Post-Game Thoughts: Washington State Football

The worst loss of the Justin Wilcox era has led Cal fans to completely reevaluate the current direction of the football program.

An aspect of college football that is equal parts captivating and enraging is wild swings in game-to-game play.

One week, you’re handing the ball on the road to a quarterback who is hardly pressured at all and has time to find guys downfield all game long - and does.

The next week, that same quarterback and that same offensive line are playing at home against an objectively weaker defense, and that same line allows constant pressure that the same QB is unable to deal with.

When you get wild swings from week to week, I suspect that Cal’s coaches, after film review, would have trouble explaining why. So what little chance does an amateur like me have?

Offense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 1 touchdown, 0 FGA , 6 punts, 5 turnovers (1 interception, 4 downs), 0.58 points/drive

Want to see a cursed image? Here’s the results for Cal’s 2nd-8th drive:

Collectively, that’s 28 plays for 30 yards. Once the game reached the late 3rd quarter Cal finally started moving the ball a little bit. But by then Washington State had used Cal’s sustained period of futility to build a 15 point lead that forced the Cal offense into a bunch of 4th down conversions, and Cal failed to convert all of them, and that’s how you score one touchdown against a defense that has allowed 24 points or more to every opponent over the last two seasons.

And so, just a week after I proclaimed this Cal offense the best Cal offense since Jared Goff, Cal plays probably the single worst offensive game of the Wilcox era. This isn’t the first time that Cal has been held to a touchdown or less over the last 5 seasons. But it previously happened against 2017 Washington, 2018 UCLA, 2018 TCU, 2019 Oregon, and 2019 Utah - all better teams and better defenses than 2021 Washington State.

What happened to Cal’s pass protection?

Spoiler alert - I already told you in the intro to the column that I don’t know. I can tell you that almost all of the pressure allowed came on speed rushes to the outside against Cal’s tackles. I suppose one possibility is that Wazzu’s defensive ends are better than Washington (and TCU, and Nevada’s) defensive ends, but even if that’s the case the level of pressure Washington State was able to generate made no sense.

That pressure completely disrupted Cal’s offense. Here’s a free preview of this week’s PFF post:

Give Chase time and Cal moves the ball like a slightly above average college offense. Put Chase under pressure and everything is broken, and Cal could barely keep the pocket clean more than half the time. That’s really all there is to say about what happened on offense.

Defense

Efficiency Report

12 drives: 3 touchdowns, 0 FGA, 6 punts, 3 turnovers (2 interceptions, 1 downs), 1.75 points/drive

For clarity’s sake, I removed Wazzu’s kneel down drives that ended each half, but added an extra drive by counting WSU’s drive prior to the blocked-punt-returned-for-a-first-down as a 3-and-out and the drive after that first down as its own distinct drive. After all, we’re trying to grade what the defense did, not grade based on special teams weirdness.

In an upcoming guest appearance on the Golden Bearcast, I said that if you had told me ahead of the game that we would hold WSU to 21 points, I’d have confidently predicted not just a Cal win, but a Cal cover of the ~7 point line set by Vegas. Alas, I thought the Cal offense had turned the corner, and at it turned out the defense had allowed too many points much earlier in the game than anybody could have foreseen.

Was this ultimately a good performance?

One of the ongoing bizarre subplots of Washington State’s season is the quarterback carousel run by Nick Rolovich. But Jayden de Laura is almost certainly Washington State’s best QB, and he was healthy in time to play against Cal.

And Cal held him to probably his 2nd worst performance in eight career games. Meanwhile, Washington State’s offense as a whole produced almost exactly as much yardage and efficiency against Cal as they did against Utah and USC, two games in which de Laura was unable to play the entire way.

And yet I can’t help but wonder if Washington State somehow let off the gas a little bit, sitting on a 15 point lead in the 2nd half as Cal’s offense failed to make the game any more competitive. Still, Cal’s defense kept the game close and gave the offense plenty of opportunities.

Two issues that might be a problem the rest of the year

Tackling and pressure were once again iffy. Per PFF, Cal missed another 11 tackles, and only managed 2 sacks in 45 dropbacks, without many other pressure events to point to as evidence that the pass rush was getting home. Washington State might well be the type of offense that can be had despite iffy pressure and tackling, but better offenses already have and likely will continue to take advantage.

Special Teams

Sigh

Cal special teams are so snakebit that their best play of the year bizarrely turned into a critical swing play that handed Washington State a free possession that they scored on. You couldn’t make this up if you tried.

Coaching/Game Theory

May as well use your timeouts

As noted by, well, pretty much everybody: When Cal sacked Washington State to set up 2nd and 15 from the Washington State 8 with 50 seconds left, why didn’t Cal start spending their timeouts? You could force a Washington State punt from their own endzone, and either try to set up a block or a return, and maybe scratch out a field goal opportunity from the potential possession.

Honestly, it was at this point when, as a fan, I drifted into a kind of resigned malaise. I’d continue to hang out, watch the game, crack jokes. But I’d checked out emotionally because it didn’t seem like the Cal coaching staff was paying attention enough to try to win the game.

4th and 14 at the 34?

At this point in the game it wasn’t yet clear that the Cal offense wasn’t going to be able to protect, but even at the time it was bizarre to watch Cal attempt 4th and 14.

If this had truly been no-man’s-land - say, somewhere between the 50 and the WSU 40, when it was too far away for a field goal - I might not have agreed but I’d have understood. But a field goal would have been valuable at that point in the game and Longhetto has hit from that distance before! Surely that field goal has higher odds of success than a 4th and 14 conversion attempt, right?

Big Picture

I’m not sure precisely when it will come out today, but if you want my detailed thoughts on the direction of the Cal football program take a listen to the Golden Bearcast. To put things another way:

For those who don’t remember, in 2016 Cal went to Corvallis to play a very bad Oregon State team, and allowed Ryan Nall to run for 221 yards on 14 carries in a 47-44 loss. It was a game that convinced most every Cal fan that Sonny Dykes wasn’t the solution at head coach.

I don’t know if Saturday’s game against Washington State was the worst performance since Justin Wilcox was hired, but it’s absolutely in the conversation. As of right now, it would my pick for the title. That it came in year 5, and represents Cal’s 4th straight loss to FBS competition, adds to the context in unfortunate ways.

There are still seven games left in the regular season, and as a result there are seven games to add to the ledger for consideration. Maybe Cal figures something out and starts winning games. If the Bears did, it would mean an awful lot for this fan base, since it would be against teams that we care an awful lot about beating.

But if you’re judging Wilcox by the results he has produced in his 47 total games in charge, or even if you’re projecting out what Cal is likely to produce when you add on the rest of the season, it’s hard to envision something happening that would change the narrative.

We’ve hit a bye week, which is unfortunate. Rather than stewing in the frustration over that game, may I kindly suggest that you spend next weekend doing something else? I think I might flee to the mountains. I’m leaning towards coming back.