Cal’s offense presents something of a puzzle - their overall per-play success rate is above water at 51.8%, they’re particularly efficient at running the ball and going on long, sustained drives, they have three- or four-year veterans at every position, and they’re clearly comfortable operating OC Musgrave’s playbook. That should describe an average or somewhat above-average offense, in my experience.
And yet the Bears’ offense is ranked in the 80s in every advanced statistical system and they’re #93 in raw stats for scoring offense, putting up just 24.2 points per game (19.75, excluding the FCS game) which is good for ninth place in the Pac-12 (with or without FCS games). Their only win of the season was against FCS Sacramento St, and even that was only by 12 points.
I’ve come at this mystery from a couple of angles. On the podcast Rob noted that Cal’s redzone drive performance is one of the worst in the nation. But on a play basis, the Bears are actually three percentage points more efficient when snapping the ball inside the 20 than they are between the 20s. It’s not that they’re calling a new but worse set of plays in the redzone, it’s the same offense that’s not able to get much of a punch wherever they are. I also examined pace of play, field position advantage, and situational playcalling, and none gave very satisfying results.
The two best solutions I have relate to formational tendencies and how they generate explosive plays. The first of those is pretty obvious, as Cal does essentially nothing to conceal the play - they have a heavy set that they run out of and a light set that they pass out of. Specifically, they run 72% of the time when under center vs 28% of the time out of the shotgun, and it’s 61% run with two or three TEs in the formation vs 33% with one or zero TEs in. Their last two opponents simply adjusted their box personnel count as appropriate and usually had the numbers advantage.
Cal’s rushing tendencies make some sense on a per-play efficiency basis, since they’re almost 15 percentage points more successful at it than they are at passing. On the season they have 59 successful designed runs vs 40 failed ones, given the down & distance, or 59.6%. That’s a pretty good number, if not quite championship caliber. They generate 5.7 yards per carry during meaningful play on what’s a very efficient rushing approach.
The issue is that while the Bears are remarkably effective at generating good runs — 45 of the 99 I charted got 5+ yards — they’re mediocre to poor at generating great runs, with only 16 going for 10+ yards and just four at 15+, and the single longest on the season was 38 yards. The fact that they can reliably stay ahead of the sticks but can’t get very far past them at the most effective part of their offense seems to trap them in long, clock-eating drives which eventually stall out, and they don’t have another “gear” to play in if they fall behind.
Here’s a representative sample of Cal’s successful rushing plays:
(Reminder - you can right-click or long-press any video to play it at ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 - About 30% of Cal’s successful rushing plays look just like this - a short-yardage dive with #25 RB D. Brooks at seven yards deep to build a head of steam, and the blockers firing straight ahead into a smaller defense with no pulls or other complexities, then finishing with a push for extra yardage.
- :10 - Proper read of the defense by #7 QB Garbers, with the RG cutting the nose so that the center can get up to block the backside LB. The LG losing his man makes it a little harder than it needs to and the RT can’t take care of the backside end, so there’s no hope of Garbers beating the safety for an explosive gain, however.
- :16 - I think Cal’s best offensive asset is their stable of hard-running backs. They’re showing good vision and cutbacks this year to compensate for inconsistent blocking, as here when #28 RB D. Moore checks out of the right B-gap because the RG has whiffed on his block and instead cuts it into the left B-gap then jumps over the safety for a good gain.
- :25 - This is the rarest of the successful runs on my tally sheet, about 10% of such plays, where every single blocker gets lined up smartly and #24 RB Street can gain 10+ yards.
I think the main reason Cal isn’t generating many explosive rushes is that their blockers, while pretty good at just leaning on the defense to pick up several yards, just aren’t effective enough at some of the more complex blocking in Musgrave’s playbook to really open a hole for the back or let him get to the edge. Rob and I discussed on the podcast some possibilities to replace the biggest underperformers — at RT and the blocking TE — with more talented younger players, and I’ll be on the lookout to see if that happens after Cal’s bye week.
Here’s a representative sample of failed rushing plays:
- :00 - As just mentioned, here’s a play where the TE is getting crushed by a smaller DE and the RT whiffs on the playside backer, and those are the two who make the tackle on #4 WR Remigio’s sweep.
- :08 - Poor hand placement by the center here costs them two blocks - he’s hooking under the DT’s arm instead of striking it down, preventing him from handing that block off to the RG and getting up to the backer.
- :15 - Pretty good block here by #62 LG Coleman, who as a sophomore grades out better than the rest of the o-line’s upperclassmen on my tally sheet. I can’t say as much about the other six blocks on this play.
- :34 - The lack of a credible receiving threat from the starting TEs dooms a lot of their zone-read plays - that DB knows that the TE is going to be blocking instead of bluffing the DE (not very well, though) and he can simply crash the mesh with #34 RB C. Brooks. Garbers would have lost yardage had he kept it.
The passing offense, by contrast, is badly underwater: 67 successes on designed dropbacks vs 79 failures, or just 45.9% per-play efficiency. They’re only generating 7.2 yards per pass attempt I charted, down a full yard per attempt from Garbers’ best season in 2019, which shows a real preference for shorter passing this year.
However, the passing game is where Cal gets the vast majority of its explosive plays - 11% of all dropbacks went for 20+ yards, and they’ve gotten five on the season to go more than 40 yards, more than their longest run. Here’s a representative sample of successful passes:
- :00 - A quick crosser makes up a substantial number of Cal’s successful passes, this one showing off Remigio’s consistently reliable hands on a contested ball.
- :14 - I haven’t been wild about Garbers over his four years as a starter, but I think he has been making improvements to his decision-making and accuracy, as with this post route on the RPO, properly reading the boundary safety coming down, the high safety retreating, and the corner playing outside.
- :27 - An odd pattern emerged last year where Garbers was far more accurate and productive throwing to his left than his right, and it’s continued so far this year - he’s just able to fire a faster and more accurate ball on out patterns and comebacks to the left sideline, when velocity is at a premium to beat the DB’s angle.
Here’s then the rub for my second theory to explain their poor scoring performance: Cal isn’t very efficient throwing the ball and clearly prefers to keep their passing game short, but it’s the only way they can get out of the rut of long, fruitless drives. So they can’t abandon it either, and in fact have to throw the ball at a 3:2 ratio vs running it. They can be explosive but not efficient at passing, and efficient but not explosive at rushing … the combined result is a lot of empty possessions.
Here are some representative examples of inefficiencies in the passing game:
- :00 - The blitz isn’t picked up, forcing a quick throw into the flat, but Garbers doesn’t have time to set his feet and Remigio can’t adjust in time to an inaccurate ball.
- :06 - The LT, one of the few 4-stars on the offense, gets embarrassed by a 5-star edge rusher, and so Garbers doesn’t have time to get to the only route on 3rd & long that might get past the sticks, instead taking the quick slant which is tackled short. There’s just not enough of a vertical passing game in this offense to stretch the field or give them good options in situations like this.
- :22 - It was kind of astonishing how often Wazzu’s pass rush was getting home in Cal’s most recent game. Here they’ve gotten sick of it to start the second half and put in an 8-man protection against a 4-man rush … and still give up a sack.
What underpins all of this tension in the passing game is that the talent just isn’t there for the fifth year in HC Wilcox’s tenure - the offensive line and tight ends don’t give the QB nearly enough time in the pocket to set up for deeper throws, and the veteran receivers, with the growing exception of young #10 WR Hunter, simply don’t get separation so Garbers has to hold the ball for a while. I tallied fully a quarter of all dropbacks ending in a sack, scramble, or throwaway.
This is compounded by the fact that Garbers is a very eager scrambler and breaks the pocket the instant it starts to collapse. There’s a trap here too - Garbers is a pretty effective scrambler, and in fact when he escapes the pocket on a designed passing rep he generates a successful play 68.4% of the time with either his arm or his legs, making scrambles the single most efficient “play” that Cal has. But he never generates explosive plays out of them, and the fact that the pocket breaks down so frequently opens him up to some devastating sacks. Some examples:
- :00 - Nice job escaping the DT who’s gone right through and over the RG, then a tough throw on the hoof to the sticks to convert a 3rd & long.
- :10 - This is a clean enough pocket to make the throw to the sideline, but I think Garbers trusts his feet more than he does his protection. The point throws off the DB long enough to get him space to convert.
- :21 - The blitz gets home, which wasn’t a big surprise in this game, and neither was the fact that Garbers slipped out of it and even broke a tackle in the backfield. But this time the defense has properly assigned a spy who gets the quick tackle. All-out blitzes against Garbers rarely succeed, he’s just too slippery, but he can be fairly reliably contained if the defense accounts for him.
Cal’s defensive rankings in adv stats is similarly in the high 70s / low 80s, though I think it’s more hot and cold than that average implies. They’ve been using the same basic defensive principles since 2017 when the new staff arrived, including then-DC DeRuyter, which by default wants to play a 3-4 with two OLBs on the line, frequent blitzes, zone coverage in the back, and switching to man on 3rd downs. However, various personnel problems — a shortage of defensive linemen in general and nose tackles in particular, and the staff reorganization that put current DC Sirmon ahead of DeRuyter in 2020 before he left for Oregon in 2021 — have conspired for these last three seasons to keep the Bears most often in a 2-4-5, switching into a 3-3-5 for one-off drives or a 3-4 situationally.
The area most affected is Cal’s rush defense, which has been on a steady three-year decline since their peak in 2018 in terms of per-play efficiency on my tally sheet - this year they’ve successfully defended 50 designed rushes vs 60 failures, or 45.5%, which is the lowest I’ve observed in Wilcox’s tenure. They allow 5.6 yards per carry outside of garbage time and have given up five runs of 20+ yards, without generating much in the way of negative plays at only two tackles for loss on opponent rushes in four FBS games.
The interesting thing is that the rates at which Cal allows 5+ and 10+ yd runs aren’t terrible - 27% and 13%, respectively. When they’re on, I see sound and physical play out of the defensive front and good tackling from the secondary in run support. Some examples:
- :00 - Great job by #58 NG McKenzie, their preferred 0-tech when in a 3-down front, crushing the center and getting into the backfield. Lacking a good option at nose has been a big part of Cal’s defensive falloff in 2019 and 2020 in my opinion, and so it was heartening to see McKenzie finally remedying that, but Rob tells us he’s injured for this week and possibly out for the season.
- :07 - Here’s Cal’s more typical 2-4 front. Good job here by true freshman #43 ILB Oladejo to stay disciplined and follow longtime starter #19 OLB Goode to pick up the QB who keeps after the crash. Rob and I talked about the rotation and experimentation Cal has been doing this season at ILB; in my opinion Oladejo should be a starter instead of a backup.
- :14 - Cal usually supplements its 2-4 with safeties in the box; here’s a great job by 5-year starter #3 DB Hicks to flow to the play, keep his shoulders square to the line, and wrap up the back for an instant stop … he could give lessons to linebackers.
- :32 - I think #46 OLB Bimage, a transfer from Texas this offseason, has been the best newcomer to the squad. Here he’s crushing the LT into the backfield and interrupting the back, with #32 DB coming down hard for the TFL. This play shows off Cal’s two best defensive units, in my opinion: the outside backers and safeties.
There are three problems I notice in run stopping: first is personnel limitations - they can’t always switch to the three-down front they’d like to play even when the opponent is in an obvious rushing down. Second, they’re giving up an extra yard or two pretty consistently, flipping what would have been a successful stop into a failed one - it’s not a huge amount of extra yardage over the course of a game, but it’s enough to let the opponent keep ahead of the sticks and their playbook open on any given down. Third, while they’re above water against the run in the first halves of games with a 53.3% success rate, fatigue seems to set in after halftime because they’re badly underwater at 40.0% against the run in second halves. Some examples:
- :00 - Poor tackling by both the starting ILBs allows a run that should have been stuffed to pick up 8 yards.
- :10 - A wide spread of the receivers has the OLBs well off the line, and the ILBs need to get off these blocks to contain the QB up the middle, but instead they’re getting blown back several yards.
- :17 - Cal is sending a backside run blitz that might have worked if the defense frontside had slowed things down enough to catch the back, but instead they’re being blocked pretty easily. This was the first play I really detected fatigue starting in the second halves of games, as all the clips in this video are from.
- :32 - We’re just not seeing proper block-destruction technique from the defense here - watch the playside DT and ILB for clear signs of leaning over and playing high, instead of getting low to strike and shed.
Cal’s pass defense is fairly efficient by comparison, with 81 successful defended dropbacks vs 70 failures, or 53.6%. They allow 7.2 yards per attempt outside garbage time, which is a pretty decent number.
I attribute much of Cal’s successful pass defense to a pretty effective pass rush and lots of blitzing, with 20.5% of all opponent dropbacks ending in a sack, scramble, or throwaway. Most of Cal’s successful pass defenses involve some kind of pressure on the QB, with the rest coming from zone coverage that keeps the play in front of them. Some examples:
- :00 - Just rushing four here, dropping both OLBs and bringing one ILB immediately and the second on a green dog. #99 DL Saunders is one of two newer faces in the 4-man d-line rotation (excluding the NG), and I think he’s played pretty well.
- :20 - Here are the two starters in their typical 2-4, #93 DL Bequette (back after transferring to Boston College) and #47 DL Tevis. Pressure from Bequette and Bimage throw the QB off platform, and Tevis is absorbing a double team (and probably getting held) as he’s working over to obstruct the lane.
- :29 - Cal blitzes on 3rd & medium or long more than 60% of the time, trying to force a quick throw. This play is typical for their strategy - allow a short completion, but with the DB in position to accelerate into it for a drive-stopping tackle.
- :35 - Bequette rocking the RG is clearly rattling the QB, who double-clutches and then throws a real lollipop. Hicks is covering well, and #32 DB Scott is reading the QB the whole way and starts to get over early, in time to pick it off.
Where Cal stumbles in pass defense is in stopping explosive passing plays and preventing 3rd down conversions, and frequently those are the same problem. Of all pass attempts they defended outside of garbage time in FBS games, 17.5% went for 15+ yards, and 11% went for 20+ (which includes six TDs). In raw stats, Cal’s defense ranks #120 nationally in allowing 3rd down conversions … I didn’t chart their FCS game but according to the box score, Sac State passed on sixteen 3rd downs and converted ten of them.
I think the throughline here is that while they usually go to man on 3rd downs, particularly 3rd & short, their rebuilt secondary just isn’t able to reliably cover one-on-one, something that has visibly frustrated Wilcox. They pulled one of the starting corners midway through their third game for ineffectiveness and I don’t think they’ve got a lockdown corrner in the room. If the pass rush isn’t getting home, this defense isn’t particularly difficult to pick apart … and that’s true for their zone coverage as well, though it usually buys them an extra second compared to man. Some examples:
- :00 - The QB is pretty effectively manipulating the defense here. The pump gets the high safety to hesitate, and his movement up to the line gets the ILB to come off the back to try and stop the scramble. That leaves the CB in a bind - he has to come down onto the back, and now the receiver is open on the out.
- :13 - If Cal’s not getting pressure, their zone defense isn’t difficult to pick apart. I frequently see most of the coverage defending empty grass, and there’s just not enough athleticism here to prevent yards after the catch.
- :25 - The last couple of games Cal has been starting two very young corners over more experienced players, one from 2020 and another from the 2021 class. Here the true freshman gets lost in coverage, and not for the first time.
- :46 - The other young corner gets mixed up with one of the experimental ILBs (himself a former DB, and Rob tells us the likely starter tonight). The other ILB starts getting pulled over into triple coverage of the same receiver, leaving nobody in the lane and for some reason no one over the top either. Another example of how easily opponents have been finding holes in the zone when the pass rush doesn’t create pressure immediately.