ANALYSIS: Cal offense shoots itself in the foot in shootout with Arizona State

Missed opportunities on offense plagued California in its 51-41 loss to Arizona State on Saturday, with drops, interceptions, a pick six and

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How do you wrap up a game where, in just the fourth quarter, we saw a flea flicker, a pick-six, 45 combined points scored, a field goal banked in off the upright, a toenail-drag touchdown by five-star freshman Demetris Robertson and an onside kick returned for a touchdown? With the Fifth Quarter.

The Defense Did Not Lose This Game

The California defense allowed 34 points against Arizona State in a 51-41 loss on Saturday. The Bears -- the 126th rushing defense in the nation -- held the No. 16 rushing attack to just 164 yards on the ground, with 72 of those coming from quarterback Manny Wilkins, who ran 23 times. In the first half, Cal forced four three-and-outs, and three field goals. This was not the defense's loss. This one is squarely on the offense.

"We had opportunities in the first half to be up a lot more than two touchdowns. That was our issue," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "Defensively, we were playing good football, the defense was getting the ball back, and the offense didn't execute well enough. Had the offense executed well enough, it would have been much more than a 14-point lead coming into halftime."

With just over six minutes to go in the first quarter, Cal had a chance to go up 10-0, but a second-and-17 play-action pass from Davis Webb to fullback Malik McMorris was dropped by the sophomore, the ball popping out as he hit the ground near mid field. The Bears tried a field goal, and, for the first time this season, Matt Anderson missed.

On Cal's next drive of the first quarter, up 7-0, the Bears took the ball at their own nine, and on second-and-12, Webb, with three receivers to his right, threw into a trio of Sun Devils defenders. Luckily for Cal, the ball was out of bounds, but Chad Hansen broke deep and was open down field. On third-and-12, in the face of a six-man rush, Webb hit Ray Hudson squarely in the chest, but the redshirt junior dropped the ball, preventing Cal from getting into its hurry-up offense right when the Bears had Arizona State on its heels.

After ripping off 62 plays on offense in the first half en route to a 24-10 lead, the Bears snapped just 40 times after half on offense (with 12 of those coming on one drive), meaning the defense was on the field for 18 minutes and 27 seconds in the second half. In the first, the Bears' defense was on the field for 11 minutes and 48 seconds.

After halftime, Cal went three-and-out twice, and turned the ball over three times, resulting in 10 points, and the kickoff return of the onside kick added seven more.

The Bears held Arizona State -- which averaged 260.7 rushing yards per game -- to just 164 (89 in the second half), and held the Sun Devils -- who averaged 525.7 yards of offense per game -- to 454 total yards of offense.

Before the first of two Davis Webb interceptions (the second, by Laiu Moeakiola, was returned 28 yards for a touchdown with 2:52 left), the Sun Devils' average starting position was their own 27-yard line. Return specialist Tim White had just 31 yards on kickoff return, and 46 on punt return. While special teams appear to have done their job, Cal's average starting position on the game was its own 23-yard line, and their own 20 when you take out the drive that started with Allensworth's interception. With seven touchbacks out of 15 kickoffs, that means that when the Bears did return kicks, they weren't getting very far. Having to travel seven more yards per drive sucked up a lot of Cal's 637 total yards of offense.

Arizona State averaged 0.67 turnovers per game before tonight. Against the Bears, they tallied three, all of them within the final 6:21.

Yes, the onside kick returned for a touchdown by D.J. Calhoun with 48 seconds left was a back-breaking moment, but defense and special teams largely held up their end of the bargain, outside of the return game.

Story of 2 Halves

In the first half, Cal mixed up the first-down play calling. At no point did the Bears run or pass more than two times in a row on first down, with an 11-pass (including two sacks), 12-run split. In the first half, Cal had four plays of over 20 yards, and in the third quarter, the Bears had just one.

Cal started the second half with seven straight runs on first down, with the first two dropbacks resulting in an interception and a sack. Cal went 0-for-3 with that sack and a pick on its first five dropbacks in the second half.

"We had a 14-point lead, and at times, we looked pretty comfortable," Dykes said. "We knew those guys were going to come back in the second half. They have a very, very, very talented football team. We knew that they were going to make some plays. Some of those guys were clearly going to make some plays in the second half. We're going to have to execute at a higher level, and kept the pressure on us."

Wilkins hit eight of his first 10 passes after the break, and went 16-for-20 in the second half for 228 of his 290 passing yards.

Webb threw off his back foot frequently in the second half, overthrowing Brandon Singleton -- who he had hit easily for a touchdown in the second quarter -- on second-and-10 at the Arizona State 30 on his first drive of the third quarter, threw high to Ray Hudson from the Cal 21 on his second, and saw Robertson flagged for a dubious offensive pass interference call on a would-be 20-yard pickup by Hansen on his third drive. A bad block by Jordan Veasy bottled up Singleton on the first drive of the fourth quarter for a gain of two, and Armand Perry sniffed out a desperation screen to Hansen to bring up a punt.

"We certainly did not play our best in the second half," said Dykes. "We had that little run there in the fourth quarter where we eventually gave up 17 points. They ran an onside kick back for a touchdown. They had run an interception back for a touchdown. We throw another interception and they have a short field. That was obviously the difference in the ballgame, those two turnovers in the fourth quarter. We just didn't make enough plays in the second half. We made a bunch of mistakes. We had some young guys that played young today, and did some uncharacteristic things. We've got to get some personnel things figured out and addressed."

One of those playing young was Singleton.

With the game tied at 27-27 in the third quarter, a throwback pass from Watson to Webb to Singleton for 25 yards was dropped by the redshirt freshman. That was made up for, in some measure, by Tre Watson's 74-yard catch-and-run touchdown, but still, those were yards left on the field.

Losing Rambo and Allensworth

The losses of Evan Rambo on a kickoff cover with 9:56 left in the first half, and Darius Allensworth, who had an interception in the first half, loomed large in the second, particularly over the middle of the field, where Jalen Harvey was able to run with impunity.

Harvey didn't have a single reception or target in the first half, but hauled in five passes for 83 yards with neither Allensworth nor Rambo on the field in the second.

"We had a lot of young players that had to play," Dykes said, referring to walk-on junior safety Jacob Anderson, who allowed a 24-yard touchdown pass to White. "We got pretty beat up. We're going to have to figure some stuff out. We have a lot of young guys that had to step up and play, and that's part of football. They need to be prepared and ready to step up and make plays when they have the opportunity to make them."

Inflection Point

After heading into halftime riding the buzz from a six-play, 82-yard drive that took up 1:02 to end the first half, Cal was riding high, but Wilkins orchestrated an 11-play, 75-yard drive to get Arizona State back into the swing of things to lead off the second half. That, however, wasn't the biggest moment. It got the Sun Devils to within seven, but with the Cal offense sputtering, it was the fact that Wilkins was able to answer each body blow -- and he, personally, took several -- that took the wind out of the Bears' sails.

While pursuing Wilkins on the Sun Devils' first fourth-quarter drive, defensive end Cameron Saffle -- who had two sacks and eight tackles at that point -- was blocked hard by Demario Richard on a peel-back block, and went to the turf, but walked off under his own power. 

With Cal's best pass rusher off the field, Wilkins uncorked a 24-yard strike to White, and then, on a fake handoff to Richard, strolled into the end zone to tie things up at 27-27 with 9:44 to go.

The Watson 74-yard touchdown swung momentum back in the Bears' favor, but Harvey and Wilkins struck again, as the former Cal pledge hauled in a 20-yarder and a seven-yarder to set up the resurgent Kalen Ballage, who gained seven and eight yards out of the Sparky direct-snap formation, setting up an outside release fade to 6-foot-2, 259-pound J.J. Wilson to tie things up with 6:21 to go.

"Things kind of fell apart from there" Dykes said.

The Forgotten Men

Eight different Bears caught multiple passes on Saturday, led by Chad Hansen's 10 catches for 110 yards. He was held to just two catches for five yards, though, after halftime.

Cal freshman Melquise Stovall matched his biggest day as a Bear, with five catches for 74 yards. He was used creatively, lining up at running back and taking a swing pass, in the first quarter, and threw a huge block at the start of Watson's 74-yard catch-and-run touchdown.

Watson, for his part, caught two passes for 83 yards, and ran nine times for 58 yards, as the Bears ran for 159 on the night -- more than twice as many as Arizona State had allowed on average in its first three games this year. In an encouraging sign, most of those runs were between the tackles, as Cal looked much as it did against Hawaii in the opener.

The leading rusher was Khalfani Muhammad, who continues to show that, despite his diminutive stature, he's the toughest back the Bears have. He rushed 12 times for 84 yards, and moved the pile at least four times to gain multiple yards after contact.

Punter Dylan Klumph had his third straight game averaging over 40 yards per punt, and averaged 49.6 yards on his five boots, landing one inside the 20, utilizing a rugby-style roll out to neutralize White with a 60-yarder.

Linebacker Ray Davison set his career high for tackles, with 11, and was one of the big reasons Cal was so stout against the run, as was Devante Downs, who had eight, including two tackles for loss, with the fourth sack of his career coming in the first quarter. Downs, though, missed a foot tackle on Cameron Smith that would have tripped him up for a zero gain, but instead went for 28 yards, and resulted in a field goal by Arizona State with 6:15 left in the third quarter.

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