Well that was one exciting game. It was by far the most exciting game of the season and I can’t think of a home game last season that was as exciting (wait, the Oregon game last year was pretty darned exciting). I mean I enjoy Cal blowing out an opponent as much as just about anyone, but that doesn’t change the fact that there is absolutely nothing as exciting as a come from behind win.
Going into this game the question on my mind was who had a worse case of 4th quarter choke-itis. We learned yesterday that it was WaZoo. And after watching that game it was clear to me why. You see, as much as coaches and media pundits will claim ignorance as to why seemingly good teams choke at the end of the game, the reason is usually pretty obvious and doesn’t have as much to do with confidence or experience as everyone says. Cal’s reason is that they can be forced to become one dimensional and the opposition can shut that down. That makes for a slow 4th quarter. Additionally, if they get behind, on average, they don’t have the QB to make a comeback.
WaZoo’s problem is a different one, but one that should be obvious to those who understand the game: The only play they have is the big play. You might have two objections to this: 1. why is that a problem and 2. not believing that is the case, particularly with a running back who got 160+ yards last night. I’ll start with #2 and work my way back to #1. I was amazed to hear that WaZoo’s RB got 160 yards last night because he was continually stuffed at the line by the bears. He really wasn’t a factor in the game. Don’t believe me? What if I told you that although his per-carry average was 6.2 yards, fully 11 of his 26 runs were 2 yards or less. He had one big 42 yard run and 4 between 10 and 15 yards that made up the vast majority of his yards. Otherwise he was completely ineffective. So, there running game is built on the big play, what about the pass? Even easier. 4 of their 5 TD’s came off of pass plays longer than 35 yards and their fieldgoal was the result of a 80 yard pass play stopped inside the 10 (followed by a goal-line stop by the Bears). Outside of those 5 pass plays, WaZoo’s QB was 13 for 34 for a whopping 139 yards. Sounds a lot different than 18 for 39 for 423 yards, doesn’t it?
OK, so they make their living on the long plays, big deal. Why is that a hinderance in the 4th quarter? If anything that makes them more deadly, right? They’re able to strike at any time, right? No, that’s not how it works. See, as the game wears on, defenses more and more figure out how to stop the big play. They see the strength of the team and focus on stopping that. Said differently, as the game wears on the less likely it is that you’re going to be able to break a big play, particularly in the air. In WaZoo’s case, they have 2 REALLY fast wide receivers. You can’t play them tight and hope to keep up. So, after getting burned a handful of times (and a few times too many for the Bears if you ask me), defenses adjust and play softer to make sure they keep behind those two guys.
So there you have it. WaZoo doesn’t have a power running game, just a deep pass game and as the game wears on the defense learns how to shut down the deep pass. The result is a lot of short drives in the 4th quarter that gives the opposing team the ball too often. Add in a defense that isn’t stellar and you’ve got a great recipe for 4th quarter collapses.
Now that I think about it, this hasn’t been a very good “Bear’s game wrap up” in the usual sense. I’ve been spending more time talking about how pathetic WaZoo is. And they are. The reality is that if Cal had understood WaZoo’s strengths better the score would have been far more lopsided as the only time Cal’s defense didn’t look like it was completely in control was when WaZoo launched the deep ball. If you play the way WaZoo plays, you’re going to put up a lot of yards and a fair amount of points just based on pure luck, but you’re not playing good fundamentals and you’ll lose a lot of games and not understand why. Final statistic to make my case: Cal had a 13 minute time of possession advantage over WaZoo. That’s a lot of extra minutes to wear down the defense and put points on the board.
So what does this all mean for the Bears? Well, the best thing I saw was that Ayoob is starting to throw with more authority and was a lot more sharp than the previous two games. I’m hoping that he’s finally turned the corner to being an acceptably OK QB, but after seeing him shine in a couple games only to follow it up with a couple goose eggs, call me pessimistic. The best thing the bears have going is that they seem to be getting their injuries under control. With the bye week coming up, one can expect a lot of stronger players in two weeks. Also, injury fortune may be shining on the Bears as Oregon’s QB, the backbone of their offense, broke his ankle yesterday and won’t be able to play until a bowl game. That means Oregon is looking far more vulnerable and that game is starting to look winnable if Cal can get healthy themselves and keep Ayoob on this improvement plan. USC will still be a miracle upset if it happens, but we’ve still got a good chance at 8-3 if we can take advantage of a reeling Oregon and make sure we come to play in the Big Game two weeks later. All things considered, that’s a season to be proud of for a pretty young team that isn’t losing a lot of talent next year.