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How Cal could beat Northwestern

It's not likely, but explosion plays might be the key.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Yesterday, Rodger Sherman and I both wrote about why Northwestern is probably going to beat Cal on Saturday. Simply put, there are three main reasons:

  1. Cal is really, really bad at defense.
  2. Northwestern has its best defense in a long time.
  3. Cal is almost as bad at offense as it is at defense.

The last point might not be obvious to the untrained eye, since Cal ended the season with the 10th most passing yards per game in the country. But the only reason the Bears had a lot of yards is because they threw the ball so much. They were incredibly inefficient, which is why they went 1-11 and why NU fans shouldn't be all that worried about Saturday's game.

However, if Cal is able to pull out a win against the Wildcats, it will likely be because of explosion plays.

This offseason, SB Nation statistician extraordinaire Bill Connelly put together the Five Factors, which are the most important statistics to determine the outcome of a college football game. Explosiveness, Connelly judged, is the most important factor in winning games. While Cal was terrible at efficiency, field position, turnovers and finishing drives — the four other Five Factors — and also among the worst in the country at giving up explosion plays, it wasn't half bad at producing explosion plays on offense, coming in at 22nd in the country in the opponent adjusted ratings.

Connelly explained it well:

Cal ranked 94th and 22nd (in efficiency and explosiveness, respectively). The big plays were enormous and nearly non-existent. And the three-and-outs and turnovers were infinite.

In Jared Goff's second year, the Cal offense should at least be a little more efficient and a little less turnover-prone, but it's still going to rely on the big play. If the Bears can put themselves in position to set up more of the big plays — and in turn, be a little more successful with them — they can give NU a scare an possibly win the game.

Of course, that's easier said than done. NU also ranked 22nd-best in the country in giving up explosive plays. However, if the Bears can force the Wildcats into some mistakes — and if the NU offense can't find any explosiveness once again— then Sonny Dykes might be able to get his revenge.