Post-Game Thoughts: Washington Football
Cal somehow finds a way to hang tough but ultimately falls short against the Huskies
Reader, I will be honest with you: this is going to be shorter than usual. Due to a variety of circumstances, I wasn’t able to watch this game live. When I did watch the game on Sunday, I can’t claim that I had the focus or interest to watch with my usual level of curiosity. Cal’s descent into the depths of the Pac-12 have drained my enthusiasm.
But it’s more than the loss. It was the predictability of it. There was not much that happened on Saturday that was surprising. Hell, even the FUN (NSFW) things that happened were easy to predict if you were aware of the personnel involved.
Washington entered the game with an excellent offense, and generally moved the ball efficiently down the field. Washington had a much iffier defense, but they did carry some good pass rushers, and they spent the day harassing Jack Plummer. The Cal offense, diminished by injuries even when compared to their meager production earlier this year, generally struggled.
Really, the biggest surprise was that, against all odds, Cal possessed the ball at midfield in the final minute of the game, with a chance to score a touchdown that could tie the game, and a chance to maybe go for 2 and steal a win that they hadn’t looked close to earning.
But Cal couldn’t convert, and UW escaped with a win that should not nearly have been so close.
10 drives: 3 touchdown, 0 FGAs, 6 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 2.1 point/drive
In the first half, Cal’s offense was comically overmatched, managing 24 plays for 83 yards, good for five first downs and four punts. There was exactly one decent-ish drive, but it didn’t end in points thanks to crummy field position and, of course, a sack.
In the second half, Cal managed to put a much more respectable 5.4 yards/play up, and the result was three touchdown drives. This was another one of those games where Cal wrung out something close to maximum points from the yardage they gained - the Bears only had one other drive that went much of anywhere, but since they punched it in for touchdowns on their rare successful drives, the game stayed close
Alas, those successful drives come at a price:
Cal cannot move the ball without subjecting Jack Plummer to extreme duress
Choice A: short, largely harmless passes that are easy for a defense to defend
Choice B: downfield passes that carry a roughly 40% chance that your QB is maimed in the backfield
I like Cal’s (fully healthy) receiver room. Sturdivant and Hunter are both borderline all Pac-12 talents and Mavin Anderson is clearly growing into his role as a redshirt freshman. But they’re not hugely dynamic as YAC guys, they’re not great blockers for each other, and Cal’s scheme doesn’t put them in position to make plays in space.
Which means the only way Cal’s offense moves the ball is if you send them down the field and try to throw downfield. But as Washington (and, to be fair, everybody but Arizona) has amply demonstrated, forcing Jack Plummer to stand in the pocket and wait for players to come open down the field is asking him to take a whole heaping of punishment.
Plummer was sacked 5 times and hit another 6 times. It was Plummer’s willingness to stand in the pocket and get hit that kept Cal in the game, and the fact that he finished the game seemingly as healthy as he entered it felt . . . improbable. This had already been thoroughly proven against Notre Dame, but damn, dude’s tough.
I wish that toughness were not nearly so necessary just for Cal to have a prayer of a chance on the last drive of the game at home against the 5th best team in the conference.
What is there left to say?
Cal lost probably their 2nd best offensive lineman to a season ending injury. The result was pushing Ben Coleman back to guard and bringing in Brayden Royme as left tackle. The interior of the line was relatively fine but Cal still has no tackles on the roster and the result was UW’s edge defenders running rampant on most every play.
UW’s edge defenders are in fact quite good, but Cal’s weakness is such that every team left on Cal’s schedule has players that can cause problems. Hell, even Stanford’s busted defense is averaging nearly three sacks per conference game.
There is no respite; Cal opened as a two touchdown dog to Oregon at home next week. A Big Game coin flip is the closet thing to hope that exists, because Cal has a massive weakness at the most important position group on the field that wasn’t hard to predict.
10 drives: 3 touchdown, 3 FGAs (2-3), 3 punts, 1 turnovers (downs), 2.8 point/drive
UW scored a season low in points, was near a season low in yards/play, and arguably put up their season low in points/drive.
The main question is how to characterize their final drive of the first half. UW got the ball at the 9 yard line with 49 seconds left in the 2nd quarter and did try to move the ball, but you could argue that they shouldn’t be expected to score in that scenario. Take that drive off the ledger and UW averages 3.1 points/drive, just a hair ahead of the 3 points/drive they put up against UCLA. Either way, this was still a relative win for the Cal defense.
The bend but don’t break, executed to perfection
This was pretty much the best anybody has played UW’s offense so far this year, and they did it by making UW earn every yard. The Huskies ran 83 plays, but only two went for 20+ yards.
To be clear, Michael Penix was excellent, and UW was inevitably going to score some points. But he’s not perfect, and on the rare occasions when he was inaccurate, or when nobody came open, Cal was often able to end a drive prematurely.
And this is what you have to do when you have a front 4 who get pushed back on run plays and struggle to create pressure on pass plays. Competent teams are going to be able to get small chunks whenever they want, so the best you can do is take away the big plays and try to get off the field on 3rd and 4th down.
But at the same time . . .
There’s also a version of this game where one or two of UW’s early long drives don’t stall out for field goal attempts, Cal enters halftime down 17-0, and this game ends with a final score around maybe 31-10. This is a defense that has to win at the margins against teams at this talent level, or else face a blowout situation.
Never return kickoffs
Unless or until Cal has a skill position player on the level of a DeSean Jackson (or, maybe, an actual Special Teams coach to design a kick return), Cal is better off just instructing players to automatically fair catch anything kicked deeper than the 10 yard line. The risk (fumble, tackled before the 25, penalty, etc.) is much higher than the reward (starting a drive from the 28 yard line).
The value of firing a coach
This game didn’t really present any in-game decisions worthy of discussion, so let’s talk about firing coaches. If you’re reading this, you probably think that somebody should have been fired already!
Here was my take shortly after Colorado:
And that’s basically still where I land. It is my opinion that Cal’s football program would be better off if they can move on from Justin Wilcox as their head coach. If that is financially impossible, it is my opinion that Cal’s football program would be better off moving on from Bill Musgrave and Angus McClure.
But firing anybody now (Colorado/ASU/Georgia Tech examples aside) would not fix the main issue: a failure of personnel management and development at offensive line. And it likely wouldn’t have any meaningful impact on winning or losing games.
But Cal has a different problem: convincing fans to stick around, show up to games, or generally have any hope for the future. Cal doesn’t make many decisions that seem to indicate that winning football games is much of a priority. A move to bring back a former o line coach as a consultant isn’t exactly going to shake that perception.
This feels silly, but also vaguely obligatory, so let’s get it over with:
The Bears are 3-4. If you squint your eyes just right, maybe you can convince yourself that @ Oregon State and vs. Stanford are winnable games. That means that for Cal to reach a bowl game, they would have to win those two games AND pull off a massive upset over Oregon or UCLA or USC.
ESPN’s PFI puts the odds of Cal reaching 6.6 at 8.4%. That seems about right.
Cal’s most likely end-of-season record right now is 4-8, which is to say that the Bears will probably pull off an upset somewhere (or beat Stanford in a coin flip) but likely nothing else.
I still think there’s really intriguing talent on this roster. Likely not enough talent to really compete with Oregon/USC/UCLA/Utah in the top 3rd of the conference, but certainly enough that Cal could be playing alongside UW, OSU, and Wazzu. What are the chances now, and into future seasons, that Cal can coach those players such that their talents are maximized?