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Post-Game Thoughts: UNLV Football
The Bears escape with a win but leave plenty of questions about how ready they are for the rest of the schedule.
I’m honestly not sure where to begin with this game, because it’s something we’ve all seen before. Avi already covered how similar Cal’s win over UNLV was to prior games against FCS and G5 competition under Justin Wilcox.
The problem is that I’m guaranteed to sound like a broken record, because we’re again searching for signs that this Wilcox team can break through in a way that prior Wilcox teams couldn’t, and then we watch back to back games that are virtually identical to prior Wilcox non-conference performances. Thus, I’m left saying the same thing over again. College football is a wild, wacky world where anything can happen play to play, games to game, except when Justin Wilcox is coaching, because for better or for worse, Justin Wilcox coached teams are paragons of consistency.
I tweeted this late in the game, during one of UNLV’s opportunities to drive for a 21-20 lead:
Unsurprisingly, I got some pushback for this statement. Despite producing very similar W/L results, Cal fans quite like Justin Wilcox and don’t much care for Sonny Dykes, and I am largely in agreement. Wilcox is (confusingly) loyal to Cal, doesn’t complain about Cal’s many eccentricities and flaws as an institution, seemingly treats his players right, etc. etc. etc. On balance, I much prefer him to Sonny Dykes.
But watching Cal go the final 49 minutes of game action against a team like UNLV and score 6 points, and grant the Rebels FIVE drives in the 3rd/4th quarter with an opportunity to take the lead . . . well, let’s just say I think back fondly to the days when a 35 point offensive performance was pretty pedestrian.
10 drives: 2 touchdowns, 3 FGA (2/3), 4 punts, 1 turnover (1 interception), 2 points/drive
There were three phases of offensive performance in this game:
Drives 1-2: 16 plays, 135 yards, 8.4 yards/play, 7 points/drive
Drives 3-6: 40 plays, 245 yards, 6.1 yards/play, 1.5 points/drive
Drives 7-10, 18 plays, 36 yards, 2 yards/play, 0 points/drive
In the first two drives, Cal’s passing game did whatever it wanted, Jack Plummer was sharp, and the Bears scored pretty easily despite a couple of negative plays/penalties that would typically derail the Cal offense.
In the next four drives, Cal moved the ball down the field with reasonable efficiency, but had fewer big plays, relied on UNLV defensive penalties, and couldn’t cash in inside the red zone.
And in the final four drives, Cal gained two first downs and had as many negative plays and penalties as positive gains.
In many ways it was the inverse of Cal’s performance against UC Davis, when Cal struggled for a quarter before figuring it out. So what’s the deal?
What I saw on the first two drives were a bunch of plays where Jack Plummer was able to get the ball out quickly to his first or second read. Which is to say that the offensive line play was an issue all game long, but Cal was able to play around those issues early in the game, perhaps because those were the scripted, well practices plays for the week. As the game went on, Plummer was less able to get the ball out quickly, and more plays were blown up by UNLV’s pressure.
On the offensive line
The primary concern I had following the 2021 season was a simple one: Cal had a massive issue at the tackle position:
Meanwhile, redshirt sophomore Brayden Rohme backed up both tackle positions, filled in when Craig was hurt, and would presumably be the favorite to take over for Daltoso. However, some position shuffling and open camp competitions would hardly be surprising. And with Will Craig’s injury history, finding multiple options at tackle would seem to be a massive priority. I can’t help but assume that Cal is shopping the transfer window at line generally and tackle specifically.
This was written BEFORE Will Craig retired from football. Cal functionally only returned one tackle (Rohme) from the 2021 season, and that tackle struggled in a back-up role.
When you look at the 2022 depth chart, you get a sense of how much tackle recruiting and development are hurting this team. Cal’s starting left tackle (Ben Coleman) is a left guard forced to transition to tackle. Cal’s back-up left tackle (Everett Johnson) got 60 snaps at guard last season and had to transition to tackle. Cal’s right tackles are Rohme and a transfer from Montana State (TJ Session) who has potential but wasn’t dominant at the FCS level, so you would expect serious growing pains.
When Cal only brought in one semi-developmental true tackle as a transfer during this off-season, I figured that one of the following must be true:
Cal thought Spencer Lovell could move to tackle.
One of Cal’s younger linemen would be ready to step up at tackle.
Cal’s offensive line would be a major challenge in 2022.
Well, Spencer Lovell is playing right guard, the only other players listed on the tackle two-deep were guards forced to transition, and line play generally, and tackle play specifically, has been an issue against the two worst teams on Cal’s schedule.
Cal has generally been successful developing good guards and centers - Coleman, Mettauer, and Cindric were all solid players last year, to say nothing of Michael Saffell, Ryan Gibson or Valentino Daltoso before he had to transition to RT. Spencer Lovell had a rough game against UNLV but I’d bet that he ends up as a relative strength along the line this year.
But tackle has been a position that Cal’s coaching staff hasn’t been able to address, and their inability to bring in more depth via transfers over the last off-season is looking like a massive roster building error.
The ‘good’ news
I still think that this is the best set of skill position players in the Wilcox era. Hunter, Sturdivant, and Anderson are all solid targets, Keleki Latu is looking good at tight end, Jaydn Ott (who needs to be in more than 40% of snaps) is the best freshman offensive athlete since Keenan Allen, Damien Moore is overqualified as a 2nd running back, and Jack Plummer can get these players the ball.
And plenty of teams have found ways to scheme around offensive line pass blocking deficiencies before. Hell, that’s kind of the whole reason the Air Raid was developed - coaches at programs that couldn’t easily recruit offensive line talent finding ways to scheme around those kinds of limitations.
Is Bill Musgrave the kind of coordinator who can scheme his way around offensive line issues? Tune in next week to continue to find out.
11 drives: 2 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 5 punts, 4 turnovers (1 interception, 3 downs), 1.3 points/drive
I’m entirely content with Cal’s defensive performance. One UNLV touchdown drive required a 4th down conversion and a recovered fumble, plus a few really nice throws over the middle from UNLV’s QB. The other UNLV touchdown drive came after Craig Woodson intercepted a ball that the refs on the field (incorrectly in my opinion) determined was a simultaneous catch.
In the first half, UNLV really didn’t move the ball outside of that one touchdown drive, and even when UNLV moved the ball in the 2nd half they didn’t move the ball with a ton of efficiency and couldn’t punch it in for scores. Regardless, 1.3 points/drive is still excellent, and lower than what UNLV averaged last year when they were quite bad offensively.
In short, it should have been more than enough for a comfortable win. Stop me if you’ve heard that before.
Dialing up pressure when you need it
Unless something else catches my eye during game review, I’ll likely break down Cal’s ability to bring pressure on the QB. The sense we had in the stands was that Cal spent most of the first 75% of the game sending standard base rushes of 3/4 guys with minimal stunts, and the result was very little pressure on the QB.
But late in the game, facing the possibility of actually losing, Cal definitely brought more exotic pressure packages, and successfully busted up multiple plays. So while you wish that Cal could get pressure with base schemes, it’s nice to have some tentative evidence that Cal can find ways to get pressure schematically.
But an indication that Cal isn’t sure how to get consistent disruption along the line? A whopping THIRTEEN different players shuffled on and off the field for the four positions Cal typically deploys at defensive line/outside linebacker, more than the ten total players who got on the field at inside linebacker or in the secondary.
A missed field goal, a kickoff return mistake that put Cal at the five, a running into the kicker penalty that extended a UNLV drive, and a surprise onside kick recovery allowed.
The surprise onside kick was presumably a formational thing - Cal didn’t have anybody on the return team across from the ball, so it wasn’t super hard for UNLV’s kicker to follow his own kick and get there first.
I’ll just chalk Longhetto’s miss into the #collegekickers category and assume he’ll revert to his normal consistency, but everything else gives Cal’s non-existent special teams coordinator lots of stuff to work on.
If you’re looking for bright spots, Jamieson Sheahan had another good day, and it would’ve been a great day if the coverage team had been able to locate one of his punts that bounced into the end zone for a touchback.
Be ready to go for it
Kudos to Justin Wilcox for going for it on 4th and 2 on Cal’s 2nd drive of the game, which immediately resulted in a Jaydn Ott touchdown. I’d have preferred that Cal wouldn’t need to burn a time out pondering whether to go for it, but better the right decision slowly than the wrong decision quickly. Marcus Arroyo showed how to do it by immediately calling for a QB sneak on 4th and 1 that caught the Cal defense unprepared, with the ball snapped before some players on the line were even set.
The final offensive possession
2:46 left on the clock, and UNLV has one time out. Thus, you know you can end the game by running five total plays.
There are worse things in the world than running the ball three times, forcing UNLV to use their last time out, and hoping that you gain 10 yards. Other than a fumble, the worst case scenario is what happened - UNLV getting the ball back needing to drive 56 yards in 1:03 with no time outs.
So I didn’t HATE how Cal handled the situation, but not having your best RB on the field in Jaydn Ott doesn’t seem like your best bet to get those 10 yards.
If Cal beats Notre Dame, nobody will spend any time thinking back to the manner in which Cal happened to beat UNLV. All that would matter is that Cal won. And Notre Dame, fresh off a shock loss to Marshall (a 7-6 Conference USA team last year) looks more tractable than previously expected.
But Cal opened as 14.5 point underdogs for a reason. Vegas saw how Cal played against UNLV the same as all of us.
If, like we suspect, the 2022 Bears are largely similar to prior teams under Justin Wilcox, there is a meaningful chance that the Bears turn next week’s game in South Bend into a hideous defensive slog. Notre Dame’s offense has been bad, highlighted by mediocre QB play. Cal’s defensive is absolutely capable of holding down the Irish offense.
But the Cal offense is going to have to do something different to score, because a similar output next week probably results in single digit scoring against a significantly more talented Notre Dame defense.
And Notre Dame is followed by a feistier looking Arizona and a road trip to play Wazzu, who just beat Wisconsin on the road.
In short, the easy part of the schedule is over, and while the standings say “mission accomplished,” the eye test says something very different.