The Novel: Big Game 2019
I…don’t really know what should go here.
I’ve written hundreds of thousands of words over the last seven years on this team – several books worth at this point, if the title of these columns is to be believed -- and as I laid in bed all day Sunday trying, then stopping, then trying, then stopping again in writing this column, well, that was because as the people of my generation say: how do you even?
How do you try to capture the emotional scope of what happened on Saturday, when you’ve always insisted other games matter more than it – and when you’ve never understood what it could mean to this fanbase until you finally got the glory of standing at the Stanford 50 yourself? How do you even write about a game that was set to close a full decade of heartbreak, of futility, of disappointment, of emptiness, and suddenly, miraculously, didn’t; a game that played out so identically to too many before it, with Stanford getting ready to grind down the clock and put the game away, like they did in ’17 and ’18; a game that had many, myself included, praying to the gods of past and future to see something, anything, but Stanford getting ready to grind down the clock and put the game away again; a game that answered those prayers in the most torturous, wonderful fashion imaginable, beginning, as all things have under Wilcox, with a stop to force a field goal; a game that boasted a rarity under Wilcox, with a flawless 2 minute drive and unforgettable gallop into the end zone; a game that ended, as almost all things have under Wilcox, with a gutsy, Evan Weaver-led, team-created stop; a game that cemented Chase Garbers’ legacy as the Streak Breaker and Axe Liberator; a game that branded Nikko Remigio as the Redeemed; a game and win some of us have never seen us win in our entire lives as Cal fans, alumni or otherwise; a game that ended with thousands, streaming out, faces familiar and foreign cheering, cathartic, chaotic, emoting and embracing each other on the field of the rival because where else could this one end but there; a game that surely, instantly, immediately, became the kind we will tell our kids we were lucky enough to be there for?
How do you write about all of that, knowing that as soon as you hit send to your editor, that that’s it -- for that chapter, that column, that feeling; that it’s just over?
Like, where even do you start?
I know that no one wants to go years in between Big Game wins – and I certainly don’t hope it’s 9 years before the next one -- but I found it so much more gratifying that it took all this for the first one I got to experience. It really helps you think about how much time has passed, and how much things have changed in our own lives, especially in a sport that is way more preparation than actually playing it.
The long story short, is the reminder that we should not take anything for granted, least of all winning, games Big and small.
Now, this is still just a moment. They’re all just moments that don’t mean anything unless strung together – but it is a moment in which the Bears might be able to seize back some forward position in the state supremacy. USC might or might not have it all figured out – I happen to think the Air Raid system is really smart for them and their group of athletes, but we’ll see what they do with Helton. The other two programs, though, are on the downswing, and both are already eliminated from bowl contention. Cal is heading into next season from a position of strength, by comparison.
If you want to see this moment as more, though, I offer you this image for ruminating on: turn to the final couple minutes, when Stanford’s calling card and core identity – power running – failed on them, as it has all season, while Cal's hung in there and made it work. Someone who was trying to craft a larger narrative might begin there.
People smarter than myself have figured out that Cal's possi-BOWL destinations are: Las Vegas, Phoenix (for Cheeze-It II), and Santa Clara, for the Redbox, and while Vegas is my preferred destination, the prospect of meeting an elite G5 team like Boise in a game the Bears could definitely lose limits my excitement of that matchup. Santa Clara is the most convenient for most Cal fans, even if it’s the least exciting.
Do you think Brennan Scarlett considers himself a Big Game winner this week? I’m just asking.
Also, with apologies to the next two games in the decade, it’s fairly now that the top Cal games of the 10’s are:
Tier 1 – 2019 Big Game
Tier 1.5 – 2018 USC
Tier 2 – 2015 Texas, 2016 Texas, 2014 Wazzu, 2017 Wazzu, 2018 UW, 2019 UW
Tier 2.5 – 2012 UCLA (the only big win I ever got to see as a student, lol)
Tier 3 – 2014 NW, 2019 Ole Miss, 2016 Utah
Someday, some science company will be able to figure out how Chase Garbers suddenly put it all together almost overnight, and then pitch it to professional franchise for billions. Until that time, though, the secret sauce stays with the Bears, who improved to 12-3 with Chase Garbers as the starter (or playing half the game). That tenure hasn’t always been pretty, or dominant, but it has been winning. And that is all that matters.
If he wasn’t already a legend last year for throwing down the Fight Off in a streak-breaking win over USC, he’ll definitely be one now. The UW final drive was an example of ugly, but effective offense, scraped together by a broken play, a penalty, and a couple of attempts to pound it in short by Chris Brown Jr.
This, was something else altogether – cool, collected, masterful:
- 2 completions to Nikko to pick up easy 1st downs when Stanford stupidly only rushed four each time
- after a short sack he drills a gorgeous pass down to Trevon Clark on the sideline
- incompletion on post to Remigio (his only miss from 20+ yards on the day)
- scramble for touchdown (catchy nickname still to come)
Stanford: 3 of 4, 61 passing yards, 18 rushing yards, 1 rushhing TD
UW: 3 of 3, 50 passing yards
With him at the helm in 2020, there’s a real possibility of Cal winning 9 games. But more on that some other time.
It’s still not ideal that Chase running around is the most effective rushing play – although he picked great spots to do it in, with 6 of his 13 recorded rushes going for a first down -- but I think when the full strength line is back with Will Craig and Gentle Williams next year, you’ll be able to get more effectiveness out of Chris Brown to save the wear and tear of scrambling as often as he does.
The game plan this week was very Wazzu-esque – play with controlled aggression, attack their depth at defensive back with Adebo out through some spread looks (which allow Chase to run against a lighter box; perhaps we also liked his athleticism versus Robinson and company in the spy game), but also to deploy a lot more of those trips, bunch sets that we hadn’t really utilized that much of until recently. To really get up to the top offenses in the Pac-12, we’ll still need to upgrade the raw individual talent in these matchups, but if you don’t have that, then you need to take every schematic advantage possible to run guys free. Whatever the reason we didn’t see as much of that before, it happened now, and more importantly, it happened through adjustment and counter-adjustment, as Cal averaged nearly 9 YPP in the 4th quarter and found some success later attacking the center of the field compared to the edges and corners early.
Zero drops this week. In fact, Nikko Remigio has never dropped a pass in his life and I defy anyone to tell me differently.
Trevon Clark got away with some contact on the one. I’m not complaining.
The chart says Chase was sacked three times, none of which felt particularly damaging, because he was usually already advancing back toward the line of scrimmage already. Really smart, decisive game from him as a runner.
Gutsy performance for Christopher Brown Jr. to suit up. As usual, looked good at point, not so much in the volume department. Nothing really going for him after the touchdown: 3, 2, -1, 3, 7, 2, -2, 3, -1, 0. Still think a lot of his physical talent, but with guys in and out, on top of the depth issues at OL already this year, it’s understandable. The real Brown will be here in 2020.
It was asked this week what took the offense so long when they were stalling out in the first three quarters, but if you take a look:
Drive 1 – sacked on 3rd and 7
Drive 2 – TD
Drive 3 – FG
Drive 4 – blocked FG
HALF averaging 5.5 YPP, which is an average mark for a team. That we didn’t have more points is due to some variance, some penalties, some missed opportunities in execution, but you got three scoring chances right there.
Drive 5 to open the half – 3 and out after run -2, complete, Chase loss of 2
Drive 6 after Scott’s interception – 3 and out after hold, long run by Chase, incomplete, incomplete
Drive 7 after Hawkins’ interception – 3 and out after run 2, run 2, short completion to Clark
This is where an inability to run the ball really hurt, because you can tell they really wanted to try to seize control of the game coming out of the half and after the interceptions. If you want to complain about the gamecalling and offense, this is just about the only area. Whether it was CB4 or Collins, and a couple of penalties made it tough to capitalize, although they’d end the quarter with...a 5.4 YPP average.
Then, the counteradjustments kick in, because the rest of the way:
Drive 8 – Reached Stanford 35, false start, rush of -1, sack, incomplete, punt on 4th and 21
Drive 9 – touchdown
Drive 10 – touchdown
Davis Mills had a first down right before the last play. It was open for him to run. He threw it instead to set up Scarlett’s run to nowhere. And I will thank him forever for it.
Yes, this Stanford team has been horrible running the ball all season, but the defensive line was still tremendous all game in not even allowing one run by Jones or Scarlett to reach 10 yards. They didn’t get a ton of love for it on the broadcast, but the final stop was made possible by the work of Aaron Maldonado and Lone Toailoa, who stood up the Cardinal offensive line. Cam Goode and Evan Weaver would come in for the cleanup, which was not close.
(The key stop before that, on Scarlett to force a field goal at 20-17, was made possible by Bequette. Gotta give love to the big guys up front.)
3 tackles, 2 for loss, and the biggest one of the game. The Cam Goode special, baby.
During the game, Nick tweeted that Evan Weaver hadn’t been as good as expected in pass coverage this season, which, while fair, ended up being somewhat poorly timed, since Weaver did come up with a huge play in forcing an errant throw to Colby Parkinson late.
I also shared this sentiment online, which I quickly recanted later, because honestly, at the end of the day…does he have some areas for improvement in his game that make him a difficult evaluation for NFL people? Yes, although I think he is assuredly going to get drafted somewhere (and also, that has no bearing on his upcoming final two performances in Blue and Gold.)
So, despite all that, Evan Weaver is the most important defensive player of this generation. He’s universally beloved for his leadership, his growth, his swagger, his effort, as the face of this era, the way Goff was in the last, whatever small flaws there might be.
Hopefully Ashtyn Davis is back out there next week, or at least the bowl game. He deserves it, but also, the team felt his absence dearly. Safety is a position that can often go unappreciated because their work is often deep – Jaylinn Hawkins allowed like, 3.9 passer rating last year and was often out of sight if he wasn’t picking passes off – but his absence was fully felt on that first Stanford touchdown, when no one picked up their guy going deep, while Cam Bynum stayed flat. One of two plays where we were a little bit scrambled lining up.
Big play for the young gun Daniel Scott, who developed tremendously from the point he got into the program. That’s likely to be half of the starting safeties in 2020, with the other, Isaiah Humphries, coming off of transfer.
You know Zeandae Johnson is going to get some light ribbing in the film room this week for dropping the sure interception, especially as a former tight end. Luckily, it didn’t end up mattering because they got one the very next play.
Hawkins made that look easy when I saw it in the stadium, but it was certainly not an easy one on the broadcast.
V. Unofficial Advanced Stats
[Explosiveness] – I never thought, in my wildest years, that Cal would average this number against the Furd. My senior year, a Big game I barely remember anymore because it was so generally unremarkable, was a 21-3 defeat where the Bears averaged 0.1 yards per carry, including sacks.
[Havoc] – It’s a game where the disparity looks a bit higher than usual because Chase was tackled behind the line of scrimmage a few times rushing forward. We made enough plays when they counted.
[Points per Trip Inside 40] – Well, it seems perfect that Cal averages 4.0, and Stanford averages 3.33, right? academic joke rimshot
VI. Special Teams
Let’s just acknowledge, fairly, that this was a terrible day for the special teams. 35 yard average on punts, a short field, a blocked field goal at the half again, the long return by Wedington…
Luckily it didn’t matter.
It felt weird to make people read this during the core of the column, so to close out, a quick run down of my own day:
· 5AM wake up
· 7AM airport
· 8:30 land in Oakland
· 9:30 Palo Alto for pregame
· 12:30 led by Avi into the stadium somehow
· didn’t recall much of the first half and had to piece it together later on the Sunday replay
· 3rd and 4th quarter coming into focus so I have a peaking panic attack screaming into the void (this is when my timeline was nononononono please not like this) when the game is tied at 17 and Stanford appears ready to run out the clock again after the Parkinson first down,
· panic intensifies when Cal got the ball back with 2:35 to play
· my glasses get knocked off during the Chase touchdown so while people are going wild I’m screaming “my glasses”
· during the final fourth down I start crying and Bryanne Aler-Ningas looks at me expectantly if we’re going to storm the field from the 3rd row and I’m still crying and trying to collect myself
· a lot of crying
· somewhere there is a photo of me with my face looking frantically into the stands like HELP I NEED AN ADULT that I hope is never published
· finally I find it in me to climb over the gate and run out there
· PHOTOS???? SCREAMING??? YELLING?????
· MY ZIPPER IS DOWN IN SOME OF THE PHOTOS AND IT WOULD NOT FIX ITSELF IN THE MOMENT
· Caught Evan Weaver somehow and said “hi I’m Nam” and he said “I know”
· Caught Traveon Beck in the pile just because I did it when he was a freshman too against Texas and man is that guy gonna be one of my all time favorites too
· finally ushered off the field and I am the last one to leave the stadium
· go to dinner
· immediately crash from the caffeine and other stuff
· apologize and head home in an uber
· uber crosses bay bridge and I have them pull over early in the city because I’m going to puke
· Puke again
· 10pm – home