On sabbatical until further notice. Go Bears.
Saturday, September 3, 2011
Friday, November 19, 2010
I would really rather this game to be about the players. Really, I would. But it is literally impossible not to be distracted by, even consumed with, the ridiculousness of Jim Harbaugh going into the Big Game. His absurdness, his hyperbole, his abnormally large head - he obfuscates all. He is like a huge dirigible bobbing around obnoxiously, eclipsing everything important about this game.
Let's start with the gratuitous pole-smoking about Cal's defense at the presser. To be sure, Cal fans are no stranger to poor-mouthing by their coaches now that Montgomery coaches at Cal. I mean, let's be real here, Monty loves to obliterate his own team at the press conference. He'll talk his team down so badly that by the time he's done with his comments, you get the feeling he's worked himself into yanking scholarships.
But Harbs takes it to another level. Honestly, I don't think I've ever heard a college coach say he was "preparing for an NFL defense" in reference to an opponent. I'd get it if it were a joke about playing a crooked program that pays players (he's actually a big enough prick to say something like that if he were playing, say, some of those old Miami teams). But nope, Harbs was actually talking about how good Cal's defense looked, and comparing them to an NFL defense. No joke, no sarcasm, no qualifiers. Just straight talk from the televangelist of college coaches.
And that's really the point about Harbaugh - his exaggerations are hilarious, awkward, and frankly embarrassing all at the same time, because he actually says this outlandish stuff in the realist mood, as an assertion of fact.
But there’s another thing I’ve noticed about him. He always looks like he’s about one or two clicks away from either bursting out laughing, or alternatively, reaching across the table and tearing a reporter’s eyes out. There’s something frighteningly controlled about the guy.
I could go on with other examples – his flowery man-love superlatives about Marecic and Luck, his use the term “strong-man” as an adjective...and there we are behind the dirigible again. Like I said last year, you guys can keep that clown down on the farm as long as you like.
As for the game, to me the it comes down to one group of matchups: the Cal defensive front vs. the Stanford OL. This is the unit that really makes Stanford tick. Yes Luck is a great QB, but the Stanford OL gives him the short yardage 2d and 3rd downs by run blocking well, the time to throw, and the confidence when he gets in the red zone. This group has been impressive for two years now. Cal was able to match the Stanford OL last year, and in the end, it put pressure on Luck to make plays at critical points in the game.
The question is whether Cal can repeat. If they can, I think they win, especially at home. If you can't run the ball on the road and steady the ship, it's hard to win. And as much visibility as Mohamed and Conte got last week, the DL really dismantled the Ore attack from the inside out, leaving Cal’s speed guys to clean up the mess. Cal has the horses to do the same to Stanford, but I think they need to use 4 DL at least some of the time to be more stout up the middle, with Jordan in a hybrid role.
One last observation. I think Luck is a pretty good passer. Not Brent Musberger salivation-good, just pretty good. But he’s a really underrated runner. Aside from not giving him too much time, if there’s one thing about him that should scare this defense into putting a spy on him, it’s his running ability. If you send the blitz and he gets away, he will use his legs to chew up a huge black hole of yards vacated by the blitz.
The video below of him vs. SC seems like a typical performance. Some pretty good passes, but some great rollouts, bootlegs, and scrambles. A little preview of what to expect tomorrow.
at 1:29 PM
Wednesday, November 17, 2010
If Charles Dickens were a Cal fan, he'd say it was a great game and an awful game. Even the haters had to come away from this game with a modicum of relief, if not optimism. Cal did all the things most people thought they wouldn't, and couldn't - they stopped the big play, they gave Mansion time to throw, they ran the ball with some consistency, and most importantly, they showed grit. They made the #1 team in the country look ordinary, not with trick plays, smoke and mirrors, or luck, but just good old fashioned hickory ass-whipping.
But they also colossally choked on the biggest stage, and those chokes were the difference in the outcome. Even the most delusional leg tinglers have to be in agony replaying the gaffes that cost this team what would have perhaps been the signature win of the Tedford era, if not the last couple decades since the Play. From the fumble, to the drops, to the missed FG, to the emasculating 9 minute drive to close it out, this game had some raw, un-hideable ugliness to it.
With that, some observations:
Finally, Pendergast did two things I have been waiting for:
(1) scheme around this group's speed, and
(2) drop the nonperforming 4th OLB spot.
It's still a player's game, and Pendergast finally found the right personnel group and highlighted their skill set well. He stayed with a 5th DB and got 8 fast players on the field behind the DL, turned them loose in man, and eliminated the read element. And while it is insane that it took this long to get the poor 4th OLB spot off the field, better late than never. Cal doesn't have a legit OLB opposite Kendricks who can stop the run, and it killed them in the losses this year against teams that attacked the edge. Let's hope we don't see it vs. Stanford, or it will be a blood-letting.
It also cannot be overstated the importance of having Mohamed healthy again for the first time since really the beginning of the season. He and Conte were everywhere and it made a difference. Mohamed was a shell of himself vs. Nevada, SC and OSU and got totally swallowed up in the wash in those games.
The DL also made the rest of the defense look good, by doing nothing more than being bigger, faster and stronger, and playing unafraid. Oregon's blocking schemes are about getting the defensive front moving and spread out, to create huge lanes and mismatches. When the DL smacks the OL around, it neutralizes the whole "space" element of Kelly's offense. Not too revolutionary, but still requires talent up front, which Cal happens to have. Again, coaches are important, but talent wins the day in the key matchups.
Finally, they played with heart. I still think this group is a bit flighty, but when they suck it up and lock in, they are impressive to watch. Glad that one showed up this weekend.
I actually attribute a lot of the flat play in the losses to how the early part of the game goes, particularly how the offense responds early. This defense clearly feeds off the performance of both offenses early in the game. While that is no excuse for a defense to fold early, Cal wouldn't be the first team to have that problem.
Which brings me to the offense...
Tedford better address the stench and rot coming from the offense this offseason with antiseptic and napalm, because it needs to be cleaned out and reborn. First off, the drops are no longer a fluke. They are a fixture of this offense, regardless of who's doing the throwing and who's doing the catching. And they have been for three years now. While clearly, there is a lack of natural receiver talent in terms of hands, there is also an undeniably consistent lack of the same skill across the corps, which indicates poor skills coaching. Daft needs a hard look.
Second, during the entire second half, the ball should have been alternating Vereen, Allen, Ross, with as little intermediary touching as possible, over and over again. I cannot understand how Allen and Ross had so few touches. Those guys are playmakers, but they need to get into the flow of the game. Ross' best plays in particular come after he's had a few touches. Ludwig made some great play calls that were blown up by poor execution, but he undoubtedly left yards and points on the field by leaving his playmakers in dry dock at the critical moments of the game.
I said before the SC game that because Tavecchio was not reliable, Tedford should tell the team all week they plan on going for it in the red zone. That would give everyone confidence that they had 4 downs to get their 10, and just needed to chip away slowly. As it turned out, that was never an issue vs. SC.
But it was on Saturday. I don't blame Tavecchio for this loss, for several reasons. First off, the most costly mistakes of this game, bar none, were Vereen's fumble and Hill's blown coverage on Maehl the very next play. Two total breakdowns that turned the scoreboard around.
Second, Tedford and Ludwig KNEW Tavecchio was not reliable. Yes it was a chip shot, and yes he should have made it, but he hasn't been making kicks. At some point, it's no longer a high percentage play. It's a crapshoot. And once it's a crapshoot, why go for 3 only? Go for 6, either by going for it, or by faking the FG. This game was the perfect game to fake a FG.
Finally, this game should never have come down to the kicker. Cal had so many chances to complete passes and rip off big gains, only to badly blow an assignment. I guess my point is this - having a kicker with the shanks is about like having no kicker at all. So stop using him, and tell the offense to operate as if they are going to have to get 6 if they want points. It's amazing what genuine need will do for motivation.
It's hard to believe a single guard makes a difference, but Summers Gavin does. Schwenke is an upgrade over Cheadle on the right side, and Summers Gavin is an upgrade over Schwenke on the left. Plus, now Guarnero's poor blocking is book-ended by good blocking. I get that MSG needed to get healthy, but it is ridiculous it took this long to put him in at guard. But again, better late than never. I expect him to do some damage this weekend.
The OL deserves a tip of the cap. They put on a couple impressive drives running the football. And it is amazing this group only gave up one sack. Next year, with Galas at C, Rigsbee at LT, and Schwartz at RT (his natural position), plus MSG and Schwenke, this OL should actually be pretty good.
I guess my final thought is this. I never thought Oregon was as unstoppable as their stats have indicated. While I love what Chip Kelly has done to exploit some inefficiencies in the college game, I am not enamored with that offense. Option offenses always get stopped eventually. Good for the Ducks for getting their business handled, but for me, this game was ultimately about a team that is no more talented than Cal coming to Memorial and stealing a win, which really should not have happened. And it happened because the Cal offense - its head coach's supposed forte - wet itself on national TV.
This is all by way of saying what I said before: Tedford needs to take the offense back, train up his QBs the old way, and demand perfection from the group. Or else he needs to find an offensive guru and let him install his own system.
That's all for now. I'll try to get some thoughts about Stanford up later in the week.
at 3:12 PM
Thursday, November 4, 2010
Again, not a lot of time this week, so I'll keep it short.
1. This team, particularly the defense, is mentally weak. And they were last year too.
I watched USC scrap and claw against Ore this weekend, even after Oregon broke their back with big play after big play. And I saw the Cal defense play that way vs. Arizona this year.
In contrast, that same Cal defense curled fetal and played scared less than halfway into the first quarter of the USC and OSU games this year, and the USC and Ore games last year.
When this defense gets popped in the mouth early, they wilt too easily, and they don't recover until the game is out of reach.
I keep saying that it is about leaders on the team, and it is to a large extent. I see no one on the field or sidelines firing anyone up. I see no James Betheas out there with this group.
But that's also a personal pride thing, down to each player, and I don't see that from all the players. I see it from a few, but not from most of them. I see guys not fighting through blocks, standing flat-footed, playing scared, guessing tentatively -- all signs they've given up, even if only a little. To me that is just sad. Why are you playing this game, that you sacrifice so much to play, if you are going to go out there and mail it in?
2. Tedford needs to re-insert himself into the offense, or scrap it (next season) and go with a new one. Tedford’s offenses used to perform with laser precision, few mistakes, and guys were putting a hat on a hat on every play. And when it was run that way, it worked well. In contrast, versus OSU, there were unblocked defenders everywhere, the OL was missing blocks and committing penalties (Marshall needs a serious look by Tedford), and play after play was executed without heart or confidence.
Tedford was right to try and delegate back in 2008. But the experiment has obviously failed. I am not a huge Ludwig fan, but I think he is a serviceable assistant OC if Tedford's offense stays in place. Same for Cignetti.
Otherwise, Tedford needs to pick a different offense and let someone else run with it. Because while both Cignetti and Ludwig are/were decent game planners and play callers, the offenses have slipped significantly in on-field precision and performance since 2008 started, something that never used to be a problem. That suggests his offense does not function adequately when someone else is running it.
3. Panda-Gas is not impressing. I still think this group is mentally weak (remember they looked just about this bad under Gregory last year), but there are still some schematic things that look off about this defense, especially at LB, that suggest Pendergast is not putting these players in the best spots. I think Pendergast needs to figure out this defense’s identity and go with it. Either pressure all game and take your chances, or go with 2 DL and keep everything in front of you. Because he seems to choose wrong when he switches up game plans week to week.
Personally, I don’t think this defensive personnel group has the instincts to play read-and-react. They need to be pressuring all game long, and the corners and safeties need to know that they are going to be tested. The team has speed on defense, and Pendergast needs to use it. What's the worst that can happen -- we get down 42-0 at half? At least they’ll go out swinging.
And at some point, allowing a game to get out of reach in the first quarter multiple times, is a reflection of the DC.
4. It's time to bench some starters, even some "untouchables." When guys don't show up or play like chipmunks more than just occasionally, even after getting blown out repeatedly and embarrassed on film, the only way to light a fire under them is to bench them. And it's time to bench some guys.
And again, what's the worst that can happen if you play the backups?
With that, my changes this week are:
Rigsbee at LT, Schwartz to RT.
Galas at center.
MSG at RG.
Mullins at ILB (with Mohamed rotating).
Wilkerson at OLB (replacing Price/Browner permanently)
Hagan as nickel on every third down, dropping either a LB or DL off.
It's march or die in the desert.
at 2:41 PM
Friday, October 29, 2010
Sorry, gotta keep it short this week. First, re ASU, I’ll just say this. Cal played great, but how many people expected a home loss to ASU before the season started? Let’s be real here. The whipping looked great, and the team deserves a lot of credit for coming out fired up, especially the defense. But they should have won that game, period.
Which is what frustrates me about Oregon State the past three years. Cal should be beating this team. I am more sick of losing to OSU than any other team. I am sick of the “no team (other than USC and OSU) has beaten Cal at home for six years” statistic, or whatever it is.
I get that they are well coached. But when Cal has beaten them, they have whipped them, and when OSU has won, it has been mostly ugly on both sides. Cal should be beating this team more often than not, not the other way around. And the team and the coaches have to be feeling the same way.
Interestingly, it seems like every year Cal loses to Oregon State, Cal has some kind of injury issue that it is dealing with, and Oregon State catches them at just the right time. For once, the tables finally appear to be turned. Oregon State is a little banged up, and Cal is pretty healthy.
Whether Cal can take advantage is another story, especially given the fact that Riley has had two weeks to prepare and typically outcoaches Tedford’s staff every year anyway, and the forecast is calling for rain. But I still think it is refreshing to finally go into the OSU game without wondering how a backup is going to perform at a key position.
For me, this game is all about the Cal defense. Force third and long, prevent long conversions, and turn up the pressure on a young QB and take away his one advantage, which is a big arm. If Cal does that, and doesn’t level the playing field with special teams gaffes and turnovers, they should win. I even think this in spite of what we can all assume will be an ugly day offensively for Cal against Banker’s defense, unless they are somehow able to beat OSU’s corners deep, which has only happened twice in 7 years.
But most of all, beyond the win, I just want to see Oregon St. looked flustered against Cal for once. Cal destroyed them in 2004 and 2006, and it is borderline ridiculous that Cal has lost to these guys three years in a row. Yes, the personnel are different, but Cal should be beating these guys more than 2 out of 7 times. Let’s hope they sack up and end the streak.
at 4:03 PM
Tuesday, October 19, 2010
I have to say, as bad as that loss was - and that was the worst loss Cal has suffered under Tedford's watch - the collective emotional aftermath for Cal nation has progressed like a decomposing corpse in the inverse, from solid waste into the effervescence of hilarity. A sublimation from the agonizing to the absurd. Somewhere in the ether, Camus is biting his bottom lip and fighting back tears of adoration.
Look, the game was the worst thing I have seen in a Cal uniform in a long, long time. Easily Tedford's biggest gaffe as a head coach. From the game plan, to the game management, to the execution, to (worst of all) the lack of fire, this was the football equivalent of Brundle-Fly fusing with telepod. And after showing such promise liquefying Stathis' limbs and looking like he was going to close the deal just moments before -- you know, like beating UCLA (wait, was that actually promising? was anything this season actually all that much to get excited about?) -- it just makes the failure all the more epic.
But it's still just a bad loss. Say it ten times fast: "It's just a bad loss. It's just a bad loss." And yes, there have been a few more than anyone would like the past few years. And yes, Tedford's conference record has been middling the past three years. Let's all say it together: the program's on-field record has been middle-of-the-conference since 2007, and that is not acceptable.
But even at all that, we are still simply talking about a team looking horrifically awful in a game, and with some admittedly disturbing frequency the past few years.
Is that acceptable. No, absolutely, positively, not. Is it cause for binge drinking, a cold shower, some self therapy that it's ok to forget about football for 48 hours? Yes. Is it even cause for suggesting that Tedford's seat is getting warm. Yes.
But is it cause for seppuku, for tearing up season tickets, for coveting douche bags like Harbaugh? If your answer is anything other than an unmitigated "No," please watch the following:
With all that, I will say this: what happened Saturday is not going to be fixed by watching tape, practicing harder, or hiring different position coaches alone. Something has to change, something big enough that it needs to wait until after the season is over. This team lacked too many things in too many phases of the game for some minor tweaking to be sufficient.
Without going off on a tangent about what those things are, because there is so much football left to be played still this season, right now, I'll just say this: I think at a minimum, the entire offensive scheme and/or recruiting philosophy may need a serious look. It's not that the offense is to blame chiefly - Cal's defense is probably more to blame in many of its blowouts - but in college, there is far more room to overcome personnel deficiencies through offensive scheme than there is on defense.
In its raw form, with the right personnel, Tedford's offense is very effective. But like any offense, without the right personnel, it struggles. And over time, teams figure out how to defend it. When those two things converge, like they have since Longshore's ankle collapsed, it ain't pretty. Further, the latter tends to exacerbate the former. The more familiar teams get with your offense, the more talent you need to stay ahead of them.
What is becoming apparent is that Tedford is struggling to find the right players (and assistants) to make the system hum the way it's supposed to, starting with the QB. And while it would be easy to say he is not doing an adequate job of adapting the system to the players he has (which he is not), I must confess, I am not sure you can do that with this offense once you cross a certain threshold of number of ill-suited players (and assistants) for your system. I don't think you can dumb this offense down, or frankenstein it with prosthetic appendages, and still maintain an advantage over the opponent. I could waste pages explaining why, and I may in a later post, but bottom line, this offense needs to be what it is and spread its wings, or cease to be.
I am not ready to throw in the towel and say the right personnel groupings are not out there somewhere within reach. But right now, they're not on the field, and they're not in the starting lineup. Some of them are, but not all of them. Food for thought.
Back to the game we just watched. Some things I noticed:
1. Lack of Focus. Like most of Tedford's lopsided losses, the team was simply not ready to match the other team's intensity and focus in the first half, and it cost them the game. USC combined an intensity that the Cal players clearly were not expecting, with a very good game plan and execution, some of which Cal was also clearly not expecting. The latter I can excuse, because frankly, USC did some things that were downright impressive schematically on both sides of the ball. The former is inexcusable.
Of all the things I saw Saturday, the only one that really befuddled me was how mentally unprepared this team looked. They were unprepared to match USC's intensity, unprepared to make plays when their number was called, and unprepared to pick themselves up when they got down a few scores and stop the snowball. I am still at a loss to understand that. Playing SC in the coliseum is the apex of Pac 10 football, arguably all of college football. How do you come out flat and uninspired?
I said last year after the Washington game that the Washington loss strongly suggested to me that the team lacked the right kind of leaders. The juniors and seniors on this team who have played SC two or three times, and been to the coliseum before, needed to set the tone for the team all week. Instead, a lot of the team's elder statesmen looked the most out of synch. I won't name names, but watch the tape. Cal will never beat SC with that kind of leadership void, period.
So first and foremost, coming out flat is on the players, particularly the team leaders, but also every starter. You don't need your coach to hold your hand and get you up for a game all week long. Please. This is what you practice, lift, condition, and play for all your life, from pop warner to college game day. The chance to bring the lumber against the best players. And for most of the players, it will be the highest level of competition they ever encounter on a football field the rest of their lives. If you can't get the fire burning when you put on your helmet and take the field against USC, then it's time to pick another extracurricular activity in college.
However, I also think the lack of mental preparedness falls on the coaches. For the third year in a row, the team just looked flat out of the gate and then tight and uncomfortable the rest of the way. Yes, a lot of that is talent disparity which breeds lack of confidence (which I'll get to later). But at some point, the pattern is indicative of the constant, and while some of the players have changed, the results have not.
At a minimum, something is not right with this coaching staff in the area of mental preparation, and hasn't been for three years. I can't put my finger on it, but I think Tedford knows it. That is why, I suspect, he is trying all of these techniques to change up the team's mental focus. His teams are so well-coached and disciplined in so many respects, but at times it is like they are not expecting the other team to actually try and disrupt what they are doing, almost as if they cavalierly expect the schemes to work like they do on the chalkboard.
While I think Tedford recognizes this, he and his staff need to do something else to address it, because whatever they are doing is not working. One thing I'd suggest is more positional competition during the season. If a guy is going to play like a chipmunk out there, I don't care if he's all conference or a three-year starter. He ain't playing like it, so why treat him like he is? Let him watch his backup do his job.
For example, let Marvin Jones sit out the rest of the game after dropping two balls, especially after dropping the one at Arizona. Bench Mitchell Schwartz if he gets pimp slapped by an injured pass rusher. At least for a few series, maybe a quarter or two. Then let them think about how that felt all next week and see if they don't come out a bit more jacked up for the next opponent.
2. Defensive ineptitude. As bad as the offense was, and it was horrible, the defense pretty much put the game out of reach. To give up 28 points in just over one quarter with almost no resistance -- that is the equivalent of taking pretty much 75% of the offensive game plan you worked on all week and setting fire to it.
By early in the second quarter, the offense was relegated to being pass heavy, against a defense that is salivating to come after the QB. That's bad any time, but against probably the most athletic defense in the country, along with Florida and Alabama, on the road no less, it is the death knell. Cal probably lost this game the moment the players took the field, but between the sidelines, Cal lost this game on defense in the first quarter and a half. They managed to keep USC out of the endzone on just one drive in the first half. That is a joke.
It was a combination of bad scheme, bad execution, and a talented QB playing with ridiculous confidence. I thought Cal brought too little pressure, and tried to play a physically superior offense straight up, both up front and in the secondary. Cal doesn't have the players for that, which people seem to forget. What they have is speed and they did not use it.
As for execution, though the secondary had its awful moments, and the DL too, the linebackers just got punked all day. USC ran at Keith Browner time and again, and every time, he got sucked into the wash. Mohamed was a shadow of himself, clearly not healed 100% and whiffing on reads (probably because of the injury). DJ Holt was better than Mohamed, but he too got gobbled up way too often by OL and FBs. Kendricks was the only one who played decent, although USC rarely ran to his side, by design I am sure.
Finally, Barkley was nails. The guy had all day to throw, receivers whom he trusted, and made some tremendous passes that most QBs could not make. It is not an excuse, but it certainly eliminated a lot of the secondary's margin for error.
Which is precisely why the defensive game plan was so ill-suited for this opponent. Cal should have flooded against the run and blitzed the heck of Barkley early, to compensate for Cal's athletic disadvantage (you're kidding yourself if you think USC has somehow fallen to Cal's level athletically). Instead, Panda-gas channeled Bob Gregory and let Barkley file his nails and have a career day back there.
3. Offensive line ineptitude. The offensive line looked like deer in headlights, and that is on the coaches, particularly Marshall. How they could look so ill-prepared to counter SC's pressure is mind-boggling. SC got a sack with a three man rush in one of the first series - and it was a quick one, not Riley holding the ball too long. In the first series, the OL should not look that flat. How does that happen?
While I think the defense put the game out of reach, the OL sunk the offense. This unit has been embarrassed by USC for three years running now. At some point, something has got to change. I do think if there was ever a time to get Galas and MSG in there as starters for a full game, now is the time. I am not saying who needs to sit, but those two need to be playing. Cal needed some bulldogs in there, not a bunch of bunnies.
They also need more talent. I keep saying it, but Cal is never going to win the conference or beat SC without some all conference players on the OL and at QB. And Cal hasn't had that for a while.
4. Offensive offense. While the defense gave the game away, the fact that Cal was so pathetically unable to manufacture so much as a drive for much of the first half, is sad. It's like nails on a chalkboard watching an offense lurch like that. Yes, SC was daring Cal to throw, and yes the dropped balls were killers that if caught might have opened up the run, but as I've said before, you have to be able to run against 8 man fronts if you want to win this conference.
While the passing game is bad, offense still starts with the run. Cal's run game is broken, and has been since Dunbar took over. A lot of it is OL personnel, but at some point, you have to acknowledge that you don't have the horses to run what you want to run. Yes, at times, this year, the offense has generated some rushing momentum, but it still cannot run for short yardage and cannot run against loaded fronts. And passing the ball is not the answer. That is not enough of a counter unless your passing game, including protection, is elite, which Cal's is not, and which is harder to come by.
Cal needs to find a run game that can manufacture yardage against unbalanced defenses. Some things to consider: adding some option element, going with more no-huddle, actually using the wildcat to both fool people and speed up the rush - combining misdirection with a quick read, and using more overloaded goal line-type sets. All of the above allow less athletic teams to move the ball on the ground. Something has to change, because the slow developing power runs and zone runs are not cutting it against the better defenses anymore.
Though Cal should never give up 21 points in the first quarter, it can't go into games with the notion that if the defense gives up a few big plays, the offense is incapable of slowing things down and chewing up some yardage.
5. Drops. Dropped balls just confirm that this team lacks focus. It's not skill, and it's not practice. It's all upstairs. Good receivers want the ball in big games, and don't care if they take a hit. They need to be throwing to Keenan Allen 8-10 times a game, mostly short and medium range, like OSU has done with James Rodgers. He is the only receiver that looks like he wants the ball when it's coming out hot.
6. Playing the reserves. Regarding the lack of substitutions, I'll just say this. I think you play your first teamers coming out of the locker room, but if you're still down four TDs in the fourth quarter, then you put in your reserves. In games like that, the locker room talk at half-time is about getting some respect, not laying down, and executing the game plan you came in there with. You have to let the starters take the field and try to realize that, or it's just empty talk.
But then, once the fourth quarter rolls around, I think you have to get your backups valuable road experience against good athletes like SC has. Tedford almost seemed like he did not want even to give the slightest semblance of a concession that his team had lost, similar to when he called the timeouts at the end of the game in 2008, even though it was well out of reach. While I get the never-surrender mentality, especially because losing to SC clearly eats at him, at some point, you need to remember that playing reserves in a blowout is more productive for the team than showing the players that you will never give up, like Cool Hand Luke flailing helplessly at Dragline after the fight was over.
7. USC is still USC. I said before the game that it's a player's game, but if all else is equal, the team with the mental edge wins. And if that edge is big enough, even a less talented team can win. We see that all the time when SC goes out and loses to teams like Washington.
But if an athletically superior team takes the field, at home, and plays with its hair on fire, it will win almost every time. And that is what happened Saturday. And based on what I saw, no matter what Cal did, I don't think they had much of a chance. I did not think that going in, but seeing how jacked USC was, I have a hard time seeing Cal get the W in that game.
Cal is not in the same class as USC talent-wise, and has never been. Ask yourself how many Cal players would start or see significant playing time for USC right now: Allen, Jordan, maybe Coleman, and maybe Vereen (at CB if at all, certainly not RB).
As for citing to SC losing to Washington and Stanford, both of whom have inferior athletes, I don't put too much stock in that as meaning that Cal should beat USC too. I watched those games. SC looked much better, and much more fired up, against Cal from the very first snap than they did in either of those two games. If SC played like that against Stanford and Washington, it is hard to imagine them losing either of those games.
This is not to diminish the puss way Cal lost, or all of the things that looked very wrong about this team on Saturday. But I think people need to remember that this Cal team still has a ways to go to overcome a few years of weak recruiting at many positions.
As a final thought, I'll just say that this team is better than they played Saturday. They ran into as motivated a USC team as I've seen in a while (Kiffin is a dildo, but gotta hand it to him getting his guys up for this game). And they took every bad mistake you can make and combined them into one game, in all three phases. They will not face a defense like that the rest of the way, and they will not face a QB like that the rest of the way.
What they will continue to face is their own mercurial inability to lock in and suck it up each week, like they're playing the game of their life. That will be this team's and the coaches' biggest challenge the rest of this year: finding the players who can play with laserlike focus every week, and riding those guys to wins.
at 11:00 AM
Thursday, October 14, 2010
Now that Pete Carroll is gone, there will be no more Tedford-Carroll matchups. For a couple seasons, this was the premier matchup in the conference. Before moving on to this week's game, let's take a little trip down memory lane and pay tribute:
2002 - Kareem Kelly's phantom catch, "No, please, after you, Mr. McCullough"
2003 - "@#*% LA. Let's take their @#*%'n hearts."
2004 - 29-35 (82.9%), 267 yds, 1 TD, 1st and Goal from the 9...
2005 - 9-19, 98 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT
2006 - Patrick Turner's phantom catch, Steve Smith robs Hughes blind, USC boosters...I mean the refs...take away a fumble recovery and a 70-yard run by Lynch
2007 - 102 kickoff return yards, "No, please, after you, Mr. Washington," Longshore hooks up with Terrell Thomas
2008 - ineligible man downfield, 27 yards rushing, 138 yards passing, 0 TDs
2009 - Riley hooks up with Mays, and Bob Ueckers a wide open Vereen on fake substitution play, 0 TDs
It's Shawshank Redemption, Tedford style.
[Cue Morgan Freeman voice]
"Losses to Pete Carroll are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized."
"Sh*t. I could never get like that."
"Oh yeah? Say that when you been here as long as Tedford has."
Coach Tedford, Carroll's gone. Now's your chance to be Red, not Brooks. Andy's waiting for you on a beach down in Mexico. The only thing standing in your way is this this guy:
I'll take that matchup, personally. Not saying Cal is going to win, because we all know that with SC's athletes, and the coliseum gremlins, winning down there is going to be a bitch. But on paper, this coaching matchup goes to Tedford and Pendergast.
I actually think the coaching matchup is being a bit underrated here. Not so much x's and o's, but more about attitude, focus, and confidence. Like I always say, it's a player's game. The players making plays when it counts is what wins games. But where both teams have good athletes, and both are well-coached and prepared, coaching can make a difference in terms of mentality, and that can be enough for the win on any game day.
For the most part, Carroll had the edge over Tedford in this regard. I always thought Tedford and his staff had better game plans vs. Carroll. But in the end, Carroll's players always seemed poised to make the big plays late in the game, and Tedford's players always seemed to misstep when it counted. I do think SC's depth and better athletes across the board, especially at QB, probably made as much of a difference as anything else.
But despite that discrepancy, Cal was still always right there (for which Tedford gets a lot of credit, for the record). And yet, every year, when the game was right there for the taking, somehow, Carroll's players always came up roses, and Tedford's came up short. I chalk that up to mindset.
But I think those days are over now. I always felt Tedford was sort of in Belotti's head a bit after having been on the same staff, but being a bit sharper offensive strategist than Belotti (which Belotti knew). In a different way, I could see the same sort of thing with Kiffin. Kiffin basically carried Tedford's clipboard when he coached at Fresno State. And while little Lane has certainly made his own way (for better or worse), psychologically, I have to think Tedford still feels like he's forgotten more football than Kiffin's ever known.
That kind of thing rubs off on players. They see it in body language, in the coaching staff's tone of voice all week in meetings, in the way they carry themselves during practice. Tedford and his team had that calm confidence against USC in 2002 through 2004, and it showed on the field. After that, Carroll's teams seemed looser, and Tedford's seemed tighter. I'll never forget a close-up in Cal's offensive huddle in 2008, and almost to a man, every Cal player's eyes were Clockwork Orange-wide open. The team looked rattled and uncomfortable, a far cry from the business-like demeanor of the 2004 team.
In contrast, I expect a pretty confident team to take the field this Saturday. And while I think SC is going to be fired up, I think they are going to be tight. There is no question that team knows it is on a thin precipice. Everyone wants to believe the sanctions don't matter, and losing Carroll doesn't matter. And as long as they're winning, they can go on believing it. But lose three in a row and the dynasty is officially over. I can't imagine that isn't going to cause some tightness at some point in the game if it's close.
As for the x's and o's, nothing really different than every year. It's two pro-style teams trying to establish the run, limit mistakes, and get after the passer. USC has always managed to make plays on both sides of the ball when it counted, and more recently get pressure on the passer and shut down Cal's run game. Same game plan this week.
The past two years, Cal has exposed USC's secondary, but has been unable to capitalize on open receivers, usually due to poor passes or drops. This too, about which much ink has been spilled, will again be a factor this week. Monte has no problem leaving man coverage, maybe 1 safety extremely deep, and giving up a gaping hole in the middle of the field. The key is getting the ball in the air before the receiver gets there. Riley waits too long, which is why he gets his receivers decapitated against SC.
But unlike a lot of folks, I think Cal will be able to run on these guys. Cal has really started to get comfortable with the zone scheme and Vereen is getting a good feel for finding cutback lanes. This is a good scheme to counter SC's speed on defense because it will get defenders out of their gaps, get the ball in Vereen's hands more quickly, and create space for Vereen.
I also think many are making a bit too much about the necessity of passing the ball. Yes you have to stay balanced, but a running team only needs to pass the ball enough to keep the defense honest. With all the screens and quick passes Ludwig has been calling, there is no reason Riley has to win this game with his arm. He just has to make USC pay when the WRs beat the coverage, something he has not been able to do against them.
Cal additionally has to face the fact that Tavecchio may not be as reliable as they'd like. Not sure if it's just a fluke or a bad case of the shanks. But you can't go into the Coliseum unsure about your kicking game. In response, if I'm Tedford, I tell my team this week that we expect TDs in the redzone this week, and we plan to go for it on fourth down inside the 20, not because we don't trust Tavechhio, but because we think we can run it down their throats.
That means every player knows that inside the 20, they have four chances to punch it in. Even if they kick occasionally, that will loosen up the playcalling, take the heat off Riley, and let everyone know it's not about amazing play calling or perfectly choreographed reverses or trick plays - just three yard gain, after three yard gain, after three yard gain.
And that brings me back to mentality. This team needs to regain its toughness. Cal has the athletes and the game plan to beat SC. They just need the stones to go along with it and they'll win. Beating SC in 2003, and then taking them to the brink in 2004, is really what put Tedford and Cal on the map. And they did it by kicking them in the teeth, and combining it with smooth execution. This game is a golden opportunity to get back on the horse and give SC a gentle shove off the edge of the cliff they've been standing on ever since they hired Kiffin.
at 10:07 AM
Friday, October 8, 2010
From what I saw against Nevada, it appeared to me that Pendergast was trying to both vary, and disguise, the defensive assignments. Against a more advanced option attack, particularly one with an experienced QB, this is a good way to keep the offensive coordinator and QB guessing a bit. Otherwise, once they figure out how you're defending, they'll do two things to beat you: (1) attack your weakest player(s), and (2) change up the reads. Paul Johnson probably does this better than anyone.
Taking this approach is certainly consistent with Pendergast's statements about forcing the offense's hand and not just sitting back and reacting. And there is something to be said for not just going into a game and waiting to see what the offense does and try to be perfect at reacting to it.
The problem with this approach is that it increases the possibility of individual players blowing their assignments. This is exacerbated by (1) it's the first time you've faced the offense, (2) you have a short week to prepare, (3) your players aren't fluent in the defensive scheme yet, and (4) you lack the necessary speed or instinct at certain positions.
So what do I expect to see this week? First, I would expect to see guys being a bit less quick to bite on fakes. Recall I mentioned before the Nevada game that one of the best defensive keys to read when defending Nevada’s (or any) option are the pulling linemen, as they very often take you to the ball, or at the very least, they rarely take you away from it. Reading your keys is critical against any misdirection offense, because if you watch the ball, the backs, and the QB, you are going to get run. Not always (and you have to watch for counters), but almost always, the linemen will tell you where the play is going.
I have a feeling the defense got an earful about this before the Nevada game. But you can yell at guys all you want. Until they actually get burned doing the precise thing you tell them not to do – in this case, watching the wrong thing -- a lot of times, it’s not going to sink in. I suspect they now get it.
Second, I would expect the ILBs and safeties to be better about flowing in a more evenly distributed manner, as a unit, toward the ball, rather than individual players running around like crazy chickens chasing ghosts. UCLA is not nearly as deceptive as Nevada, so I don’t expect plays where two safeties and 2 ILBs get sucked into one tiny quadrant of the field and leave an ocean for the RB or QB to do pirouettes in. But I also think these players, who are really the ones tasked with the hardest reads, will do a better job of spacing after more time practicing against this offense.
Third, I expect (and truly, I hope) to see some punitive hits on Prince. This guy is already nursing injuries, and while he’s a pretty tough kid, he’s not going to continue to keep the ball (nor will the coaches let him) if he’s getting the business every time he keeps it. Pendergast definitely seems like a force-their-hand type of coach. This is an excellent way to do that, and I’d expect we’ll see that.
Lastly, I still think this defense is going to place a premium on stopping the inside run. I know everyone had a conniption watching Browner and Price blindly tackle the RB vs. Nevada. But if you don’t stop the dive play against the option, you’re playing right into the offense’s hand. The option is designed to open up the inside run, by eventually getting people out of their gaps. Teams with weaker OL and RBs use it because they cannot overpower defenses up the middle, but they still want to run up the middle.
If you watch backs in the prolific option offenses, their big runs still come up the middle, often late in games, as do their back breaking short yardage runs. Franklin and Coleman gutted Washington State up the middle. James killed Stanford up the middle. Taua did it to Cal. Look for Pendergast to focus on sealing that off and spilling the plays to the alleys, where his safeties and ILBs can use the sideline to corner the runners.
Slow-Developing Run Plays
I’ve complained before about how slowly Cal's run plays have been developing, and I am starting to see a pattern that may explain it. Riley at times looks like he’s running in cement as he runs back to give the handoff after taking the snap under center. He needs to be quicker out of the snap. This is actually one of the reasons teams like the pistol – it gets the run started more quickly without letting on where the ball is going. But the loping, methodical steps Riley takes as he gets the ball to Vereen is just a killer. It makes it tremendously easier for the LBs and safeties to get a jump on the runner. I definitely think this is why we see so many runs where guys are just waiting for Vereen as he hits the LOS.
I understand that with some power runs, you need to wait a 1 or 2 count to allow the pulling lineman to get there, and to let the hole open up. But this offense has got to mix in some faster developing plays where the RB is moving vertically earlier. Some zone plays can work like this, so hopefully we’ll see it.
I think people remember last year’s game with rose colored glasses. Despite an insane first half offensively by Cal, UCLA was still driving to make it a game in the fourth quarter when Kendricks picked the ball off to seal it. UCLA’s offense was chipping away and had really put Cal on ice in the second half. Cal frankly milked a lead for much of that game, and got a lift from Best’s long run and Kendricks’ INT, and UCLA consistent inability to get TDs in the redzone.
This year, UCLA’s offense is better than it was last year, Cal’s offense appears the same, or perhaps a tad worse. Even if their defense is the same, I expect them to be a more difficult opponent than people are giving them credit for.
I also think this is going to be a violent, physical game. UCLA is confident after three good wins, and wants some payback for last year. Cal is ticked off after losing to Arizona, and wants to show they can stop the pistol. A lot of the players on these two teams are familiar with each other, and this is always a grudge match. I think you will see a very motivated UCLA team.
In the end, Cal’s two advantages are home field and the big play. I expect Ludwig to attack CB Hester and UCLA’s aggressive secondary, and try to loosen up their run defense with some vertical plays. If UCLA gets down, their run-heavy pistol will not work.
But if Cal can’t strike with the big play, which is a distinct possibility, and this game gets close, it will be anyone’s game, because I am not sure Cal can grind it out against UCLA.
I’d say Cal has a 10-20% chance of getting up big and running away with it, but more likely this is a close game until the fourth quarter. I still give Cal the slight edge at home, with a good RB, a senior QB, and a senior ILB. But my money’s on this being a nail-biter.
at 12:30 PM
Monday, September 27, 2010
Just something quick to cover up that picture of the Stoops brothers dry humping the air, as I'll have more game thoughts later.
The irony of ironies in sports is that the worst losses are in the games where you left it all out on the field, even though you have so much less to be ashamed of as a team then when you get smoked. You should feel 10 times worse after getting embarrassed, but typically, as a team, those always seem to be easier to shrug off as aberrant.
I didn't give the team much of a chance, and figured their best hope was an AZ letdown or some big plays to neutralize home field advantage. And I don't think that was an unreasonable outlook. Instead they surprised me, and neutralized home field advantage the old fashioned way - with defense and running the football. That is what I have been looking for from Tedford's teams for years. The 2004 and 2005 teams showed flashes of it (not coincidentally, Tedford's best OLs and defenses).
The team did not play a perfect game. And obviously the result was an all timer on the list of stingers. But if that's the brand of football this team plans to put on the field every week this season, you won't hear me complain.
Yes, I've enjoyed the big-play oriented offense of the past five years. And that brand of football has been instrumental in putting Cal on the map in many respects. Who knows how much buzz this program would even have without the highlight reel plays, and big draft days, of guys like Lynch, Best and Jackson.
But I've always felt this program has been just a tad more finesse than I'd like since Dunbar got here. Yes Gregory's contain defense and the weak special teams had a lot to do with that. But the offense too seemed ill-suited to tight, physical games where they needed to be able to run the ball. The last four games against SC come to mind.
But the way they were grinding out yards in the fourth quarter on offense, and stifling Arizona on defense, showed me something different. It remains to be seen if this team can replicate that against USC and Oregon St, its two primary nemeses when it comes to having to grind rather than get the big play. But for the first time in a while, this team looks like might be tough enough to do that. If it is, it will be a welcome change from going into games hoping the team's superstars can come up with enough big plays to win, only to be disappointed when those players get shut down.
One last thought for now. As much as a good coach can change the fortunes of a college football program, as we've seen with guys like Carroll and Meyer, it's still a player's game. Great coaches set the table, but the players close the deal. In the NCG, Lendale White and the OL didn't close the deal on 4th and short for pretty much the first time all season. Then Vince Young did. All kinds of coaching moves could have altered that outcome, but no matter what, it will always come down to players making plays or not.
This is not necessarily to defend the Cal coaches' game plans, as I don't believe there is such thing as a perfect game plan or play call. In many instances, you call the number of your best player or dial up your bread and butter. And if it doesn't work, you take comfort that you played the odds. In other instances, you go to Vinnie Strang or John Paxson, the guy they're least expecting, and if it doesn't work, you tell yourself you were trying to break tendencies and make something happen.
But whatever you do, you're still basically throwing a paper airplane, reasonably sure of what should happen, but unable to actually control what does happen. Tavecchio missed. Jones missed. Criner didn't. Play it 10 times, the opposite probably happens more often than not.
Is that enough to make those calls (or any others in the game) the "right" call?
at 9:03 AM
Thursday, September 23, 2010
The truth is the only thing that has separated these two teams since 2005 has pretty much been homefield advantage. Both have had pretty similar athletes, with Arizona having a few more on defense, and Cal a few more on offense. Cal's had the better offensive coaching, Arizona the better defensive coaching. Until now.
Now, for the first time Stoops has one more slight edge over Cal: QB. Simply put, Nick Foles saved Mike Stoops' job and probably kept Arizona from toiling away in the middle of the conference the next few years. Exhibit A: Matt Scott's performance at Iowa last year. Arizona fans - that was your future without Foles.
Yes Arizona has talent all over the place. But just ask Cal fans what a middling QB can do to an otherwise talented team.
And for me, if anything tips the scales toward Arizona this weekend, it's Foles. They're at home, which is usually just barely enough. But now they have a potential all-conference QB on top of it. Do I think he's an all-timer? No, but he runs the offense extremely well, he can make all the throws, and most importantly, he's steady. That is more than I can say for Kevin Riley, for example.
When Cal Has the Ball
First off, there isn't a lot to say about what to expect. These teams know each other pretty well. It's going to be about execution and not getting rattled. With that, onto some game thoughts.
I don't see Cal grinding out the run against this front. If Cal is going to have success on the ground, it is going to be like it has for the past few years against Arizona -- a big plate of brick wall seasoned with some big plays when Arizona gets too aggressive. I wouldn't be surprised if Vereen breaks off a few big ones. His legs look 100%, he seems to have his vision back, and Arizona is going to be bringing the heat. But those runs will be few and far between I think.
So, pucker up, because the offense this week will rise and fall on how well Riley delivers the ball through the air. The good news is Allen is healthy, so we should see the return of the high percentage plays designed to get him the ball in space, which should free up Jones some and Vereen some on the edges. Cal's skill players have always managed to have decent games against Arizona.
The bad news is that these passes are not going to be gravy. Cal is going to need them to supplement the run with a heavy dose of these short throws on first and second down to avoid getting into long yardage. Because of all the teams on the schedule, Arizona is probably the worst team to get into long yardage situations against, along with Oregon.
The other good news is Tedford and Ludwig know this, and unlike my thoughts on Pendergast, I have confidence that Tedford and Ludwig have seen this before, will game plan appropriately for this pressure and be ready with ways to counter it. Plus, Riley is actually pretty good when he sees blitz or knows the pressure's coming. His problem is when blocking breaks down on a longer developing play, and the play starts going awry.
The other thing Cal is going to need to do is get Miller and Stevens involved in the passing game. There will be opportunities to find these guys if Ludwig is willing to take them out of pass protection and get them into the seams.
When Arizona Has the Ball
Bob Gregory never really figured out the Leach offense. Cal's defensive success and failure has turned on how it's dealt with the run game of Arizona. Stoops has stubbornly stuck with the run since he brought in the Tech offense, seeking to avoid the three and outs and lack of balance that always plagued Mike Leach against quicker defenses.
And while I generally agree with Stoops' philosophy here, his dedication to the run has probably been the only reason the Cal defense has been able to hang with this offense (that and a guy named Willie Tuitama who managed to keep Cal in a few games). When Cal has beaten UofA, they've contained the run. When they've lost, they haven't (at least at key points in the game).
Everyone is interested in how Pendergast will defend this offense. The closest analog in the NFL, in terms of what Pendergast has schemed against, is the West Coast Offense, which he would have faced when playing Seattle, and before that, when he faced San Francisco when he was on the Cowboys staff in the 90s.
As we all know, the key to stopping the Leach/Dykes short passing attack is (1) tackle well and limit yards after catch and make them dink and dunk their way down the field, (2) disguise coverages since Foles definitely reads pre-snap, and (3) don't jump routes early.
All of this seems consistent with what I've seen from Pendergast and this defense. Yes, they're aggressive up front, but they've shown good tackling, and discipline on pass coverage in the secondary. What we haven't seen yet is much coverage disguising, simply because it hasn't really been needed thus far. But given Pendergast's NFL defenses, I suspect that is in the works.
And then of course, Cal has to keep the run in check. They did well with that last year, but got absolutely shredded in Tuscon two years ago. Arizona has struggled a bit this year running the ball, but they haven't really needed to rely on it much. But if Cal can make Arizona more one-dimensional like last year, it may neutralize the effectiveness of Foles' quick throws.
The last key to defending this offense is turnovers. Grigsby has shown a propensity to cough it up, and Cal is going to need every big play it can get Saturday.
I suspect the kicking game is going to be big here, and Tavecchio will be called upon to make some probably critical FGs. Cal has had trouble punching it in on the goal line against AZ and other tough run defenses, so they may need to settle for FGs. That makes this Tavecchio's first big test.
Field position is also going to be critical because of how quickly Arizona can score. While Foles has shown he can lead long drives, the more passes that (or any) offense throws, the more likely a mistake will occur. In that regard, combined with Arizona's return threat in Cobb, this will also be the first look at Genyk's coverage schemes under fire.
If you can't tell by now, I am skeptical about this game, just like I was in 2008. This is a tough place to play, that offense is feeling it right now, and without Mohamed or a versatile OLB on one side, Arizona has the potential to run this defense ragged chasing down dinks and dunks. I also have serious doubts about Cal's ability to keep the offense on the field with this OL.
Cal's two hopes lie in catching the Cats in a letdown after Iowa, and getting some big plays to take away home field advantage and give the defense a chance to bring pressure. Both things could very well happen.
But if I am betting on this game, it feels like a 30% chance of a runaway AZ win, and 70% chance AZ wins in a nailbiter.
at 9:27 PM