Happy Saturday to you, Followers! Hope you all are hanging tough.
I made the tentative decision at the start of the year to provide a morning (mourning) after debrief on football game that we lost in 2017. And while I am not sure that I am up to that task if losing becomes a regular habit, I want to take a few moments to unpack last night’s stunning, brutal, and potentially “program defining” defeat.
But before I commence the process of completely jumping off the bridge, here’s a healthy dose of reality: If someone had told me prior to the game—or even the season—that the Cougs were going to play a game where we were -7 in turnover margin, I would have predicted something along the lines of a 41-10 defeat.
Moreover, when you factor into the -7 the punt that went for 1 yard at the end of the second quarter as well as the one in same quarter that was returned 35 yards (or whatever) to our 20 yard line, then the turnover margin was actually -9. MINUS NINE.
And in many ways, that number IS the entire story of last night’s contest. Go -9 against any Power5 team and you’re going to lose by AT LEAST 27 points.
Unfortunately for us, those turnovers—though extreme in number—were not entirely a fluke. Many of them were forced, while others—such as the two punts—represented limitations/warts that we got away with (somehow) previously, but caught up to us last night.
At the beginning of the year, I was pretty bullish on the Cougs. I predicted a 9-3 record, with the belief that we would finish the year either 10-2 or 8-4 (I split the difference and went straight down the middle). My thought was that if we could get to the Colorado game at 6-1, we had a really good chance to be 8-1 when Stanford came to town. At that point, 8-4 would be the floor for the season and 10-2 would represent a distinct possibility if we could stay reasonably healthy—especially on the defensive line.
The good news is that “ideal” scenario forecasted at the beginning of the season is very much in play today.
The bad news is that we are REALLY banged up on defense—so much so that we can no longer reasonably expect to hold any of the teams we play moving forward under 20 points. Meanwhile, our offense—once thought to be the strength and identity of the team– has gone from promising to (seemingly) “in peril” in a few short weeks. Last week against Oregon, we saw glimpses of the types of difficulties we witnessed a month ago against Boise State. Then last night, those same limitations presented themselves in spades.
As the week progresses, I am sure we’ll get more insight—by way of endzone views, press conferences, and the like—about what caused Luke Falk and the offense so much trouble (Luke missing open guys, receivers getting jammed, etc). But from these eyes, it was pretty simple: This team/program is still struggling MIGHTILY to deal with teams that are able to mix up some creative blitz packages with a healthy dose of “rush 3 and drop 8,” Last night, CAL consistently put 6-7 guys on the line of scrimmage—all in a row—and immediately sent guys running back into coverage as soon as the ball was snapped. And when CAL didn’t fall back, they had some really interesting blitz packages that caused us headaches (and sacks) as Falk desperately tried to find Martin or IJM open downfield (they weren’t).
I’m going to defer to folks like Brian Anderson at Cougcenter to provide a more detailed and intelligent breakdown of what went down in that regard last night. But in my mind, the most obvious way to deal with the Rush3 Drop8 scheme is NOT to distribute the ball quickly through the Air—where teams have now become quite adept at having multiple guys run straight to those checkdowns. Instead, the easiest way to get teams to play us honest is to run the g-damn ball between the Center and Guard (not running horizontally between the guard and tackle on a quasi-sweep) and make those middle line backers stay close to the line of scrimmage. Because once teams are forced to play us honest—see USC a few weeks ago—then the Air Raid becomes a Tour de Force like it always has.
But when we don’t keep teams honest by way of a power run game—like we did for much of last year—we will continue to have games like saw last night, against Boise State, the Holiday Bowl, last year’s Apple Cup, Colorado game, etc. And that is unfortunate because I wholeheartedly believe that this team WILL NOT win more than 1 game the rest of the way unless it can score AT LEAST 30 points a game in EVERY GAME we play the rest of the year.
One week from tonight, the Cougs will play a Colorado team that is MUCH more talented offensively than CAL at QB, at WR, and is worlds better at the RB position. And while Colorado has been getting torched defensively on the ground this year, they’ll be very well poised to provide the same kind of defensive scheme through the Air that we’ve seen the last two weeks. And so, if we adjust to what we’ve seen the past two weeks, we’ll be fine next week and beyond. And if we don’t—or if we can’t—then we’re going to start to see a string of 27-13 type losses (or worse) start to get stacked in a hurry.
However, if we beat Colorado, then I have full confidence that we’ll enter the Stanford game at 8-1, setting the stage for the exact type of 10 win season (either regular season or with a bowl win) that many of us thought was possible at the season’s beginning.
But if we fail to adjust to the latest and greatest recipe for beating Luke Falk (and the Air Raid in general) then its tenable to question where the next win will come from. And given that next year projects to be a down year for the program (given impending losses along the defensive line, the Offensive Line, Quarterback, and possibly–probably?—our defensive coordinator), the program’s entire trajectory may depend on our ability to finish this season on a high note.
To date, Mike Leach and company have done a pretty darn good job of helping the team rebound from these kinds of defeats.
Let’s hope that we see that same kind of resilience next week, because the season—and possibly beyond—is on the line next Saturday against Colorado.
Let’s hope they’re up to the task (#FeedWicks)
All for now. Go Cougs.