I don’t believe in momentum, and I never will. But when Chris Harper miraculously dived and caught a Jared Goff deep ball late in the first quarter at Memorial Stadium on Saturday, I felt strongly that an early touchdown would change the course of the game.
Goff raced up the sidelines after the completion, frantically gathering the offense to gather for a quick snap. Khalfani Muhammad gained one on a stretch play. Goff threw incomplete on second down and then completed to Richard Rodgers in the flats. Rodgers dragged a defender for a couple of yards but fell two short of the first down.
The ref placed the ball at the four, making it fourth down with two yards for the first. Whatever shift I had sensed, of momentum or otherwise, lay in the hands of Sonny Dykes. Down 7-0 in the first quarter as a massive underdog, would he push for the touchdown or pull back and take the three points?
Dykes opted for the conservative choice. The offense dejectedly plodded off the field. Vince D’Amato and the kicking team raced on to line up for the chip shot, and Cal was down four.
“I just felt like we needed to get some points,” Dykes said of the decision to kick the field goal in the first. “Our red-zone and short-yardage offense haven’t been particularly effective for us. I wanted to get out and get some confidence early in the ballgame.”
Down 11 early in the second quarter, Goff led Cal on a methodical drive down the field. The offense on this drive resembled peak Bear Raid; down after down, Goff found either Bryce Treggs or Chris Harper on bubble screens or short passes in the flats, rapidly accumulating first downs. Two holding penalties set the Bears back as they approached the Oregon red zone, but a 16-yard Jeffrey Coprich reception on third-and-21 handed Cal another manageable fourth-down situation at the Beavers’ 28. Once more, Dykes opted for the field goal. This time, it backfired as D’Amato missed. The Beavers would rack up 21 unanswered, and the Bears never had a chance.
There’s no guarantee the Bears would have hung with Oregon State if they converted one or both of those fourth-down conversions. But that’s not the point.
It wasn’t that long ago when Dykes called for a fake field goal on the first offensive possession of his Cal coaching tenure. The call paid off. He proved his affinity for high-risk choices then. Where was it Saturday?
And how conservative was the initial choice to go for it on fourth down, really? If you score a touchdown, the game is tied. The probability of winning at that point is somewhere around 50 percent. Now say you fail. The Beavers still take over deep in Cal territory, theoretically granting the Bears a chance to regain solid field position. A field goal increases your odds of winning only slightly, especially factoring in Cal’s defensive ineptitude. When the Bears have a chance to grab points, they need to grab as many as possible.
Maybe Dykes’ confidence is suffering after myriad turnovers and a 1-6 start. That lack of confidence ought not to obscure the fact that sometimes, the risky choice is the right choice.