Post Game Thoughts: UCLA

Cal Football suffers a comprehensive defeat in a game hastily scheduled just two days before kickoff

Prior to this season, and to this specific game, I tried hard to expand within my mind the universe of possibilities. This season just carried with it too many variables to dismiss any possibilities. But even within that context, the extent to which UCLA dominated Cal took me by surprise. Consider, if you dare, the worst single game performances under Justin Wilcox by Cal yards/play allowed minus Cal yards/play gained:

2019 Utah: -4.64
2019 USC: -3.14
2017 UW: -2.92
2020 UCLA: -2.66
2017 Oregon: -2.23

Teams in the list above include two division champs, four bowl teams, two appearances from the rebuilding 2017 squad, a start from a 3rd string freshman quarterback . . . and the 2020 UCLA Bruins, who were 4-8 last season and didn’t look any better when losing to Colorado last week.

If this were a normal game, played in normal circumstances, I’d feel comfortable calling it the single worst loss of Justin Wilcox’s Cal tenure, and by a clear margin. This performance now forces us into the un-fun discussion of how much of a mulligan everybody should get based on all of the off-field circumstances leading up to the game.

Offense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 1 touchdown, 1 FGA (1-1), 6 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 downs), 0.9 points/drive

One could reasonably argue that Cal actually had 12 drives, as they got the ball back with 1:17 left in the 2nd quarter with multiple time outs and the chance to try to drive for points. But Cal ran the ball twice without using those timeouts, and it became immediately clear that the Bears weren’t actually interested in trying to use that possession to get any points.

Again, if this game had been played under normal circumstances with a normal off-season of preparation and a normal week of game plan installment, this kind of performance would be wildly disturbing. 2.8 yards/play is the 3rd worst per/play offensive performance of the offensively-challenged Wilcox era, and this is the first time the Cal offense has looked completely broken against what is likely to be a bad defense.

Getting dominated by a great Utah defense with a badly depleted two-deep is one thing. Getting dominated by a probably bad UCLA defense with everybody healthy and experienced is something else entirely.

So what in the world happened?

When the same group of players who produced competent-to-good offense much of last year step onto the field against a bad defense and produce something like that, I think it’s logical to assume that the new offense hasn’t been successfully installed yet.

Pretty much everybody looked off. Chase Garbers was more inaccurate than perhaps I have ever seen him, and struggled to move to 2nd and 3rd reads. The line struggled to pick up UCLA’s stunts and blitzes. The WRs were rarely open and looked iffy making their breaks and cuts.

If the offense was full of new starters, one might reasonably surmise that the new players weren’t ready for prime time yet. With the offense made up entirely of returning starters with an established level of performance, you have to assume that they’re trying to run plays that they just haven’t had practice time to learn how to run well yet.

If you think the 2020 season matters (which lol I don’t think it does) then it’s unfortunate that this was the absolutely worst off-season in which to bring in a new offensive coordinator. One might also argue that bringing in an NFL coordinator adds a layer of difficulty that might make this transition all the harder.

Still though, what’s up with the offensive line?

5 sacks, 9 total tackles for loss, and 2.8 yards/RB carry. The offensive line was completely and thoroughly overwhelmed all game long. I highlighted Osa Odighizuwa in the UCLA defensive preview as the guy to try to scheme around, and Odighizuwa was the defensive MVP for UCLA by spending most of the game blowing up Cal’s line on running plays and passing plays alike. His 2.5 tackles for loss don’t nearly represent just how much he disrupted the interior of Cal’s line. Even if Cal had had a full week to game plan around him, it’s kinda hard to function offensively when a DT is blowing up the interior of your line half the time.

Still, Cal’s inability to control or even slow down UCLA’s one clear impact defender doesn’t completely explain the offensive line performance we saw on Sunday. Despite frequently keeping tight ends and running backs in for protection, and despite trying to transition into a quick pass offense to get the ball out fast, UCLA still managed to find ways to bring linebackers free into the backfield with disturbing frequency. It’s hard to reach any conclusion other than that the offensive line wasn’t able to diagnose and respond to what UCLA did on defense.

Defense

Efficiency Report

11 drives: 5 touchdowns, 4 punts, 3 turnovers (1 interception, 2 downs), 3.1 points/drive

If you really squint you could maybe imagine this being a borderline acceptable performance. If the Cal defense had made a few more tackles, hit on a couple of opportunities to bring DTR down in the back field, or stopped UCLA in the red zone a couple times, maybe they hold UCLA to 24 points. But UCLA also failed to convert a couple of 4th downs in the red zone late in the game, so it’s just as true that UCLA could have gone for 45 points without doing a whole lot more.

Like, Cal allowed more than the 5.5 yards/play given up to UCLA seven times last year, including in multiple wins. But the Bears struggled to get off the field on 3rd down, struggled to stop UCLA from grabbing solid chunks of yards in the run game, and struggled generally to make tackles when given the opportunity.

This wasn’t a disastrous performance the way Cal’s offensive performance was. Defenders were mostly in the right places, and UCLA had to actually execute pretty well to move the ball. But it’s also true that some of Cal’s struggles to tackle might just be a reflection not having some of the stalwarts of previous Wilcox defenses like Jordan Kunaszyk, Tevin Paul, Evan Weaver, and Ashtyn Davis around any more.

How much did defensive line disruptions impact Cal’s chances?

Again, this is hard to say. There were times when Brett Johnson, JH Tevis, and Zeandae Johnson disrupted UCLA’s offense line. Cal’s front seven particularly looked good the first few drives of the game, forcing pass downs and getting to DTR to help force an iffy throw that Cal picked off. UCLA’s 3rd drive (and first TD drive) of the game was a long, methodical drive in which UCLA avoided a bunch of near-tackles in the backfield. Things seemed OK

But as the game went along UCLA was increasingly able to run their offense with minimal disruption from the Bears, and I couldn’t help but wonder if the Bears and particularly the line began to wear down. Whether from lack of depth, conditioning, quarantine disruptions, or all of the above, it wouldn’t surprise me if Cal had trouble maintaining the intensity needed to play against UCLA’s offense. It felt poetic that UCLA needed 15 plays for their first TD drive, then 9 plays for their second drive, then just 5 plays for their third. By the time the 2nd half rolled around and Cal’s offense was clearly not going to be able to function, the result was this demoralizing drive that ended the game as a competitive contest:

8 runs, all of them successful, most of them reasonably contained until the dam finally broke.

Special Teams

Exactly one play of interest on an otherwise boring day

We blocked a punt! I couldn’t really ID anything interesting that Cal did right to make it happen other than getting four guys attacking the 3 man UCLA shield. It gave the Bears three free points and it’s a shame that Cal didn’t take full advantage of one of the few big plays special teams have produced over the last few years.

Other than that? 7 of the game’s 9 kickoffs were touchbacks or fair catches, 9 of the game’s 10 punts were either fair caught or not fielded, and there weren’t really any returns of note. This boringness is right in line with the ongoing nation-wide trend of low-impact special teams. It’s good to see Dario Longhetto hit a 31 yard field goal, but that’s not long enough to really have any sense of what his range and accuracy might be.

Coaching

Time to prove that this game was a fluke of circumstances

As others have pointed out in the immediate aftermath of this game, some of Justin Wilcox’s best performances have followed crushing defeats. The Bears followed up crushing defeats to Oregon and Washington in 2017 with the Smoke Bowl win over top-10 Wazzu. After getting blown out by UCLA in 2018, the Bears crushed Oregon State and then upset Washington. Last year’s four game losing streak was followed by a 4-1 end of the season.

In short, even if the coaches are to blame for what happened on Sunday rather than a global pandemic, Justin Wilcox’s track record suggests a bounce back is likely. Oregon State certainly looks beatable after an 0-2 start to the season, and Vegas would appear to agree. It’s up to the coaching staff to figure out how to get this offense producing at least as well as they produced to end 2019.

Big Picture

My last 2020 season preview article featured the following list of good and bad developments that would determine how far the Bears could go this year. A quick reminder:

Good things we want to see happen:

  • Will Craig plays like an all-conference left tackle

  • Brett Johnson makes The Leap

  • The Cal offense rediscovers the big play

Bad things we want to avoid:

  • Any amount of injuries or COVID positives for starters

  • Nobody can fill Evan Weaver’s shoes

  • Something doesn’t click on offense

Judging solely from one game, I’d say the answers were, in order: no, TBD, no, yes, yes, yes. That’s scary.

Just prior to the first game played this year, Cal suffered a COVID scare in the least-deep position group on the roster. That forced Brett Johnson to play out of position in game 1, so I’m giving him a pass on making The Leap. But having Will Craig in the lineup didn’t result in improved offensive line play, and Cal was even less explosive than last year.

Meanwhile, Evan Weaver’s absence loomed large as Cal struggled to slow UCLA’s run game, and the offense looked wildly out-of-sync. Our fears manifested and our dreams did not.

I desperately, desperately hope that this performance will look like a joke of circumstances once we get weeks or months of hindsight. But for now, with only one game of evidence to go by, we must briefly confront the possibility that this season may be a worst-case-scenario.

If Cal looks good and wins against Oregon State next week (if, you know, the game happens) then this result will be easy to look past. If Cal loses to the 0-2 Beavers . . . well, at least winning the Big Game would salvage positive feelings?