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Cal doesn’t need *that* much offense to have a special 2019

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Justin Wilcox got the Golden Bears back to a bowl in his second year, but they could have been so much more.

NCAA Football: Colorado at California
Evan Weaver (89) and Ashtyn Davis (27)
John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

Bill C’s annual preview series of every FBS team in college football continues. Catch up here!

Just a little bit more offense. That’s all it would have taken to make 2018 a special year for the Cal Bears.

  • Only one pick six against Arizona instead of two.
  • Only four or five drives stalled out in Washington State territory instead of six.
  • Only five drives stalled out in Stanford territory instead of seven.
  • Only three damn interceptions thrown against TCU in the Cheez-It Bowl instead of five.

That doesn’t feel like much to ask. And yet.

The offense’s bar wasn’t high, but it frequently failed to clear. And the Golden Bears managed to lose six total games with their best defense in 10 years.

In Justin Wilcox’s two years as Cal head coach, the Bears’ defense has turned all the way around. He inherited from Sonny Dykes a woeful unit, one that ranked 107th in Def. S&P+ in the year before he arrived and one that had averaged a ranking of 100.8 during Dykes’ tenure. The bar was so low that Wilcox’s 82nd in 2017 was encouraging.

In 2018, though, the D was dominant. Cal finished 13th in Def. S&P+, combining aggression and efficiency (10th in marginal efficiency) with extreme big-play prevention (10th in marginal explosiveness). They allowed 20.4 points per game, 22.2 fewer than in Dykes’ final season. After springing some leaks early in Pac-12 play, they dominated down the stretch, allowing under 15 points per game in their last seven contests.

This was a massive accomplishment, especially considering the youth. There were only two seniors among Cal’s 10 leading tacklers, and the Bears return almost their entire secondary, plus eight of last year’s top 10 creators of havoc plays (tackles for loss, passes defensed, forced fumbles). When you surge a little too much, you tend to regress the next year, but Cal is experienced enough to have a shot at another top-15 unit.

The offense, meanwhile, loses its top four receivers and its leading rusher. And it struggled with big plays and closing drives before those guys left.

NCAA Football: California at Washington State
Justin Wilcox
James Snook-USA TODAY Sports

Dykes never figured things out defensively, but his offense was never in question. Cal was 13th in Off. S&P+ in 2015 and, after losing QB and No. 1 pick Jared Goff, 22nd in 2016. That made this role reversal all the more jarring. Two years ago, Cal was 22nd on offense and 107th on defense. Last fall, the Bears were 13th on defense and 118th on offense.

I mean, my goodness, look at the flip between 2016 and 2018:

A team with Cal’s 2016 offense and 2018 defense would have been top-10 overall.

Of course, a team with Cal’s 2016 defense and 2018 offense would have nearly been bottom-10.

To a degree, this was to be expected. Dykes has always been an offense-first guy, and Wilcox is the opposite: a former Oregon defensive back and defensive coordinator at Boise State, Tennessee, Washington, USC, and Wisconsin. But these extremes are nowhere close to normal.

The goal for 2019 is obvious. From the perspective of returning production, there’s no reason to assume Cal to differ too much; in fact, the Bears are projected to become even more extreme — fifth on defense, 125th on offense.

The schedule gives them two likely wins (UC Davis, Oregon State), three likely losses (at Washington, at Oregon, at Utah), and a whole bunch of tossups, and whether they end up with five wins or something more will depend on whether they can shore up their weakest of weaknesses: finishing drives (129th in points per scoring opportunity), big plays (126th in marginal explosiveness), and converting third downs (122nd in third-and-medium success rate, 89th on third-and-short).

Start with those baby steps.

Offense

The good news — I guess it’s good news? — for Cal’s offense, relatively speaking, is that the Bears weren’t bad in stereotypical ways last year. When you think of teams with numbers like the Bears’, you think of the worst examples of a Mark Dantonio or Will Muschamp team: almost cynically conservative, running the ball even when they can’t, playing at the slowest tempo, etc.

That’s not what this was. Among other things, Dantonio or Muschamp wouldn’t have hired former Eastern Washington head coach Beau Baldwin as their offensive coordinator.

No, for the Bears it was more about being unable to execute what they wanted. They played at an average tempo (71st in adjusted pace), spread defenses out a bit (45th in solo tackles created), and threw quite a bit on early downs (96th in standard-downs run rate). Granted, Baldwin’s old EWU offenses went faster and spread defenses out even more, but you could see an identity.

Cal just didn’t have the creators. Running back Patrick Laird saw a grueling 21.9 intended touches (rushes and pass targets) per game but averaged just 4.4 yards per intended touch and a 38 percent success rate. Vic Wharton III and Moe Ways, the top two wideouts, averaged just 10.5 yards per catch. There were no big plays or easy scores to be found, and when you combine that with abysmal red zone execution, you get ... well ... Cal’s 2018 offense.

Losing your top rusher and top four targets (Wharton, Laird, Ways, and new Nebraska Cornhusker Kanawai Now) is not the best road to improvement, but you can forgive Cal fans if they don’t mourn those losses too much.

Leading returning rushers Christopher Brown Jr. and Marcel Dancy had higher success rates than Laird, and senior wideout Jordan Duncan led the team in yards per catch (13.4 in 20 receptions) and success rate, albeit in a small sample. Plus, Michigan transfer Kekoa Crawford, though inefficient in Ann Arbor, flashed some explosiveness. Depth is a massive concern, as one would expect when you lose your entire skill corps first string, but potential is not.

NCAA Football: Outback Bowl-Michigan vs South Carolina
Kekoa Crawford
Kim Klement-USA TODAY Sports

Two 2017 returnees, Ross Bowers and Chase Forrest, combined to throw just 31 passes last fall. Bowers, the 2017 starter, battled a thumb injury all year, and redshirt freshman Chase Garbers and South Carolina transfer Brandon McIlwain ended up taking most of the snaps.

They both flashed nice athleticism, combining to rush 144 times (not including sacks) for 962 yards and six touchdowns, and their legs were a primary contributor to Cal ranking a not-completely-awful 62nd in rushing marginal efficiency. But while they also completed 61 percent of their passes, those passes didn’t go anywhere (9.5 yards per completion).

NCAA Football: Cheez-It Bowl-Texas Christian vs California
Chase Garbers
Mark J. Rebilas-USA TODAY Sports

McIlwain is listed as an athlete, not a QB, on Cal’s roster, and the intention has for a while been to use him in as many roles as possible. But even if McIlwain moves away from the QB position, don’t hand the starting job to Garbers just yet. Wilcox brought UCLA transfer Devon Modster — another mobile guy who completed 67 percent of his passes at 13.9 yards per completion in two late starts for the Bruins in 2017 — to town, and incoming freshman Spencer Brasch was a high-three-star prospect.

The line is a potential concern, too. Two starters and two part-time starters return, but any drop-off could be catastrophic.

Defense

There was really only one way to beat Cal’s defense in 2018: patient running. The Bears weren’t going to give you any 20-yard rushes, but they allowed at least four yards on 85 percent of non-sack rushes (85th in FBS) and stuffed you at or behind the line just 17 percent of the time (90th).

If you were content with going for five-yard rushes without screwing something up, congrats. Most couldn’t.

And when opponents had to pass, things tended to favor Cal. Despite a merely decent pass rush, Cal ranked 10th in both Passing S&P+ and Passing Downs S&P+. A whopping 42 percent of opponents’ incompletions were due to a pass defensed (either an interception or breakup). Four Cal DBs recorded at least six passes defensed, as did linebacker Evan Weaver and end Luc Bequette. This was a defense built around the pass. That’s a pretty good thing to be built around in 2019.

NCAA Football: California at Arizona
Camryn Bynum (24)
Casey Sapio-USA TODAY Sports

Of the seven DBs in last year’s rotation, only backup safety Quentin Tartabull is gone. Safeties Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins (combined: five tackles for loss, 10 INTs, eight breakups), corners Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks (7.5 TFLs, three INTs, 12 breakups), and nickel Traveon Beck (two TFLs, three INTs, four breakups) all return, as do, for that matter, Weaver and Bequette.

One figures the secondary has pretty much hit its ceiling or is very close to it. Any further improvement will therefore depend on the front seven.

NCAA Football: Washington at California
Jordan Kunaszyk
D. Ross Cameron-USA TODAY Sports

Depth in the front seven has thinned out a bit -- two of last year’s primary four linemen are gone, as are four of seven linemackers -- but a lot of play-makers return. Weaver and Bequette were among the team’s three sacks leaders, OLB/rush end Tevin Paul was excellent in run support (11 TFLs, 11.5 run stuffs).

There are plenty of candidates for larger roles.

  • Newcomers: four-star JUCO linebacker Kuony Deng was the star of spring ball and, at 6’6, 235 pounds, could play any number of different roles from play to play. Plus, redshirt freshmen Evan Tattersall (ILB) and Erick Nisich (NG) looked solid in brief auditions last fall, and Chattanooga grad transfer Hawk Schrider had 10 TFLs in the last two seasons.
  • Other youngsters: sophomore tackles Aaron Maldonado and Siulagisipai Fuimaono also looked solid in backup roles.
  • Returnees from injury: outside linebacker Cameron Goode recorded 10.5 havoc plays in nine games in 2017 and had another two in one game last fall before suffering an injured leg and missing the rest of the year. He’s back.

At worst, I don’t see the run defense faring any worse. And if Deng ends up the real deal, Cal’s 2019 defense could find an extra gear.

Special Teams

Cal hopped on the Aussie punters train by reeling in Steven Coutts as a transfer from UL-Lafayette in 2017, and based on the field position he helped to create for the Cal defense, he might have been the Bears’ best offensive player. He placed 31 of 73 punts inside the 20 while booting only two touchbacks, and Cal ranked eighth in punt efficiency. That, plus come awesome kick returns from Ashtyn Davis, drove a No. 25 ranking in Special Teams S&P+.

Both Coutts and Davis are back, as is a solid place-kicker in Greg Thomas. This should again be a strong unit.

2019 outlook

2019 Schedule & Projection Factors

Date Opponent Proj. S&P+ Rk Proj. Margin Win Probability
31-Aug UC Davis NR 25.5 93%
7-Sep at Washington 15 -16.7 17%
14-Sep North Texas 84 8.0 68%
21-Sep at Ole Miss 39 -7.6 33%
27-Sep Arizona State 49 0.0 50%
5-Oct at Oregon 20 -12.9 23%
19-Oct Oregon State 105 15.3 81%
26-Oct at Utah 17 -14.4 20%
9-Nov Washington State 36 -3.0 43%
16-Nov USC 29 -4.8 39%
23-Nov at Stanford 32 -9.1 30%
30-Nov at UCLA 63 -2.1 45%
Projected S&P+ Rk 60
Proj. Off. / Def. Rk 125 / 5
Projected wins 5.4
Five-Year S&P+ Rk 3.4 (59)
2- and 5-Year Recruiting Rk 46
2018 TO Margin / Adj. TO Margin* -3 / -3.1
2018 TO Luck/Game +0.0
Returning Production (Off. / Def.) 64% (51%, 78%)
2018 Second-order wins (difference) 6.5 (0.5)

It feels like Cal is close to something. The Bears have all the pieces to at least maintain last year’s defensive standard, and it’s not hard to see the offense improving due to the combination of better QB play (either from Garbers or Modster), just a few more explosive plays, and merely mediocre red zone execution.

It’s not hard to see how this all goes wrong, too.

There are six projected one-possession games on the 2019 schedule, and they come in batches — three in a row in September (North Texas, at Ole Miss, Arizona State), and three in four games at the end (Washington State, USC, at UCLA). The Bears probably need to go 4-2 in these six games to reach a bowl, the extremes are both conceivable too.

Cal’s built pretty well for the future. There might not be any senior starters on offense, and defensive depth should continue to be strong moving forward. But 2019 is a bit of a mystery.

Team preview stats

All 2019 preview data to date.