The Novel: Washington State
Siri, what is Latin for “let there be life”?
(Several exhausted Google searches turn up nothing.)
(Seriously, I tried.)
(Like, a lot.)
Well, while I may never find out how to say it in a dying tongue, let us just say it in the living one we still have: LET. THERE. BE. LIFE.
(Editor’s note: astute reader Josh White suggests fiat vitae or fiant vitae.)
Yes, after losing four games in increasingly distressing fashion, and looking ever shakier for postseason play, the Bears returned from a bye the way you wished they would have against Oregon State earlier: prepared, rested, and motivated.
But that was then, and this is now.
Now, the Bears have life, drinking in the tonic of a 33-20 win; the closest thing resembling a cure-all in the sport.
In recent years, this Cal – WSU matchup has always been a guarantee for wacky shenanigans – everyone remembers the 2017 game, played in the smoke of a wildfire, and the 2014 game that got a special teams coach fired and a losing QB who threw for nearly 800 yards.
What they might not remember, or choose not to remember, was the WSU game last year that the Bears controlled the whole way, only to lose on the last-minute heroics of Gardner Minshew. For a large chunk of this one, it seemed as if 2018 was going to be the closest analogue, not the thorough beatdown of 2017. WSU hung around within a score for most of the game, and averaged nearly 6 YPP, only to consistently blow it with penalties and self-inflicted errors. It really wasn’t until Makai Polk’s tunnel screen touchdown that the game was put on ice.
Everything else in between the opening whistle and that point was the way winning football looks under Wilcox: ugly, but effective.
The only difference was that it was both sides that got all the way up to effective this time, but no one will complain about that, especially since it means postseason play is a little more back on the table.
The Bears only need to win one of three games against their California rivals to get those extra practices, and ultimately, the success of the season – a season that had them leading the Pac-12 after 4 games, for god’s sake -- can still be salvaged if they can get a favorable split against this triumvirate, if not outright sweeping them.
We covered the chances of this happening earlier in the offseason series (a link to that is here), and I’ll obviously be updating those projections as we go along this month, but the short answer is this: anything is possible That’s been the case even during the four-game skid, too, with the big variable being how functional the offense can be (hell, it can even be not functional, as it was against Oregon, and the Bears might have a chance). But on nights when the answer to that question is: very, then the Bears can hang with pretty much anyone, if not outright beat them.
Mike Leach found that out the hard way. California sends its regards.
Beau Baldwin deserves a lot of credit this week, and probably for about a third of the season’s games now, if we’re being fair. After a series of listless performances from the offense over the last month – a task made more difficult, admittedly, by the losses of Garbers, Modster, Crawford, Saffell, and wow I’m getting tired just typing that – he came back in what was essentially a must win game, and coached the hell out of the unit.
For one, the Bears were aggressive in a way that they hadn’t been in other underdog situations; most memorably, they ran an end-around to perfection, but they also made it a point to try to throw the ball downfield, too. The ball looked good coming out of Modster’s hand, really, which Trace had been trying to tell us for awhile. PFF says the Bears went 2 of 6 in the 20+ range for 83 yards, but let me tell you – it sure felt like it was better than that. (There was also two drops, one of which was in that aforementioned 20+ range.)
For two, the Bears threw in some different things they hadn’t really done a lot of, including some different spread formations. At least one stacks look, a lot more mix-ups in where our spread personnel was placed, a couple of motions (one that resulted in the long throw to Duncan, a few others where the wide receiver motioned-in-line to functionally become a tight end, like how Stephen Anderson used to).
And most importantly, they made the game easy for Devon Modster, in between running Chris Brown more frequently and with intention, but also setting up a lot of safe stuff with RPOs, with 16 of Modster’s 24 passes all within 10 yards of the line of scrimmage (per PFF charting). In the second half, for example, I counted at least four times they ran a packaged inside zone play, with a receiver in the slot just sitting down, ready to catch a quick pass. WSU sniffed it out the fourth time to hold it to a small gain, but for an offense that has struggled with early down yardage, it helped the Bears stay on schedule. It’s these little things.
Should it continue, there’s going to be a real dilemma for Wilcox and the program’s decisionmakers. If all things were equal, I’d prefer for Baldwin to decisively earn his stay, which would ensure most of this offensive class getting to stay on, and in an ideal world, that happens with the Bears going 4-0 down the stretch with a bowl win, plus the Modster-Garbers offense looks as good as it did this week, or better. That would make it an easy sell to the fans, certainly.
What would be most suboptimal would be a lukewarm finish to the season, in which the Bears limp their way into an average bowl, a 2-2 finish with the Axe and a bowl loss, that somehow results in people being able to make the case one way or the other. The upcoming offseason, in regards to the offensive coordinator position – and honestly, the offensive staff as a whole – requires decisiveness, something made easier when the data is not so muddy.
That being said, there is still a lot to do for the offense, which committed a preventable error on Tonges’ fumble, failed to convert a couple of favorable field positions into points, and also missed a makeable field goal.
Chris Brown’s numbers looked really good at 19 carries for 95 yards, but it should be noted that 2/3rds (64) of his yards came on 3 carries. There’s a lot of room for improvement on offense when your median YPC is 2.
I’m not sure if Marcel Dancy is banged up right now or not, but the secondary work went to Deshawn Collins, who gave us all the same things Dancy would have, including an impressive burst to the corner on a few runs. I figured they might have used him more by now as a pass catcher, but if he’s finding his way into the rotation now, that’s something I’d look forward to in future weeks.
If Mrs. Polk is reading my column, I’d like to express my apologies for not having a rosier outlook on her son entering the season, because I only get to watch the tapes, not the practices. Trace, who attends basically all of them, raved consistently about Makai Polk, and now we all got to see why -- a sick, just nasty cut into open space on that tunnel screen springs the freshman for his first ever touchdown.
Only two sacks given up by the offensive line, which looks so much better with Saffell back in. Everyone gets to return to their more natural, preferred positions when that’s the case.
Josh Drayden, man. With Traveon Beck out, they leaned on Drayden more than Turner (who they’d been using more lately in the nickel, 3rd safety type role), and he was absolutely tremendous. Just so, so solid out in space for the Bears, downing Borghi soundly three times on the one drive, part of a 6 tackle night that doesn’t sound like much, but was actually pretty crucial. For Washington State’s offense, which will simply keep chugging its way down the field until it breaks a big play in space, living to play another mistake-free down is the most important thing. On this particular drive, the Cougars eventually got a holding penalty and were forced to settle for a field goal.
The Bears weren’t able to record much in the way of Havoc numbers because WSU gets the ball out so fast, but they had their most success when they brought everyone to the line of scrimmage to show blitz, then selecting which defenders would drop back, rather than just purely dropping 7 or 4 back from the get go. That extra half-second of disguise played dividends late, when they were able to stop the Cougars deep in Cal territory, on successive 3rd and 4th downs.
Cal opted a lot of time to play fairly conservatively, instead of pressing or sending rushers like I thought, but Considering the inevitability of WSU’s self-inflicted disasters, it’s hard not to say it worked.
Gordon, when pressured: 6 of 11, 66 yards, 1 TD (notice how infrequently this happened)
Gordon, when blitzed: 4 of 6, 51 yards
When we were on the pod this week, I suggested that while it wouldn’t happen, the Bears could opt for a longer or faster lineup by removing Evan Weaver, who was the lowest rated defender in the game, and most frequently thrown at by Gordon. Essentially, this is because all of Weaver’s strengths, particularly in the run game, get mitigated somewhat by a team that never runs at all, and he spent a lot of the evening chasing around Max Borghi as a checkdown option, or patrolling the middle of the field trying to keep the short passes in front of him, rather than being able to attack forward as frequently as usual. (PFF has the numbers at 11 receptions on 12 targets, for 99 yards when he was the primary defender.)
Instead, WSU is a space team, which means the edge players like Deng and Goode (and Drayden) play bigger roles chasing down guys in the zones, and while Deng didn’t fare dramatically better at 5 receptions, 6 targets, 62 yards, he noticeably affected a handful of throws with his length, and Goode was the highest rated defender of the three. Again, the two of them will be an incredible treat to watch next year.
Hawkins, who had been quieter a lot of the year, showed up real quickly in this one with an interception, and nearly two others. As the team rounds into the final stretch, the wild card will be how close the Takers can return to form.
Your future Takers update: Chigi and Branden Smith were targeted 5 times for 5 completions and 31 yards combined, seeing about 20 snaps apiece. Daniel Scott had three, but no stats.
IV. Unofficial Advanced Stats
[Explosiveness] – While the play to play efficiency has to improve down the stretch, 20% explosives against FBS is really impressive for this group. They got up to 17.8% against UW, which was barely enough to stave off the consistent issues early in downs. On the other hand, keeping the ball in front of them worked really well.
[Points Per Trip Inside 40] – The big thing to note here is that it could have been even better – the Bears had three drives where they came up empty or stalled in WSU territory. It’s not as necessary to score a touchdown every time out against the WSUs of the world, compared to Stanford, but it’s always worth watching.
V. Special Teams
This week, it’s hard not to argue the unit deserved a failing grade, because they had two kicks blocke for a 6 point swing (3 for the XP, 3 for the FG). Uhh, Greg Thomas…Vlad Belo from CGB pointed out that Thomas now has more misses than makes since the North Texas game.
Nothing remarkable to write about in any other phase of special teams, which is at least, pretty good, outside of that one long return that the refs now said was incorrectly penalized.