Monday, September 15, 2008

Sometimes having your manhood taken can be a teaching tool

A whipping by a double-digit non-conference underdog
on the road? Thank you, may I have another?

While the salad days of the Bears celebrating being 12-0 in the moral victory column are over, the sting of this one might be just what the schoolmaster ordered. This young team had everything go right the first two games, almost too right, like Alan Alda's run in practice in Paper Lion. There are a lot of glitches, rough edges, and gaps in all three phases of this team's play, and they were bound to come home to roost eventually. Better now than in conference play, when it actually counts.

That said, I absolutely saw far more good football than bad from this team Saturday. For all the hand-wringing and "Fire [insert name of assistant coach]" vitriol coming from the message boards, the fact is, for much of the game, the Bears looked like a very good football team having a bad day. That is different from a mediocre football team playing like a mediocre football team. Watching the game a second time, there is a lot to look forward to this season and next with this team.  Now, onto the game analysis.


While losses are never due to a single play or reason, the primary reasons for this loss were execution errors on offense early on (penalties, bad passes, missed blocks, misreads), combined with lack of focus and preparedness to play fast and hard from the first snap on defense.  On offense, this led to a stalled first drive, an intercepted second drive, and FGs instead of TDs on its red zone trips.  On defense it lead to 21 Maryland points. 

While the game wasn't totally over at that point, you cannot spot the home team a 15 point lead and expect to win easily after that, no matter who you are.  Maryland is no push-over, and Cal was going to need an A+ game from that point forward to win, which is a tall order for a young team playing on the road.  

Obviously, Cal continued to make mistakes from that point on, but I firmly believe that had Cal scored TDs on those early drives instead of FGs (and a missed FG) and kept it close, Maryland would have started making mistakes and doubt would have crept in, given their propensity to flop in recent games, both this season and last.  It's not a given that Cal would have won at that point, but both teams might have looked more like their old selves earlier on than they did. 


Riley putting the team on his shoulders and making plays

When it got behind Saturday, Cal needed a lot of guys to step up and make plays, but none more than Riley. Cal needed their QB to make something happen, especially with an impotent run game, a prevent defense by Maryland, and young receivers. And Riley did just that. Cal has not had that since 2004, and it was refreshing to see.

Don't underestimate the effect this has on the rest of the team. They now know (if they didn't already) that they have a special kid back there, who's not only a fiery competitor (in fairness, most QBs are), but who is going to pull every trick in the book to make plays for his team in crunch time, whether it's scrambling for yards, running around to buy time and making laser throws downfield, or throwing a block. Teammates thrive on this kind of energy. The defense knows if they get the ball back, they have a chance. The receivers know if they keep running, they might get the ball. The line knows if they keep blocking, a broken play could mean a TD pass. There's a lot to look forward to here.

Tyson Alualu looking like an all-conference defensive lineman

Alualu was almost robotic in how well he played. He led the whole defense in tackles, which is virtually unheard of for a lineman. He does so many little things well. He is rarely out of control, rarely overpursues, has textbook hand technique, and shows great lateral pursuit down the line. He is playing like a first-team all conference lineman, and he is still a junior.

Young receivers getting catches and making plays

The receiver corps is coming along slowly but surely. Calvin's catch, spin move, and stiff arm was something we have never really seen out of a Cal receiver since Tedford has been here. And Calvin caught multiple balls to convert third downs, which is what you want out of your "big" receiver. And Boateng continues to have a cushion of space around him when he catches the ball which is a testament to his freakish speed. Combine that with the hands he showed, and he becomes the most likely candidate to be Cal's most dangerous receiver. And Cunningham showed off the hands his teammates have been talking about since camp started. Throw in catches for Tucker and Jones, and a great run by Jeremy Ross (I think this guy is a great secret weapon whom I hope they use more), and this is easily the deepest WR corps in the conference, moreso than SC.

A number of well-timed, well-designed plays on offense

Sure a lot of them didn't work due to execution errors, but there were plenty of times in the game, especially when I re-watched it, where Cignetti dialed up a great call. Had they all worked, especially early on, the game might have been different. That pass to Tad Smith over the middle during the first series was a perfect call, for example. I see these plays working later on in the season, and keeping defenses off balance.


Blocking against odd, shifting, or overloaded defensive fronts

I have read a lot of criticism that the Cal o-line was "dominated." This is simply untrue. Yeah, they got beat a few times, but their problem was missing blocks and blocking the wrong guys most of the time. In my pregame write-up, I predicted this very thing would present problems for the Bears vs. Maryland, because I noticed Wazzu have some moderate "success" with it when their linebackers played aggressively, rather than passively. I was worried that with the odd numbers, pre-snap shifts, and overloads, Cal's blocking schemes would be frustrated. The following quote by Best after the Maryland game confirms my suspicion:

"They loaded up the box. They came with a lot of blitzes. They overloaded on the strong side. It was just hard to pick up the right guys and make a read so we just got to go in there and watch the film and get better at it."

The good news is this is easy to fix. The coaches just need to show the players how to recognize the various fronts, read their keys, and make the right blocks. And give credit to Maryland. It is one thing to load up and send guys in the gaps; it's another to actually make plays. Their linebackers played very well when they filled. Not a lot of teams will be able to do that.

Also, eventually Riley is going to be sharp enough with his throws to kill teams over the middle when they stack the box.

Giving up ground in the run game on the edges

This is really where the run defense started to unravel. Cal's outside linebackers did not hold their ground, did not contain, and did not force the runs back inside. And the inside linebackers often took shallow pursuit angles to the ball, causing them to miss badly on some of the long runs. I attribute some of this to fatigue, some to lack of focus, and some to just lack of intensity and respect for the opponent. Cal just did not come ready to dominate and play a formidable opponent, and among other places, this lack of preparedness reared its head on Maryland's off-tackle run plays.

People are saying Eddie Young should be benched. I disagree. Sure he had a rough game, but the bottom line is the entire defense on the edge failed. Hagan did not do his job when the ball bounced outside, Felder took bad angles, Ezeff could not shed blocks. If these other players had played better, Young's problems would have had less of an effect.

Riley's slow start

Riley cannot continue to start games out of sync like he did, or it is going to be 2005 all over again. Like every offense, Cal's offense needs a sharp QB. Teams are going to continue to stack the box until Riley can prove he will make them pay. If does not do that, Cal will continue to have difficulty running the ball, which is going to make winning nearly impossible. He does not have to complete every pass, but he needs to be able to hit open receivers early in the game to keep the defense honest.

Lack of imaginative play-calling in the red-zone

Where were the bootleg passes to the fullback and tight end that we saw versus Michigan State? I understand the coaches wanted to run the fade route, and I realize we have the receivers for it, but Maryland had been covering our guys well all day, and had bitten on some reverses and misdirection already. The play-action left, throw back the other way to Ta'ufo'ou is a deadly play that I am surprised Cal did not call Saturday. We are going to need these more creative calls as the season wears on if we are going to become more productive in the red zone.

Predictable screen game

As I said in a post below, Cal's screen game became dangerously predictable, and it almost got Best taken out for the season. I don't know if it is our signals, our formations, or some other "tell," but it needs to change, especially if teams are going to load up against the run. Tedford uses screens and short passes to supplement the run, for the purpose of slowing down the defense. Along with a strong run game, this element of the offense has to be effective at least 60-70% of the time.

Closing thoughts

Cal is going to learn a ton from this game, both the coaches and players, both x's and o's and the mental game.  I think they are going to rebound nicely from this, much like they did in 2006 after losing to Tennessee.  Don't be surprised if they win 9 or 10 games this year, and blow some people out.  


Scott said...

Excellent analysis and write-up. It's a breath of fresh air after reading the many knee-jerk "the sky is falling" internet posts.

This blog is quickly becoming one of my favorite places to visit.

Thank you for taking the time.

SDGoldenBear said...

Thanks Scott, appreciate your reading. Aside from the fact that this team has so much potential, the idea that everyone is wringing their hands after a loss is baffling. Tedford is a great coach, recruits talented kids who actually have character and care about academics, and has the fans thinking 9-10 wins every year. We have the luxury of having a team worth watching every weekend, and worth analyzing all week long. I for one am enjoying the ride.

Anonymous said...

The thing I am most fortunate about this loss was that it was not in Pac 10 play. I definitely agree with you in that I feel that our players will learn from this game and come out hungry next time to prove it was a fluke. I hope our guys go out there and focus on winning the Pac-10, because with the potential they've shown, I think anything is possible.

Bill said...

Haven't the Bears lost following a bye, over the past two years? Here's hoping they break the string against Colorado State.
I saw the ASU-Georgia game, and the Sun Devils definitely look beatable.


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