Post Game Thoughts: UC Davis
A disastrous first quarter followed by three quarters of dominance is a rorschach test for fans.
How much do you, as a Cal fan, value consistency? How much do you like knowing what to expect when you walk into Memorial Stadium, and then watch a team that delivers exactly that?
Because to start year 6 of the Justin Wilcox era, the Bears played the Justin Wilcox greatest hits. Consider:
A defense full of solid, dependable players, that keeps almost everything in front of them but struggles a little bit at the line for consistent disruption.
An offense that starts slow, and has drives blown up in the backfield, but that eventually strings together enough drives to get the job done against teams that can’t out-talent them.
Some timely turnovers, highlighted by a soaring safety playing centerfield, ranging deep to a sideline.
Competent, boring special teams play.
For the last few years we enter the season looking for signs that this is the year that Cal breaks through under Justin Wilcox. Based on yesterday’s evidence, my feeling is that this is a similar team to prior seasons, with similar strengths and similar weaknesses. Outgaining a good-not-great FCS team by 1 yard/play isn’t something that would force me to reconsider my priors.
But consistency has its virtues. Even during that ugly first quarter, I didn’t particularly worry about losing to an FCS team. There are worse things in the world than defense-first football that ends in a roughly .500 record and a likely win over Stanford.
It’s just that, in September, we all like to dream a little bigger.
11 drives: 3 touchdowns, 2 FGA, 5 punts, 1 turnovers (1 interception), 2.5 points/drive
(Removed: Cal’s final drive, in which Kai Millner was instructed to hand off until the clock struck zero)
Let’s be frank: 2.5 points/drive is not a very good showing against any but the very best FCS defenses. Last year UC Davis had a good-not-great FCS defense, and I’m not expecting anything different this year.
If you want to be generous, you can split the day out between Cal’s first four drives (11 plays, three yards, one first down, one turnover) and Cal’s last seven drives (54 plays, 363 yards, four points/drive). Maybe you want to argue that Cal needed some time to shake the cobwebs off or something. But those first four drives still happened, and have to be taken into account when projecting forward.
Position battle report
Offensive line: Every position on the line except right tackle appears to be stable right now, as Ben Coleman, Brian Driscoll, Matthew Cindric, and Spencer Lovell played until Cal played the back-ups on the final clock killing drive of the game. But right tackle may be an ongoing competition or even a playing time split, with Brayden Royme and TJ Session splitting time more or less evenly.
Wide Receiver: eight different pass catchers appeared on offense, but there appears to be a pecking order at the moment. Jeremiah Hunter, J. Michael Sturdivant, and Mavin Anderson getting more looks than Monroe Young and Tommy Christakos.
Tight End: Keleki Latu and Jermaine Terry got starter’s snaps, and Elijah Mojarro and Andy Alfieri got back-up snaps. In all, tight ends got 98 total snaps on 71 total plays, which is actually a slight decline in tight end participation in total as compared to 2021.
On Jaydn Ott’s Cal debut
The single #1 reason to hold out hope that Cal can break through to an 8+ win season this year is Jaydn Ott. Why? This is the first time a true freshman has stepped onto the field in the Wilcox era and announced himself as a clear playmaker and threat, and it’s a reminder of what this offense has been lacking for some time now.
The usual caveats apply: now it’s time to prove it against better teams. But when your debut draws comparisons to Keenan Allen that don’t feel hyperbolic, that says something. You know what else speaks volumes? 19 touches. It’s clear the coaching staff sees Ott as a transformative playmaker for this team.
On Jack Plummer’s Cal debut
In all, a mixed bag. On the downside, we saw some of the mobility concerns, particularly on UC Davis’s 2nd sack. On the upside, he got better about stepping up as the game went along, extended a few plays, and as a general rule can make most throws a college QB would be expected to make.
Probably my biggest concern was occasional inaccuracy. There were some turfed short throws, and there were a few balls that were ultimately caught but robbed wide receivers of the chance to run with the ball. Some of that might have more to do with pressure than with Plummer’s arm, but pressure is likely something that’s going to be an issue all season long, and Cal will likely need for Plummer to deliver balls that give his receivers chances to run if the offense is going to reach whatever its ceiling is.
Another concern: Cal didn’t have much success going down the field, and Plummer didn’t/wasn’t able to go deep. That was a strength for Plummer at Purdue and I’m worried that it’s something that we might not see this year, either because the line can’t reliably pass protect that long, or because it’s just not something Cal tries to create within the offense.
If Plummer puts up these kinds of numbers (23-35, 268 yards, 3 TDs) against Pac-12 opponents, we’ll all be pretty pleased. But to state the obvious, UC Davis is not Pac-12 opposition.
12 drives: 2 touchdowns, 1 FGA, 5 punts, 4 turnovers (2 interceptions, 2 downs), 1.1 points/drive
A classic Wilcoxian defensive effort, in which Cal bends plenty but mostly doesn’t break, one 60 yard touchdown run aside. The Aggies were able to dink and dunk all game long and drove into Cal territory 7 times, but it’s hard to sustain drives on 4 or 5 yards/play, and Cal was able to snuff most of them out.
The Brett Johnson impact (sob)
Cal produced 3 tackles for loss. Last year, Akron finished last in FBS football by averaging 3.6 tackles for loss/game. In short, it’s concerning that Cal’s front was so non-disruptive against the weakest team on the schedule.
The disruption that did come largely came from Xavier Carlton, who did look dangerous at times as an edge rusher. But based on game 1, it wouldn’t surprise me if Cal really focuses more on coverage patterns and making sure that everything stays in front of the defense.
Position battle report
You know how we talked all offseason about how this is the deepest Cal defense of the Wilcox era? Well, 25 players got at least 10 snaps, and 19 players got at least 24.
Some of that is the FCS factor, but the Cal offense didn’t go this deep, and it’s clear that the coaching staff has a lot of trust in most players on this side of the ball, at least against weaker opposition.
As a result, we maybe didn’t learn as much about who will get the lion’s share of playing time against tougher competition. But we can pick out a few things:
Jackson Sirmon and Oluwafemi Oladejo look to be first choice at ILB
Cal’s base set defense is still a nickel, with Lu-Magia Hearns, Collin Gamble, Isaiah Young, Daniel Scott, and Craig Woodsen as the starters.
The front four is very much more a rotation, with eight different players getting meaningful time along the line and at outside linebacker. I’ll leave it up to football theorists to decide if they want to call the Cal defense a 2-4-5 or a 3-3-5, and it probably depends on if you want to call Xavier Carlton a rush OLB or a DE. Potayto , Potahto.
All around excellent day
UC Davis averaged 35.4 net yards/punt, while Cal averaged 47.6, and it was a day that highlighted Jameison Sheahan’s slow but steady improvement as a collegiate punter. While UCD had punters who were inconsistent with both distance and hangtime, Sheahan was dominant all game long.
If Sheahan maintained 47.6 net yards/punt, that would probably lead the nation, and the big shift was his patience and willingness to run forward before punting the ball, which quite possibly isn’t something he or the Cal coaches will be able or willing to risk against tougher opposition. But against UC Davis it allowed Cal to get plenty of distance without any real risk of return.
Meanwhile, the field goal unit looked excellent and the kickoff teams didn’t do anything of note. Special teams coordinator? Who needs ‘em!?
There really weren’t any interesting decisions for Justin Wilcox to make. It was Dan Hawkins who faced a bunch of 4th down attempts in plus territory, deciding to go for it five times. And it’s hard to argue that wasn’t necessary if UCD wanted to win the game.
Kudos to everybody involved for pulling things together after such an ugly first quarter, to the extent that it was a coaching thing vs. a just-playing-better thing.
You know, sequencing sure can impact how you feel about a football game.
If Cal starts the game with 27 points and a pick six across the first 7 possessions and jumps out to a commanding lead, then sputters in the 4th quarter, everybody’s fine. But if you look inept to start the game it tends to put a sour taste in everybody’s mouth even when you finally put it all together.
Taken in whole, this game was mission accomplished. Win without too much trouble, get everybody snaps, figure out areas you need to fix before the competition stiffens, and finish the day with no major injuries.
But because it was UC Davis, it was mostly about making sure that bad things didn’t happen, and bar one ugly quarter, that’s what we got. Next week is a small step up, but (hopefully) will be more of the same.
Now you can spend the next two weeks watching Notre Dame/Ohio State highlights, and letting your overactive fan imagination run wild.