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Post-Game Thoughts: UCLA Football
The Bears keep it close behind a suddenly explosive offense, but it's not enough to beat UCLA's rushing attack.
If this game had happened a month ago, perhaps there would have been mild cause for optimism. The offense was explosive! The defense prevented big plays! Cal held the ball in the 4th quarter with a chance to tie the game! Take away a couple of fumbles, and maybe the game goes differently! The Bears covered!
But when it’s the last game of a 4-8 season, against a rival that is in the process of abandoning you to a richer conference, improved play that still ends in defeat provides no comfort. Instead, it’s the final act before the longest, coldest Cal football offseason in quite some time.
10 drives: 3 touchdown, 2 FGA (1-2), 5 punts, 0 turnovers, 2.8 points/drive
After two 3-and-outs to start the game, Cal came to life, scoring three straight TDs behind a thrilling downfield passing attack. Alas, UCLA adjusted (more below) and Cal’s offense withered, but it was a credible performance. By yards/play, this was Cal’s 2nd best offensive performance after Arizona, and UCLA’s 3rd worst defensive performance after just USC and Oregon. Because UCLA has an OK defense (vs. Arizona’s tire fire defense) I’m comfortable calling this Cal’s best offensive performance of the season.
We forced a defense to adjust to us!!!
In the first half, UCLA largely played a single high safety, and Cal responded by attacking the sidelines and hashes with their excellent receivers, and Sturdivant and Hunter ran riot. Cal went deep often and with tons of success, and Plummer racked up 173 passing yards.
In the 2nd half, UCLA switched to a two-high safety look, and Cal only attempted one deep shot the rest of the game. As a result, Cal had more success underneath and sustained a few drives into UCLA territory, but this team has trouble blocking on a down-to-down basis to sustain long drives, and Cal petered out at midfield too often in the 2nd half.
Still, for an offense that has struggled all year long, to force a defense to adapt to something you’re doing is a big development . . . to happen in the last game of the year. Wonder how much game value Justin Wilcox gave up waiting to make a change at defensive coordinator after 5/6th of the season had already gone by.
Cal’s best protection game of the season relative to opposition, I’d say. Which isn’t to say that Jack Plummer could just sit in the pocket all day and pick a pass out, but neither was he running for his life constantly. Sure, a decent number of plays were fatally disrupted by pressure, and that contributed to some of Cal’s 3-and-outs, but if Cal’s line had been able to provide this level of protection, with this kind of game plan and this level of execution, I think Cal is at least competitive in a few more games this year.
How close is Cal to a good offense?
On one hand, maybe not far at all. You’ve got a QB who throws on of the best deep balls in the conference and is nails when he’s well protected, with two all-conference receivers and the best returning RB in the conference. As of RIGHT NOW (before USC portals in a free agent all star team again) you could argue that Cal has the best collection of returning skill position talent in the entire Pac-12.
On the other hand, maybe miles away. Can Cal’s new offensive coordinator, whoever that ends up being, convince all of those dudes to come back for another year AND fix the massive issues on Cal’s offensive line?
10 drives: 4 touchdowns, 5 punts, 1 turnover (fumble), 3.2 points/drive
The good: really limiting UCLA’s explosiveness, particularly in the run game. Believe it or not, Cal held UCLA below their previous lowest yards/play average of the entire season (which, bizarrely, came against South Alabama. Pac-12 defenses: not good this year).
The bad: A defense that was only able to force 3 negative runs against 61 rushing attempts from UCLA
A slow churn down the field
When you look at the box score, it’s kinda hard to figure out how this game was even close - UCLA gained 541 yards, 180 more than Cal, AND won the turnover battle 2-0? This should be a blowout!
Special teams plays into this in ways good and bad, but part of it is that UCLA got almost nothing going in terms of explosive plays. Just ONE pass play longer than 18 yards. No runs longer than 21 yards. UCLA gained 202 yards in drives that ended in field goal attempts or a turnover on downs.
In short, Cal was actually able to play the bend-but-don’t break pretty well, considering that UCLA has, for my money, the best rushing offense in the conference. Zach Charbonnet isn’t the kind of guy to break off huge runs, but his ability to fall forward, move a pile, and generally gain 3-5 extra yards on every run is unmatched in the Pac-12, and he showed it. If UCLA had just handed him the ball on 4th and 2 I doubt we’d be living in a world where Cal even has the opportunity to fumble the ball on the final drive.
And when UCLA actually has to throw, or if you focus too much attention on Charbonnet, UCLA has a veteran QB who is one of the better runners in the conference. I thought Cal actually had one of their better pressure games of the year, with Myles Jernigan looking good against UCLA’s left tackle and a bunch of designed blitzes that got DTR off rhythm. But much of it was for naught because of DTR’s elusiveness. Whether designed or scrambles, his rushing undid the Cal defense throughout the game.
Good riddance to Charbonnet AND DTR, who have largely been gigantic pains in the sides of the rest of the Pac-12 generally and Cal specifically.
Another brilliant game, but for one error
Like I mentioned above, part of the reason UCLA had a ton of yards is because they mostly had brutal field position - 8 of their 11 drives started inside their own 30, because Jamieson Sheahan had another really good performance, averaging 43 yards/punt without surrendering a return*. Frankly, he did better than 43 yards/punt reflects because he had one 32 yarder that was downed inside the 20 and probably shouldn’t have happened anyway (more below).
Plus, Cal earned themselves an extra possession by using a fake punt on 4th and 1, and the Bears cashed in that extra possession with a touchdown.
Alas, one fumbled punt from the otherwise brilliant Jeremiah Hunter as he tried to gain a couple extra yards was one of the three instances in which UCLA DIDN’T have bad field position, and UCLA was able to cash in with a field goal
*I think it’s worth noting that UCLA’s punt returner was bizarrely unwilling to attempt a return despite seemingly having the space a couple times, and UCLA is 106th in the country in punt return attempts, so maybe this is a weird thing for them.
When you’re playing a team of this quality, you’ve got to score more points
It’s late in the 3rd quarter, with UCLA up 3. Cal has driven past the 50 yard line, and the Bears face a 3rd and 8 from the UCLA 44.
At that time, UCLA had scored touchdowns on back-to-back drives to retake the lead, and had scored on 5 of their 7 drives in the game. You could reasonably expect that the Bruins would continue to score (indeed, 10 points in their next 3 non-clock-killing drives). In short, you should be thinking “we’ve got two plays to gain 8 yards.”
Jack Plummer goes down the field but overthrows Jeremiah Hunter, and Cal punts.
I think Cal STILL has to go for it there - sure, it’s a risk, but you simply have to score points on a drive into UCLA territory if you’re going to maintain a hope of outscoring the Bruins. But I also wasn’t thrilled with a playcall that had most of Cal’s receivers running downfield routes when something shorter, whether run or pass, would have been better.
In his post-game press conference, Justin Wilcox offered up some closing thoughts on the season:
I believe in the guys in the locker room, and we’re going to continue to push them and set very very high expectations for how we do things. We’re going to continue to recruit and develop the roster in a competitive environment. I know we can do it. I know they know we can do it, but we have to evolve and have higher standards for everything that we do as a football program
He will be entering the off-season with a fan base that does not share the confidence he expressed. Cal football suffered through its worst season since 2013. The season was not without bright spots - Cal has great RBs and WRs, and Jack Plummer was generally quite good. But the offensive line roster was badly mismanaged over the last couple seasons, and that completely derailed one side of the ball. Cal’s defense regressed, and was probably the weakest of the Wilcox era. Meanwhile, Cal’s 2023 recruiting class is ranked 95th in the country, and 2nd to last among ALL power 5 conference teams, only ahead of until-very-recently-coachless Arizona State.
In short, by almost any metric, Cal football appears deeply unhealthy.
By dint of an extraordinarily unwise contract extension, Justin Wilcox will have at least one more season to fix these issues. His off-season to-do list is extensive and challenging.
So is the to-do list for Jim Knowlton. His fate is tied to the coach he gave the six year extension. Can Knowlton find a way to free up funds to bring in a legitimate offensive coordinator (and line coach)? Can Knowlton get Cal the Big-10 invite it needs to revive recruiting and pay the bills?
Frankly, I don’t think so:
In a critical off-season in which Cal athletics faces an existential threat, I’d be thrilled to be proven wrong.