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Post-Game Thoughts: USC Football
Cal's offense unexpectedly comes alive, but it was still too little too late against the Trojans
Well before the season began, my wife and I agreed to head down to LA for this game. Sadly, the LA road trip is on life support, and we figured it was a good chance to do other fun things.
I started to regret the decision, even as we stuck with our plans. Listening to the USC band in a blowout loss on a chilly mid November night didn’t exactly fill me with joy.
And then a surprising thing happened - Cal finally fought back. The Bears took an early lead that lasted thanks to a hilarious blocked PAT. USC was clearly better but could never pull away. The Cal band was positioned right between us and the USC band, and played throughout the night, largely drowning out those repetitive jerkwads.
The game inevitably turned late in the 2nd quarter, and even when things were going right I harbored no illusions that Cal would or could emerge victorious.
But it was nice to razz the USC fans around us for a little bit about their struggles against a team that they fully expected to walk over.
Go Ducks and Utes.
12 drives: 5 touchdown, 0 FGA, 5 punts, 2 turnovers (1 interception, 1 downs), 2.9 points/drive
I suppose we could have the debate about whether this is about Cal figuring something out on offense, or USC’s defense in fact being That Bad. Cal’s offensive performance was better than what Stanford, Wazzu, or Oregon State managed, but wasn’t as good as what Arizona or Utah put up. But it was clearly Cal’s best offensive performance since Arizona.
A glimpse of what this offense could hypothetically be
Against Arizona, we saw what Jaydn Ott could do given space, something that we’ve seen in rare flashes since.
Against USC, we saw what the passing offense can do. See, the Trojans have one OK pass rusher (Tuipulotu) and a bad secondary, and the result was that even though Cal was playing an increasingly patchwork line, Plummer still had a clean pocket a decent percentage of the time. And when he got a clean pocket, he tended to find somebody downfield. 406 total yards! 8.3 yards/attempt! When you have a bunch of excellent wide receivers playing a bad defense, frankly that’s what SHOULD happen.
Alas, we haven’t seen much of this all year long because most teams have been able to generate a crippling level of pressure. But at times, for one game, we got to enjoy a functional passing game.
Change two passes, and maybe Cal finds a way to steal the game
On 4th and 2 with 2:22 left in the 2nd quarter, Cal goes for it, and Plummer throws well behind Jeremiah Hunter. If that throw hits Hunter in the chest Cal converts, and perhaps scores points to end the half, and perhaps prevents USC from scoring.
On 1st and 10 with 1:22 left, Plummer air mails a bad throw to Hunter, and USC’s safety easily intercepts it. This one didn’t have a prayer even if it had been accurate. Cal wasn’t close to scoring, but they at least could have run out the clock. Instead, USC scores to go up two touchdowns before halftime.
It’s harsh to focus on two bad throws from the first 400+ yard passing performance of the Wilcox era, but those were probably the two most important offensive plays of the game that didn’t go Cal’s way.
11 drives: 6 touchdowns, 5 punts, 3.8 points/drive
It’s been a while, but this is the rare Wilcox-era game where a loss falls more squarely on the defense.
In some ways this was a step up in performance relative to what the Bears did against Oregon, where the Ducks easily should have scored more but for red zone malfunctions. USC had a number of bad punt drives mixed in with very quick touchdown drives.
Just no ability to disrupt
USC ran 69 plays and had exactly one play go for negative yards. Heck, there was only one other run that went for zero yards. Cal was able to get a few stops because Caleb Williams was not super accurate by his own lofty standards, but Cal’s inability to blow up plays means that you’re counting on mistakes - drops, bad throws, fumbles, penalties - to get the offensive off schedule, and most Pac-12 teams are too good for that on offense this year.
This lack of line disruption translates to turnovers as well. Over the last three games, the defense has only forced one turnover of consequence - I’m throwing out the interception on Oregon’s end-of-half Hail Mary, and USC’s only “turnover” came on the surprise onside kick.
Maybe return kickoffs?
Entering Saturday’s game, Cal had only attempted 7 kickoffs in 8 games, which was just as well because those kickoff return attempts didn’t fair well. But in a major shift, Cal installed true freshman running back Ashton Hayes as return man, and seemingly gave him free reign* to return kicks.
The result? Six returns that netted . . . an average starting field position of the 24 yard line. So Technically worse than if Cal had just fair caught every kick.
But that’s an oversimplification, as four of the six returns got out past the 25 yard line. The average was thrown off by one disastrous return that Hayes fumbled, resulting in a tackle at the 8 yard line. If Hayes had safely fielded the ball then he probably wouldn’t been slightly above average for the day.
Is the potential pro (better field position, the slight chance of a significant return) worth the downside risk (penalties, injuries, turnovers)? Frankly, I kinda doubt it. But maybe Hayes is in fact talented enough that he shifts the risk/reward balance in favor of attempting frequent returns.
*Worth noting that none of Hayes’ returns started in the end zone, so I’m guessing Cal will only return kicks short of the goal line.
Actual crazy special teams happenings!
Two blocked PATs! Two onside attempts! Actual attempted kickoff returns! A bunch of bad USC punts saved by fortuitous bounces! I’m saving onside kick discussions for the coaching section, which . . .
Maybe the aggressive coaching should start BEFORE Cal falls behind by 20?
This is probably going to come off as whiny. Finally, Justin Wilcox gets aggressive, and you’re still complaining?!
Don’t get me wrong - I love that Wilcox attempted a couple of 4th down conversions, called a surprise on-side, and generally pulled out the stops in the 2nd half. The problem was that almost everything worked, and yet Cal still lost by 7 and never possessed the ball with a chance to tie the game.
If the lesson you take away from this is “play better so that you don’t need game theory shenanigans to win,” I would certainly agree. But we knew that Cal was very likely to get outplayed on a per play basis, and that’s what happened. Which means you need to be thinking about way to steal equity all game long, not just once you fall behind. That’s why I was irate when Cal punted on 4th and 2 from midfield halfway through the 1st quarter - because it was easy to predict that USC was going to score into the 40s, and you knew that Cal had to turn every midfield drive into points.
Hell, I kinda thought Cal should’ve attempted a QB sneak on 4th and 1 from their own 29 in the 2nd quarter, and again on 4th and 1 from the Cal 34 on the first drive of the 3rd quarter, though I can understand the hesitation with a patchwork line and a failed QB sneak that happened earlier this year.
On that unexpected two point conversion
As you would expect, when Cal elected to go for 2 after scoring a touchdown to narrow the deficit to 8, the discussion from the announcing crew was embarrassing. Despite ostensibly being paid to understand football, neither guy knew why Cal was attempting to go for 2.
Presuming that Wilcox did it for analytical reasons rather than PAT blocking protection reasons, here’s an explanation of the reasoning that ESPN published THREE years ago, maybe somebody at the worldwide leader can forward it to Dave Pasch. You should read the full article to understand the nuance, but here’s the upshot:
Kicking two extra points maximizes the chance to reach overtime. Attempting a 2-point conversion when down 8 points late maximizes the chance to win the game, which is the ultimate goal.
My guess is that Cal wouldn’t do this against a team with a lower talent level than USC, but doing this in that situation made a ton of sense and I’m still shocked that Wilcox did it. Loved it.
Nothing has changed. Cal lost a game they were heavily expected to lose, and the season remains a one game season (furd, duh) even though Cal could technically make a bowl if they shockingly won out.
I’m tempted to stop there, but I’d guess you were expected more? I tweeted this after the game:
To be clear, we’re grading on a HEAVY curve here - I went into this game with virtually no hope of a win and expecting to lose by at least three touchdowns. Somebody asked me my score prediction before the game and I think I said 42-10 or something similar.
No, I’d given up on Cal beating a team like USC long ago, and so my baseline for enjoying a game was ‘show a little fight, give me some unrealistic hope, put a scare into the other team, etc.’ Cal accomplished that much, and made me stay until the end of the game when I fully anticipated leaving early and catching up on some sleep.
Is that enough? Hardly. But it’s a realistic statement about where this team is right now, and I’m a pragmatist at heart.
Boy does it feel weird twiddling my fingers waiting for Big Game, knowing it’s the only game that matters. This will be the first time in a long time that Cal will play Stanford 1) in a bowlless season and 2) have a solid chance to win anyway. That hasn’t been the case since the Holmoe era, even though it frequently characterized the rivalry at various points in the 70s and 80s.
Oh yeah, we play in Corvallis next week, If Cal plays against the Beavers like they did against the Trojans, I’d perhaps make Cal a slight favorite to win. It’d be nice. Doesn’t matter if we don’t beat Stanford.