The Novel: Sacramento State Football
In which your intrepid blogger searches Strawberry Canyon for joy.
The tired tale is the one where the hand-wringing turns into slow and undeniable re-signation: wherein having spent another weekend afternoon watching the Bears unable to put away an FCS team comfortably, we come to acknowledge the hard truth that they are a tremendously flawed team, with a long way to go to reach their goals this season. Mathematically, Cal can still win the Pac-12 – until someone else wins this embarrassingly inconsistent conference, they are still in it, after all – but a 42-30* (edit: I’m being told it was even worse than I remembered) victory over Sacramento State did little to convince anyone that is what’s in store.
I know dissatisfaction (relief, but dissatisfaction nonetheless) is where everyone’s mind is likely to be this week, and I am not interested in writing that column we already know so well. You do not need to read this space for that, because it will surely be discussed ad nauseum, in every other corner of the Cal universe.
So I’m going to write the column that I want to write, instead, about the hope of what is to come, even in the face of the rather pessimistic present, because among that bleakness, we did see on Saturday that the next generation of Cal names are starting to spring.
That new faces were led the stats sheet, made plays – hell, made mistakes – gave a lot of hope for whatever happens next, and it is impossible not to start with Jeremiah Hunter, who fans have really been waiting to emerge for awhile – the sophomore was set for a big role as a true freshman before getting injured in 2020, and finally got his first significant batch of snaps this week.
Safe to say, he’s not going back to the bench whenever Kekoa Crawford returns – the Fresno product led the Bears with 78 receiving yards, and was an impact player from the very first play, a designed screen for him on the left. When he later added a touchdown on a deep fade – and a really excellent piece of avoiding pressure from Garbers, as well – a pre-game hunch of mine was validated:
He plays the game the same way he did in high school, when he wowed scouts, bloggers, and fans alike with an ultra-tight technical skill, and just ridiculous amounts of drip in his game – for God’s sake, he backjuked Sac State defenders on one of his catches, not necessarily to great effect, but just because he was confident enough to do so. Hunter is the biggest reason I have exceedingly high hopes for the combined 2020 and 2021 receiving classes, who I have referred to as #TheScoresmen before, and regardless of whether or not the moniker catches on, #10 will play a crucial role when the best eventually arrives from that collective.
Consider Saturday a save the date for something bigger, then, as Hunter’s peers took their own first steps: Justin Baker, flashing a bit more with three catches; there was Mason Mangum grabbing a designed touch, while Aiden Lee and Tommy Christakos have been on the field already throughout the first three games. It’s not a full-on arrival for the group by any means, but it was an injection of much needed joy all the same. (Mavin Anderson and J. Michael Sturdivant are also yet to debut from the Scoresmen – they’ll have their chances once the depth chart log-jam clears up.)
In the now, there are still seniors in that receivers room, and they came up big too -- already growing as a fan favorite this season, Trevon Clark shared in a mid-week interview how he is close to becoming the first person in either side of family to graduate from college, then rolled out another touchdown on 70 more yards. Light work for the engaged father, and there was Nikko Remigio too, with that damned return touchdown he has so long deserved.
The Bears needed all of those wideouts to star, and their running back stable to produce, because the Hornets lived up to their pesky namesakes, showing no fear despite the eventual defeat.
All that being said, it was a definitely flawed performance, and the team is too. Most of the football wasn’t even great, and because of that, Washington will almost certainly be the favorites at home next week, having won their tune-up game by a convincing 52-3 margin.
Cal will take it, though, having tasted the alternative the last two weeks. And considering the recent fates that befell UCLA, WSU, Arizona, and Colorado, I think I will too.
Joy is in too short a supply these days.
Some Memes About An Offense I Am Tired of Discussing
Okay, fine, some other things I am willing to discuss about the offense.
When Chase Garbers is: on script, able to run with his legs, and most of the time, in winning situations, he is terrific. Then, there are the 10 minutes of game time each week – you never know when it’s coming, only that it will – where he suddenly can’t move the football, or seizes up in a fit of inaccuracy, and it gets more obvious as to why many (read: me) demand more ball control on offense. The more they ask him to do, the more likely it is that those minutes eventual manifest themselves, whether it be by overthrown deep ball – a few more of those – or a missed one that’s been schemed open (we examined one of those last week in this space, for example).
They adjusted somewhat by running at a 23:14 ratio in the second half, but the numbers do show the phenomenon I’ve described -- down the stretch, Garbers was: 3 of 7 for 17 yards in the third quarter, and 3 of 7 for 20 yards in the fourth.
Evidently, nothing to be worried about: Moore, who I thought was missing for a good chunk early, finished with the most snaps among the RB contingent, and at least in terms of potentially exciting developments, was a good number of plays in which the Bears motioned Chris Brooks out of the backfield into almost an offline tight end look.
Oline continued to play largely well, keeping Chase clean for a second straight week, with only six snaps under pressure on 37 dropbacks, and generating great push on a lot of the cutback runs that went for explosive yardage (4 on 27 total carries by the four backs, for 15%). A much bigger test awaits next week, though.
PFF recorded the group at 2 hurries allowed by Will Craig, and nothing else.
It’s tough to say, but the spirit of the Takers has been vacant in the defensive backfield for awhile, and Saturday was a particularly brutal low: four PIs called, three for a first down, 10 of 15 for 172 yards in third down situations.
They allowed 300 plus yards to a guy who has only reached that number one other time in his career. In four of his five other career appearances before Saturday, Jake Dunniway had thrown for: 11, 74, 154, and 7 yards respectively, so the Bears are now up there with Northern Arizona University, which escorted the Sac State signalcaller and his receivers down the field for 384 yards back in 2019. Football being a complex game and all, though, means the secondary doesn’t bear (heh) the blame alone: the pass rush has been non-existent, and didn’t get home once in 55 snaps, with the most obvious solutions to try being Orin Patu working his way back onto the field hopefully, or coaching to scheme up something different.
Still, it’s uhh…rather Dykesian, to echo the words of a few commenters last week. Teams are absolutely shredding the linebackers in drop coverage, and while they were the victims of some really great catches, no secondary can be getting regularly blown up or missing tackles by non-Power Five receivers if they want to seriously compete. As my good friend Lester Lee pointed out to me, Justin Wilcox’s comments in the post-game were unusually harsh for a notoriously tight-lipped, keep-it-vanilla in press conferences style coach, sternly torching (for him, anyway) Tre Watson’s unit for the repeated errors.
The eternal cool is cracking a bit.
Perhaps the only bright spot on the day, if there was one, would be is Lu Hearns, who is way ahead of what I thought he would be based on his film, and may be able to nab the corner gig full time next year with more weight gain.
Chigozie Anusiem who has struggled at times this year, was a bit of an odd case – the “feel” of the game made it seem like he was being picked on when he was in there, but the ultimate statline suggests more that that those catches were recorded against him in close succession, rather than anything particularly damaging.
Now, the linebacker issue comes into full view too:
· Iosefa: 6 of 6, 102 yards, 5 1st downs, 1 touchdown
· Evan Tattersall: 4 of 5, 43 yards, 2 1st downs
· Oladejo, Bimage, Goode: 3 of 4, 42 yards, 2 first downs
Peter Sirmon and Keith Heyward certainly have their hands full, because while nobody needs the unit to be perfect, they can’t be such automatic liabilities in the pass phase that teams can target them for automatic conversions, the way the Hornets did on 3rd downs on Saturday, which I will repost again for effect: 10 of 15, for 172 yards. Throw in zero real disruption (one TFL and two PDs, officially), and equally alarmingly, an inability to win any matchups impactfully once the Hornets spread to run O’Hara. Although Evan Tattersall worked hard and filled the stat sheet with a lot of dirty work, the unit has definitely seen better, more glory filled days.
They all have, really.