Joe Camporeale / USA TODAY Sports

What did Oregon State do to take away Cal's explosive passing game?

Tre Watson and Khalfani Muhammad double-handedly resuscitate of the Cal rush attack as Vic Enwere falls to injury, and Cal falls to Oregon State 47-44.

Saturday night in Corvallis, California came 10 yards short of equaling the total rushing yardage they gained in their past three games combined. In spite of Khalfani Muhammad and Tre Watson's double-handed resuscitation of the Cal running game, the Bears showed on Saturday how little it can mean to be a favored against Oregon State. Golden Bears quarterback Davis Webb entered the matchup as the NCAA leader in passing yards (2,143) and touchdowns thrown (22), yet threw for only three more first downs (4 total) than Bears punter  Dylan Klumph, whose 4th-and-1 pass attempt complete to defensive end Evan Weaver for the Bears’ fifth longest passing completion (11 yards) on a day where they would total a sputtering 124 passing yards on 45 team attempts.

Webb's first complete pass to Bug Rivera for a loss of four yards on an ill-fated bubble screen was a foreboding foreshadowing of an evening of unexpected exasperation for the Colorado-turned-California graduate transfer quarterback. It was the first of a season-high 63.6% pass attempts that would result in either an incompletion, interception, or loss of yardage for Webb.

That backfield gut punch was the result of one of three instruments the Beavers used to result in a complete, gimmick-free suffocation of the Bears' passing attack:

1.  Disciplined, coordinated man coverage at the line of scrimmage to eliminate the threat of receiver screens, resulting in a season-high six pass attempts for a loss. A loss of yardage on a passing play? Let’s chalk that up as 6 sacks for Oregon State’s coverage alone.

Webb's game by the numbers:

Completions Attempt Yards Result Context Receiver
1 1 -4 1/10/25C Rivera
2 2 12 2/19/16C Rivera
2 3 3/7/28C Robertson
3 4 10 1st 2/5/8C Singleton
4 5 2 1/10/18C Veasy
4 6 2/8/20C Hansen
4 7 3/8/20C Stovall
4 8 2/5/30C Robertson
5 9 4 3/5/30C Singleton
5 10 2/1/34O Hansen
6 11 9 1/10/31O Hansen
7 12 6 2/7/17O Veasy
8 13 -7 2/G/3O Hansen
8 14 3/G/10O Hansen
9 15 3 1/10/28C Muhammad
9 16 2/7/31C Robertson
9 17 INT 3/2/36C
10 18 1 1/20/44C Stovall
10 19 1/10/37O Hansen
10 20 3/11/38O Hansen
11 21 4 1/10/32C Robertson
12 22 12 1st 3/3/49O Hansen
12 23 1/10/37O Robertson
13 24 2 2/4/46C Hansen
13 25 1/10/48O Stovall
13 26 1/10/35O Hansen
13 27 2/10/35O
14 28 -1 3/10/35O Singleton
15 29 12 1st 2/1/42C Robertson
15 30 2/10/31O Singleton
16 31 6 1/10/19O Wharton
16 32 2/4/13O Robertson
17 33 9 2/11/45C Robertson
18 34 -1 1/10/46C Stovall
19 35 -1 2/11/45C Robertson
20 36 6 3/12/44C Wharton
20 37 1/10/47C Robertson
20 38 1/10/41O Singleton
21 39 -1 2/10/41O Veasy
21 40 3/11/42O Robertson
22 41 25 1st 4/11/42O Wharton
23 42 5 1/10/17O Robertson
23 43 2/5/12O
23 44 3/7/22O Robertson

Oregon State’s perfect thwarting of any deep attempts of 30 yards or more made for the Bears’ least explosive passing outing of recent memory. Prior to their defeat at Reser, the Bears averaged 7 passing plays with gains of 20 yards or more and 3.4 30+ yard passing plays per game. Against OSU, the Bears managed a single play of more than 20 yards. The throw in question was a critical 4th-and-11 completion to Vic Wharton that put the Bears in position for a game-tying field goal that would punch the Bears’ ticket to their first overtime appearance of the season. 

2.  Hard-nosed, clean defensive back play that made use of physicality as much as tight coverage to prevent would-be, costly completions. In the gif below, Oregon State right corner Xavier Crawford unleashes a ball-jarring blast that negated a near-third down conversion in the fourth quarter that would have been the Bears’ longest passing gain of the ballgame.

3.  Chad Hansen and Demetris Robertson’s shadows: The Oregon State Cornerbacks. Left corner Treston Decoud, delivered a full-length clinic entitled, “How Fade Chad Hansen’s Dark Horse Heisman Campaign To Black” with his frustrating, at-times-haunting coverage.

In spite of being targeted 10 times by Webb, Cal’s receiving leader in yards [770], touchdowns [8], receptions [59], and yards per game [128.3] was held to a pedestrian 16 yards on four receptions, one first down conversion, no scores, as uncharacteristic drops and forced cases of receiver ineligibility stymied Hansen's case for the Biletnikoff Award.

Here’s an example of a forced error that led to one of six incomplete passes intended for Hansen, as Decoud steered Chad out of bounds, to nullify a deep pass attempt that would have put the Bears in the Red Zone.

Decoud was also good for two of Oregon State’s 5 passes defended as a team: the most deflections any Pac-12 defense has mustered against Cal’s aerial assault this season.

Opposite Decoud on the right side of the Beaver Defense was an equally impressive Crawford. Crawford kept excellent pace with speedster Demetris Robertson, holding Cal’s top 2016 receiving recruit to five receptions for 29 yards in spite of being targeted a team-leading 13 times. Robertson has led the Bears in receiving touchdowns [4] and average yards per reception [17.61] since the start of conference play.

Crawford epitomized the punishing success the Oregon State defensive back core had shadowing the Bears’ receivers, leading the Beavers with 3 passes defended, one of which, intended for Robertson, was a whisker away from being a touchback interception in the Bears’ end zone.

If Cal were able to pick this game out of Oregon State's pocket, it would have been due to an unrepresentative 5-for-5 success rate on fourth-down conversions that kept the Bears from being put to bed, in spite of stubbornly favoring its 2.81 yard-per-attempt pass attack that was 1-for-11 on third-down conversions. Cal gained 23 of its 27 first downs on the ground, with a 5-for-8 third-down conversion rate.

With two weeks to lick their wounds before facing off against an Oregon Ducks team that has fallen from its perennial lofty perch, the Bears will enter the second half of the season needing Webb's injured hand to heal after he hurt it on the second possession, and the run game to continue breathing in order to maintain their current .500 record against a tough schedule.

That schedule resumes against the Ducks, who were shellacked 70-21 by Cal's Nov. 5 opponent, No. 5 Washington. After Oregon comes a Thursday-night tilt in Los Angeles against USC on Oct. 27, then the Huskies, followed by 3-2 Washington State on Nov. 12 in Pullman, Wash., the Big Game on Nov. 19 against Stanford (which was blasted 42-16 by the Cougars this week), and quixotic UCLA. The Bruins, despite one of the nation's top young quarterbacks in Josh Rosen, lost 23-20 this week to an Arizona State team on its third quarterback, and is a lackluster 3-3, with the nation's 59th rushing defense (154.83 ypg), and, perhaps more crucially for the Bears, the 123rd rushing offense in the nation, averaging 99.17 yards per game on the ground.

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