Post-Game Thoughts: The Cheese Nips Bowl

Is there any point in trying to analyze what we all saw on Saturday?

(HT to the incomparable @Dalmcm for naming the game)

The best sequels preserve elements from the original, but find ways to stand out on their own.

The original had nine interceptions and it would be silly to try to challenge that, so instead the sequel went all in on punting (18 total).

One of the highlights of the original? An outlandish sidelines interference penalty, but the sequel brought it back at a critical moment in a call-back appreciated by all.

The original had four quarterbacks afflicted with various injuries, and while the sequel had four QBs as well, this time the narrative focus was on torturing one man in particular:

But ultimately, a sequel must somehow one-up the original, and lo:

Cheez-It Bowl: 143 combined plays, 554 total yards (3.87 yards/play)

Cal vs. Arizona: 135 combined plays, 453 total yards (3.36 yards/play)

I hope you sickos enjoyed it, I know I did.

Offense

Efficiency Report

13 drives: 1 FGA (1-1), 11 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 0.23 points/drive(!!!)

Two-deep players missing, injured: Nikko Remigio (traveled, late scratch)

Two-deep players missing, COVID: Chase Garbers, Will Craig, Jeremiah Hunter, Matthew Cindric, Ben Coleman

How extreme was this game?

Devoid of context, looking solely at the numbers, this was one of the worst offensive performances in recent Cal history. Consider - here is a list of every game since 2009* in which Cal’s offense was held below 3 yards/play:

*2009 is as far as CFBstats.com’s archives go

2021: Cal at Arizona, 2.3 yards/play
2020: Cal at UCLA, 2.84 yards/play
2019: Cal at Utah, 1.93 yards/play
2017: Cal at Washington, 1.79 yards/play
2011: Cal vs. Texas (Holiday Bowl), 2.83 yards/play

As you can see, offensive futility like this was an extreme rarity prior to Justin Wilcox’s hire as head coach. And prior to today, it only happened either against a really, really good defense (Those Utah, UW, and Texas defenses were all top 15 units) or in a bizarrely last-minute game.

I don’t think there was a play calling solution in this game

Like, personally? I’d have considered some kind of wildcat offense where we just snapped it directly to Moore or Brooks and tried to 3-yards-and-a-cloud-of-dust our way down the field, but also the offense only managed 2.2 yards on running back hand offs so yeah. The coaches might have reasonable thought that they didn’t have the personnel to execute long drives, and hitting on a couple big plays was the only way to score . . . and those big plays did in fact almost work.

In short, I’m 1% frustrated at the play calling and 99% frustrated with Cal’s inability to prepare offensive back-ups for game action. To that point:

The fragility of a Justin Wilcox offense

On one hand, if you suddenly remove six key contributors from an offense in the middle of game-week prep, of course an offense is going to struggle.

On the other hand, should the offense, playing maybe the worst defense in the conference, have cratered that badly?

What struck me as I watched Saturday’s game and then later pondered it all, was how much what I saw reminded me of various games throughout the Justin Wilcox era. Because while Cal hasn’t had many games over the last five years with multiple offensive linemen ruled out by COVID, Cal has had many games with multiple offensive linemen ruled out by injury.

And this certainly isn’t the first time under Justin Wilcox that Cal has gone to their back-up quarterback, either for performance or injury reasons.

Whether it’s back-up linemen or back-up QBs, a consistent theme of the Wilcox era is that Cal has had massive difficulties even developing a solid starting 11, let alone any depth. And so when the slightest set back hits the offense, Cal’s ability to score points takes a nose dive.

The good news is that this year, the offense has been remarkably healthy. I can think of exactly three injuries on the offensive side of the ball: Nikko Remigio missed the Arizona game, Kekoa Crawford missed the Sac State game, and Will Craig missed the 4th quarter of the Washington State game. That’s 9 quarters of injuries, 4 of which came vs. an FCS team.

So if/when Cal gets all their guys back from COVID, the offense will probably look just like it has the entire year, which is to say solid. Which, to be fair, is what we’ve been begging and pleading for throughout the last five seasons.

But the knowledge that one or two offensive line injuries or an injury to Garbers would completely derail a unit is sobering, even if it’s entirely in line with the Wilcox era.

Defense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 1 touchdown, 1 FGA (1-1), 7 punts, 3 turnovers (3 interceptions), 0.83 points/drive

Two-deep players missing, injured: Brett Johnson, Craig Woodson, Kuony Deng, Blake Antzoulatos, Colin Gamble, Stanley McKenzie, Ricky Correia

Two-deep players missing, COVID: Muelu Iosefa, Femi Oladejo, Luc Bequette, Trey Paster

The resiliency of a Justin Wilcox defense

Cal entered yesterday’s game missing four defensive linemen, five linebackers, and two defensive backs. One of those players was widely acknowledged as Cal’s best lineman and maybe best defender period. Another was widely acknowledged as maybe Cal’s best linebacker. Everybody else was supposed to be a contributor, and many in fact had contributed throughout the season.

And while I’m not going to pretend that Arizona has anything approaching a good offense, it would have been understandable if the Cal defense has been leakier. I mean, Cal gave something like 60 snaps to guys who weren’t on the pre-season two-deep.

And yet the Cal defense played spectacularly in a game in which they received zero support. They had to defend 84 plays in hot weather, and many of the guys Cal never anticipated playing this season had positive contributions. Gunnar Rask got a sack! Ryan Puskas made three tackles!

So when somebody argues that there is no way that the Cal offense could have possibly succeeded on Saturday, I would say that all you have to do to question that argument is to point at the Cal defense, which has a remarkable ability to plug-and-play just about anybody on the roster.

Dreaming of 2022

I’ll be honest, I was feeling pretty down about the Cal defense earlier in the year, but as the younger players have played through some early jitters and the veterans have stepped up, you can see the makings of the next great Cal defense.

For one, there’s the return of Brett Johnson to pair with a bunch of intriguing young defensive linemen. There’s the slow-but-steady emergence of a strong group of MLBs, with Oladejo, Rutchena, Paster, and Iosefa all getting better as the season goes on and all of them sophomores or younger. And finally, there’s the immediate solid play from new DBs Lu-Magia Hearns and Isaiah Young.

There will be some tough guys to replace in the secondary, so defensive dominance is far from guaranteed. But with so many 1st and 2nd year players forced into action and doing more than just surviving, a very solid foundation is in place to build upon.

Special Teams

Two MVPs

The two best players in this game were punters Jamieson Sheahan and Kyle Ostendorp, and I am not trying to make some sort of joke here.

Sheahan saved Cal on countless occasions, punting from rough spots on the field and giving the Cal defense extra space to bend a little without breaking. He flipped the field on multiple occasions and had his best game as a Bear. Maybe the conditions (hot, at altitude) helped, but 47 yards/punt is 47 yards/punt.

Sadly, he was matched punt-for-punt by his counterpart, as Cal got dorp’d all game long. Arizona is 8th in the country in punting for a reason, and thanks to Arizona’s 50 yards/punt average, Cal’s offense never got to start from plus territory in a game where they needed every little bit of advantage they could have.

Cal really missed Nikko Remigio

While Arizona is 8th in the nation in punting, they are 44th in net punting and 85th in punt return yards allowed - in short, Ostendorp often outkicks his coverage.

But with Nikko Remigio out, Cal didn’t really have a strong punt return game. Kekoa Crawford only managed one decent return on 7 opportunities. Worse, there were multiple shorter punts that Nikko Remigio might have fielded that Crawford let bounce, and Arizona got more than their fair share of helpful bounces, including one punt that rolled a solid 20 yards. Sometimes, the most important job for a punt returner is to just catch the darn thing, and Cal didn’t have their guy to do it.

Coaching/Game Theory

On COVID

I suspect that the following things are roughly true, but there has not been anything near comprehensive reporting or full transparency from anybody involved:

  1. The Cal football program probably got lax with a whole bunch of pandemic safety measures. Avoiding crowded indoor events, consistent masking, etc.

  2. The Cal football program probably still got very unlucky with the sheer number of breakthrough infections from vaccinated people.

  3. The majority of college football programs are ignoring current guidance. And, to be clear: the CDC still recommends that even vaccinated people who test positive “isolate at home for 10 days.

What I’m less sure about is whether or not the City of Berkeley, and/or the University, provided clear and consistent guidance that was communicated clearly and consistently to Cal’s coaching staff. Because based on everything Avi’s been working furiously to dig up, none of this should have been a surprise to the Cal football program:

For what it’s worth, I wouldn’t want Justin Wilcox and his staff to go draconian on his team and institute some kind of 24/7 lockdown of his players in a comprehensive attempt to prevent this kind of thing. That would be over-the-top even if Cal’s football players were receiving an actual salary. They are still students and as such have to decide for themselves what risk they are willing to take on, which means the freedom to make choices that risk their ability to play football games.

I mostly just wish that somebody in the athletic department would be forthright with what happened this past week. It’s clear from various comments from media that the Cal coaching staff is pissed off at either the City or the University or both and are making off-the-record comments to every member of the media that will listen, which is their right. But it mostly just leaves us fans sitting here confused and in the dark, wondering why nobody is willing to be honest with us.

Big Picture

Well, if Cal gets everybody out from COVID back, and then picks up where they left off after Oregon State and sweeps their way through the rest of the season to 6-6, three rivalry wins, and bowl eligibility, then this game will look very small and silly indeed.

Because in the grand scheme of things, beating Arizona to go 7-5 vs. losing to Arizona in bizarre circumstances to go 6-6 doesn’t make much of a difference. I guess this game is another data point towards the theory that Cal can turn any random dude into a competent middle linebacker but struggles to turn anybody into a strong guard or tackle. But that’s something that’s been pretty well established already.

And if Cal ends the season 5-7 and this is the difference between a bowl and no bowl, well that’s darkly hilarious indeed.

Mostly, this game will live long in the memory of Cal fans for what it was, which was a farce. An absurd amalgam of circumstance, timing, history, luck, geography, politics, and mistakes. A game that doesn’t mean anything within the context of another anonymous season but means everything for those who experienced its singular weirdness together.

“Hey, you remember that time Cal lost to Oregon State when they accidentally added time to the clock?”

“Hey, remember that time we beat Washington State even though their quarterback broke a national single game passing record?”

“Hey, remember that time we let Arizona snap a 20 game losing streak because we had 24 players ruled out because they tested positive for COVID?”

It’s not necessarily a happy memory, but it’s something that is now a part of your DNA as a Cal fan, and you embraced that fate a long time ago.