Throughout this season, I’ll be taking a look back at each Cal football contest, identifying a moment (or two) that heavily impacted the outcome of the game. While hindsight bias is often an unfair mechanism for disappointed fans to pick apart decisions, actions and plays of those on the field, tracking these so-called “turning points” can often illuminate the good and bad makeup of a team.
The season-opener will focus on a highly-scrutinized aspect of the Cal offense in the Wilcox era: play-calling.
Lead-Up: Fifteen minutes in, it looked like the Bears already had the inside track to a win by multiple scores. Giving Bill Musgrave, Chase Garbers and young Jeremiah Hunter their credit, the flow of the offense was nearly flawless — aside from a backwards play or two, it was evident that the Michael Saffell-less offensive line was going to have a field day against the Nevada front.
The result? Damien Moore’s first collegiate score and a two-yard connection from Garbers to Nikko Remigio, giving the blue and gold an early 14-0 advantage.
Giving the Wolfpack defense its due, Jay Norvell’s front seven stepped up and responded for the next few hours. A spry and powerful Christopher Brooks left the game presumably due to an injury of some sorts, and as Musgrave attempted to roll Garbers out of the pocket, the opposing linebackers and secondary held their own.
By the time Cal’s defense could at least alleviate the explosive plays that Carson Strong’s talented arm delivered, the Bears were trailing, 22-14. A Dario Longhetto chip-shot would cut that edge to 22-17, a score that shouldn’t have held, but did anyway. Here’s how →
Turning Point: Down five with the fourth quarter underway, safety Miles Williams picked up a struggling Collin Gamble with an interception just shy of the endzone, one of Strong’s few poor reads on the night. That left the Bears on the doorstep of the north endzone.
With the help of a favorable defensive pass interference call, the Cal offense finally re-emerged, led by none other than the de facto No. 4 tailback on the depth chart, redshirt sophomore DeCarlos Brooks.
Following the aforementioned penalty, Brooks turned the corner as the Nevada defense lost contain, showcasing a healthy balance of speed and vision that will undoubtedly earn him more than just special teams reps this year. With Brooks on the sideline catching his breath, new RB1 (Moore) re-entered and promptly picked up 15 more yards, bringing Cal to the Nevada 11. Remember, this is a drive that started off at the opposite one-yard line.
So how does a 90-yard drive not end up in points? You go backwards. Here’s what happened next:
8:56 to go in the game. Bubble screen attempt to Kekoa Crawford. Incomplete. Another pass play, well-defended, with Garbers picking up a couple of yards via the scramble drill.
And then, with the strong side of the field suffocated in the endzone on third down, Garbers’ knee is ruled down as he attempts to fling the ball out of bounds — at the Nevada 22.
What I (sort of) like about the situation: the Nevada defense was likely expecting a run, and I have no problem with the offense seeking to get Kekoa Crawford involved a little bit more. But that should have happened an hour or two earlier. Crawford’s first reception didn’t come until the final play of the third quarter, and while getting him the ball in space is typically a good thing, Garbers’ timing wasn’t on point all game.
What I (really) don’t like: when you’ve got a size advantage up front, multiple tailbacks in a groove and PLENTY of time left in the game, you don’t go away from what’s working. Take your pick — Moore, Brooks or Marcel Dancy, any of the healthy backs entering the fourth quarter.
After a dormant 30 minutes of game time, the offense found a rhythm behind an O-Line that played a solid overall game. Just 11 yards away from re-taking the lead… why mess with what’s rolling? We can’t know for sure if perhaps Christopher Brooks was the designated lead back in the red zone throughout camp, but that’s highly unlikely.
Of course, we all know what happened next. Facing fourth and 20, Longhetto found himself on the left hash mark and…
Aftermath: Justin Wilcox loves to use the phrase “Margin for Error” and how razor thin it is, particularly in the fourth quarter of close games. When your defense makes a play like Williams did, and the offense really gets rolling for the first time since the opening quarter, good things typically happen.
It didn’t on Saturday night. Strong and his supporting cast did just enough to eat up both clock and field position down the stretch. Cal’s remaining possessions in the game resulted in an interception on the first play of the penultimate drive, and a poorly executed two-minute drill, albeit with no timeouts and a daunting 85 yards to go.
The bottom line to all of this is that when offense, defense and special teams all underperform, it’s tough to beat anyone, let alone a talented team like Nevada. While it’s still early, the road reunion with TCU is all but a must-win. And I think the team knows that, too.
Honorable Mention: One of the decisions that Cal fans were dying to ask Wilcox after the game was asked by SI CalSportsReport’s Jeff Faraudo. With the Wolfpack offense facing third and 18 from the Cal 32, an incomplete pass forced fourth down. But a holding penalty offered Wilcox an additional opportunity: move Nevada ten yards back, with third and a country mile upcoming.
As Wilcox articulated in his postgame presser, there are certainly reasons to decline the penalty, as he did. Nevada kicker Brandon Talton’s maximum range was judged to be right around where an attempt would have been made from. A defensive penalty, particularly an interference or holding call in the secondary, would gift the Wolf Pack a fresh set of downs in Cal territory.
Accepting the penalty would have pushed Nevada back to the Cal 42, where the offense would have faced third and 28. Instead, Talton lined up for an attempt just shy of 50 yards… and knocked it right through, giving Nevada an eight-point advantage.
While Talton would later pull a slightly shorter attempt a drive later, his three makes from considerable distance, combined with Longhetto’s aforementioned miss, were the difference on the scoreboard. Of note, Talton, like Strong, is a product of Vacaville, Calif., just up the road from Berkeley. Neither were recruited by the program, with Strong finding his footing as a rising NFL prospect, and Talton earning a reputation for one of the strongest legs out west.