Sunday, October 6, 2013

Washington State Recap

There’s no other way to really sugarcoat it.

This team is a mess right now. And while a lot of our issues are self-inflicted, you have to recognize that a lot of our issues are the result of some majorly bad luck.

But in any case, the result is still a bad football team. Cal has dropped nine straight games to FBS opponents going back to last season, which is the longest streak in the nation. Though many of those opponents were quality opponents, you know the program has reached its nadir when it gets blown out by Washington State at home 44-22.

It’s not difficult to understand how this Cal team lost the game. A young team devastated by injuries. 5 turnovers and 11 penalties. Missed tackles. Red zone struggles. It’s been the same story for most of the season.

But actually watching it happen was brutal.

There are a few big (but painful) stories here, so let’s get to them.

So this is worth addressing. I hate the excuse game of complaining that injuries are the reason a team is struggling.

But the sheer number of injuries sustained by this team is unbelievable.

Cal lost both Jalen Jefferson, Stefan McClure, Joel Willis on Saturday to go along with Chris Adcock who’s out for the season from an ACL injury sustained on Wednesday.

We’re at a point where 8 of the 11 projected starters from the Spring are out, and most of them are likely out for the season. Simply incredible.

It’s hard to really get into full out rant mode when you’re having to play with 8 new starters. Even beyond that, a lot of key reserves are out as well. Our starting secondary is down to our 3rd string CB, a walk on, a true freshman playing a new position, and a junior.

So while I don’t try to wallow in the whole, “Woe is me” injury talk, how much can you really be rip into players and coaches when you’re dealing with players who are simply haven’t played or are physically outmatched out there? We seriously are at a point where you can’t even yell out, “Why is he still in the game?” because the answer sadly is, “Because there’s no one left.”

Turnovers Sink Bears
The Bears coughed the ball over five times compared to WSU’s lone interception, but the most painful ones were clearly the first two.

The Bears fumbled on twice inside their own five yard line, the first of which was a Daniel Lasco fumble on an awkward exchange, and the second was Brendan Bigelow’s fumble after he failed to punch it in on three straight attempts from a yard out of the endzone.

Dykes couldn’t have said it any better than he did during his press conference, you can’t win many ball games doing that.

Red Zone Woes/Running Game
But beyond just the turnovers, Cal continues to be awful inside the redzone, and a lot of it has to do with Cal’s anemic running game. At this point it’s an identity for the Bears—they simply are not a good running football team.

Playcalling in the red zone is difficult as it is, but it becomes twice as difficult when you can’t run the ball. I’ve already examined the issues before, and it’s no surprise that the problems begin with the o-line, and continue with the inability by any of Cal’s backs at this point to be a consistent running threat. They’re struggling to find running lanes, but more frustratingly, are having a difficult time finishing runs. They’re not running around or through defenders. And given what we’ve seen from Cal’s backs the past decade, we’re in a ridiculously unfamiliar place.

A quick word on Brendan Bigelow. It doesn’t take a sports therapist to know that this guy is emotionally battered right now. He’s nowhere close to the back that we’ve seen in bursts from him last year, and his fumble problems right now are just compounding the woes. Bigelow wears his emotions on his sleeves, and all it takes is one look at him to know that he isn’t right.

It’s tough because the only thing that can help him is continued encouragement and more touches, but it’s tough to play a back that can’t hold onto the ball.

Makeshift Offensive Line Struggles
Cal’s offensive line had one of their rougher performances during the season. The Bears are already down two starters in Chris Adcock and Matt Cochran, but Cal’s most glaring problems were when WSU sent just three pass rushers. These perplexing gaffes have come up quite often this season.

One the first sack, Freddie Tagaloa and Steven Moore barely got a hand on their respective defensive ends. On the second, Alejandro Crosthwaite couldn’t pull in time to block out his defender.

The offensive line as a whole was under duress given the heat that WSU was sending at Goff. Throw in a few penalties that negated a few big plays, and that about sums up the afternoon for the Bears line in a nutshell.

Secondary Struggles
Cal’s secondary is a battered patchwork unit of players desperately looking for answers. Cal allowed a one-hipped Connor Halliday to throw for a whopping 521 yards, 3 TDs and just 1 pick. We know that Cal had their hands full against WSU’s air raid, but very few in their worst nightmares could have envisioned Halliday going for over half a thousand yards.

At the safety positions, I thought both Cameron Walker and Michael Lowe had some pretty good games. Walker made some nice plays on the ball and with the exception of a play when he didn’t wrap up on the receiver, allowing the WSU receiver to run untouched afterwards for a long TD. Lowe also notched the first Cal interception in forever, but then followed it up with an inexplicable decision to flip into the endzone, despite his knee clearly touching the field on the return. But I feel slightly better about these positions than I do at the cornerback spots.

First off, Cal had to play with a gimpy Kam Jackson who didn’t make it through the game, and Stefan McClure looks like he might be out for a little while after getting up gimpy. On top of all that, Joel Willis had to be carted off the field after a kickoff return in which the returnman never actually returned the ball. Just process that for a second.

Then there was Isaac Lapite. Poor, poor Isaac Lapite.

I’m not even mad. It became clear that the walk on DB was busting his tail off, but he just looked way over his head out there. Lapite was getting burned for long TDs, drawing all sorts of pass interference penalties, and capped off his torturous afternoon by getting simply thrown down by a Coug receiver for a TD. I very rarely, if ever rip on players in posts, and it’d be ridiculous to start now. It’s really the instance of a player trying his best but looking simply outmatched against Pac-12 receivers. You can’t knock a guy for that, but just hope there’re some other defenders ready to step up.

Speaking of which, I thought Adrian Lee looked okay in his most significant minutes in his time as a Bear. There were clearly a few technical issues here and there, but he showed nice grit, making two key plays with two breakups in Cal’s territory to limit the Cougars to just a FG.

The only silver lining here is that Cal’s secondary will at least be pretty seasoned by the time the season ends. They may continue to get torched, but at least we’ll head into next season with nearly every cornerback on the team having started at least one game.

Perplexed by Lack of Pressure
I said in my keys to the game that Cal had to send pressure at Connor Halliday. He’s a completely different passer when he gets a hand in his face and feels pressure in the pocket. But yesterday, you could count the number of blitzes on one hand. And the very first blitz of the game led to an interception directly into the hands of Michael Lowe.

I understand given the speed at which the ball gets out on top of the number of receivers in Leach’s offense that you can’t afford to send the house, but the lack of pressure was truly perplexing and frustrating. Cal had their hands full as it was, but dug their own hole by giving Halliday free time and space to shred up Cal’s battered defense.

Special Teams Returns
Special Teams returned to being the most solid unit on the field for the Bears. D’Amato continues to play like one of the best kickers in the nation, while Cole Leininger also continues his very solid sophomore campaign.

In addition, the Bears limited Washington State to a 16.3 average on kickoff returns and just 5.3 yards on their punt returns.

It’s still early, but I’m still hoping that last week’s special teams performance against Oregon was more of an anomaly than a sign of more breakdowns to come.

Final Bright Spots
Really it was just Jared Goff and Chris Harper on Offense. I actually don’t think it was Jared Goff’s best game this season, but it was a nice bounceback after the debacle at Oregon. Goff broke Pat Barnes’ single game record by throwing for 504 yards, 2 TDs and an interception. The good feelings around the record is nullified a bit by Cal’s poor running attack and lack of points, but it’s still amazing that a true freshman has become the first player in Cal history to throw for over 400 yards three times in a game.

Goff still throws the ball up for grabs a bit when pressured. Goff launched another ball into double coverage for the third interception of this type this season. Again, Goff is the least of our worries right now, but a quarterback can’t continually make the same mistakes, so that’s a little concerning.

Finally, you can’t say enough about Chris Harper’s performance yesterday. Harper hauled in 14 passes for 216 yards and a score. We all knew Chris Harper was good, but yesterday was the first time I thought, “This guy could be really, REALLY good.” It’s been exciting to watch.

Moving Forward
I know it sounds like I’m venting, but a lot of my frustration is that I really believed that each week, the team was buying in little by little. That regardless of the outcomes of the games, the team was slowly making progress into becoming a better team. I was willing to accept the idea that this season would be a rebuilding one if it meant that the team that played in Week 13 would be markedly better than the team that played during Week 1.

Right now, that looks like very difficult scenario to imagine. In all but a few categories, it looks like the team is not only getting unhealthier but also regressing in many regards.

I don’t know what else to say. With the injuries and lack of confidence right now, I don’t see it getting much better any time soon. I’m absolutely going to keep supporting this team, and continue to believe that the team is depositing money into their proverbial bank. Admittedly, it’s a tough proposition, but hey we’re Bears fans. We’ve seen worse.

I think.


Anonymous said...

Well spoken.