Arrow-right Camera
The Spokesman-Review Newspaper

The Spokesman-Review Newspaper The Spokesman-Review

Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883


Final thoughts from the Cal game

Now that we're into conference play I'm going to bring back my weekly "final thoughts" posts from last season, in which I try to cover my impressions from the game that weren't necessarily evident in the game story or notebook but still warrant mentioning. However, this year I'm going to make it a day-after post because I believe it will be more thorough and accurate if I take some time to formulate my thoughts. Also, I need Sunday material for links.

One day may not be enough to digest what we saw yesterday. An old friend who helped broadcast the game and I caught up up at halftime, and we both noted how "weird" the first half felt. The Cougars were up, 21-13 at that point, but it certainly felt like they should be up more. There was a sense that both teams were making things happen, but that neither had gained any sort of foothold or momentum over the other and that the half's result was random even in the context of college athletics.

After a 21-7 third quarter in Cal's favor and a scoreless fourth, my feelings haven't really changed since halftime. It was a weird game that was more a potpourri of highlights for each team than anything resembling assertion or acquiescence on either's part. 

So, let's try to sift through the weirdness.

-- For starters, let's say someone – a sort of time-traveling someone, specifically – had told you before the game that two huge special teams mishaps would go against the Cougars and almost certainly cost them the game, you would have naturally assumed that the Golden Bears had scored on either kickoff or punt returns, right?

That would be a pretty wise assumption. The last time these two teams met, Cal returned two kickoffs for touchdowns and if they hadn't WSU would have won.  Since that game, the Cougars have given up three more punt returns for touchdowns and more kickoff score, including one of each earlier this year at Rutgers. The player who returned both of the scores for the Golden Bears, Trevor Davis, was still on the team for today's game, and presumably he hadn't gotten any worse at running with a football.

But actually, the coverage teams for WSU were basically OK. Zach Charme punted three times and Davis returned one, for 16 yards, which is a decent chunk of yards and saves the offense a first down or so but isn't game changing. Davis' four kickoff returns went for 87 yards, never more than 28, and were also not the reasons WSU lost.

Instead, the Cougars were caught off-guard by an onside kick and tried a fake punt that literally, barring injury, could not have gotten worse. Let's talk about the onside kick first and let me begin by saying that, for the purposes of evaluating WSU, it doesn't matter whether or not the Cal player was able to fully secure the football before rolling out of bounds. I don't know why you brought it up.

Let's take a look at the video in the tweet below. Look at WSU's formation and how tightly bunched the first line of players is in the middle of the field. It's not very difficult for Cal's kicker to put the ball closer to his own players than WSU. Throw in the element of surprise and, well, it's easy to see why it worked.


Now compare that to this kick return from earlier in the year. The players are much more spread across the field. The space where Cal onside-kicked the ball just isn't there.

I don't know why WSU went with the different return formation. Obviously, they must have seen something in Cal's return team that made them think it would be effective. But the Golden Bears saw something they thought they could exploit, too, and they were right.

Now, let's look at the fake punt. Here it is: 

After seeing that video, I don't have particularly strong feelings one way or the other. Cal read the fake pretty well considering WSU's little maneuver to create confusion by switching the offense and the punt team at the last second. Still, it was well blocked and it looks like Charme probably gets the first down if he holds onto the ball.

Mike Leach called it a "bad call" after the game and it was probably a little too cute – the play where Gerard Wicks eats a can of spinach and then throws defenders into the stands worked pretty well on the touchdown run. But still, the worst thing about the play was that it put the ball in the hands of a young player whose skillset is not holding onto the football. WSU's coaches aren't the first to do that – fake punts exits – and they won't be the last. It was a critical part of the game, but I don't know that it was an especially illogical decision.

-- This feels like a game that will be judged harshly through the lingering lens of the Portland State loss. True, it was a very winnable game and a missed opportunity, one that makes bowl eligibility a fair bit harder, it was a road game against a ranked team who was favored by nearly three touchdowns.

WSU was never going to be favored in this game and 2-2 was a reasonable prediction for the Cougars' record a third of the way through the season.

-- WSU has more playmakers on defense than they've had in a long time. Isaac Dotson, who has been injured these last couple weeks, gave it a go and started the game at nickelback. For whatever reason, he wasn't able to stay in much, and Parker Henry got the bulk of the snaps. But even without Dotson the Cougars had an unreasonable bouncer in the secondary in safety Shalom Luani, who transformed Kenny Lawler from a Gazelle into Giselle with this hit:

Hercules Mata'afa in the second half looked like the player we kept writing about in our Thursday Night Football practice reports last year and Marcellus Pippins took Jared Goff's number in the first quarter, sent it to Donald Trump and told him to do with it what he will.

Pippins had one of the best quarterbacks in the country's best passing conference legitimately, rightfully, scared to throw it at him and it's been a long time since that's been true at WSU.

-- After the game, quarterback Luke Falk took the blame for the seven sacks WSU gave up. He's not wrong. In some respects, this was one of Falk's best games at WSU. He felt dangerous in a way that he hadn't yet this season, taking shots downfield and throwing deep passes on the money to Gabe Marks and Dom Williams. But check out this exchange:

To expound upon what I was saying there, Falk constantly hits his running backs on check downs in practice, it appears habitual to him, almost a comfort. He seems perfectly willing to put the ball in Harrington, Morrow and Wicks' hands and take five yards with a chance at more whenever he gets an inkling that something isn't developing downfield.

That's what made it so curious today when Falk kept scanning, scanning, scanning downfield with a running back hanging out in the flats and nobody around, finding no one and eventually getting hit by a Cal defender. There were definitely opportunities for big plays missed because the running backs didn't get the ball on certain plays, and sacks that could have been avoided.

-- Gabe Marks is playing out of his mind this season and it will be a waste if the only bowl game he plays in is the 2013 New Mexico Bowl.


Jacob Thorpe
Jacob Thorpe joined The Spokesman-Review in 2013. He currently is a reporter for the Sports Desk covering Washington State University athletics.

Follow Jacob online:

Looking for a Grip on Sports?

Vince Grippi's daily take on all things regional sports has been moved to our main sports section online. You can find a collection of these columns here.