Cal has substantially upgraded its wide receiver and running back talent compared to previous years, Purdue transfer #13 QB Plummer is a pretty good fit for this play-action offense in my opinion, and OC Musgrave has streamlined out the unproductive 13- and 14-personnel sets from the last two years with a more realistic approach to his tight end room. On the podcast, I asked Rob what would happen if this were “Freaky Friday” and all the above pieces were joined by a top quality offensive line that magically showed up in Berkeley, and his guess was a top 40-50 offense … and I think I agree with him.
But here in reality, Cal’s offense is ranked 101st out of 131 FBS teams in F+ advanced statistics. Rob and I both agree that the primary cause of their offensive problems is that the Bears’ offensive line is probably the worst in the conference, and this is the worst possible scheme with which to have poor o-line play. They can’t really establish the run, they can’t protect the QB long enough for long passes, and the playbook and skill talent isn’t really set up to do short stuff that breaks big.
Plummer has received some grief from some parts of the fanbase, and I was fairly skeptical that they’d get more aggressive play from him after he essentially got chased out of West Lafayette by Aidan O’Connell. But when the protection holds up and one of the receivers creates some separation from coverage (which this deep group of young talents are much better at than previous iterations of the Bears’ offense under HC Wilcox), I think he throws a pretty good ball. Some examples:
(Reminder - after pressing play, you can use the left button to slow any video to ¼ or ½ speed)
- :00 – Good pocket for a change, nicely placed ball, with #3 WR Hunter (who missed the last game but Rob says should be good to play on Saturday) beating man coverage on a nice stutter off the line.
- :15 – Here Plummer finds the hole in Wazzu’s zone defense, good smooth delivery with the right arc – high enough to get over the backer but shallow enough to get there before the safety can hit Hunter. On the following play Plummer nailed a 49-yard pass while being hit.
- :33 – This comeback route is only 10 yards downfield, but it’s a long throw from the opposite hash delivered with real zip to beat the backer - that takes some real arm strength. Watch Plummer’s helmet, he’s scanning the full field.
- :40 – UW is in its dime package here but the high safety comes down to help the other safety with the TE, creating a one-on-one with a CB who’s just nowhere near as talented as #7 WR Sturdivant, Cal’s other leading receiver.
Unfortunately, Plummer’s been dealing with an injury to his right leg (Rob told a gruesome story about the Colorado game on the podcast) and it may be limiting the power he can load onto his back foot. It’s definitely making him less mobile; he had a number of good scrambles in week 3 against Notre Dame but he’s been taking a lot of sacks or otherwise unproductive throws under pressure since. It’s pretty rare for the pocket to hold up against any kind of pass rush and Cal is ranked 117th in raw sacks allowed per game at 3.29, with a 28% sack/scramble/throwaway rate per dropback on my tally sheet. Some examples:
- :00 – The DE gets taken out by #4 TE Terry so this is only a three-man rush, but it’s more than adequate to get through this line.
- :19 – Pretty basic zone coverage defeats this conservative playcall, a bunch of hitches short of the line to gain. The line is having a hard time with the twist and Plummer hits a checkdown for a loss.
- :26 – CU is showing blitz but backs out the ILBs, the line’s getting crushed by the three guys they are blocking and nobody picks up the OLB.
- :39 – Both tackles (whom Rob expects to be the starters on Saturday) get smoked and Plummer throws this checkdown too high under pressure.
Those issues and the mismatch between the scheme and the line’s quality have created a pretty dire passing offense in the stats I generate from charting. Excluding the FCS game and garbage time, I’ve tallied Cal with 94 successful designed passing plays vs 148 failed ones, or only a 39% success rate given the down & distance. That’s a substantially below average figure, as is their adjusted yardage which is just 6.7 YPA. However, they do okay at explosive passing, with about 16.5% of dropbacks resulting in a 15+ yard gain, a slightly above average rate in my experience.
The rushing offense is trickier to grade, because unlike the passing offense there’s a substantial single-game outlier: week 4 against Arizona. For the entire dataset (all FBS games minus garbage time), I tallied 61 successful designed runs vs 75 failures, or a little under 45% - below average, but much better than the passing game. The yardage and explosiveness aren’t great, with just 4.3 adjusted YPC and a little more than 13% of runs gaining 10+ yards, but that would be just enough to establish a credible run threat and start operating the deep passing game.
However, if the Arizona game is excluded, all those figures fall substantially: -5.75 percentage points in efficiency to about 39%, -2.33 points off explosiveness to 11%, and -0.8 from the yardage average to 3.5 YPC. All of those are very bad numbers. Cal’s last two opponents have consistently played lighter boxes against them and re-allocated resources to stopping the pass instead, en route to wins over the Bears.
The big problem here is again the offensive line. I didn’t think this unit was great to start the year, and they’ve now lost two starters from the beginning of the season and have been shuffling around the remaining five guys to different spots almost every week. When I asked Rob who would be the next guy in if they have to go to one, it elicited a moment of panic … it’s looking like some freshmen might be the best options. The upshot in the run game is that there just aren’t a lot of holes to run through. Some examples:
- :00 – Part of the o-line re-arrangements has been bringing in a true freshman off the bench. He and the center have pretty bad zone-blocking assignment errors here.
- :18 – Here all three guards are blocking two d-linemen, with the RT left to pick up an ILB who’s faster than him and no one to get the other ILB. The back at 8 yards deep has too much distance to travel to avoid a negative play.
- :25 – The other issue in blocking for Musgrave’s old-fashioned offense is that the tight ends just don’t have the heft or acumen for these heavy short-yardage runs, and Cal’s stuff rate on 3rd & short is one of the worst in the country. Here both the TEs on the right side of the formation whiff badly.
- :37 – I really like true freshman #6 RB Ott’s burst and it’s no wonder he’s taken over as primary back, but while he sifts through traffic past the LOS pretty well he’s prone to getting taken down by arm tackles. Here the DT leans into his lane because the RG isn’t controlling him well and it’s like he’s hit a brick wall.
That’s a real pity, because I think Cal’s running back unit is pretty good. Ott’s speed and vision are for real, I still like returner #25 RB D. Brooks quite a bit, and there’s good, veteran depth behind them as well. I like the way these guys run when they get an opportunity:
- :00 – This turns out to be a foolish way of defending Cal’s run game – overly crowding the line and then having your ILBs caught up in their own wash. Brooks does a great job in the backfield waiting for the hole then making a decisive cut and bursting through, with no one downfield to stop him.
- :08 – This is the worst rush defense in the conference and so Cal’s line was able to exectute a bunch of gap schemes against them for big gains.
- :17 – I think this is supposed to be a B-gap run but the backside guard is losing his block and blowing up the play. But Ott sees it and the corner coming inside of the TE, so he navigates out and around it.
- :25 – It’s subtle but this play really shows off Ott’s patience, and is why despite a slimmer build he’s a suitable 3rd-down back. He waits for the LG to re-anchor and press into the line before slamming through, showing some nice footwork.
The hallmark of Cal’s teams under Wilcox has been their defense, though they’ve been steadily falling off since their peak in 2018 for reasons that, in my opinion, have to do with not having the personnel they need to play the 3-down front they prefer. I thought they were due for a revival this year, but starting the first week of the season they’ve lost four defensive linemen to injuries and at this point, sadly, I think they’re about where they left off from the last couple years.
The most notable way the defensive line depth issues affect games is in a massive falloff in total defensive success rate as the game goes on – they start out above water at 51.5% in the first quarter, fall to 47% in the second, and tumble all the way to 33.5% in the third (in just rush defense, they’re at only 23% in the third). From watching tape I think this reflects fatigue in the front as they’re just not able to rotate much.
In F+, Cal’s defense is ranked 46th, a respectable number and certainly better than their offense. When I break down their numbers from my charting, however, I get a pretty mixed bag of good and bad aspects. On top of that, there are a few outlier games on Cal’s defensive record, and they’re against different teams and in different directions for the run vs the pass, which I think contributes to some confusion in pinning down the exact quality of this squad.
In rush defense, their outlier game was at Notre Dame – that team discovered that their backup QB wasn’t executing the game plan very well, and so leaned into a much heavier run game than Cal faced from the rest of its opponents … excluding that game from the dataset doesn’t change the pass defense numbers but it bumps the rush defense success rate up by over four percentage points.
In pass defense, the two outliers were games against Marcus Arroyo’s UNLV and Colorado which played two QBs in their first game with an interim coach, both of which had pretty spotty accuracy that I don’t think the defense contributed much to … excluding either individually lowers the pass defense success rate by almost three percentage points each, and excluding both lowers it by nearly six.
What I see in rush defense is an interior defensive line that just doesn’t have the bodies to support a 3-down front in anything but very heavy and obvious rush situations, and instead is playing 2-down almost every snap, as they have ever since 2019 and the beginning of their defensive slide. I think the OLBs do a good job of setting the edge and there aren’t a lot of technique breakdowns or overly aggressive play, but they just aren’t getting the push against most o-lines to stop the run at the point of attack.
That addes up to 54 successfully defended designed runs vs 93 failures, under 37%, across the entire FBS dataset (though it jumps to almost 41% if the Notre Dame game is excluded). Such poor efficiency numbers invite more disciplined teams to simply run the ball and eat the entire clock. Some examples:
- :00 – This inside zone run should look familiar to Oregon fans. Nobody in Cal’s front is off-assignment, they’re just getting beat by good blocks across the board and the back is untouched 10 yards downfield.
- :11 – As part of some weird drama Rob and I discussed on the podcast, they’ve got an ILB playing outside here, and he easily gets washed pretty far inside by the TE.
- :26 – The OLB is responsible for outside contain here but he doesn’t see the slice block from the TE on the other side of the formation coming. The DB doesn’t have a great option here but he should have taken an outside angle and not let the back get to the sideline. It would have helped if the playside ILB maintained better eye discipline and got to the perimeter instead of engaging the LT.
- :41 – I think if Cal had a healthier interior defensive line they would have brought it out in short yardage against a heavy run set. As it is they’re in their standard 2-4 and just get run over.
There are some bright spots however – I think the linebacker group has some good options and the OLBs in particular grade out pretty well in assignment discipline on my tally sheet. The podcast has a lengthy discussion of the ins and outs of some position moves and new players here, and where I’ve landed is that I think the defensive line injuries are forcing the backers to pick up all the slack and it’s just a bit more than they can really handle. Here are some examples of quality run stops:
- :00 – Good job by the DT here not getting distracted by all the motion, staying in his lane and making a clean tackle.
- :06 – The playside OLB occupies both pulling linemen here, while the backside OLB gets up off the cut block to make the tackle.
- :14 – Cal usually stays away from blitzing on 3rd & long, instead keeping the defense back and letting the front do their assignments. They’re much better in zone against surprise runs like this, since their eyes are in the backfield.
- :21 – Finally we see the nose tackle. Note that despite the double-eagle front it’s a 3-3-5, as that’s just one ILB plus a DB in the box. UW executes one of the worst zone-read keeps I’ve ever seen, the OLB stays sound in his assignment by staying outside with square shoulders, and the nose gets through anyway even if the QB had handed off.
Where Cal has excelled, both from the structure of their bend-don’t-break defensive philosophy and good tackling by the safeties, is preventing explosive rushing plays: they’re only allowing 4.5 adjusted YPC, and only a bit over 12% of runs gain 10+ yards. This big discrepancy — between poor defense against methodical rushing and great defense against explosive rushing — I think contributes to confusion in assessing Cal’s defense in black & white terms. The Bears will let you have four to five yards every run, but only that much, and they dare you to march the entire field that way … most opposing offenses don’t have the discipline for it, but as Rob put it, that does mean “bleeding a lot of yards.”
Pass defense looks better from an efficiency standpoint: almost perfectly even at 106 successful defenses of designed passing plays vs 108 failures, or 49.5%. That falls to about 43.5% if the outlier games against poor QB play by UNLV and CU are excluded, but that’s still better than the outlier-excluded rush defense success rate.
I think these better pass defense numbers have to do with the structure of Cal’s defense, which usually backs out to cover-2 or cover-3, and populates the middle of the field with some pretty good safeties. The pass rush hasn’t been overwhelming, but the OLBs do their jobs here and eventually break through, so that they control the QB if he can’t find something quick against the back end of the defense. I tallied about a 19% sack/scramble/throwaway rate for this defense, which isn’t spectacular but does mean the QB doesn’t have forever to pick apart the defense. Some examples:
- :00 – No immediate pressure from the 3-man rush, but the back end is doing its job and the QB eventually has to try and make something outside the pocket.
- :11 – Great job in cover-1 here, this was one of the plays that clued me in to Arizona’s redzone difficulties because the high safety can help the slot corner who’s losing his man. The pass rush gets through after the QB can’t find his first or second reads.
- :20 – Here they’re collapsing the right side of the line and the green dog finishes it off.
- :38 – The reader will have to infer it because of the obnoxiously tight camera angles in this game (and the stripe is wrong, and there was no replay because they kept cutting to Marshawn Lynch, though that was a wise broadcast decision), but the zone defense is effectively handing off the deep coverage and leaving the shallow crosser open. The QB doesn’t get there because the OLBs are whipping the tackles.
What’s killing Cal defensively, however, is that they’re pretty consistently giving up big passing plays: allowing 8.2 adjusted YPA, which is below average in my experience, and with 22% of dropbacks producing 15+ yard gains, which is pretty bad. I think these issues come down to two things: first, the ongoing turmoil in the ILB unit and non-elite footspeed from the underneath coverage produce a giant hole in the middle of their zone defense. Second, I’ve been pretty unimpressed with the cornerbacks’ coaching and development for the last few season and I don’t think they hold up very well in man coverage. Some examples:
- :00 – The Texas route from the back routinely did a lot of damage to the ILBs in coverage, and with all the DBs retreating with their backs to the play there’s nobody to help.
- :16 – Sending both the RB and H-back to the wide side of the field really opens up this throwing lane in zone.
- :27 – This WR has some drop issues so I had time to worry while it was in the air that he wouldn’t come down with this wide open pass, but it sure is wide open from cooking the CB this badly. The ball really hangs in the air since the QB is hit as he’s throwing it but the CB is too far behind for it to matter.
- :45 – This hole in Cal’s zone defense, middle of the field about 12-16 yards deep, is big and has persisted for years. All it takes is one wrong step by an ILB and the receiver has nobody near him.