Post-Game Thoughts: Washington State Football
Cal's offense struggles badly, as the Bears drop their first conference game of the season
Every year, without fail, the toughest loss of the year is the loss that 100% confirms that your optimistic scenario isn’t happening. The loss that tells you that this is just another year trying to figure out how to get to 6 wins, the loss that takes our chances of winning the conference from 1% to 0%
It has to be a conference game, because even when you suffer a painful non-con defeat, you can still pretend that conference play will be different. Sometimes you can write off a close loss to a really talented team. But inevitably, Cal either gets blown out by a good team, or comprehensively beaten by a team they should be competitive with, or loses to a team they should be beating.
2018 UCLA, 2019 Oregon State, 2021 Washington State, and now 2022 Washington State. Hurts every time.
12 drives: 1 touchdown, 1 FGA (1-1), 9 punts, 1 turnover (downs), 0.75 points/drive
One week after perhaps the best offensive performance under Justin Wilcox, Cal put up . . . well, sadly, this was the ninth time Cal’s offense has failed to score in the double digits, so we can’t say that the nine points Cal put up in Pullman was the worst, because this level of performance happens with such frequency. But it’s in the conversation.
I guess Arizona’s defense is bad
You’ll recall the critical question from last week: How much was this the line improving vs. Arizona being bad?
Arizona doesn’t, in fact, have the worst defense in the conference - Stanford and Colorado are probably worse. But it’s very true that those three teams are, by a wide margin, the three worst defenses in the conference.
Which is why I’m reasonably optimistic about Cal’s ability to execute on offense against Stanford and Colorado, and generally pessimistic about every other game left on the schedule, where Cal will face defenses that sit somewhere between ‘competent’ and ‘excellent.’
You can’t run an offense without blocking
I don’t think Jaydn Ott had a particularly great day by his standards, but on 16 attempts he only had 21 yards available before contact. You can’t succeed as a runner when you’re having to break tackles before you can get upfield.
I think Jack Plummer actually had a pretty good day, but he was pressured on 39% of his dropbacks, and many throws that weren’t pressured throws were designed quick hitters with limited upside. You can’t succeed as a passer when you’re going to be hit before you can make any downfield progressions.
There was, understandably, a ton of frustration directed at Bill Musgrave following the game. But I don’t think that this is an issue you can scheme around.
10 drives: 4 touchdowns, 0 FGAs, 4 punts, 2 turnovers (2 interceptions), 2.8 points/drive
Removed: WSU’s kneel down to end the first half, and the final two drives of the second half when WSU was up 19 and running up the middle to kill clock.
It could have been worse. Washington State drove to the Cal 29 and 21 yard lines just before Cam Ward threw each of his interceptions on very ill-advised throws, and while the Cal defense certainly gets credit for those stops, if Ward just throws those balls away Wazzu perhaps at least gets two field goal attempts.
Not the problem, but not the strength it was supposed to be
I’ll admit to being of two minds here. On one hand, what else can you expect the defense to do? The offense provides next to no support for a full half, and the only points the defense allows comes on a 4 play, 20 yard drive.
On the other hand, Wazzu’s opening drive of the second half featured Cal getting beaten over the top for a long completion, then allowing a pretty easy 17 yard slant in the soft middle of a zone. Washington State’s 3rd touchdown featured the Cal secondary getting beaten over the top.
The problem here is that Cal can’t really stop teams from taking shorter gains underneath, but if they’re ALSO allowing longer gains, as they did against Arizona and Washington State, the result is more scoring than the Cal offense can reasonably be expected to keep up with. If you’re allowing 31 points to Arizona and 28 points (despite two end zone turnovers) to Washington State, what is likely to happen against Oregon and USC and UCLA?
I don’t understand the MLB rotation
OK, so you have Oluwafemi Oladejo, and he plays well at MLB as a freshmen and in the first three games of the season. But you’re thin at OLB, so you move him there, and he excels against the run but struggles as a pass rusher. I don’t necessarily love it, but I get it.
It’s a move you make if you think you have the depth at MLB behind your original starter. Against Notre Dame, when Oladejo was out, Cal played Blake Antzoulatos. Against Arizona, Cal played Ryan Puskas and Nate Rutchena. Against Washington State, it was Muela Iosefa, in his first snaps of the season.
Maybe there are injury issues I’m not aware of, but it sure feels like Cal is searching for answers at MLB alongside Jackson Sirmon when the best answer is playing out of position at OLB.
Outkicked our coverage?
44.3 yards/punt? Excellent!
35.4 yards NET/punt? Less excellent!
Washington State was able to return four of Jamieson Sheahan’s nine punts, for a total of 60 yards, though obviously the 34 yards return + 15 yard penalty stand out, as that handed Wazzu a possession starting 20 yards from the end zone and led to their only 1st half score.
After glancing at the play, it seemed like a coverage issue more than anything - Sheahan had a solid slow run up to his punt, but Cal only had four players who were immediately downfield, and all four were pretty effectively blocked by Wazzu’s return team, and the returner basically ran straight up field untouched for 20 yards.
Two ghastly punts
Prior to garbage time, Cal drove into Washington State territory four times, and punted it away on two of those drives. This caused me to lose a gasket on twitter during the game:
So, let’s review: Washington State ended up scoring 28 points; Cal had four drives even enter Washington State territory. That meant that for Cal to stay competitive, the Bears needed to cash in on every scoring opportunity they created.
And believe, me, I get it. Converting a 4th and 5 and a 4th and 8 respectively are not high. But what choice do you have? Don’t make me quote Herm here. You KNOW that your offense is limited and that scoring opportunities will be rare. You KNOW that your defense, solid though it may be, isn’t perfect and will give up scores.
Punting away chances to score just ensured that Wazzu’s win would be that much more comfortable. After Cal’s 2nd awful punt, the Bears never possessed the ball with even a chance to tie in the rest of the game.
But playing Plummer after he hurt himself was even worse
It’s a very coaching thing to functionally not try to win a game, but to APPEAR that you are still trying to win the game. This was a Sonny Dykes specialty, though Wilcox has generally not done stuff like this until this week for some reason.
You punt the game away, the game is out of reach . . . but you still play your starters well past the point when the game could still be won.
Doing so when they’re not hurt? Silly, but whatever. Doing so when they’ve suffered some kind of leg injury, are hobbling around on the field, and don’t have any mobility? You’re taking on a MASSIVE risk of long term injury for exactly zero gain. Rarely do you see a move that is 100% downside with 0% upside, but that’s what playing Jack Plummer late in the game was.
In two weeks, Cal will beat Colorado to go to 4-2. The Bears will also be solid favorites against a moribund Stanford at home for Big Game. Cal will be underdogs in every other game, but I’d guess it’s more likely than not the Bears will pull a mild upset in one of those games. Cal has a solid chance of going 6-6 and bowling, though I’d say that 5-7 is more likely than 7-5 or better.
I’m betting that doesn’t sound particularly satisfying to you as a Cal fan? Well, this is exactly what Justin Wilcox has delivered in every single non-COVID season, so I’m hoping you weren’t expecting anything different.
There was a window over the last few years for somebody in the Pac-12 to take advantage of. USC, UW, and Arizona were all down. Stanford was (and continues to) collapse. Oregon State was still rebuilding. WSU was dealing with Rolovich drama. UCLA was wildly inconsistent. Oregon was dealing with constant coaching turnover. As it turned out, it was Utah who stepped into the extreme power vacuum.
That window is very closed. Utah, UCLA, USC, UW, and Oregon are all ranked (and Cal still has to play four of those five teams!) and are largely playing better football that previous years. Arizona, Wazzu, and Oregon State are on the upswing, and the conference as a whole is significantly better than previous years.
Justin Wilcox is 16-26 in Pac-12 play as a coach, largely during a very down period for the conference. I’ve held out optimism, against the better judgment of my analyst brain, for longer than I should have. Expecting anything different, after 5.5 years of identical football, is naïve.