If you’re in denial because Cal was recently in the AP Top 25, then I have some news to break to you. Something is seriously wrong with the Cal offense, and until it gets fixed, the team’s improvement that many expected under second-year head coach Justin Wilcox will be severely capped.
On first look, the offensive performance against Oregon may look unconcerning. Against a top-five rush defense, Patrick Laird had his best game of the season, averaging more than five yards a rush. Brandon McIlwain weaved his way through Ducks’ linebackers to the tune of more than 100 yards on the ground. The team’s best offensive player even completed 100 percent of his passes (consult the box score again if this stat leaves you scratching your chin).
But if you were anywhere in the vicinity of Memorial Stadium on Saturday night, it was hard not to come away with the feeling that the Bears’ offense, well, stinks. And for the most part, the numbers back that up.
On the season, the team’s overall offensive efficiency and yards per attempt in the air are in the bottom 20 of the nation. The team’s quarterback rating leaves them outside of the national top 100. Combined, McIlwain and Chase Garbers’ six interceptions lead the Pac-12. Kanawai Noa leads the team in receiving yards with a measly 159, 52 of those coming on one play.
You may be thinking that I’m too harsh on the offense after Oregon put a resounding 42 points on the board. Well, two of Oregon’s came directly from a 61-yard fumble return and a late pick six. Another came off one of the best throws I’ve seen a college quarterback make in person (Justin Herbert’s laser over Alex Funches to Kano Dillon in the first quarter) so my confidence on that side of the ball hasn’t particularly been shaken.
So what exactly has me second guessing the offense just four games in?
Well, for one, there’s the mystery of Ross Bowers. Wilcox was effusive about Bowers’ growth on the field and as a leader in the preseason. Despite rumblings of a legitimate competition under center, the incumbent starter took the heavy majority of first-team snaps in practices. It’s hard to wrap one’s mind around that — the promise he showed last season — and the fact that he’s been designated to a baseball cap and a headset after one underwhelming half against UNC.
Wilcox has been consistent in his rationale that Garbers and McIlwain both brought more as runners and force defenses to account for a more dynamic offense. Clearly that’s the case with McIlwain, but Garbers’ 16 attempts for 66 yards over the past two games likely don’t have defenses quaking in their boots. Furthermore, Garbers’ 58 percent completion rate and 3:3 TD:INT ratio when you remove lowly Idaho State from the equation make him look like a straightforward hinderance.
There’s been no indication that Bowers has suffered some sort of injury from the heavy hits he took in his brief time on the field against the Tar Heels. So if this call was made purely because of on-field performance, I’m still having trouble reconciling Wilcox’s decision in my head.
The team’s offense took a consistent plunge on the road last season, and next week in Arizona, whose defense is top 50 in opposing yards per pass attempt, things could get downright ugly if there’s not a change soon. If Garbers and McIlwain combine for another subpar statline next Saturday without Bowers ever strapping on his helmet, the pressure will be on Wilcox to defend moving on without the signal caller he described as “having coming a long way,” and having better command of the offense just last month.
Laird’s diminished influence, the run blocking of the offensive line and trouble protecting the ball are all cause for serious concern, but the easiest thing to control should come first. And nothing should be easier to change than the depth chart. Its sudden stickiness at quarterback confuses me as much as you.