Every college football fan has reason to be hopeful at the beginning of the season. Unless you’re a fan of Alabama, Clemson, Oklahoma or Ohio State, national championship aspirations tend to be a bit naive. But with about three months left before conference championship games kick off, the typical college fan thinks there’s still a chance their schools will find their footing and start playing well in November. Even after losing an opening game, positive change is still within the realm of possibility.
Cal fans may not feel the same way, and for good reason. Saturday’s season-opening 22-17 loss to Nevada at home was an embarrassment, even though the Wolfpack didn’t exactly dominate on either side of the ball. Indeed, the box score reflects a fairly even matchup. It was how the Bears lost — by abandoning a winning game plan — that is the real cause for concern.
If Cal had been played off of the field from the opening kickoff, losing might have been easier to accept. But the Bears dominated the first quarter, scoring two touchdowns to go up 14-0. On Cal’s opening drive, true sophomore running back Damien Moore had seven carries for 32 yards. The offensive line was getting great push, especially on the left side from Will Craig and Ben Coleman, so Moore had some big holes to run through and nearly broke away on a few plays. Cal ran the ball five more times on its second touchdown drive, which included a 20-yard run by senior running back Christopher Brooks and a 12-yard run by Moore. The Bears’ running game eventually set up Garbers’ longest completion of the night, a 28-yard pass to Jeremiah Hunter.
In short, the running game was working remarkably well. Any rational person might continue to employ a winning strategy. But Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave decided to take a totally different approach through the final three quarters, replacing a run-heavy offense with a conservative passing game. In fact, Cal ran the football just six times in the second and third quarters combined.
Not only was the ground game successful, but Musgrave also had little reason to believe that the passing game would work and certainly did not call plays that would help Cal’s passing game match the productiveness of its running game. Indeed, Chase Garbers’ measly 177 yards on 25-38 passing reflects two seemingly contradictory realities: Musgrave distrusts his quarterback but is also eager to put the ball in his hands.
In the first place, Musgrave did not ask Garbers to do very much at all, which says a lot about the lack of trust he has in his starting quarterback. Far too many of Garbers’ throws came on screen or pitch plays that resulted in very little yardage and, when he was asked to complete a long ball, he failed all too often. Why, then, did Musgrave insist on throwing the football so much when the conservative passing plays he called revealed an obvious doubtfulness over Garbers’ ability to create big plays?
By way of comparison, Nevada’s Carson Strong, who is considered by many NFL analysts to be one of the best quarterbacks in the nation this year and a high pick in next year’s draft, threw just one more pass than Garbers did and, unsurprisingly, was twice as effective as the Bears’ quarterback. The Wolfpack’s offensive coordinator Matt Mumme was right to trust Strong to throw the ball nearly 40 times, as the redshirt junior passed for 312 yards and threw a few perfectly weighted long balls.
Even if Garbers was one of the best quarterbacks in the conference, effectively abandoning the running game after being so successful pounding the rock in the first quarter is baffling. After the game, when asked why the Bears threw the ball so much after the first quarter, head coach Justin Wilcox offered little in the way of explanation.
“We wanted to continue to run the ball. We had a couple situations where we went backwards,” Wilcox said. “Of course you want to stay in the run game. I mean, we’ll look at it tomorrow.”
Cal fans knew that a national championship was out of the question heading into this year and, like good Bears fans, braced themselves for misfortune. There was no way they could have predicted that Wilcox and his staff would run away from success when it knocked on their door.