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Post-Game Thoughts: Utah Football
Cal's defensive collapse continues in Salt Lake City
Photo via @calfootball twitter
In 2022, Cal’s defense was perhaps ever so slightly better than Pac-12 average. The Bears finished 5th in the conference in yards/play allowed.
The 2023 Bears returned 12 of their top 15 tacklers from that 2022 defense. If you’re talking about major impact players, the only guys that left of note are Daniel Scott and Oluwafemi Oladejo.
Meanwhile, Cal brought in multiple impact defensive players through the transfer portal AND got Brett Johnson back from injury. Any objective analysis would lead one to conclude that Cal’s 2023 defense would improve on 2022. And yet here we are, halfway through the 2023 season, and the Cal defense has clearly regressed. Cal is 10th in the conference in yards/play allowed in all games, and LAST in yards/play allowed in Pac-12 games only.
“But Nick, Cal has played UW and OSU, and their offenses are elite! Perhaps those games are skewing the numbers!” That occurred to me, and getting shredded by both Washington and Oregon State isn’t hugely surprising. Disappointing, certainly, considering our hopes that Cal’s defense would progress this year, but not shocking.
No, the problem is how Cal’s defense has performed against the BAD offensive teams in Pac-12 play:
Arizona State: Best single game yards/play of the season. Yes, Southern Utah was better defensively against ASU.
Utah: Best single game yards/play of the season. Yes, Weber State was better defensively against Utah.
For the first time under Justin Wilcox, the Cal defense is actively bad, and I don’t think I understand why. The defense had a couple of minor hiccups against N. Texas, Auburn, and Idaho but was largely fine, and then Pac-12 play started and the defense fell off a cliff.
Jackson Sirmon’s season-ending injury suffered halfway through the OSU game hurts badly, but the collapse of the Cal defense started well before then. Sirmon’s absence is, to my knowledge, the only major injury impacting the defense entering the Utah game.
8 possessions, 2 touchdowns, 3 punts, 1 FGA (0-1), two turnovers (Interception, fumble), 1.75 points/possession
Removed: Cal’s final two drives, down 17 late in the 4th quarter with Finley at QB, both of which ended in 4th down conversion failures.
Three scoring opportunities in eight possessions isn’t a good ratio even against Utah in SLC.
Fernando might be the real deal
14 points isn’t particularly impressive, and the stats don’t jump off the page. If you didn’t watch the game and just glanced at the box score, you could be forgiven for thinking that Fernando had a back-to-earth kind of game.
But if anything, I’m MORE confident in Mendoza’s long term viability at quarterback after this game. Cal’s failed drives were not generally down to QB errors. Instead, Cal’s failed drives were derailed by drops and penalties and sacks, and I don’t particularly recall a sack where Mendoza had a realistic opportunity to escape that he failed to use.
Instead what I saw was a QB who faced a top tier defense in the Pac-12 and looked the part. Mendoza averaged 8.8 yards/attempt, which is the 2nd highest number a QB has put up against Utah in Salt Lake City since 2016. The only QB with a better YPA? Caleb Williams, last year, when he won a Heisman trophy.
Can we help a quarterback out?
Utah won this game because they found ways to make impact plays. Getting a hand on a pass to force an interception. Getting pressure to force a fumble. Getting a sack to kill a drive.
Cal had chances to match those plays. Beyond a couple straight drops, Cal had multiple other plays where Mendoza gave his receivers a chance to make a contested catch, and it just didn’t happen. I don’t know if you swing a couple of those plays if it’s enough to win this game, but it probably at least keeps this game close until the final few possessions.
But there’s a reason that Utah is 5-1 despite a slew of injuries and Cal is 3-3.
But this game was going to swing on edge pressure
The frustrating reality is that it was just a matter of time until Jonah Elliss was going to impact this game by getting to Fernando off the edge. He registered two sacks, a forced fumble, and a handful of other pressures that disrupted plays. And unless or until Cal can develop tackles that can hold players like Elliss at bay, there is a hard cap on Cal’s ability to compete against teams with high end edge rushers.
9 possessions, 4 touchdowns, 2 punts, 2 FGAs (1-2), 1 turnover (downs), 3.4 points/possession
I realize I already generally covered the Cal defense in the intro, but it’s worth noting that of Utah’s seven drives that started in Utah territory, five of them went past the Cal 35 yard line. That’s just not a drive killing success rate that can win football games regardless of the opposition, but looks particularly ugly when you consider how much the Utah offense has struggled all year long.
Got paved up front
Not much else to say. 321 yards rushing allowed at 6 yards a pop, and not a single sack recorded. Utah’s offensive line authored a thoroughly dominant performance against Cal’s front.
And I suppose the scary thing is that Cal has been shredded by three very different offenses in three very different ways. UW was all downfield passing all the time. Oregon State was run to set up the play action pass. And Utah was ‘run it down your throat, we don’t care if you know it’s coming, hell we’ll even run wildcat and laugh when you can’t do anything.’
For the first time this year, Cal struggled to tackle well, and in a game where that was particularly necessary because Utah’s thing is running into your face and daring you to punish them for it.
True, losing Sirmon, the lynchpin of Cal’s run stopping ability, was a heavy blow, and it’s not hard to think that this game goes differently if he’s in there. But then again, if one player is that integral to what you do then it was only a matter of time before the house of cards came down anyway.
A question I may spend the rest of the year trying in vain to answer
Something is very, very off about how this defense is being prepared week-in, week-out. There is simply too much talent on that side of the ball to regress so significantly from last year’s baseline, and I’m at a loss to explain it.
A disastrous kickoff return that killed Cal’s first drive before it could begin, and a missed field goal that helped put the final nails into the coffin of this loss bookended another bad special teams day. There is no solution to Cal’s field goal kicking woes, but the kickoff return woes can be fixed by the same solution I have been proposing for multiple years like the world’s most annoying broken record: Just fair catch every kick!
At least Lachlan Wilson had another strong performance, and with support from a coverage team that got gunners in support to make Wilson’s long kicks count.
Justin Wilcox’s entire reputation at Cal has been built upon his bona-fides as a defensive guru. Much of the good will that earned him a contract extension was built upon the massive turnaround he helped engineer early in his tenure, taking a group of players who struggled so badly under Sonny Dykes and immediately transforming them into a stifling defense.
The problem is that we’re a long way removed from the last truly impressive Cal defense in 2019. In 2021 and 2022, the Cal defense was solid. Probably Pac-12 average. It was no longer the always good, occasionally dominant unit we saw from 2017-2019.
Now, in 2023, after off-season changes designed to restore the defense to its pre-COVID height, the bottom appears to have fallen out. With Jackson Sirmon out for the year, there’s no particular reason to expect a resurgence.
As Avi detailed yesterday, we’re in a bizarre, perhaps unprecedented situation: financially stuck with a coach who no longer appears to be able to deliver on his biggest strength as a coach. We know that on-field success is all but mandatory to save Cal athletics from further relegation, but Cal is denied the money to make things better because of the financial impacts of the relegation that has already occurred.