The Novel: Cal vs Arizona Football (2021)
It's not been a banner week for Berkeley and COVID, that's for sure.
It’s always a great day to be a Cal Bear, but at least this week, we could definitely point to some better ones:
Wednesday, November 3rd: Butte Community College alum and one-time Cal-affiliated quarterback Aaron Rodgers tests positive for COVID and is unavailable for Sunday’s game.
Thursday, November 4th: News begins to trickle out that the Bears may be dealing with their own COVID outbreak, putting their trip, and chances of victory in Tucson at risk.
Friday, November 5th: Aaron Rodgers goes on Pat McAfee’s show to explain that when he was asked about his vaccination status, he was in fact only “immunized”. Other gems that are revealed over the course of the interview: that he takes his medical advice from Joe Rogan, is following in the steps of Martin Luther King against injustice, and has taken ivermectin, which does not work as a COVID treatment.
Saturday, November 6th: The Bears lose to previously 0-8 (and before that, 0-12) Arizona, down 24 players and multiple coaches. They manage only a field goal in falling to 3-6 on the year and in order to make a bowl, will need to accomplish what no team since 1958 has: sweeping the California schools.
This…is not a fun one to write. Losing columns rarely are; trying to make sense of losing in the way the Bears did, even worse. So, let’s just get through it.
I’m not unempathetic to the challenges of running a program amid a global pandemic, but that still hasn’t stopped other schools from firing coaches over the last 20 months, nor has it prevented fans from changing their opinions on the men leading their respective programs elsewhere. The games are being played. Recruits watch them – Cal hasn’t gotten a new one since the last four decommitted, by the way – so these debacles do have tangible impacts on the future of the program, and certainly will in season ticket renewals next year.
Therefore, it is fair to draw conclusions from the results accordingly (in whichever direction, mind you!). If we are offering this grace to Wilcox and this staff, it would be logical to do the same everywhere, which as we already know, isn’t happening. So, while he is overwhelmingly likely to return, as I have said in this space all year, there is no rule that means we are beholden to excuse everything that is occurring, nor should we be expected to.
Aside from the distressing issue of trying to interpret this game – the last two years, really – and the fact that the stringent City of Berkeley COVID protocols that reared their head again, I think it is still fair to suggest that knowing these things three or four days in advance, the Bears could be expected to have a reasonable shot at victory, just by virtue of having their top running backs, tight ends, most of the receivers available, and most of their starting defenders too. There were far less strikes from the lineup than originally anticipated, when the number was rumored at nearly 50 on Thursday; Vegas still had them at a touchdown plus favorites at kickoff.
They lost, and that is something that happens when your sport swings wildly on the performance of 18-22 year olds, who will obviously do things from time to time like lose the ball in the sun.
The job of the coaches – the ones that were available, anyway – is to put the players they have in the best possible conditions to win, and this is where I have a hard time thinking that they did so: they threw the ball throughout the second and third quarters as their response to suboptimal box conditions, and essentially ran out of adjustments on their way to a 0.2 4th quarter yards per play average. Even the first field goal from Arizona, to go up 3-0 felt largely insurmountable already; only a Wildcat punching Mettauer in the balls got the Bears within range to tie that up.
So, knowing you are down three starting linemen, is the better play early on to keep your #2 guy – a career FCS player with an 11:11 TD:INT ratio – taking open throws he proved he can’t make, or to try to tinker with the run game even in loaded box situations, when the game-state was mostly tied or “first score wins”:
2:39 1Q: Brooks run 0, Ryan Glover pass dropped, Ryan Glover incomplete, punt
13:14 2Q: Ryan Glover pass incomplete, Ryan Glover pass complete 2 yards, Ryan Glover pass incomplete (hurried), punt
9:39 2Q: Ryan Glover run for 0, Ryan Glover pass complete 3 yards, Ryan Glover pass incomplete, punt
6:40 2Q: Ryan Glover pass complete 5 yards, Ryan Glover incomplete, Ryan Glover sack -4 yards, punt
1:31 2Q: Brooks run 13, Brooks run 3, false start, Ryan Glover incomplete, Ryan Glover incomplete (dropped), punt
That’s 16 in-game minutes without a touch to Brooks or Moore (although they were targeted), and three penalties in the first half that undid the entirety of this offensive production, exposing the defense to more snaps: two holds earlier in the first half, and a false start in this sequence.
No one expected Glover to throw for 500 yards, but the complete inability to do anything whatsoever is certainly starkly clear, especially in the face of all the things Zona tried to get going (like, getting the ball out of Wildcat, end-arounds, trick plays, and Berryhill touches).
Your presumed third QB would have been Zach Johnson, who was also out with protocols, leaving walk-on Robbie Rowell and true freshman Kai Millner, neither of whom apparently warranted a look off the bench. That there has been no real successor for Garbers over the last five years is on the staff; they have been consistently unable to develop, recruit, or retain quarterbacks, which has very little to do with the City of Berkeley and the COVID rules. The rules only exposed the underlying conditions the staff is responsible for.
To make things worse, Arizona was trotting out their 4th and 5th string QBs at times – and that’s in addition to this stuff they faced during the game:
The Cal defense did enough to win, and answered the bell heroically all afternoon, facing 85 plays and 35 minutes of game time in low 80s heat. But despite being faultless on their own ends, they did not get enough help, and if that’s familiar, it’s because it often has been under Wilcox – allowing 10 points should get you a win most weeks, especially if you pick up three turnovers, and hold the opposing team to 4 YPP. Sirmon rolled fairly aggressively against Zona, knowing that they would have to generate Havoc to give themselves a chance, and the turnovers and TFL numbers paid that off. They even pulled off a red zone stand on Rutchena’s second interception in as many weeks, with the heroes coming from all levels: Hicks, Scott and Drayden anchoring the secondary, Bimage dominating the line of scrimmage with Goode, Ethan Saunders and JH Tevis anchoring the front. Even Evan Tattersall, Ryan Puskas, and Derek Wilkins, three guys who haven’t always gotten to play much this year, were out there and performed admirably. You can’t say enough things about the improvement of this unit over the year – and entering the final three must-win games, there’ll be a chance to win on this side of the ball down the stretch.
Let’s make sure we acknowledge the play special teams play of Jamieson Shehan, who, over his 11 punts, was instrumental in fending off Arizona in the field position battle for as long as he did – 3 of them went for 50+, and two pinned them inside the 20. There was Nick Lopez, who made his first field goal too.
But otherwise, we’re low on on-field positives. Off-field positives, plenty. (Sorry, I had to.)
USC is next week, and it is the last home game in a year that hasn’t gone the way anyone’s hoped, but it is still a home game in a year that has one last shot at redemption.
No matter how tortured this column has been all fall in trying to figure out “what it all means”, and even if I am unconvinced we’ll ever be any better under Wilcox – I do look forward to being there bright and early with everyone else from the W4C staff, and hopefully some of you guys too.
And I am there, as always, hoping we win. I always do.