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Arizona game thoughts

(Written by kencraw)

I still feel like I’m trying to catch back up with my life after that Notre Dame trip (which was at the tail end of a series of trips). But late is better than never, so here are my Arizona game thoughts:

  • Does anyone else feel like we’re allowing the fact that the offense came alive to ignore the fact that the defense looked troublesomely bad in the 1st half?
  • Obviously the big offensive revelation is the re-built offensive line. And the big news there is true Freshman Sioape Vatikani, who looks to be a rock around which future offensive lines can be built. But also important was moving Driscoll (who is one of our better linemen) to guard. With those two doing lots of pulling on run plays the line looks a lot better. I think they also give the Bears more flexibility on pass protection to pick up the various rush patterns.
  • The hiding bad news is that one injury at O-Line and the team could be in real trouble. Although mid-week news (an updated depth chart) suggests that a couple more younger players might be ready to come in and make a difference, moving up to 2nd team.
  • What I had previously said about competent QB’s shredding the Bears definitely appeared to be true in the 1st half of the Arizona game. In particular, there are lots of gaps for crossing routes behind the line-backers as they have to be so focused on run support.
  • I haven’t had a chance to re-watch the game to figure out what the Bears changed in the 2nd half defensively, but I have to give the defensive coaching staff credit for their drastically improved performance. Frankly, that’s what won the game.
  • I do have to say that Arizona is significantly improved on both sides of the ball. Mark my words, they’re going to upset a couple of teams this year.
  • Continuing down that aside, the Pac-12 south looks to have the weaker teams than the North this year. In the North, only Stanford looks weak, with both WSU and OSU looking somewhat strong. In the South Arizona, ASU and Colorado are all on the weaker side. Good news: We get Colorado, not Utah.
  • Back to the game, Plummer seems to be settling in. Of course it helps when he’s not constantly getting pummeled, but even without that I feel like his confidence in his progressions including when there’s a blitz is improving.
  • And of course then there’s Ott, who is looking great and if it’s possible even greater every week. But don’t under-estimate either of his backups. Moore and Brooks are both capable. Brooks particularly impressed me in that he seemed to have more tackle breaking skills and power than I previously saw out of him.
  • Back to the concerns, the inability of the defensive line to get pressure on passing plays is really mind-boggling. This might be the worst the pass rush has been in a decade, even going back to the Dykes era (where while overall having issues, their defensive line pressure wasn’t the worst of it).
  • I find it interesting how much the Bears increase their blitzing late in the game. There’s a notable increase of “bringing the house” in the 4th quarter. I suspect part of that is they’re waiting until they know the offense is in a ‘must-pass’ situation. But even when it’s 3rd and 17 in the 2nd quarter, we’re not seeing the sort of blitz packages we see in the last 5 minutes of the game.
  • Looking forward, WSU is going to be *really* tough. At least the weather looks to be nice. (There’s nothing worse than a November trip to the frozen potato patch. (I was there last January taking my son on a potential college tour… 100’s of miles of frozen “tundra”).) But WSU is looking pretty good and they let Oregon off the hook by losing that game last week.
  • Looking backwards, Notre Dame seems to have come to life so Cal’s ability to go toe-to-toe with them is looking more and more like a “moral victory” and UNLV is dong quite well. The Bears might be better tested than we thought.

Notre Dame game thoughts

(Written by kencraw)

OK, with the major trip stuff done, finally onto the game commentary:

  • Fundamentally this team has 3 problems: Offensive line. Defensive line. Plummer keeping his cool when under duress. Let’s take those one at a time…
  • The offensive line might just be the weakest part of the team. They’re mediocre for opening up running lanes, but their pass protection is just atrocious. Plummer is never able to get comfortable in the pocket because the offensive line is just not holding up consistently.
  • The defensive line is OK when it comes to pass rush, but not good enough that they’re often going to get sacks without a blitz package behind them. Yet I can live with that. And their run defense is not horrific… they’re not giving up huge runs. But they giving up lots of all-too-easy 4-6 yard runs. As the game wore on against Notre Dame, I was noticing that even when the Bears stopped the run at what appears to be the line of scrimmage, it was still a 3 or 4 yard run. They’re giving up that many yards just from the offensive line push. Not good. It means the Bears had to dedicate a lot of linebacker and safety support to the run game.
  • Speaking of which (and putting off my Plummer comments), thankfully Notre Dame didn’t have a very good QB. This Bears team is going to get torched by a team with a strong run game and a competent QB. If the Bears play pass protection, the opponents will just march down the field running the ball 4+ yards at a time. If they play the run game, they’ll be very vulnerable in the passing game. Both against UNLV and ND they counted on lots of errant throws bailing them out.
  • Back to Plummer, while I’m sympathetic to his plight, he and the offensive coordinator *HAVE* to find a way to keep the passing game alive despite the shortcomings of the offensive line in pass protection. Roll out more. Make sure there is always a dump off option. Do more quick passes. Something! We can not just accept the status quo of him desperately hoping something opens up while he’s about to get crushed.
  • I felt like the game plan overall was not a bad one. It’s hard to win a game when you’re losing on both sides of the ball in the trenches. The fact they came as close as they did was remarkable.
  • We got *ROBBED* on that phantom offsides call on the ND missed field goal. But frankly, I don’t know that it changes the outcome of the game.
  • Long story short, the Wilcox era adage “First team to 21 wins” is still intact and it feels like it will remain true for much of the season. As such, this season will come down to finding some offensive production.

The South Shore Line Train Debacle

(Written by kencraw)

Let’s start with the simple… DO NOT TAKE THIS TRAIN!

When looking at the options for getting from Chicago to Notre Dame stadium we found 3 choices:

  1. Rent a car – But staying in a downtown hotel (and thus overnight parking being very expensive) we chose to go without a rental car.
  2. Take one of the gameday shuttles – But these were pretty pricey, starting at $100 a person.
  3. Take the South Shore Line Train for $30 round trip – which has the caveat that the return trip is a bit later in the evening than one would like for the game time, but otherwise is pretty good.

Doesn’t seem like a hard decision, does it? (Particularly for frugal folks.)

We got on the train at about 8:45 AM en route for South Bend Airport. We expect to arrive there around noon there will be a shuttle bus that will take us from the airport to the stadium.

Yet about an hour into the train ride, the conductor comes through and says the train has had a section that has been out of service for a while so we have to get off the train and onto a bus. There’s not much more detail given than that.

We get off the train and they have a bus “for the Notre Dame game” and one for the airport. We go to get on the bus for the game but yet it fills up before we get up there. (For later note, that bus was blue and all the rest were white.) We’re directed to the white bus and told it’ll get us to the game. We’re curious why they’ve done this odd separation if it is all going to the same place, but we don’t really have a choice and we get on the white bus.

The bus drives for about an hour stopping at a few train stations on the way to drop off and pick up travelers. Finally the busses stop at another station and we’re told we’re getting onto this train on the other side of the “dead” section that will take us the rest of the way to the stadium. Oddly, while we see 3 or 4 white busses, there’s no blue bus there and we seem to be short about 50 people of the ~200 people on the train. Where’d they go?

The train arrives at the airport and we’re directed to the curb for the shuttle. Yet there’s no bus there and nobody from the train company to usher us. There’s about 50 of us all staring at each other for about 10 minutes while we watch the other 100 or so either get in some taxi/car or go into the airport. Hmmm… what’s going on?

We wait… some people give up hope and start calling Ubers or getting in taxis… we wait some more… more people bail… we start getting really nervous. So we go looking for some official person to tell us if there is indeed a shuttle bus. Long story short, nobody knows for sure. Finally a train representative tells us the shuttle is independent from the train company and they’re not sure.

That was our breaking point and we called an Uber. And frankly, that worked fine. The only complaint is that the website for the train clearly indicates they provide a shuttle including pickup time and location after the game. If they don’t have one they shouldn’t be telling us they do.

Now the game is over and there’s supposedly a shuttle, but of course we are full of doubts. But since the shuttle leaves the camps really early compared to when the train leaves, we decide to see if it magically appears. We had the whole afternoon to think things over and we had the working theory that the now infamous Blue Bus had gone straight to Notre Dame stadium, skipping the 2nd train segment and *THAT* was the shuttle. The fact that it was overflowing was something they hadn’t planned for and thus hadn’t come up with a contingency plan for taking additional people from the airport to the game.

We figured that the the worst case scenario was the shuttle never came and we’d just take an Uber (and it being many hours after the game, we were confident we’d get one). But if it did, how nice would it be if it took us all the way to the far side of the “dead” section of track? Very nice indeed.

Of course it was no huge surprise when the shuttle never came and we caught the Uber instead. When we get to the airport there are a number of game attendees (both Cal and ND fans) already waiting. With about an hour to kill until the train arrives, we start talking and I ask about the infamous Blue Bus. Ironically, we were right. It had indeed gone straight to the stadium.

But here’s where it gets ridiculous… there were two trains that returned to Chicago that evening. One left the airport at 5:46 PM local time. That was just before the game ended. When one takes into account the time it takes to get out of the stadium, walk to a road and drive to the airport, it would mean leaving the game at half time to catch that train. Who wants to do that, right? The other train left at 10:16 PM from the airport, which while late, is the obvious choice for people going to the game to take. Which one do you think they had the Blue Bus waiting for?

The 5:45 PM one of course! How stupid is that?

OK, back to the South Bend airport waiting room at 9:00 PM. The game has been over for over 3 hours. It’s been a long day. We know we’ve got a complicated train to bus to train 3 hour trip in front of us. Then a voice comes over the announcement system: “The South Shore Line Train is running 30 minutes behind schedule” and further explains it’s due to the whole bus shuttle leap-frog.

Ugh! While not particularly surprising… it’s still going to make a long day longer. We’re tired. We want to get back to the hotel. And when you’re in that state you start thinking crazy ideas. Things like “How much is an Uber from here to Chicago?” It turns out, while expensive, it’s not crazy: $185.

We talk it over and decide it’s a bit too much… but then the weirdest thing happens: An unexpected train shows up. We’re told it’s out of service but they’d let us get on and it would take us to where the bus would eventually pick us up to do the leapfrog. But that bus/leapfrog wouldn’t happen until the 10:16 train got there.

We’ve got just minutes to decide. Stay where it’s comfortable or get as far down the line as we can as soon as we can? Perhaps the Uber will be cheap enough from that spot… Perhaps there will be an unexpected bus we can talk into doing the leapfrog early… and the worst case scenario is that we have to wait at that far off station instead of here and it’s not quite as comfy. So we go for it.

Long story short, we get the leapfrog point and there’s no bus waiting and the Uber from there is still over $150. So we end up waiting for the 10:16 PM train to catchup. Oh well.

And if that were the end of the story, perhaps I could let it go…

The bus arrives about 15 minutes before the train arrives. We get on the bus. The train arrives. Everyone tries to get on… and there’s not enough room for everyone.

AGAIN!?! Seriously? They didn’t have enough room on the Blue Bus in the morning. They have the Blue Bus return with the wrong train. And to add injury to insult, they haven’t corrected for the larger than expected crowd for the return home and are *STILL* short room on the bus.

Our bus leaves to leapfrog, but since this is the last train of the night, we know we’ll be waiting for them to find some way to get the remaining people across the leapfrog. And sure enough, that’s what happens. We get to the far side of the leapfrog and we have to wait a full hour for them to get the 2nd group there. Painful! We didn’t end up getting to Chicago until a full 8 hours after the game had ended, nearly 2 hours behind schedule.

So, long story short, DO NOT TAKE the South Shore Line Train.

Notre Dame trip report

(Written by kencraw)

As a pre-cursor to the trip report, for those of you who’ve never gone on a Cal game road-trip, I highly recommend doing it some time. It’s probably wise to start with a conference game like ASU, Oregon or UW and then build up to a cross-country trip. With all of that said…

I left Sacramento International Airport on Friday around 1 PM with a direct flight to Chicago where I’d be meeting my brother (who lives in Massachusetts) to go to the game.

As I put my carry-on in the overhead bin I noticed what looked like a violin case in there and as the only person sitting in the area was right next to me I took a shot as I sat down and said “Is that your violin?” To which he replied, “Oh that’s no violin… that’s a Tiple.” Thus started my half-flight educational session by this quirky yet jovial elderly gentleman about the nuances of various Ukelele adjacent instruments.

I arrived at O’Hare airport at 7:30 PM local time after the 4ish hour flight and made my way to the “L” to catch the blue-line train to downtown. As with all things O’Hare it was quite a long walk from the gate to the train. Once on the train it was a 50 minute ride to downtown, followed by a 10 minute walk to the hotel.

When I was coming out of the subway (the blue-line is one of the few “L” routes that isn’t elevated… it’s an actual subway, at least in the downtown region) I heard what sounded like a series of car accidents in quick succession on the street above. In fact, it was an “unauthorized festival” for Mexican Independence day (some might call it a protest, but there didn’t seem to be any point other than to celebrate). What I had heard were fireworks and M80’s.

With a bemused smile on my face I arrived at the Congress Plaza hotel and proceeded to convince the front desk that I was indeed the brother of the soon-to-be arriving booker of the hotel reservation and got a key for the room. The Congress Plaza hotel is a nice 3+ star hotel that apparently outgrew itself and now has an extra wing… one that no 3+ star hotel should have bought. It was a dump!

But tired after the flight I didn’t worry too much about it and prepared for the game the next day.

We took the South Shore Line train to the South Bend airport (more on this in a separate post) and then an Uber from there to the stadium, arriving about an hour before game time. According to our driver our timing was impeccable as most people had already arrived and we were able to get within a couple blocks of the stadium without too much traffic.

Speaking of time… one of the quirks of this trip is that while Chicago is in Central Time, South Bend is one of the western most counties in Indiana that is in Eastern Time. We found ourselves constantly translating times between central and eastern. Thank the good Lord I live in a place far from any timezone boundaries!

We walked from the southern edge of campus to the stadium. People were friendly albeit not that talkative. In past trips against national powerhouse teams the fans *LOVE* to talk to visiting fans. “Thanks for coming out!” or “How are you enjoying our little town?” or similar. Perhaps it was because Notre Dame is in a bit of a funk, but people were less talkative than I was used to. However, the few we did talk to were nice and welcoming.

Notre Dame stadium externally doesn’t at all like it’s historic self. They basically built a stadium around the old stadium when they expanded it. As such, the approach doesn’t feel very historic. Minus the new brickwork, it looks like most modern stadiums from the outside.

However, once one enters the bowl (OK, it’s too rectangular to properly be called a bowl, but you know what I mean), the historic nature of the stadium is fully intact. The addition, although visible, melds right into the original stadium. Additionally, it feels very democratic, with almost no “premium” seating in the bowl itself. There are the two press-boxes with the premium seats/suites in them. But because the are separate from and above the bowl, the stadium itself keeps that very unified/democratic feel.

Touchdown Jesus is still very visible although apparently the locals who remember the old stadium feel like it is seriously abridged. And while I can see how that may be true, without the comparison point, it’s still pretty dang visible.

The Notre Dame band was very good and one couldn’t help but be roused when they played the fight song… even if it was for the wrong team!

I’ll cover the game in a separate post… it ended around 6 PM local time and we had a few hours to kill before the train back to Chicago (again, more on that in a separate post). As such, we stayed in the stadium while everyone was filing out… or so we thought. The percentage of Notre Dame fans who stayed for a post-game band performance of the equivalent of ‘Hail to California’ was remarkable… perhaps has much as 75% of the crowd.

Once outside the stadium, we started walking around the campus. I had forgotten my phone charging cable so a trip to the campus bookstore (which was PACKED) to get a cable was part of how we killed time.

As we were sitting on a bench talking about what to do while waiting for the train, a group of 20-something Cal fans walked by and overheard us. They said to us “Hey, we have a bus with some extra seats headed back to Chicago… want a ride?” Without a moments notice we said “Yes please!”

We started following them on a walk across campus and past the main parking lots. They were a bit confused and had to pause a couple times to orient themselves. Then, as we crossed a street we saw a Cal band member, all by himself on a corner nearly in tears. The rest of our new friends must not have noticed, as they continued on their way.

We asked him if he was OK and he shook his head ‘no’ while further breaking down into tears. My brother and I stopped and asked him if he’d like us to help him. He asked if we could stay with him while he composed himself. Turns out he had been in a pedestrian vs. car accident earlier in the week and was somewhat immobilized. He probably should have just stayed home but he *REALLY* wanted to go to the game and so went anyway. Somehow he had gotten separated from the rest of the band and was now both worried about being left behind and somewhat lost.

We stayed with him while he called some fellow band members and they came back for him. They were a bit confused about what to do as his ability to walk was seriously hampered. We helped them come up with a plan (go to a close big hotel parking lot and call the bus to have them pick them up there on the way out of town). And then we tried to catch up to our ride… Too late! We saw their bus leaving from a distance. So it was back to the ‘wait for the train plan’.

Again, I’ll cover that debacle in another post, but to get to the point, we weren’t back at the hotel until after 1 AM central time (which is 2 AM ‘South Bend’ time).

In the morning I woke up early to go to Mass at the oldest Church in Chicago… Old Saint Patrick’s. It’s one of the only structures downtown that survived the Chicago fire in the 19th century. As it turned out it was the ever important feast of “halfway to St. Patrick’s day” and they had special Irish music, including bag pipes.

After I got back to the hotel, my brother and I toured downtown including seeing “The Bean” which while cool, disgusted me because of all the Instagram morons who were working oh so hard to take their perfect Instagram “look at how special I am” pictures. When are we as a society going to find a way to get beyond this ridiculousness? We also took the architectural river tour, saw the “Begin Highway 66” sign, toured Millennium park (which had a bit of a NY Central Park feel to it… albeit much smaller) and sat on the shores of Lake Michigan.

The next morning (Monday) I took the Blue-Line train back to O’Hare for the 9:45 AM direct flight back to Sacramento, arriving at Noon local time into a very rare September storm.

So that’s the trip in a nutshell. More to come…

Post-Notre Dame blogging plans

(Written by kencraw)

Got back from my trip yesterday and spent the rest of the day catching up on all the work/personal stuff that were neglected while I was gone. But my hope is starting this evening I can do a total of 6 posts about the trip:

  • Overall trip report
  • The Chicago -> South Bend train debacle
  • Standard game review/thoughts
  • Thoughts on Notre Dame stadium and environment in South Bend
  • Re-watch of game via TV footage thoughts

(That’s in order of likelihood – 1st being most likely)

UNLV Game thoughts

(Written by kencraw)

Sorry for the lateness of this… it’s been a crazy busy few weeks and I’m heading out to the Notre Dame game on Friday, so I have a lot of stuff I can’t just push off…

Here are my UNLV game thoughts:

  • One thing I haven’t much seen in other commentary is the theory that “the Bears got complacent and let UNLV get back into the game”. I felt that the Bears had the game well in hand until halftime. Then they came out of the tunnel, got the ball to start the 2nd half, marched down the field and scored. It felt like at that point, the Bears really let off the gas, particularly on offense, particularly Plummer at QB.
  • Or said another way, the only thing about this game that is frustrating is that the Bears offense sputtered in the 2nd half. I put a lot of it on Plummer. Here are his pass plays after that last field goal: incomplete (here forward: inc), inc, sack, (punt), 7-yard completion (here forward: comp), inc, sack, (punt), 4-yard comp, 16-yard comp, 3-yard comp, inc, 5-yard comp (but short of 1st down), (FG miss). To sum up, he played horrible for 2 drives, then seemed to refocus himself enough to get the ball down the field for a missed field goal, then after that, it was just the last drive attempting to run out the clock. Imagine if he plays the way he did his first few drives and puts up another 10ish points on those two drives… I think we’re a lot more satisfied.
  • All of that is a long way of saying two things: 1. Offensive performance will be heavily dependent on Plummer performing well. 2. In the first two games he’s shown signs of being better than competent and then other moments where he’s lost his mojo. We’ll see if he can improve his consistency.
  • Another point of concern is play-calling and offensive efficiency in the redzone. It’s harder for me to put into words precisely what is wrong, but in both cases where the Bears settled for a field-goal my gut feeling was that the execution was poor in those moments and that the plays chosen weren’t wise for the personnel we have. It’s particularly concerning because every point is going to matter later in the season. The Bears need to have pretty good redzone efficiency numbers if they’re going to be much better than 6-6 and could even have a losing season if those numbers are poor.
  • The other weak point on offense is the line, particularly in pass protection. They’re not horrible, but I fear they’re going to get beat up pretty badly against ND and at least a few of the Pac-12 opponents. Run/pass balance (to keep the defensive line from being able to be focus on sacks) and mostly keeping the pass plays on the quick side will be key.
  • My biggest bone to pick with the coaching staff against UNLV is the refusal to use Ott on that last run out the clock drive. How can you put in Brooks? He’s the least capable of the three in getting the “hard yards”. Perhaps I could have made my peace with Moore… he was playing better than week 1 (although not as good as Ott). But Ott was the right choice. When we need 10 yards in 3 plays… a healthy Ott is the only logical choice.
  • Defensively I was pretty happy with the Bears. Both of UNLV’s touchdown’s were “scrappy”. One required a lucky break on what was principally an interception but probably correctly called on the field as a shared possession by the technicalities of the rules. The other was a momentary but repeated exploit of a weakness in the Bears scheme that was promptly cleaned up on subsequent drives.
  • If I have a concern on defense it is the defensive line. They seem to give up a few too many 4 yards in a cloud of dust type runs where what it indicates is the offensive line is winning in the trenches. That was true against UCD as well. Additionally, they’re not getting very good pressure on passing plays without bringing risky blitzes.
  • Back to that non-interception… here’s both sides of it as I see it. From the “technical rules” perspective, the WR had his arm in-between the ball and the defender as soon as the defender grasped the ball. You can then technically suggest that he had enough of a grasp on it at that point to be shared possession and the WR then further enhanced his grip on it without ever letting go. So that’s why it probably was technically called correctly. But from a principled perspective, if the defender isn’t there, that ball falls incomplete. If the WR isn’t there, it’s an easy interception. Thus it’s principally clear that it was the defender who caught the ball and the WR who was the lesser party as far as possession is concerned. But when it comes to principle versus the technicality of the rules, unfortunately (in this case) the right thing to do is going with the rules.
  • Overall, I both have some hope moving forward but at the same time, there’s a lot of things to be concerned about. If this team can clean up its act and get more consistent on offense, things could go pretty well. But I fear we’re in for another season of inconsistency.

Go Bears!

UNLV pregame thoughts

(Written by kencraw)

The biggest problem with the UC Davis game is judging the quality of the UC Davis team. Last year they were a good but not great FCS team. The few pundits who are qualified at the level of judging UCD tend to be a bit too close to being homers, but nevertheless, they speak very highly of this year’s team, one going so far as to say 2022 might be their “best team ever”.

*IF* UC Davis is a top-end FCS team this year, it puts last week’s win in a much better light. Top end FCS teams are no slouches and can beat weaker FBS teams. However, if UC Davis is closer to a mediocre FCS team, then last week’s game is more concerning.

I bring all this up as I’m hoping UNLV will be a better, or at least more reliable, test. Last week UNLV easily beat Idaho State with a halftime score of 45-7. Idaho State is in the Big Sky conference along with UC Davis, although their record was a miserable 1-10. Ironically their lone victory was over UC Davis, at home. (I think we should consider that an outlier… UC Davis is the overall better FCS team.)

Nevertheless, overall it suggests that UNLV is at least good enough to take care of business against a weak FCS team. It’s better than they did last year, losing to their lone FCS opponent (admittedly Eastern Washington is a *MUCH* better FCS team than IDSt.). Last year they were a competent team within the Mountain West, losing a lot of close games en-route to a 2-10 overall record. Again, nothing impressive, but losing 38-30 to Fresno, 27-20 to San Jose, 28-20 to SDSU, suggests they can hang around with the big boys in the Mountain West.

Finally for their past record, their 37-10 loss to Arizona State early last season suggests that a good Pac-12 team should be able to handle them easily.

As far as changes for 2022, they’ve got a lot of new transfers in who look to make an impact and a returning QB who was hurt early in the season. He’s a pass-first runner (some might debate the pass-first part… but that’s at least the coaching staff’s goal for him).

Thus to sum it all up, UNLV looks to be a good 2nd opponent after UC Davis. It sets the Bears up to be 2-0 going into the tough game against Notre Dame but at the same time appears to be a better test of how Cal can perform against a “full sized” team. Minus melt-downing if the Bear lose, I’ll be looking most at how the Bears control the line of scrimmage on both sides of the ball (D-line was concerning last week), whether Plummer continues to improve and whether the running QB gives them any trouble.

UC Davis game thoughts

(Written by kencraw)

Nice to start off the season with an easy win. Here are my thoughts:

  • The Bears were definitely low energy to start the game. I’m not sure if they were told to pace themselves or whether the slightly warm weather had them taking a ‘take it slow’ attitude, but it was definitely true right up until the stop on 4th down in the redzone after the interception.
  • I said to my son (who is currently attending UC Davis) just before the failed 4th down conversion that it was a high risk decision and for their sake they should kick the field goal. The risk of handing the momentum back to Cal was just too high and it was an admission by UC Davis that they had little hope to win without high risk decisions like that. Sure enough, that’s precisely what happened.
  • Speaking of UC Davis touchdowns, I have *ZERO* idea what happened on that long run for a touchdown. I thought I was watching the play, but I guess not as it went from pre-snap to flying down the sideline. I need to get the video of the game and analyze it.
  • As for our new QB… call me nervous yet not without hope. I’m willing to ignore the slow start in the 1st quarter, but he still had a number of errant passes later in the game. I worry about his consistency. There are very few QB’s who make big strides when it comes to consistency, particularly within a season. (Occasionally one sees big jumps in the off-season.)
  • He also seemed to still be indecisive at times, although that’s more normal for a 1st game and one can be more optimistic that will get better with time. He’s still learning this offense and his team-mates strengths/weaknesses.
  • It was nice to see the backup RB Ott come in and do well. The starter (Moore) looked horrible. That surprised me frankly. But Ott looks to be the real deal. Nobody seems to know if Moore was yanked or injured. (at least that I can tell)
  • The offensive line is most definitely a work in progress. They are going to need to improve. If UC Davis gives them that much trouble, it’s going to get much worse unless they improve.
  • I was overall happy with the defensive effort, although UC Davis getting a consistent 4 yards on 1st down rushes was a bit bothersome. I’m not feeling like there are a lot of power running schools on the schedule, but the teams that could bias that way could be a lot of trouble for the Bears defense.
  • I was happy with the ball hawking ability of the secondary. Nice to see that tradition continue.
  • Overall, this was not the UC Davis team that beat Stanford a decade ago and we shouldn’t get too excited about an easy win over them.

Back for another season

(Written by kencraw)

The Bears kick off the season today versus UC Davis and I’ll be back this evening (or tomorrow morning) with my thoughts on the game. I again have season tickets so I’ll get to see the bigger picture that is often off-screen on TV. (I’ll also be going to the Notre Dame game in South Bend.)

Go Bears!

End of Season Thoughts

(Written by kencraw)

Just some random thoughts after last night’s win over USC:

  • That stinking Arizona-COVID game. Obviously the Bears win that game if they get to bring the whole roster… and then we’re bowl bound.
  • But once you get into the coulda-shoulda-woulda… what about all the close losses that shouldn’t have been. Nevada, TCU, UW are all games the Bears could have won. And even Oregon was in reach.
  • While we’re on a negative kick, I think one of the biggest late season disappointments was to see how susceptible the offense was to blitzes. Both USC and UCLA brought the house often and Garbers never seemed to know where to go with the ball. The frustrating thing about TV games (I didn’t go to USC as I-80 for the trip home was going to be closed for maintenance) is that I can’t see what is happening in the secondary. And thus unfortunately I can’t see why Garbers is so paralyzed in those situations.
  • On the positive front, it was good to see the Bear defense back to its ball hawking ways. What was interesting is how much more balanced it was this year. It wasn’t just interceptions. It was both forced fumbles and interceptions.
  • As for next season, the big question is: “Who is coming back?” So many seniors are eligible due to the COVID exemptions. If they all decide to come back, this team gets most of its starters back. But at the same time, I wouldn’t assume that’s true. We’ll have to wait and see.
  • The biggest next-season questions sitting out there is Garbers. On the one hand, I’d like to have him back and not breaking in a new starter. But on the other hand, I’d kinda like to see if the coaching staff can actually prep a starter from scratch. What we saw at the Arizona game was pretty distressing and I’d like to know if that was just a mid-season backup issue, not the issue of finding a competent replacement starter in the off-season.
  • I have confidence that the defense will be fine next year. There ability to success with a next-man-up strategy this year shows the defense isn’t dependent on any particular player.
  • Also looking forward, next season has a pretty favorable schedule. Two easy non-conference games (UC Davis and UNLV) and we still have Arizona and Colorado on the cross-division schedule. Plus Oregon, UCLA, UW and Stanford at home.
  • Final thought: It feels like had the Bears been lucky, this could have been an 8-4 season. Here’s hoping the breaks go the Bears way next year.

What a Big Game!

(Written by kencraw)

Wow, what a joyful evening Saturday was. After the rust of 2 weeks off and lacking practice due to COVID in the 1st quarter, the Bears laid the wood to Stanford again and again and again.

If I was a furd fan (and could somehow rise above my ideocracy 🙂 ), I’d have been very angry with Shaw deciding to go for it on 4th and goal twice. The halftime score could have been 14-9 otherwise. But by the mid-3rd quarter one could actually see the wisdom in Shaw’s decision. He knew this game was a long-shot. He needed to get out in front and try to get the Bears to be one-dimensional.

Stanford is really terrible right now. While the records might be similar, the details make it clear that Cal is a much better team. Stanford keeps losing by much larger margins.

Now the question is: Can the Bears make it to bowl eligibility? And I have to say, that’s a tall order. That stinking Arizona game!?!

USC looks pretty vulnerable, so that game is for sure winnable. It’ll be even better if BYU can go into the coliseum this weekend and put an end to USC’s hope for bowl eligibility.

UCLA looks to be the tougher task. On the road. Thanksgiving weekend. Against a surging UCLA. That’s not going to be easy. Although when one does the common opponent analysis the teams look pretty even.

All the more reason to say: That stinking Arizona game!?!

Understanding COVID rules

(Written by kencraw)

(NEW NOTE: All of the below is likely meaningless. It turns out that it was City of Berkeley health department rules that drove all of this. In other words… Cal is playing at a disadvantage to other schools.)

(ORIGINAL NOTE: All of this All of the following is simplified based on the article I saw that indicated “99% of the Cal players are vaccinated”…)

So, why were 24 players missing? The people missing would meet one of the following criteria:

  • Have tested positive within the last 10 days
  • Have been exposed to someone in the last 3 days who has tested positive
  • Have been exposed to someone more than 3 days ago who has tested positive, but didn’t themselves get tested after 3 days

It’s worth noting that the exposure rules don’t apply “if assessment does not reveal high risk.” While I don’t know the specifics of that, I’m sure it means social distancing and masking and the such suggests they weren’t ‘close contacts’.

I think there’s two conclusions we can reasonably assume are accurate:

  • The positive COVID test happened within 3 days of the game. I have a hard time believing they wouldn’t do the follow up testing to clear players if the exposure was more than 3 days ago.
  • More than one person tested positive. It’s hard to imagine that one person had 23 other close contacts in the 3 days before the game.

What a bad break for the team…

Arizona – initial revulson

(Written by kencraw)

Obviously my preview post didn’t know the extent of the COVID losses for this game. 10 starters, including Garbers?!?!? How can one expect to win that one?

But somehow, despite all the personnel losses, the Bears still had a shot. And I guess a certain type of person would have an optimistic view of still having a shot with that many players lost.

Not me.

How can that be our backup QB? He’s not just bad, not just horrible, but unacceptably incompetently ATTROCIOUS! The number of completely mis-thrown balls. The bad reads. The slowness of execution… and it’s not like he had some running skills to offset that.

I’m sorry, I don’t care if the entire starting offense is out, that sort of offensive performance is unacceptable. And the lack of good play-calling. If you know your QB is crap and can’t throw a long ball, why are they calling a pass-heavy game? (29 passes, 24 runs). They should have been pounding the ball from the opening drive. Sure, it might not have bore fruit for a while, but run games take time to get moving sometimes and their lack of commitment to it was ridiculous.

And now the Bears have to do the near impossible… win their final 3 games where they’ll be the underdogs in at least 2 and 2 on the road. And that’s particularly true if the COVID issue affects their personnel next week.

Arizona preview

(Written by kencraw)

Today’s game is both very important (for bowl eligibility) and very dangerous. And it just got more dangerous:

https://www.espn.com/college-football/story/_/id/32554434/multiple-cal-golden-bears-put-covid-protocols-ahead-game-vs-arizona-wildcats

We all know how much COVID shortages messed with the Bears in 2020… the big question is: Who’s out?

But the game was dangerous before that for a few reasons:

  • It’s a road conference game in a place that has always caused the Bears trouble. There’s something about Tucson. The last time the Bears won in Tucson: 2004 (That’s not a typo)
  • Winless teams are dangerous. They’re desperate for a win and they particularly bring out their best for the teams that seem vulnerable. And while the Bears play the last couple of weeks has raised the status of the team, I can guarantee you Arizona sees Cal as one of their few remaining “good” shots at a win (remaining teams: Cal, Utah, @WSU, @ASU).
  • Winless teams are lull inducing. While I’m hopeful this won’t be the case, it’s not too hard to see the Bears looking past them to the critical USC game behind it.

With that caveat aside, let’s do the common opponent analysis:

  • Both lost @ Oregon, Cal in a nailbiter, UA got blown out.
  • Arizona went to boulder and got blown out, Cal blew out Colorado at home.
  • Both lost a nailbiter to UW, Cal on the road, Arizona at home.

Only the last game suggests these might be comparable teams.

But I think this game comes down to heart. Does Cal come out ready to play and with no excuses in the back of their mind? And a big part of me thinks Wilcox has this team in a place where that’s a real possibility. I could see the Bears starting like they did against Nevada, but that being so demoralizing for a team already tempted toward despair and the Bears win a blowout.

I could also see a game where Cal comes out flat, gets down something like 10-3 at halftime and then has to battle their way back with an offense short a couple of key guys due to COVID. And I could see that not going well.

But my official prediction is that it’s a dog-fight where some might accuse the Bears of coming out flat but really it’s the missing players and Arizona coming out ready to win. But come the 4th quarter, the Bears run game wears them down and wins going away: 30-20

Program turning win

(Written by kencraw)

(Apologies for the delay… I wrote most of this on Tuesday but forgot to post it)

The Bears had some program turning wins in 2018 and 2019. The road UW win. The road USC win. The home UW win. These all told the world that the Bears needed to be taken seriously. They told the Bears that if they played to their potential, they could beat almost anyone.

Last Saturday’s win says to the conference: That Bears team is back.

They may have taken a COVID hiatus that lasted well into this season… but they’ve righted the ship. This OSU team is no slouch. They remind me of the Mike Riley led OSU teams that constantly tortured the Jeff Tedford led Bears.

In fact, since Tedford is on the mind (and was at the game), let’s do a quick Wilcox vs. Tedford comparison:

Tedford:

  • Brought the team back from the dead
  • Raised them to be the 2nd or 3rd best team in the conference for the bulk of his reign
  • But struggled with those important head to heads (vs. USC in particular)
  • And struggled with a couple of particular weaker teams (OSU and Arizona)
  • Dominated the Big Game

Wilcox:

  • Brought the team back from sub-mediocrity
  • Raised them to be competitive
  • Proved they could beat the best teams in the conference
  • But also more inconsistent
  • Unlike Tedford, it doesn’t feel like any team is his kryptonite
  • Finally got a Big Game win

It’s the bold one that I think had Cal fans so optimistic before the COVID downturn. Tedford’s struggles against the best left a bad taste. It felt like with Tedford the team could be very good, but never the best. That ‘Rose bowl before I die’ would be elusive. But Wilcox’s big wins said that while the team wasn’t quite there yet, there could be that magical season where we all get to spend too much money in Pasadena on January 1st.

I know I’m on a bit of a tangent, as OSU isn’t USC or Oregon or UW in a conference dominating position. But I think it confirmed that bold point… Oregon State is currently one of the best teams in the conference and Cal beat them.

And they beat them straight up, just like those 2018 and 2019 wins. It didn’t take any trickery or lucky bounces. Cal lined up, played hard nose football with a defense that kept getting the ball in the offense’s hands.

Last Saturday’s game had that same feeling.

OSU preview

(Written by kencraw)

Well, last week was nice wasn’t it? And I won’t even point out that I just about got the Cal score right. 🙂

A month ago when people looked at the schedule, OSU was the middle game of a 3 game more winnable stretch. And while Colorado was and Arizona appears to be as weak as expected, OSU has exceeded expectations with wins over USC (on the road at well), Washington and Utah. They’re only conference blemish is a 24-31 loss to WSU.

Now a common opponent analysis suggests OSU to be a better team. They beat UW when Cal lost and put up a much better score against WSU even though both teams lost. (And it’s worth noting that OSU played WSU on the road whereas Cal had the “Wougs” at home.)

As such there’s no doubt that this will not be an easy game for the Bears. I think we have to consider OSU the favorite. But what I see is a Bears team that is continuing to improve and lost a lot of close games that could have gone the other way… and they’re playing a good but average talent team that has won a number of one-score victories against teams the Bears could have beaten.

Additionally, OSU is all about their run game and that plays into the strength of the Cal defense. Their QB is young and if Cal can force OSU to pass, the ball hawking ability of the Bears (which is improving and slowly getting back to form) could shake his confidence.

So I see this game coming down to the trenches. Can the Bears slow the OSU run game? Can the Cal offensive line hold up and open up the down-field passing game? (Notable add-on issue: Will Cal’s improved tackling show up again this week?)

And when games come down to the trenches, except in the extremes, it comes down to heart. Does OSU come out strong with determination to continue their impressive season? Or do they come to Berkeley a little bit over-confident after a good stretch? Do the Bears continue to build on last week’s momentum? Or do they lose the hunger that finally got them back in the win column now that they’ve won one?

These are the questions that will determine the winner.

And I refuse to make the trip to Berkeley as a pessimist. Bears win 27-24.

Colorado preview

(Written by kencraw)

The fundamental question one has to ask themselves when considering the strength of Colorado is: “How bad is Arizona?” This is particularly so because the Bears and Buffs have no common opponents… which is kinda rare for conference foes this late in the season. But the one conference team Colorado beat (Arizona) has two common opponents with Cal.

So we’re going to completely abuse the transitive property today…

  • Arizona lost 41-19 @ Oregon. Cal lost a nailbiter in Autzen.
  • Arizona hosted UW and lost 21-16 in a game where UW started really flat, but once they got up to speed rolled over Arizona. Cal lost in overtime on the road.

So there’s no doubt that Cal is a lot better than Arizona when doing a common opponent analysis… but then when you look at the Colorado vs. Arizona game and see 34-0 it makes you think that Colorado is probably better than the both of them, right? And that’s bolstered by the fact that all of their losses are to pretty good teams. Texas A&M, a strong Minnesota, ASU (the class act of the conference this year), and even USC ain’t bad.

Well, not so fast.

The level of blowout of those losses should be quite concerning for those trying to sing Colorado’s praises. They didn’t just lose, they were blown out by all of them but A&M. So my gut is that Arizona is *REALLY* bad and we shouldn’t put too much stock in that blowout win over Arizona.

My thinking is that today we have two very similar teams… they have just enough talent to be dangerous, but enough holes and problems to be on the weak end of things. So in the end it’s going to come down to who wants it more. And frankly, that scare the crud out of me. I’ve seen too many games where I’m not feeling a lot of passion out of the Bears.

But I refuse to make the trip to Berkeley so pessimistically so I’m going believe that the Bears bring a strong effort today and their slight talent edge combined with home field advantage is enough to finally get Cal back in the win column.

Bears win 27-13

Will the real Bears stand up?

(Written by kencraw)

I left the WSU game utterly despondent. That WSU team was sub-mediocre and the Bears looked downright pathetic. What has happened to Garbers? (His accuracy and decision making were horrible.) Why can’t this defense tackle? (a big on-going problem.) Why is it the offense always seems good the first few drives but stinks after that?

But then Cal put up a pretty good fight against a pretty good Oregon team. Sure it was still a loss, but at least it was a step in the right direction, right? So I turned off the TV last Saturday with some optimism.

But now I’m thinking maybe the real Bears are a team with more potential than they show, but they “play to their opponent”. What’s worse, is they play just below their opponent.

So who is the real team?

WSU preview

(Written by kencraw)

Ever since the departure Mike Leach, WSU has been headed the wrong direction. There’s no doubt that Leach gave the Wougs some recruiting credibility as well as his offensive style fit them well.

It’s not that much of a surprise then that new coach Nick Rolovich is struggling. There are already serious calls for him to be fired (see: https://www.cougcenter.com/wsu-cougars-football/2021/9/21/22682390/wsu-cougars-vs-usc-trojans-football-monday-after). WSU is 1-3 this year, like the Bears, but their losses were far less encouraging. Both conference losses (USC and Utah) were against teams that themselves are struggling and themselves have troublesome losses. And they haven’t been losing by single scores margins.

So there’s no getting around that this is a must-win game for the Bears if they hope to have any shot at respectability much less bowl eligibility.

I see this game coming down to whether the Cal secondary can keep the game from being a “shoot out”. I put that in quotes because I don’t mean to imply that there’s any prospect of a classic Cal-WSU 60-59 style shootout. But a game where neither team can much slow the other and an over/under of 80 perhaps being appropriate is in play.

My instinct says Cal comes out strong, WSU is already feeling the mid-season grind of a failing team and Cal wins moderately easily. The Cal secondary will have it’s struggles, but the improvements we saw in the 2nd half of the UW game will intermittently work to keep WSU in check.

Final score: Bears win 34-20.

Another winnable game lost

(Written by kencraw)

How many times are we going to do this before the season is over? It’s not hard to imagine that this Cal team with a few less mistakes could be 4-0, not 1-3. I might add that my prediction (27-20) would have been darned near right had the field goal at the end of regulation went through (27-24 would have been the score).

In any case, I’ll do this the bullet-point way as per usual:

  • Yet again the mistakes were killer. The fumble in over-time. The botched snap on the early missed field goal. The stupid penalties. This team is just not nearly as refined as early Wilcox teams. It still feels like the chaos of the pandemic still has some rust that has yet to be eradicated.
  • On the positive front, it feels like the defense really turned a corner in the 2nd half. Something must have clicked in their half-time adjustments. In the first half, they were OK, but just enough mistake prone and just a little too slow to be disruptive. In the 2nd half, they finally broke through on what it meant to be confusing to the QB and disruptive so that UW only scored 3 points before overtime.
  • Tackling is still a bit of a weak point throughout though. While it wasn’t as obvious in the 2nd half, it reared its ugly head in overtime again.
  • Speaking of overtime, I’m 100% convinced that UW didn’t get in on 3rd and goal… the refs just didn’t have a *single* angle to prove it. But if you put together how early his knee was down from the rear angle (before the RB made his final lurch forward which included him raising his shoulders/head as a time reference) and how late the ball crossed the plane from the front and side angles (long after the lurch as his body was falling to the ground and long after raising his shoulders/head), then it was clearly not a TD. It made me wonder if the replay booth has the ability to do two synced angles. It appears not.
  • Garbers was not very accurate in this game. His first interception was most definitely not where he intended to throw the ball. (The 2nd might have been, but the receiver didn’t come back to it.) And there were a number of balls thrown behind.
  • At the same time, Garbers was starting to get back to being himself: A throw-first QB who can extend plays and pick up gains with his legs when the planned play doesn’t work out.
  • While the first one didn’t work out, the few well QB-run plays were a nice addition to see.
  • Another improvement area… I’ve been complaining about the QB under center plays for the entire season. They were always obvious run plays. Well, that changed. I didn’t keep careful track, but about half of them were passes in this game. And sure enough, once balance was established, even the run plays under center were more successful.
  • One wonders if this was a “long haul” deception plan. Was it the plan to always run from under center in the non-conference games so that the film our conference foes would study early in conference play give the Bears a counter-tendency strategy?
  • Not really a pro or con, but the end of regulation clock management cracked me up. It’s funny how one converted 3rd down changed everything. First Cal was trying to make the most of the clock, but then a poor 1st down and a penalty had them trying to run out the clock and UW angry the clock ran after the penalty. Then Cal converts on 3rd down and is back to trying to preserve clock. In each moment I agreed with both coaches desires, but at the same time, taking a step back it seems like silliness.

Looking forward, while the frustration of the missed opportunities makes it hard to think this way, I see a lot of positives. UW was better than their early losses make it seem and Cal nearly went on the road and beat them. They showed a lot of heart to battle back from 14 points down in the 2nd half.

If Cal can play like the 2nd half of Saturday’s game, it’s reasonable to think the Bears still have a real shot at bowl eligibility. Home wins over WSU, Colorado and OSU all are very doable, as are road wins over Stanford, USC and Arizona. (The road games against Oregon and UCLA are far less likely.)

Let’s see if they have it in them…