Turning Point: Door Slams Shut vs. Washington State Football
Make it or break it time
In previous seasons, Justin Wilcox accentuated after a tough loss that the team needed to “play smarter” or “create more explosive plays” or “force a turnover or two” while acknowledging that implementing change started with him.
On Saturday afternoon in the bowels of California Memorial Stadium, he opened his postgame press conference glum, hesitant to comprehend why things played out as ugly as they did in a 21-6 loss to Washington State. He pointed the finger squarely at himself and indirectly seemed to acknowledge the firestorm culminating from a 1-4 start to the season. I’ll give him credit for acknowledging that much, but…
How did we get here?
Week 1 it was (largely) the offense.
Week 2 it was (largely) the defense.
This week, it was flat-out everything.
Lead Up: It may have been 82 degrees and gorgeously sunny as things got underway in Berkeley, but boy when it rains, it pours. The domino effect was in full force as the Cal defense kicked things off unable to stymie a Wazzu offense led by Jayden de Laura, who shook off a recent injury and dispelled any notion that there was a quarterback controversy brewing in Pullman between himself and Tennessee transfer Jarrett Guarantano.
Sans a pair of interceptions, one by Daniel Scott and the other by walk-on Nate Rutchena in his first collegiate action, de Laura was an excellent game-manager with a large assist from an offensive line that surrendered just a single sack (Luc Bequette).
But the player of the game for the Cougars was one Calvin Jackson Jr., who found the endzone on Wazzu’s opening drive, and followed that up by completing one of the more spectacular plays in college football. Result aside, the graphic is pretty dope.
All of that aside in the first half, the Bears stayed in striking distance for most of the afternoon, as most teams do under Wilcox. With the team searching for rhythm, true sophomore Chris Street hopped off the bench helped spark the offense to its strongest drives of the second half.
Entering the fourth quarter, it was primarily Street and redshirt senior Marcel Dancy sharing the backfield with Garbers, a combination of a miscue by Damien Moore on the first offensive snap and a busy first half from Chris Brooks.
Trailing 21-6 and facing a third down from the Wazzu 39, Garbers found Trevon Clark for a toe-tap catch along the sideline, setting up Cal for a first down at the WSU 11. Make it or break it.
Turning Point: After an incomplete pass which is well-defended by the secondary, Street gets the call and picks his way inside the WSU 5. It’s about third and three with still plenty of time left in the contest, but a field goal attempt simply won’t get the job done.
Street gets the call over left tackle with Crawford and Clark on the weak side of the formation. Not a bad idea to run with the idea that you’ve got two downs to pick up three yards. But with starting left tackle Will Craig out presumably with an injury and slot receiver Nikko Remigio banged up on the previous drive, it’s Brayden Rohme and Justin Richard Baker as the primary blockers on the ball side of the field, with freshman Keleki Latu involved as well.
Rather than have the opportunity to plow ahead for at least a yard, Street is met at the six yard-line by Baker’s primary assignment — leading tackler Armani Marsh. While Baker has to do a better job being lower to the ground, the guys involved in this play shouldn’t be the ones involved on the biggest set of downs of the game. The play call itself is sound — but the personnel involved is questionable, even with Street riding the hot hand.
With fourth and about 5-6 yards to go, this truly is the game, even with 11:30 on the clock. The Bears empty the backfield with Street and Clark to Garbers’ left, and Latu, Baker and Crawford to the right. Curiously, Jeremiah Hunter and Jake Tonges are not on the field, which could be explained due to injury or simply an opportunity to get the younger guys an opportunity.
Regardless of who’s in the game, Garbers has to make a play with his legs or at the very least throw the ball past the sticks. After a quick pump and a relatively clean pocket, his throw goes underneath to Street on a quick three-step route towards the inside linebacker. The throw isn’t just short of the sticks — it’s also low and away to a receiver who is technically the fourth or fifth guy on the tailbacks depth chart.
To be fair, there wasn’t an alternative option that stood out, although despite the protection holding up, Garbers doesn’t look Crawford’s way for some sort of jump ball in the right corner of the endzone.
In the end, Street doesn’t hang onto the ball but it doesn’t truly make a difference. The result is the Bears’ best chance to cut the lead to one score with its defense playing better in the second half.
Aftermath: 4 for 20. On third and fourth down combined, the Bears didn’t convert on 16(!) of its 20 situations. In particular, the final three fourth downs the team faced came in Washington State territory with a chance to at least make things interesting after three quarters of disappointment.
So while the final score goes down in the books as a two-score difference, it seemed like so much more because of the way the Bears finished drives. In basketball, great ball movement is only rewarded when the ball goes in the hoop. In baseball, hard contact is typically a good thing, but only when the ball isn’t caught by an opposing player. And in football, sustaining a long drive only results in points when the ball crosses the goal-line or goes through the uprights (preferably, the former).
Sure, field position can play a part in impacting the outcome of a game, but six points on 12 possessions won’t cut it against anyone. It was the first time Wazzu had held an opponent to single-digits since its season opener in 2019 against New Mexico State.
And for the Bears, it was their fourth consecutive loss on Homecoming.
There’s a cliche saying that whenever you show up to the game, you might see something you’ve truly, legitimately, never seen before.
So when backup tight end Nick Alftin got his paws on Nick Haberer’s first quarter punt, only for the Cougs to scoop it up and pick up a first down, yes — you’ve (probably) never seen that one before.
Naturally, Washington State made the most of its free possession, finding the endzone on that very drive to steal a very important seven points. For a team that didn’t control either side of the ball, Cal can ill afford to give opposing offenses second chances, fluke play or not.
The football gods giveth:
The football gods taketh:
There’s another cliche stating that the greatest leaders perform at their best when things are at their worst. Following Cal’s much-needed BYE week, whoever the leaders are on this team — coaches and student-athletes — will be revealed one way or another.