Well, here we are again.
A team that swore that “next year” — now this year — would be better than an injury- and coronavirus-riddled 1-3 squad in 2020 now sits at 1-5. Despite that jarring record, therein lies an even tougher truth: Every game this year has been very winnable for the Bears.
Perhaps the most telling stat is that despite being 1-5, Cal only has a minus-24-point margin this year, which averages out to just a 4-point deficit per game, making every game a one-score affair. In the 23 games decided by one touchdown or less under Justin Wilcox, the blue and gold are 9-14. Wilcox started 7-7 in that category, a mark that many (myself and Write for California President Avinash Kunnath included) took to mean that there would be substantial improvements in the following years.
However, what seemed like a program on the rise may have actually been one that was just skating by. In their last 10 games decided by a touchdown or less, the Bears are 2-8.
When stats like this arise, it points to two things. The first is the fickle nature of football and why so many people have some, ahem, emotional reactions to the outcomes of it. But, additionally, it points to the fact that Cal is missing a piece, or maybe several, that would help it finish the job in these tight games.
Just please don’t ask what the piece is.
The Bears’ offense looks great on paper. With 4.9 yards per carry, Cal is near the upper echelon of college football rushing attacks. And despite its relatively low scoring outputs, Cal is 59th in the nation in terms of total offense. This puts it just eight slots lower than Oregon and nine slots higher than the No. 7 team in the nation, Penn State.
So what’s the issue? Well, of the teams ranked 51-70 in total offense, the Bears are one of just five teams that have yet to score 20 touchdowns on the season. This sets Cal at the 104th-best scoring offense in college football. Not coincidentally, the offense sits tied for 114th in red-zone conversion rate, with just 72.7% of its drives ending in scores.
What goes wrong in the red zone is anyone’s guess, but from the outside looking in, it isn’t exactly pretty. When the Bears lean into their strengths (i.e., the running game), they look like they’re in control and can establish what they want. But when trying to work the intermediate and short passing game, their offense sputters a bit.
Right now, Chase Garbers is averaging 7 yards per pass attempt this season. Nothing to write home about, but it is a serviceable number. However, four of his top five targets are averaging more than 13 yards a reception (the notable exception being Nikko Remigio, as the team seems allergic to getting him the ball down the field). Stats like this back up what can be seen on game days: The passing attack can flat-out move the ball way downfield at a pretty successful clip, but when the reads get tougher and the windows get tighter, it becomes a struggle to be efficient.
On defense, there’s more of the same ambiguity. A team that started off struggling to stop just about anything opposing offenses were doing has suddenly taken strides and, in the last two matchups, limited Washington State to 21 points (down from its usual 24.33 points per game) and held Oregon (a team that is averaging 33.83 points per game) to 24 points.
I say all this to make the claim that no one knows what’s going on in Strawberry Canyon right now. It feels impossible to predict success given the team’s 1-5 record. At the same time, there are so many indicators that things could be just an inch or two away from a significantly more impressive record.
Whether the Bears have bad luck or generations of curses bestowed upon them is, frankly, neither here nor there. The reality is that Cal has to find a way to win these tough games if it wants to see long-term success.
So, dear reader, I leave this up to you. Are the Bears simply finding themselves on the wrong side of a coin flip? Or is there some more serious backsliding into mediocrity occurring?
Because — just between you and me — I have no idea.