The Novel: Cal vs UCLA Football (2021)
In which the bowl hopes are done and dusted.
Ultimately, UCLA would have been the better team in maybe 7 of 10 matchups this year, and this wasn’t an inexcusable outcome in a vacuum – it’s an immensely frustrating one that is the end product of the Bears failing to pick up any one of those earlier one-possession losses; those TCU, UW, Oregon, Arizona, or Nevada games when one or two plays (or one or two coaching decisions) could have made a difference.
That’s what made the Tucson debacle so egregious in the first place -- they needed Arizona particularly to protect themselves from any potential evening like this. Instead, you go into next week against an equally bowlless USC game to celebrate the seniors, but nothing else.
Wilcox might leave of his own accord since he’s already being whispered as in contention for other jobs – who knows what Washington or anyone else wants with all these West Coast spots open this year – but whatever happens, decisive action looks unlikely from the Cal side; the overwhelming odds are that he will not be fired this year, because the Powers That Be are happy to have the Axe. That leaves us in purgatory for the moment: keeping a coach who hasn’t offered any definitive proof the team will ever be that much better than this under him while being granted excessive amounts of slack for the mediocre results (some of which is fair and out of his control, some of which is due to things entirely in his control). This, again, was the result of a year the team loudly expected to compete.
Perhaps if the team of the last month had appeared from Week 1, this becomes an 8 win team, and this particular loss is not so harmful in that particular universe. But it did not, and those are the results we have to interpret. Those are the results the coaches are responsible for.
One of the more recently delightful additions to Cal Twitter has been the increasing activity of Jesse Stewart (follow him at jessedstew), a current-generation student and an assistant offensive coordinator at Acalanes High School in his spare time – how he has enough to do it, I don’t know! Because of those credentials, I think it’s important to share his perspective on this game, which, in essence, is that the gameplan against UCLA was fine, but the execution from the QB position wasn’t:
I trust his judgment there because I am certainly not the best X’s and O’s analyst – my ability stretches as far as diagramming a few plays here and there individually, and even then, not always completely correctly. And certainly, if we had gotten Musgrave after the game, he’d believe something of the same, regarding the gameplan; that it was schematically sound.
My issue is the same one it has been all season: if your plan involves Chase throwing against the blitz, and he has been a notoriously shaky guy even before that – and he was on Saturday -- why are you not calling the game differently beforehand? Why did it take until very late into the fourth quarter to even try a screen against the UCLA linebacker pressure? Part of being a good coordinator is your ability to read the flow of things, especially if you do not, as Musgrave said earlier this season, script plays!
(For the record, both Jesse and I agree that Garbers is very limited, which we all have known since 2019. To me, this means the game should be called accordingly, knowing so.)
Because the line was already dominated up front from the first snap, it was an evening short on offensive stars, but the guy you have to mention is Nikko Remigio playing his ass off, accounting for pretty much half of the team’s yardage by himself. That the team was unable to turn his punt returns or his tough catch over the middle on 3rd and 14 into anything substantive is not his fault; the last two weeks are the best he’s looked in over a season.
The other: Chris Brooks, who was one guy away all night from tearing a big one. When healthy, he is Cal’s most physically talented runner since Lasco, and as always, I wish we had stuck with it.
Some early plays to me that felt emblematic of the evening:
9:25 1Q: 3rd down and 5 at UCLA 35 – Cal finds Jake Tonges leaking out into the flat, with a pseudo pick given in front of him – it’s a two man route combination, where the #2 receiver ended up occupying both defenders -- but Chase inexplicably lofts the ball to a place no one can get it. The target officially is for Crawford. I am not at all sure he’s seeing.
9:25 1Q: 4th down and 5 at UCLA 35 – Cal takes a deep shot in one on one to J Michael Sturdivant, only to find an underthrown ball that he ultimately can’t reel in.
5:52 1Q: 1st down at UCLA 49 – Chase completely misses a wide open Brooks on the wheel, and throws an interception when Shaw bumps off Jake Tonges. The second interception before the half can be excused, but just barely.
There was a short period of the game after this when the Bears began to move the ball by swinging the ball out wide from their condensed sets – getting guys pulling into space from out of 13 personnel, or cutting back against the rush when they spotted it out. Then, they got away from this on their third quarter drives, during which UCLA padded the margins:
17-14 UCLA, 13:29 3Q: Brooks run 3, Brooks drop, Tonges incomplete, 4th and 2 after offsides penalty but a punt from the Cal 38. Given the way the night was going early, that decision to punt wasn’t the death knell, but I would have strongly considered going for it there already and said as such during the game. Okay, fine. Trust your defense that has largely held to this point in suboptimal conditions. Sure. It was two yards, though.
24-14 UCLA 11:19 3Q: Swing pass Brooks caught for loss -2, Clark incomplete (open on the deep crosser but Chase doesn’t hit it), Chase scramble for 13 first down, Chase keep 2, Brooks rush 4, Garbers sacked for loss of 6, punt. Here, you are down two possessions, but with enough time to get back in the game. It’s possible to stabilize, and you call plays that Chase cannot execute on this evening – and didn’t earlier – the first down is only because of an unplanned scramble. You have to take the ball out of his hands here, and this is probably the most crucial drive of the game for that reason.
27-14 UCLA 2:25 3Q: Dancy rush -4 (blown up by interior pressure; Dancy has to cut back and into the arms of a waiting defender), Crawford complete 7, Dancy swing pass 3 (tackled in space), punt. Defense holds enough to force a field goal and a glimmer of hope -- Charbonnet scored to put the game away after this sequence -- and honestly, you’ve been put into a position where you need to pass because you lost control earlier.
Granted, there are some limits to looking at the game with this approach, which can feel results oriented, but it’s been consistent with the things I’ve hoped the team would do all year; and that Cal might have lost anyway if any of these things changed. It certainly doesn’t feel like they tried everything, though.
Personnel does matter – Cal got outphysicaled if not outright bamboozled up front by the UCLA pressure packages, which also calls into question the early zone read stuff, where Chase had less of an advantage than last week against Stanford.
Aside: it’s somewhat remarkable to me that after two high profile errors by Kaz Allen on Saturday night – one leading to half of Cal’s points on the evening, the other, a sure touchdown off the board, that Chip Kelly continued to go back to him all game. Meanwhile, Cal’s best pass-blocking running back appeared to earn himself a trip to the doghouse after fumbling last week – he wasn’t seen again til late in this one – and although such a benching was warranted, stands out in stark contrast.
After watching the tackling debacles that were the 2019, 2020, and 2021 trips to the Rose Bowl – the middle of those, a 24-hour turnaround game because of COVID – I’m starting to believe the Pasadena field is actually cursed, and not in the cosmic, no-January-football sense. The Bruins play on natural grass, but however it is maintained seems to give the Bears immense trouble, because they (and sometimes even the hosts) slip frequently. That advantage usually favors the faster, more athletic team, though, and unfortunately, that’s the Bruins, more often than not.
This week was bound to be a more realistic test of the Bears’ improvements on the defensive side of the ball, and while they were game for quite awhile, it got away from them late through a combination of general exhaustion and out-adjustment on the UCLA side: 5.0 YPP allowed in the first half, to 7.4 (Cal: 5.2 to 1.9). They ran the ball into a relatively undersized Cal front, broke tackles, and then slipped them in the open field whenever they got DTR isolated on a linebacker. When he was flushed by pressure, DTR’s athleticism got him away from pursuing defenders, either into safe places to throw out of bounds – he took an unnecessary sack at least one though – or to skate by them. Then, they threw in an occasional throw to Dulcich or Phillips sitting down against zone, just to keep things honest, especially in the second half, when they pulled up for a pop pass twice. Pretty simple gameplan in which five guys are responsible for all your yards from scrimmage.
I mean, I’ve seen this Zach Charbonnet performance already. It’s the exact same one Joshua Kelley used to put on against us.
A priority for the future under this Cal staff has been to get more athletic in the front seven, where they’ve put in a lot of work recruiting talent for the 2020 and 2021 classes already. Unfortunately, and playing against a much more veteran UCLA team, it just wasn’t all there yet – they will one day to inject more athleticism on the edge than Bimage or Croteau bring (both of whom have been great at the things they are good at doing), linemen that can dominate the point of attack more consistently, when we’ve had to make due all year with only a few bodies. There are some good candidates in the pipeline here overall; we’ve seen some play already. Rutchena and Iosefa some great plays (4 combined TFL, a fumble blown dead early, etc), but also missed some opportunities to make those statlines even beefier by whiffing on tackles. They’re young, and they’re going to keep developing. Others will return next year (BRETT!), or are still in the process (Myles Williams, Derek Wilkins, Patrick Hisatake, Elarms-Orr and the like). I don’t think anyone feels bad about the future here, especially with Young and Hearns in the back waiting.
Daniel Scott and Elijah Hicks wanted this, badly – the two of them played so hard the whole way through, flew around for 21 combined tackles, and kept a lot of the scoreline from being worse. They’ve been terrific for the last two months, and so, so important to recovering any light at all from this season.
The special teams unit was terrific Saturday, and perhaps their freakish stretch of errors has regressed to the mean a bit: two big returns by Nikko and the fumble recovery would be enough to turn a lot of weeks.
Just not this one.
At least we got the Axe.