Turning Point: All Systems Are (Not) Go

For eight minutes, all three facets fell flat

Just like that, one-third of the 2021 season is already gone. Mathematically, a postseason appearance would equate to a 13th game, but that reality continues to grow more and more fleeting by the week. 

On the bright side? Each of Cal’s three losses has been decided by just a single score. The latest of the bunch is an overtime disappointment that was arguably lost well before tailback Damien Moore fumbled the rock a yard shy of the goal line — just minutes after Sean McGrew managed to overcome the upper body strength of Cam Goode to sneak into the endzone (according to the only opinions that matter) for the winning score. 

It’s a game of inches and it’s also a game of perspective. While this season’s first three games saw the Bears race out to a two-score lead — only to surrender its physical edge in the second half — Cal was the aggressor for the final 30 minutes in Seattle, mounting an eye-opening comeback down the stretch to tie the Huskies at 24 apiece and actually giving itself a (55-yard) shot at beginning conference play 1-0. 

With that in mind, this week’s turning point could have gone a number of different directions, a microcosm for the entire season thus far. 

Lead Up: A primary reason why Cal is 1-3 is because all three facets (offense, defense and special teams) have often found inopportune times to falter in sequential fashion. When that happens, it’s a crucial part of the game no matter what quarter it is or what the scoreboard says. 

In this instance, we put the second quarter under the microscope and find that Washington leads Cal, 14-7, after a sluggish start for the defense. In a solid effort to pick up their teammates, Chase Garbers and co. follow up their impressive touchdown drive by operating between the 20s with relative ease, establishing the run and pass and giving multiple playmakers touches. 

Then the red zone happens. With 9:05 to go in the first half, the Bears face first and goal inside the 10-yard line. 

Turning Point: Rather than give Chris Brooks his first touch of the game, play action is the call. Except the play is well-defended at all three layers by the Huskies. 

It’s probably just hindsight bias to suggest that Bill Musgrave run the ball two straight times at the UW 7, especially with the Huskies’ secondary flexing its muscles despite having it’s No. 1 defensive back — future NFL first-rounder Trent McDuffie — out with an injury. But we’re beginning to run out of fingers to count the number of times Cal hasn’t executed in the red zone, and this was just the beginning of another unfortunate domino effect. 

Garbers ends up taking a sack. Now back at the 10, the run call comes perhaps a play too late, and Damien Moore is swallowed for a two-yard loss. 

Third down arrives, and the UW secondary stands tall once again. Garbers attempts to make something out of nothing, gets slammed down at the five, and loses the ball. Young Jeremiah Hunter is in the right spot at the right time to pounce and retain possession, but McKade Mettauer forgets that pulling an opposing player off the ongoing scrum is an unsportsmanlike penalty. 

Which leads to this: a 38-yard attempt on 4th and “Goal” (from the 20) for Slater Zellers, Jamieson Sheahan, Dario Longhetto and co. 

A minute after the offense moves backwards, thanks to a combination of play-calling and tight defense, not-so-special teams strikes again. Zellers, a veteran long-snapper who hadn’t previously experienced notable woes in execution until Week 2 against TCU, sends a snap low-and-inside to Sheahan, who does everything in his power to cradle the ball before recognizing that he has to cut his losses. 

What should have been a 70-yard drive ends up losing 24 yards in the final two plays. Three points that should have been Cal’s end up being seven for UW following the ensuing plays (see below). 

Aftermath: 10 plays, 71 yards in 5:39. That’s the Washington drive which culminates in McGrew finding a hole into the endzone from the wildcat position. Defensively, this drive had every aspect that Peter Sirmon and Justin Wilcox want to avoid — minimal pressure on Dylan Morris, open receivers in soft zone coverage, a costly penalty and a fourth down conversion. 

Not to mention this: 

For nearly eight minutes of game time — from 9:05 left in the half to 1:27 to go — all three areas of the game couldn’t pick each other up. From there, the Bears won the game: a field goal to end the half would cut the Washington advantage to 21-10, and the defense (as mentioned below) discovered some familiar mojo throughout the second half. 

But for 7+ minutes in the second quarter, what should have been a 4-point deficit at worst became a two-touchdown one. That’s by and large the difference in the game. 

Honorable Mention: What are the two (winning) commandments under Justin Wilcox? Answer: turnover margin and explosive plays. 

Cam Goode and Luc Bequette will be the first to tell you that they need to be better as a collective. But truly, they’ve done a solid job in their respective roles, as expected. Outside of safety Daniel Scott, nobody has stepped up as a consistent threat to create turnovers. 

That changed in the second half against the Huskies, when Washington was held to just three points on its six drives. Not only were explosive plays virtually eradicated, but a pair of unsuspecting Bears led the charge to get the ball back in the hands of the offense. 

It began with Ethan Saunders’ sack-fumble of Morris in the third quarter. While the Husky quarterback fell back on the ball, the play by No. 99 forced a key fourth-and-long and nearly gave the Bears possession in plus territory. 

THIS is how you beat a tailback forced to block a 300 lb. defensive end. 

Giving credit where credit’s due, I’ll give Kyler Gordon his shoutout. On the ensuing drive, the true sophomore made a Cam Bynum-esque interception after Garbers and Hunter weren’t on the same wavelength on a ball down the UW sideline, for his second pick of the night. Must feel good for a guy who surrendered two key plays to Jordan Duncan on the game-winning drive the last time Cal and UW faced off. 

But despite Gordon’s breakout performance, the defense was back again. This time, it was Texas transfer Marqez Bimage, a walk-on candidate kicking off the fourth quarter by punching the ball out of Kamari Pleasant’s cradle to give the Bears their lone forced turnover of the contest. 

THIS is how you shake off your block and make a big time play on the ball (No. 46). 

If the Bears are going to climb back into any sort of contention in the Pac-12 North, next week at home against Wazzu is a great place to start. Garbers, despite two uncharacteristic turnovers, has performed well to start the year. But the red zone execution has to be much better, particularly with all sorts of issues to figure out with special teams. 

And assuming Chase doesn’t sustain this sort of production against some of the more stalwart defenses in the Pac-12, it’s up to the defense (minus Brett Johnson and possibly Kuony Deng) to make big plays like they’re so accustomed to doing under Wilcox.