Holy moly, we're already a quarter into the college football season! Well, technically we're only 3 weeks into a 13 week season, but the Bears have already played a fourth of their games, so I'm marking this as the end of the first grading period.
Heading into the season, I had probably more interest and curiosity about this team than I've had about a Cal squad in a long, long time. I simply didn't know what we were going to get.
And after three games, a few things are obvious: this is a young football team that's learning on the go. For whatever expectations you had about this team, you can't deny that a lot of these players are playing their most extended, significant minutes in their young careers. The result has been a 1-2 start: including a (mostly) close loss to 18th ranked Northwestern, a way too-tight win over FCS Portland State, and a "was not close at all, then kinda close for a little bit, before being a not so close again" loss to 4th ranked Ohio State.
We'll get to defense later, only because I can't stomach writing that out today). Let's start with the offense.
This is a difficult to evaluate since you can't ignore the fact that we're talking about a true freshman here. In this regard, I find myself sometimes being too lenient on him, and sometimes perhaps giving him more credit than he deserves. The whole, "But he's great for a freshman!" type of deal.
But looking back Jared Goff's play, you can't help but not be impressed with his him, true freshman or not. By the end of the Northwestern game, it was easy to see what made Sonny Dykes and Tony Franklin name Goff the starter over two upperclassmen.
Goff has shown all the qualities you'd want in a quarterback running their type of offense: he's been (mostly) smart with the football, has shown good to great accuracy, decent pocket awareness, and has a quick release.
On top of that, he's been seemingly unflappable. He's gone up against some of the top defenses in the country in his first three games, and has shown an ability to bounce back from mistakes and turnovers. Granted, he hasn't played in any away games yet, but I've still yet to get a sense that he's ever truly been rattled.
The result has been the true freshman leading the nation in passing yards. In just three games, Goff has thrown for 1301 yards, completing 61.1% of his passes for 7 TDs and 4 interceptions.
I'm trying to evaluate his quarterback play objectively, and for the most part, it's clear he's the least of our concerns. Areas for improvement? You want to see him read the defenses a bit better. Two of his interceptions this season have come on misfires on deep vertical routes to Chris Harper. Both times, he's failed to take into account the safety playing deep on those plays.
Ywant to see Goff continue to improve in reading coverage both presnap and during plays. It's been encouraging to see him go through his progressions and pull the ball down when nothing's there, and already, he's seeing the field a lot faster than Cal's previous starting QBs. But that's not to say it can't get a whole lot better.
Secondly, he could be a bit smarter with the ball. Though 2 of Goff's interceptions haven't been on him, there have been more than a handful of interceptions this season that have been thrown right into the hands of stone-clawed defenders. His interception number could easily be as much or more than his TD total.
This is probably the most disappointing unit on offense right now, thought not necessarily the worst. I had really high hopes for Cal's backfield this season, only to be underwhelmed thus far.
Through 3 games, not a single rusher has reached the century mark in a game, and Cal's backfield has combined for just 356 yards (119 ypg), which is good for 99th in the country. On top of that, we've had just 2 rushing TDs by a runningback this season.
Naturally, the offensive line play has been a big factor which we'll get to in a bit, but the runningbacks are not without fault here.
And you can't have this conversation without mentioning Brendan Bigelow's disappointing start to the season. Bigelow started this season with a bang, ripping off huge yardage on the first drive against Northwestern. Since then? He's been incredibly underwhelming. We've failed to see the type of burst and open field vision that we had hoped for from Bigelow, who last season looked simply unstoppable at times in his limited role.
Bigelow is currently averaging less than 4 yards a carry right now and has failed to reach the endzone at all this season. Again, has the o-line been a factor? Of course. But his vision and ability to break through arm tackles simply isn't there right now.
True freshman Khalfani Muhammad has at times, looked superb for a true freshman, and I'll go as far to say that he's had spurts where he's been the best runningback in the rotation. He runs much harder than I thought he would, and has had a few times in which he's shown his world class speed. He's still learning on the job however, and replays will show multiple instances in which he could have broken off much longer runs had he just made a different decision here and there on certain plays.
Daniel Lasco has been the question mark, as he missed out against Portland State completely. He didn't come into the Ohio State game until much later when the score was already decided. Still he looked great against the Buckeyes, and ended up leading the Bears in rushing and scored the only rushing TD by a runningback.
At this point, I've got to think that Lasco might deserve first snaps as he's likely our best RB to hit the holes in between tackles. I think the Bears are going to continue to find ways to get Bigelow into space, and become a bigger factor in the passing game, as he simply isn't getting it done on the ground in the trenches right now. And keep plugging Muhammad in as this kid's getting better and better with each game.
Offensive Line: C
This grade might seem a bit surprising given that the unit has already surrendered a whopping 12 sacks on the season and is only averaging 118.67 yards per game on the ground.
But after watching game tape and focusing on offensive line play, it honestly isn't as bad as some are making it out to be. In fact, I'll go as far as to say that the offensive line play has steadily improved over the last three games.
Go back and watch the tape against OSU. We're not witnessing a complete breakdown by the offensive line. It's usually one missed block here and there. The sack on Goff which led to the fumble was LT Freddie Tagaloa simply not getting wide enough against the speed pass rusher. Negative rushing plays were the result of a pulling guard not quite getting to their gap in time to completely block out a defender. We're talking about individual players making mistakes and whiffing on specific plays.
Now I know it'll appear as if the pocket is collapsing constantly on Goff. But remember Cal's vertical blocking scheme, which they've used more so this year than they did at Louisiana Tech because of sheer amount of passing they've been doing early on in the season. The offensive line is meant to backpedal quickly, and are counting on a quick release and smart pocket work by their quarterback. For the most part, Goff has been extraordinary in this, but there have been a few times when Goff has held on to the ball a second or two longer than he should.
The point is, while I think o-line hasn't been fantastic, I have noticed a steady increase in their play. When you've got a line starting two freshmen two sophomores, and a junior making a position change, you're going to see some growing pains early on. But I feel ever so slightly less anxious about this unit today than I did at the beginning of the season.
Wide Receiver: A-
Cal's wide receiving corps is easily the best unit on offense, and might be the most talented, deepest unit on the entire team.
The #BearRaid offense, combined with competency at quarterback and fantastic talent at the receiver position has led to some of the best receiving numbers in...well perhaps ever. As it stands, Cal's on pace of crushing every receiving record by the end of the season.
It starts with what might be the best receiving duo in the country in X receiver Bryce Treggs and Z receiver Chris Harper. In just three games, they've caught a combined 49 passes for 644 yards and 4 TDs.
For some context, last year Keenan Allen didn't top the 300 yard receiving mark until the 5th game of the season. Both Treggs and Harper have done it in just 3. Well 2 and a half games for Harper actually.
But it doesn't stop there. The Bears have been fortunate to have considerable depth and health at both the Y and H receiver positions in Jackson Bouza and Richard Rodgers, who have contributed a combined 214 yards and 2 TDs themselves.
And the depth at the receiver position has made itself evident, with Maurice Harris, Kenny Lawler, Darius Powe, Stephen Anderson and James Grisom all taking turns making critical and at times, highlight grabs.
So the production at the receiver position has been nothing short of fantastic.
Areas of improvement? The clear answer is downfield blocking. Cal's receivers have struggled to maintain blocks long enough for Cal's backs to break open long runs, but I've seen a lot of improvement in just the past two games. Short of Richard Rodgers, Cal hasn't had a physically dominant receiver as a blocker this year, but again, the season is still young.
Also, Cal's had a few critical drops early in the season, most notably one that was returned for a defensive score against Northwestern. But there have been a few other drops, especially in the endzone, that could have given the Bears some additional, and much needed points. I do think this is also getting better, as I think I only counted one drop against Ohio State, but I could be wrong.
Again, like quarterback, you can't complain too much about the play at wide receiver. I've been really pleased with the corps. A few more downfield blocks and more consistency might result in one of the best receiving units in the country.
Overall Offense Grade (not an average): B
Yes, the issues are apparent. The Bears are on track of having their weakest rushing output in years, and they've continued to struggle in the redzone. For all the hoopla about Cal's BearRaid offense, we're still only averaging 33.7 points per game. That's good, but far from being mind-blowingly good.
However, according to Football Scoop, we're on track to having the fastest offense in the history of college football. Their research shows that we're averaging a staggering 95 snaps per game (94.66 actually), averaging 6 yards per play. Of course, a lot could change between now and the end of the season, but so far the results are promising.
I mean, take all the factors into account. So far, the Bears have faced off against the #18 and #4 teams in the country in Northwestern and Ohio State respectively, and have still put up over 30 points in each of those games. They're doing this in their first three games in a brand new system, with three new starters on the offensive line, and oh yeah, a true freshman quarterback.
While everything isn't perfect now, I can't see how you wouldn't be at the very least optimistic about the future.