Football shootaround: How can Cal be taken seriously again?

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Sunny Shen/Senior Staff

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What made the difference between Cal and Washington on Saturday?

Jesse Stewart: Turnovers, turnovers, turnovers. Teams constantly talk about the “turnover margin,” but what even is it? Essentially, the margin is the plus-minus differential between two teams in any given game. For example, Cal turned the call over three times Saturday in comparison to Washington’s one, creating a -2 turnover margin for Cal. From 2000 to 2014, teams with a -2 turnover margin won just 24.9% of their games (and while this data is somewhat outdated, there’s no real reason to imagine that the game has changed). It is almost impossible to win football games when you give the opponent more opportunities to score.

Kabir Rao: A slow start. The Huskies struck first, and the Bears were pretty much playing catch-up for the rest of the game. Cal entered halftime down 21-10, and the team didn’t truly gain momentum until it was too little, too late. In the fourth quarter, the blue and gold outgained Washington 164-40 in yardage yet managed just one touchdown to force overtime. Controlling the tempo and flow of a football game is much easier when you’re playing with the lead. If Cal wants to beat Washington State, the Bears will need to come roaring out of the gates and never look back.

William Cooke: It’s easy to play Monday morning quarterback, which is the only position I’ve ever known. But some of the play calls Saturday put Cal on its heels. For example, on the Bears’ first drive of the fourth quarter, down by 7, Cal was moving the football and decided to go for it on fourth-and-2. Instead of handing the ball off to running back Damien Moore, offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave opted to throw him a swing pass to the right sideline. Needless to say, Cal didn’t convert, and the offense ended up running out of time to win it in regulation. Committing three turnovers is why the Bears lost, but Musgrave’s mistake did not help. 

What do Jaydn Ott and Justyn Martin’s recent decisions to decommit say about the Bears’ future?

JS: In all honesty, this is not the death knell it might seem to be. Four-star quarterback Martin’s decommitment hurts, but the buzz around campus has been that Cal’s current four-star freshman quarterback, Kai Millner, has been lighting it up in practice and should be “that guy” moving forward. There’s a good possibility that Martin wanted to go somewhere he felt he might have a better chance to win a starting quarterback job in his first year. Ott’s decommitment hurts more, as he was the highest-rated running back recruit for Cal in recent memory, but the emergence of Moore helps put a Band-Aid over that wound for now.

KR: These losses definitely hurt. But Cal has put together enough of a recruitment class outside of Ott and Martin to help soften the blow. More scary is what these decisions could signify about the blue and gold’s future recruiting efforts. If the Bears continue to lose winnable Pac-12 games, talent will continue to shy away from Berkeley. Ott and Martin might just be the start of an exodus. And it makes sense: Why would high school football stars choose to come here when they could go to similar programs that are on the rise? Conference rivals such as UCLA, USC, Stanford and Oregon talk a big game like Cal does — but unlike the Bears, those teams boast the play to back it up.

WC: Cal’s future will not be seriously affected by the decommitments. But considering how vital recruiting is in college football as well as how important momentum is in securing talented recruiting classes, Ott and Martin’s announcements could cause an invisible ripple effect. Mack Brown’s return to coaching at North Carolina, for example, demonstrates how important it is not only to secure but to keep recruits, as his excellent recruiting classes have built on themselves year after year. Losing Martin and Ott is a signal to other potential recruits that Cal is on the decline, which cannot be good for head coach Justin Wilcox’s future recruiting efforts. 

What does Cal need to do Saturday to show that it’s ready to be taken seriously again?

JS: It all starts on the back end. If the Bears, and the defensive backfield specifically, can show that they can consistently tackle and run a variety of coverages at a high level, then this will start to look more like the defensive stalwart Cal has come to be known for under Wilcox.

KR: Generate takeaways. The Bears have won the turnover margin just once this season — in a loss to TCU when safety Daniel Scott returned an interception for a touchdown. It’s time for Cal to turn back the clock and capture the “Takers” style of defense that defined the program a few seasons ago. Forcing turnovers gives the defense confidence, but it also flips the field and gives the offense an easier path to the end zone. A close win over fellow Pac-12 basement dweller Washington State is not enough. The Bears need to win big, and that’ll only happen if they take the ball away from the Cougars.

WC: To be taken seriously, Cal has to start playing complementary football. The Bears have to stop failing to convert on fourth-and-short situations, for example, which forces the defense onto the field in less-than-ideal circumstances. The defense and the secondary especially have not stepped up this season, so keeping the defense off of the field for as long as possible by converting on short-yardage situations will be crucial for the Bears.

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