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Turning (Extra) Point: Not-So-Special Teams Cascading Error
A series of unfortunate post-touchdown events
Both Cal and TCU each scored exactly five touchdowns on a hot and humid Saturday afternoon in Fort Worth.
The Frogs won, 34-32.
In a game that saw significant improvements from an offense (and staff) that took its fair share of heat just a week ago, the Bears still managed to drop to 0-2 for the first time since 2001.
Others on this site will discuss both the explosive plays offensively and defensive struggles to wrap up ball carriers. Unlike most future iterations of this segment, this week’s turning point highlights an extra point attempt in the first quarter. Hopefully, never again.
Lead-Up: There’s no way around it: extra points aren’t supposed to be focal points when you tell the story of a game or a season. Whenever one sneaks into the postgame highlights, it’s because something went awry on one of the more mundane plays in all of sports.
In 2015, Cal football was on the winning end of one of those extra-point-turned-focal-points, when, after it looked like the defense would falter yet again during the Sonny Dykes regime, Texas kicker Nick Rose shanked one to the right. If you don’t remember the kick, you surely remember this:
Then in the abbreviated 2020 campaign, the Bears were on the wrong side of another extra point that didn’t go as planned. I think you know which one I’m talking about.
While these occasions are admittedly rare and typically a once-in-a-blue-moon (or orange sky) ordeal, they are still important scoring plays in the grand scheme of a game. There’s a reason why it’s called a pick-six (shoutout Daniel Scott!), and not a pick-seven. And for many years, we (and almost every fanbase in the history of football), took the snap, hold and kick from a short distance (~ 20 yards) for granted because it all seems so automatic.
Although longer field goal attempts and extra points have their fair share of differences, they’re virtually the same in terms of execution. Special Teams coordinator Charlie Ragle once described to myself and other members of the media how precise the timing from snap → hold → kick must be in order to achieve proper execution. If I remember correctly, there’s about a 0.06 second window of opportunity for error. Any slight hiccup in the chain reaction could be the difference in a game.
With 5:01 left in the first quarter, after a determined and rejuvenated Chase Garbers connected with Trevon Clark for a refreshing 54-yard score, Ragle’s unit found itself on the field for their first point-after of the day.
Turning Point: Long snapper Slater Zellers, who hasn’t been at fault for any glaring snap issues during his tenure at Cal, sent one high and away from holder Jamieson Sheahan. Neither Sheahan or kicker Dario Longhetto had much of a chance to do their respective jobs in the chain reaction.
Then, after Scott jumped a bad read by Max Duggan early in the second quarter, and waltzed into the endzone for what might become the easiest score of the year, Justin Wilcox kept his offense on the field to try and get back the point they missed out on less than an hour before.
Except, the play wasn’t run. A bit of confusion ended up being ruled as a Cal delay of game, pushing the Bears back to the TCU 8. No big deal — this time, Zellers snap, Sheahan’s hold and Longhetto’s kick were executed much smoother. 13-0, Cal.
Except THAT play would be nullified by the coaching staff’s own doing. Since defensive back CJ Ceasar II had an early jump on the snap, Wilcox opted to take that precious point off the board and let his offense operate from the four yard-line (half the distance from the eight).
With receiver Kekoa Crawford and tight end Jake Tonges to the left, and new don’t-let-this-guy-go-deep-if-you’re-a-db Trevon Clark the lone receiver on the short side of the field, the two-pointer play call had Garbers roll to his RIGHT.
It was pretty much a disaster right from the get-go. Chase’s desperate attempt to make something out of nothing was picked off, and the only good thing that happened out of this was that the pick wasn’t returned 95+ yards the other way. The only realistic opening of opportunity was Crawford in the back of the endzone, the direction to which Garbers didn’t really give a look.
Note that there’s still 10:02 to go in the second quarter. Instead of 13-0 (or rather, 14-0), the Bears had just a 12-0 lead after yet another terrific start (and subsequently bumpy ride the rest of the way).
Aftermath: In his weekly novel, which he passionately produces every seven days throughout his farewell tour as a writer, the great Nam Le acknowledges that going for two sets the expectation and mentality to win, especially after dropping a winnable game during week one. While the result wasn’t great, the process and idea were clear.
In my opinion, there was only one time in which it was appropriate to go for two in this game — when the team was down two, with less than five minutes left. 10:02 to go in the first half is just too early for me, especially when you look at the mathematical approach to this.
Basic math says that when a team can convert on at least 50 percent of its two-point conversions, it should go for two every time it reaches the end zone. It’s no secret that some teams are more equipped than others at executing these three-yard plays.
Cal doesn’t happen to be one of the greater ones. The last time the Bears converted a two-point try was in 2017, when it executed in back-to-back games to close out the 2017 season — a pair of frustrating losses to Stanford and UCLA.
The point I want to make clear though is that this isn’t just about a botched extra point snap. It’s about what happened next — taking a made extra point off the board and lining up for two at the four-yard line, with a questionable play call. Of course, if Garbers had a little more time and made a miraculous throw across his body to connect with Crawford, then the play call is great. But as Wilcox himself says, if it doesn’t work out, it’s a bad call.
As Nam acknowledges, the fact that Wilcox played aggressively could be viewed as a GOOD thing — showing his team and the fanbase that he’s going for it all. It’s what he did in his first year with the program in a double-overtime shootout against Arizona, playing for the win in front of the home crowd instead of settling for triple OT. But although it didn’t matter too much in the end on Saturday afternoon, I am a firm believer that points should never be taken off the scoreboard.
One last math analogy: if you’re doing a simple arithmetic problem with multiple steps, and mess up step 1, you’ll have a cascading error and chances are that you’ll end up with a wrong answer. Sometimes, a teacher will acknowledge that your process was fine, outside of that error. Others, like my math professors at Cal, won’t give any credit. Not sure how Dr. Wilcox would grade his own performance or that of the team as a whole, but when one lost point became three, it was almost inevitable that the team would lose by two in the most cruel way possible.
Last fall, when I slept in and woke up to a dark, orange sky at 10:30 a.m. on that famously unique day in the Bay Area, I told myself that I would never take a blue sky for granted again. As if the blue and gold faithful needed another reminder, an extra point should not be taken for granted, ever again.
Honorable Mention: Extra points and ensuing events aside, another area of concern through the first two weeks is the way Cal has finished both first halves.
Beyond this year, I can point to about five or six additional examples off the top of my head in which the Bears haven’t finished a first half strong under Coach Wilcox. 2018 vs. Wazzu and 2019 vs. Illinois first came to mind.
It’s something Wilcox has stressed, too: the final six minutes of the first half and first six of the second half can often make or break the outcome of a chestmatch. Like a 2-1 pitch in baseball, the odds break in your favor when you’re a step ahead of your opponent.
One week after struggling to maintain possession against Nevada, the Bears floundered again. The offense, who received the ball with 1:39 to go at their own 21, could at least prevent the Frogs from having another possession before the break.
And the defense, who started out both games on such a high, let freshman Zach Evans (kid’s already a stud) loose for a 51-yard score with just 11 seconds to go in the half. Combine that with the fact that TCU would open the second with the ball and would march 75 yards on 15 plays to take the lead, and many will probably argue that that was your difference in the ballgame right there.
Although I just spent too much of my time worrying about two points that were lost above, it’s important to note that seven(!) were lost on the situation above. More than anything else, that portion of the game was everything, considering the final score.
So on a day in which Chase Garbers redeemed his Cheez-It Bowl performance with his best-graded game according to nearly every metric/site in the book, and new RB1 Damien Moore found the endzone twice himself, Peter Sirmon’s defense surrendered 505 yards, none bigger than the 51 to end the first half and the final few that ultimately put the game away.