Midseason shootaround: Examining Cal’s 0-3 start

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With three games of the season complete, Cal football has reached the midway point of its 2020 season. The Bears are surely hoping to find more success in the games to come. Our football beat writers reflect on how the blue and gold have fared thus far and how they can still improve.

What has been most surprising about Cal at this extraordinarily early, three-game midseason?

Shailin Singh: It’s extremely refreshing to see offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s ability to draw up explosive plays, specifically those that go for over 15 yards. We have seen several deep receptions from both wide receivers Makai Polk and Kekoa Crawford. Additionally, all three running backs Christopher Brown Jr., Marcel Dancy and Damien Moore (plus quarterback Chase Garbers) have found gaps and created large gains on the ground. Those big plays are crucial to keeping drives alive, and while the Bears must be more effective at scoring touchdowns once they reach the red zone, they are doing a much better job of getting there than in seasons past.

Emily Ohman: Some teams just wouldn’t be the same without the faces of their franchise. Running back Brown was one such set piece for the Bears before his injury, as were offensive linemen Michael Saffell, Jake Curhan and many other starters that were ruled out for several games. However, stellar performances from players such as defensive end JH Tevis and running backs Dancy and Moore have illustrated the remarkable depth of talent that Cal has on its roster. These players have certainly stepped up with so many starters missing time this season and have given the Bears their best shots at victory à la Dancy’s 80-yard rushing performance against Oregon State, as well as Tevis’ two sacks and Moore’s 54-yard dash against Stanford. Such young talent promises successful seasons down the line, and Cal fans should be excited about a future that sees these players take on expanded roles.

Jasper Kenzo Sundeen: 0-3 is disappointing for many Cal fans — no doubt about it — but the Bears have had plenty of promising play in 2020. Moore has been a phenom. The true freshman has improved steadily each game he has played, earning more reps and gaining more yards as he goes, which has culminated in a 121-yard performance against Stanford at the Big Game. We all knew Cal had a deep running back room, but to see Moore leading the team in rushing after three games, even with starter Brown out, only bodes well for the latter half of this season and the future of this program.

What is a Cal weakness that you would like to see improve over the final three games?

SS: Special teams must improve across the board. If special teams did what they were supposed to in the contests against Oregon State and Stanford, which the Bears lost by a combined five points, Cal would be 2-1 right now. Of course, not all of the blame can be put on special teams coordinator Charlie Ragle, but it’s his job to get this unit to execute, which has not been happening thus far. Cal has had game-changing special teams mistakes in just about every way possible — punt return, kick return, punt blocking, kick blocking, punting and more. If Cal cannot clean up these mistakes, it will certainly end up costing them more victories.

EO: The Bears have steamrolled down the field only to fail to convert in the red zone too many times this season. The offense has completed only 50% of attempted red zone touchdowns and totes a 3rd down conversion rate of 38% within 20 yards of the end zone. Had Cal converted just one or two more of their 14 3rd downs against Stanford, the game may well have ended in the Bears’ favor with a larger margin than the 1-point loss they suffered to the Cardinal. With plenty of capable receivers such as Nikko Remigio, Polk and Crawford at Garbers’ disposal — not to mention the quarterback’s sound ability to escape the pocket — Cal’s offense should be putting more points on the board than it have in the first three games of this season.

JKS: In an interview after the Big Game, linebacker and team captain Kuony Deng reiterated that his team needed to play a complete game. While there have been issues with special teams, in particular, Cal has surrendered turnovers and allowed chunk plays, which have let opposing defenses and offenses off the hook, respectively. Take out opposing drives which started inside Bear territory and Cal has limited its last two opponents to 20 points total. Take away Jermar Jefferson’s 75-yard touchdown run and that tally becomes 13 points in two games. If the blue and gold can eliminate the lapses in concentration from coaches and players that lead to these situations, it could pay dividends.

What should Cal’s goals be for the rest of the season, given how it has started?

SS: While winning games is obviously important, the Cal coaches should focus their attention on getting as many players involved as possible. With the Pac-12 title out of reach and bowl games possibly not even happening, there is nothing postseason-related that the Bears need to devote all of their attention to. If this season has proven anything, it’s that depth is more crucial than it’s ever been in the past. Many players on the offensive and defensive lines are starting for the first time in their career, and their game-by-game improvement is already noticeable. Though next season probably won’t feature nearly as many COVID-19-related player absences, the Bears will only benefit from giving their younger players reps on the field.

EO: A popular anecdote claims that it doesn’t matter how you start, it’s about how you finish, and Cal still has a chance to make good on the high expectations of the team despite a rocky start to the season. While many things have gotten in the way of allowing the Bears to show their full potential — rescheduled matchups, player injuries and Pac-12 teams’ apparent uncanny ability to block kicks, to name a few — there are still beatable opponents on the slate if Cal cleans up its own miscues. By addressing persistent special teams issues, playing to their offensive strengths of a strong receiving corps and increasingly adroit Garbers and limiting substantial defensive blunders, the Bears have as good a chance as any of notching a win or two before season’s end.

JKS: As bad as an 0-3 start is, it really does not feel like Cal has been particularly terrible. There have been mistakes, yes, but consider the last two games. A turnover in the red zone ended a potential game-winning drive against Oregon State. A week later, the Bears scored on their final drive, but a blocked extra point foiled any hope of a positive result. The team is clearly almost there. Cal’s goal should be to put it all together for at least one game — to perform both offensively and defensively and display growth gained in this strange, abbreviated season.

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