives. One possible answer, that probably isn’t something that can be proven or disproven watching the game, is that the Bears slowly ran out of steam playing in the Dallas heat. Cal ended up having to defend 81 total plays, which is much higher than normal under Justin Wilcox. That’s in part because TCU runs a hurry-up offense, and in part because Cal’s offense hit on enough big plays that they only had a couple long time-of-possession drives. Cal’s defensive fade seemed to be embodied by Daniel Scott, a whirling dervish for the first 3rd of the game who then struggled to finish a number of tackles and be as involved the rest of the way.

I’m also going to have to spend some time figuring out how well Cal’s linebacker depth held up without Kuony Deng on one side. Braxten Croteau, Marques Bimage, and Orin Patu all got snaps in place of one of Cal’s defensive leaders, and while I didn’t notice any glaring issues, there was generally a lack of playmaking on that side in a game where Cal lacked 2nd half playmaking throughout the lineup.

On first watch, my sense is that TCU hit on a few things that were working and kept hitting them. Off-tackle runs that forced Cal’s nickel defense to tackle in space and throws that targeted soft spots in Cal’s mostly zone coverages did much of the damage. More thoughts later.

Special Teams

Fine but for a few inches on one snap

Cal’s six kickoffs all ended with TCU starting the ball at their 25 or worse. Cal’s 6 punts gained a net of 42 yards and the Bears didn’t give up a meaningful return. Cal didn’t get anything going in the return game, and Nikko made one pretty iffy decision to field a punt at the 5 yard-line, but that didn’t stop Cal from driving into TCU territory.

No, in 30-odd special teams plays, Cal was back to the norm under Justin Wilcox, which meant low impact and low variability . . . except for one snap that was probably all of 8 inches too wide for Jamieson Sheahan to cleanly handle, which costed Cal an extra point that ended up being the difference in the game.

On one hand, when a team has 50 minutes left in the game to make sure than a missed point won’t matter, it’s silly to blame one play. On the other hand, special teams wonkiness has negatively impacted Cal in so many games over the last two seasons that it’s hard to just shrug it off.

Coaching/Game Theory

Chasing that point ultimately didn’t make a difference

When I finally got to watching the game Sunday afternoon, knowing the scoring summary but none of the details I cracked up laughing when Cal made their 2nd PAT before then attempting a 2 point conversion from the 4 yardline. For what it’s worth, my bigger complaint was that Cal chose to place the ball on the right hash, then called a designed QB rollout to the short side of the field with only one receiver on that side. It might have been the single worst play-call of a day that was otherwise quite solid in that regard.

Ultimately, Justin Wilcox’s decision to go for 2 after Cal’s second touchdown didn’t impact the game, as it later led TCU to attempt a conversion of their own to try to go up 3. If Wilcox had kicked the PAT on that second touchdown, then it would have been PATs all the way until Cal finally had to attempt to tie the score on their final TD, the same as it had been the whole way.

Just QB sneak it!

Although the play ultimately failed, and although 3 points would have been quite valuable later in the game if nothing changes, I appreciated that Wilcox went for it on a long 4th and 1 from inside the 10 early in the game. At that point it was early in the game, well before TCU had established a strong run defense, and ultimately it was necessary to maximize points/scoring opportunity in the game.

I just wished the QB sneak, the most effective play out there for gaining a yard, had been implemented.

Big Picture

For me the problem is less that Cal is losing close games; it’s that Cal continues to play close games. Two games into year five under Wilcox (year 4.5, perhaps?), here’s the split in game outcomes, with games against FCS teams removed:

Cal safe wins (margin of victory greater than a possession): 8
Close games (margin of victory/defeat from +8 to -8): 22
Cal safe defeats (margin of defeat greater than a possession): 11

Entering this season, Cal and Wilcox were a perfect .500 in close games at 10-10. Now, two games into 2021, that mark is 10-12.

In all likelihood, Cal will win a couple of those close games later on this year and it will swing back towards .500. That’s how it works for pretty much every head coach.

Since Wilcox reached a kind of performance equilibrium somewhere around halfway through his first season, there have been ebbs and flows in play in every phase of the game. But as one unit records a strong game and then an iffy game while another does the opposite, the larger math hasn’t really changed. Cal is still a team is good enough that few teams will blow them out, but neither good enough to pull away from anybody, and so seasons rest on close game randomness.

The hope was that Cal would start to outgrow that characteristic last year, and then last year was over before it started. The hope was that Cal would outgrow that characteristic this year. Two games in, and Cal is still that same team.

Next week will almost certainly be a drama free win. Then Pac-12 play begins, and Cal will have more opportunities to show that they have changed, improved. But until we see something different, I’m going to continue to brace for close games, and cross my fingers for friendly bounces in crunch time.