It had been a while, but on Saturday against Arizona, the Cal football team actually found itself with a legitimate shot at winning a football game. With time dwindling in the third quarter, the Bears had the ball and only trailed by five against the heavily favored Wildcats. But when Cal quarterback Jared Goff targeted wide receiver Chris Harper for a first down on third and 10, he was picked off by a Wildcat defensive back.
Despite an Arizona touchdown resulting from the turnover, the Bears again found themselves with a chance to get back in the game. With the Arizona lead stretched to 12, the Cal offense entered the red zone but was faced with a fourth and two from the 20-yard line. Yet once again, Goff threw the ball to the wrong team, pretty much ending any hopes of a comeback.
With that, let’s go to the tape.
The Bear Raid comes out in its usual shotgun formation. Four wideouts are on the field — three grouped to Goff’s left and one on the right sideline. Harper is the receiver on the right and is Goff’s primary read on the play. He fakes a dig route before turning vertical. The wideout closest to the left sideline is Bryce Treggs, who runs a short drag route. Near the line of scrimmage on the left is Stephen Anderson. His route is also a drag across the middle of the field. Squished between Treggs and Anderson is former running back and converted slot receiver Brendan Bigelow. He slices through the seam and up the middle of the field. Running back Daniel Lasco stays in the pocket to help with pass protection.
Meanwhile, the Arizona defense is playing man-to-man coverage with two safeties providing help over the top. The eventual intercepter is free safety Jourdon Grandon, who is on playing on the right side of the field, closest to Harper.
The ball is snapped back to Goff, who locks in on Harper on the right sideline. Initially, Harper struggles to gain any separation from the corner back, but just as Goff shifts his attention to the middle of the field, the wideout actually breaks free from his defender. Watching the play unfold, Harper shoots his hand up in the air, signaling to Goff that he is open for a potential touchdown. But Goff is no longer looking at Harper and is now focused on Bigelow up the seam.
Just as Goff turns to survey the middle of the field, Bigelow also appears to be open, raising his hand in the air to call for a pass. But because Goff is turning his body away from the right sideline, and because he needs to step into the throw, the pass is delivered late to Bigelow.
The two safeties over the top of the field are watching Goff’s eyes the entire play. Although initially drifting toward Harper, Grandon identifies when Goff shifts his eyes to the middle of the field that he is going to throw to Bigelow. With the throw coming late, Grandon covers the yardage toward Bigelow and picks off the pass. Even if the ball had made its way past Grandon, the strong safety also rotated over to Bigelow and was there to make a play on the ball.
After the game, Goff chalked up the interception to the scenario Cal faced.
“It was fourth down,” Goff said. “I was trying to make a play. And I just kind of forced the ball.”
I agree with Goff that on fourth down and with Cal down by two scores, he has no choice but to throw the ball up and hope for the best. If there is nobody open on the play, he can’t just take a sack or throw the ball away. It’s common sense that he has to give his receivers a chance to make a play on the ball.
Still, the interception occurs because Goff is late on his throw to Bigelow and because he ends up missing an open Harper down the right sideline. Goff holds the ball for about four seconds in the pocket, demonstrating how well the offensive played on Saturday. For the first three seconds, Goff’s body is turned toward Harper. It’s a long time to lock in one receiver, but it nearly pays off, as Harper finds himself open as soon as Goff stops looking his way. After the play, Harper is visibly frustrated, throwing his arms down.
But the interception could have at least been avoided if Goff had spotted Bigelow earlier and threw the pass at a time when Bigelow wasn’t blanketed by the safeties. The end result probably wouldn’t have been a touchdown, but Cal would have probably picked up the first down.
Goff doesn’t possess the necessary arm strength to throw a ball that late into triple coverage. It would have taken a laser to squeeze it into Bigelow’s waiting arms. Yes, Goff had no choice but to throw the ball, but with a better read on the play and better decision-making, Cal could have either gotten a touchdown via Harper or a first down by way of Bigelow. Instead, Cal fans were left with the all-too-familiar feeling of defeat.