The offense has hit a wall.
During the latter
part of the 2014 season, the likeliness of the Bears winning any game
depended largely on whether the defense would be able to stop
surrendering points and yards long enough to give the offense a shot
at winning the game. Now, in 2015, everything's reversed. The
defense has been playing much better – whether it's surrendering
fewer big plays, limiting opposing possessions that start with short
fields to just field goals, and up until lately, causing momentum
shifts with turnovers. But lately they've faced an increase challenge
because not only is the offense not as productive, they're also
Against USC, Cal's
opening drive gained 36 yards in three plays but ended in a fumble by
Khalfani Muhammad. In the third quarter, a long USC touchdown drive
was immediately followed by an interception for a touchdown, and in
the fourth quarter, the Bears made it as far as the Trojan 30 before
having that possession end in another interception.
This is due to a
couple of things – the most obvious is an increase in the class of
the opposition. Head coach Sonny Dykes alluded to this in his
postgame comments, the difference in opposition matters. But not
only is it the increase in the quality of the opposition, opposing
defenses also now have several games of video to review.
Early in the year,
the Bears could run the slant to Kenny Lawler as a go-to play. Teams
are trying to take that away – UCLA was very successful in not just
taking that away, but causing turnovers. The Bears continue to have
success with the left-side bubble screen to Trevor Davis, but teams
will start looking to take that away as well.
With a healthy
Lasco bolstering the run game – the Bears will be better suited to
run more effectively. And while Oregon/Oregon State/Stanford might
not sound appreciatively easier that Utah/UCLA/USC – the Ducks are
having defensive problems, while the Beavers are having everywhere
problems, so the offense may find slightly easier going.
The other issue is
depth. Even with a bye week, teams are starting to get beat up –
and this shows up in the second half. In the second half, when the
Bears needed a couple of defensive stops, USC ran the ball 31 times
for 98 yards. While Cal did manage to get one three-and-out, albeit
with the help of a holding penalty, they weren't ever able to show
that they were generally getting the best of USC during the second
While the Bears
were able to run the ball early and keep Goff from getting hit as
much as he has in recent weeks, the offense was very rarely at the
point where they were attacking downfield with the defense on their
back foot – and they were facing a USC team that's given up more
than 40 points twice this season.
All losses aren't alike.
Now at the end of
the season, 7-5 is 7-5, whether all five losses are by one point each
or by 35 points each. Eventually it might matter to a bowl committee
or somebody trying to pick a top 25 for the next year. But in
looking at Cal this season compared to last, it's easy to see that
Cal went 1-6 during the last seven games of last season and are 0-3
thus far into the last seven games of this season and assume that
everything's really about the
Last season at
this point, the Bears were 4-4, this year they're 5-3. Last year,
Cal opened with the softer part of their schedule and wilted against
tougher opposition. This year, it's been pretty much the same.
However, in games
six, seven and eight of last season, the Bears lost by 24 to
Washington, 2 to UCLA, and 18 to Oregon. In games six, seven, and
eight of this season, Cal's lost by six to Utah, 16 to UCLA, and 6 to
2014, two of Cal's wins were nailbiters over Colorado and Washington
State, two of the weakest teams in the Pac-12. This season, the
Bears don't play Colorado or Arizona – who along with Oregon State
are probably t he three weakest teams in the Pac-12.
Now the contrary
view is that the Bears slipped against UCLA going from losing by two
to losing by 16, and that it's still to be determined whether Cal can
improve upon an 18-point loss to Oregon and a 21-point loss to
But in the grand
scheme of things, it's easier to be more optimistic about the future
of Cal football and its ability to compete with good teams than it
was a year ago. While talent upgrades on the offensive and defensive
line would certainly help the Bears take the next step up; they're a
long way from where they were in 2013 when they closed out the season
with losses of 39, 22, 27, 32, 24, 5, 34, 17, and 50 points.
The Bears are at
the point where they can compete with top 25 teams week after week,
which isn't something anybody would have been all that confident
about last season.
3. Goff is
losing a little bit of his luster
It's easy to be
jaded after watching his play during the past couple of seasons –
but in the lead-up to the Utah game, you didn't have to go far
without bumping into stories about how Goff was not just a top
prospect for the upcoming NFL draft but was even a candidate to be
the top pick overall. Since then, he's had a couple of games under
the spotlight and has yet to have the signature game that would get those who write about such things to label him the
Boss Hogg of the upcoming NFL draft class.
He had the five
interceptions against Utah, a rough game against UCLA, and two
dubious interceptions against USC. On the first pass, he made the
right read in seeing an open Bryce Treggs running up the seam, but
the ball was short and behind him and was intercepted. There was some
discussion in the press box afterwards about whether Goff's arm was
actually hit or he just threw a duck.
On the second one,
Kenny Lawler ran directly towards the defensive back and there
appeared to be contact. It's not clear that Lawler was ever actually
open on the play, but the contact threw Lawler off and Kevon Seymour
was able to step up and make the interception.
But that's not to
say that it's all going south on Goff.
He did make a few
throws that were magnificent. A couple of deep balls were likely
going to be completions to Trevor Davis and Bryce Treggs, but USC's
Chris Hawkins early contact likely saved the Trojans from lots of
additional yards. On a 1st-and-10 from the Cal 20, he threw a deep
ball to Treggs, leading him perfectly even though USC's Leon McQuay
III was there on the coverage for a 43-yard gain.
In the second
quarter, he had a 2nd down play where, he looked towards
the left side towards Maurice Harris, took a quick glance to the
right, and fired a 14-yard completion to Chad Hansen.
Perhaps the best
throw was a 4th-and-6 pass from the USC 29, late in the 4th
quarter. With the Trojans carefully guarding against slants, swing
passes and short crosses, Darius Powe ran up the right seam. Goff had
to throw it quickly to get it to Powe before the coverage could make
the adjustment and Powe made a terrific leaping catch for a 29-yard
gain. It's a play that would be considered risky on 4th
down, but it needs a strong level of confidence and faith on the part
of the quarterback and the receiver to make that play.
But if 23-for-31
and 272 is an off-day, that suggests that there's a whole lot left.
4. Ten minutes
In terms of game
time, it was 10 minutes, but in clock time it was much longer than
that, and in football suffering time it was all of that plus some
plus the 12 years it's been since Cal last beat USC.
During that 10
minutes, USC scored 17 points, gained 142 yards, while allowing Cal
all of three plays – with two of them coming at the very tail end
of the half. By the time this stretch ended, USC broke open a 7-7
tie and turned it into a 24-7 lead which the Bears would spend the
rest of the game trying to dig itself out of.
First, the Trojans
just about closed out the half with an 11-play, 75-yard drive that
was finished with a 33-yard Alex Wood field goal. The Bears received
the kickoff, attempted two plays and then halftime came.
USC then received
the opening kickoff of the second half and went on a 13-play, 67-yard
drive that ended in a two-yard Tre Madden touchdown when the Trojans
elected to go for it on 4th-and-1 from the Cal 2.
And on the first
play after the kickoff, USC's Adoree Jackson intercepted a Goff pass
and returned in 46 yards for a touchdown.
So there was a big
chunk of time when Cal's offense wasn't on the field and couldn't be
a factor. The Bears defense was stout enough that it didn't allow a
quick strike, or a drive that was due largely to one big play. But it
did allow the Trojan offensive line to assert itself with lighting up
the scoreboard or putting up particularly impressive stats.
The Bears have had
a lot of success with scoring drives towards the end of the first
half, but they didn't get the ball until there were seven seconds
left – and as good as Cal's offense is, hoping was a score within
seven seconds would have been very optimistic.
Despite that, the
Bears still fought back to the point that they were a defensive stop
away from being in position to drive for the game-winning touchdown.
For those who've followed Cal football for decades, one might argue
that over time, the Bears have been in that situation an awful lot,
particularly when they were an awful lot.
But when the
defense is lining up, and the offense is waiting for that one chance;
they can't be burdened with history. Maybe they might sense context
within the course of the season; and certainly within the course of
the game. All they can do is put themselves in a position where they
can make plays – and by putting themselves in more positions – at
some point they'll be successful with those plays.
One to go.
While there are
undoubtedly a number of ups and downs that the Bears will face during
the final four games of the season, the Bears still need just one
more win to be bowl eligible. Even if the win total jumps from last
season's 2014 to this year's total which could go as high as nine but
is probably more likely to be somewhere around seven, the win total
won't matter so much as the chance to play in a bowl.
For one, it means
more practice, which will give the team a head start going into the
helps validate the work that Sonny Dykes and his staff are doing to
improve Cal's football fortunes. From taking the job following the
2012 season and not having very much to work and then laboring
through a 1-11 season, to playing in the postseason – it's
something that people probably anticipated might happen at some
point, but nobody would know when. And especially considering how
the 2012 season ended, with five straight losses by a total of 138
points in Jeff Tedford's final season, there had to be some wonder
if Cal would ever be good again.
Of the games left
of the schedule, the likeliest candidate for a victory is Oregon
State. They've got quarterback issues, the defense struggles against
anybody who's mildly above average and they don't have the firepower
remotely close to any of the top teams the Bears have played. Plus
the game will be in Berkeley.
Following that is
likely the last home game of the season against Oregon State – the
game following Thanksgiving that's always a little bit of an
Yet it's not out
of the question that Cal could beat Oregon. While the Oregon offense
is strong, it's not quite as potent as it's been the past few years
with Marcus Mariota at the helm. This year's Cal defense managed to
reasonably contain a USC offense that could have posed all sorts of
problems. While they couldn't as many stops as they needed, they
didn't get sliced apart by big plays.
On the flip side,
regardless of the health of the Ducks' quarterbacks, Oregon' defense has
struggled against almost everybody it's faced. In October, they
surrendered 144 points, and none of those teams is in the Top 25.
Their combined record is 16-14. And even though many of those points
were late, the Bears scored 41 points against Oregon last year, the
only team that scored more points against the Ducks last season Ohio