Five observations: Cal vs. Washington


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By Ted Lee
Posted Sep 26, 2015
If by BearInsider Staff or Contributor, this article is Copyright © 2015

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Five observations from Cal's 30-24 win over Washington.
  1. If games lasted 40 minutes, the Bears would be a Top 25 team.

If you look at the statistics, this shouldn't have been a six-point win. The Bears dominated yardage, turnovers, time of possession, and generally had the better of both sides of the field. But as was the case last week, Cal was in a situation where they were comfortably ahead late in the third quarter, yet towards the hand found themselves hanging on.

But where last week, it was a case of the defense running out of gas and chasing around a quarterback who was having the game of his life, this week, it was the offense that was out of sync. The Bears were up 27-14, when a 70-yard fumble return for a touchdown narrowed the Bears advantage to six, 27-21.

Once again, the offense is caught between whether to play the clock – run the ball and hope to speed up the end of the game, or stick with their strength which is the short passing game. The one risk of attacking the opposition is that there is a greater risk of turnover and of having short possessions, but the flip side of that is that the Bears keep attacking, they're bound to leave Washington's defense on their back foot and two scores could effectively end the game.

As generally effective as Cal's offense is, they're still struggling with short-yardage running. They also found themselves in a number of long-yardage situations, due to sacks and runs for losses. The first possession in the fourth quarter ended with a sack and an incomplete pass. The second possession came to an end when Cal turned a 1st-and-10 into a 1st-and-25 due to a holding penalty and a false start penalty, and the third one ended with an interception and a sack, after a first down run resulted in a four-yard loss.

The final possession, where the Bears were trying to run out the game, resulted in a runs of 0, 7, and 0, but was extended when Goff made a heroic second effort to gain three yards for the first down.

The circumstances of the Texas and Washington games were different. But in both cases, you have a Cal team that can run better than it did last year so the Bears are much more comfortable doing do than they might have been in previous years. But the question always lingers – do you want to try to win a game going away from your strength?

  1. Five turnovers is only part of the defensive story.

One can't underestimate how thorough the defensive improvement has been. So far this year there's been a rough fourth quarter at Texas, but against Washington the only reason the game was close was because the Huskies returned a fumble for a touchdown – on a play where Vic Enwere's hip appeared to be down before he fumbled. Otherwise, aside from a touchdown drive in each quarter, and a field goal when Washington's offense had the benefit of a short field, the Husky offense was generally not a factor.

The Golden Bear defense bounced back from a week where Jerrod Heard had a career week – this week he was limited to 119 yards passing and 48 yards rushing - and limited Washington's Jake Browning to 17-of-28 for 152 yards throwing.

But aside from numbers – the Bears are tackling better, defenders are in position to make plays, and they're generally less vulnerable to big plays.

In previous years, Cal would be in trouble when opposing offenses had two receivers on two defenders to the outside. Eventually somebody would slip, one receiver would be able to take two defenders, or a tackler wouldn't be able to wrap up and a big play would develop. Teams would be happy pecking away with six- and eight-yard gains, because sooner or later a broken play would lead to a big gain. But now the one defender who's being blocked by one receiver is driving the receiver back towards the player who's catching the pass which disrupts the rhythm of the play.

On one sequence of plays, Washington was driving down field and Dwayne Washington was stopped for a short loss. The defense would have just tackled the runner, but Marcus Manley reached over and knocked the ball loose.

On one interception, a deep ball was underthrown. There was a time when a Bear defender might have just kept running past the play to get behind the receiver. But on Saturday, Darius White read the ball, made an adjustment and undercut the receiver to make a catch.

Even the pass rush – which hasn't been a Bear strength this year – Cal was able to get pressure on Browning and they quickly found that his decision-making gets extremely shaky when he's flushed out of the pocket. But instead of rushing him all the time, the Bears would also rush three and drop people into coverage – which caused Browning a different set of problems.

And by causing turnovers and not letting Browning settle into a pattern they were able to do a good job of getting the Washington offense off the field.

  1. Cal is two wins away from being bowl eligible.

And to think it's just September. This isn't a case of the it being late October and the Bears needing some weird combination of outcomes to reach the six game mark. As a matter of fact, this is the earliest that the Bears have won their fourth game of the season since 2007.

Or how about this, this is the first time the Bears have won road games in consecutive weeks since 1993 when they defeated Stanford and Hawaii in November. In the 22 seasons since, they've had back-to-back road opportunities on 32 occasions and have never have wins in both games.

Coming into this year, the Bears were picked to finish somewhere in the middle of the Pac-12 North, and while that estimate is still very much in play, this isn't the Pac-12 where Oregon and Stanford were at unreachable levels – this year both teams have shown a level of vulnerability that they haven't before, which should make the conference race considerably more competitive.

Now much of that is due to scheduling quirks, the Bears generally play back-to-back road games maybe once a year – and very seldom in conference play, but still, anytime you have to go back to something that hasn't happened before Tedford and Holmoe, that's a very rare occurrence.

The 2015 version of the Football Outsiders Almanac projected that there was a 32 percent chance that Cal would finish with three or fewer wins. And a 32 percent chance that the Bears would finish the regular season with four wins. Put differently, they projected that there was a 64 percent chance that it gets no better than this.

  1. Anyway you look at it, this was progress.

It would be easy to look at this game and have concerns about Cal's shakiness in holding a lead, the increased number of hits that Jared Goff was taking, and the missed opportunities that resulted in the game being much closer than it should have been. But the Bears outplayed Washington for significant parts of the game. Of the Huskies' first eight possessions – they scored one touchdown, attempted no field goals, and ran five plays on Cal sides of the field. During the previous two years, the Bears wouldn't have been capable of doing that even against bad teams.

The Bears pulled off a road win against a team that's given them trouble, and they were able to do so without playing their best. If Cal played at or near their peak and barely beat a middling Washington team, that would be one thing – but they were without starting running back Daniel Lasco – and were able to win consecutive road games. There were four dropped passes by receivers – which is unusually high.

In three years, Cal's gone from not being able to beat anybody, to barely being able to beat bad teams at home, to beating decent teams on the road. There are still eight games left in the season, and things can still go well and badly. From a perspective of what's in front of you, the Bears could certainly play better, and they'll have to as the level of competition improves. But whether you look at them from where they were in 2013 or from where they were at the beginning of the season, they're definitely trending up and they're still a way from playing their best.

  1. The skill players may want to look into tighter fitting jerseys.

The days of the tearaway jerseys are long gone – a golden age of football when a ball carrier would race his way through a secondary leaving jersey fragments strewn all over the field as defenders tried to grab ahold of whatever they could. But the Bears had a couple of plays where a player was about to break free of a defender for a big gain and possible touchdown but a defender was able to hold onto a jersey just long enough to impede the ball carrier's progress and wait for help to arise. Had their been no jersey to grab onto, the player would have been long gone. Players do wear pads and unless the jerseys are extremely tight, it would be very difficult to design a jersey where defenders had nothing to grab onto, but at the very least, it should be possible to give them less.

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