Thursday, October 30, 2008

Previewing the Ducks

I can't speak for anyone else, but I am more jacked and nervous at the same time for the Oregon game every year than any other game on Cal's schedule.  Every year we play them, it's a tight, nail-biting game the whole way, it always comes down to the last play, and I'm always a little shaky after the game's over.  It's funny, but other than 2006, the game has always involved some weird bad luck type moments - the power outage in 2003 (not sure that was luck), the Oregon drop in 2004, the Ayoob overthrow in 2005, the debatable missed FG by Kay, Longshore's injury, and Colvin's fumbled touchback all in 2007.   

All that said, this one has the makings of another classic.  I really, really like the offense Chip Kelly has put in up in Eugene in just his second season as OC.  I think it is beatable, and I think Cal matches up well with it, but it's a fun offense to watch.  And while Cal's offense has been inconsistent, it seems to produce great highlights every week.  Both teams always seem to make memorable plays in this game, and Saturday shouldn't be any different.


Oregon: more physical this year?

A lot of people said this team would have a huge dropoff with Dixon graduating, but the Ducks debunked that notion right away.  The thing about Dixon was, he was at times more athlete than football player and I think it caused them to be more finesse than physical.  This team is not that way.  The current QB Masoli and the new RB Blount are football players first.  They lead their teammates, they hit hard, and they play with an edge that Dixon and Stewart never did.  What they lack in polish and consistency, they make up for with swagger and recklessness.

However, for all their explosiveness, the Ducks have not fared well against better opponents.  USC handled them summarily, Boise State came into Autzen and whipped their butts, and UCLA played them close up in Autzen for most of the game.  They walloped UW, Utah State, Wazzu, and ASU (just last week, after they've officially mailed it in).  Though they did not score a ton of points against SC and Boise, the truth is, their defense let them down in those games, and as usual, continues to be their weak link.  USC literally made their secondary look like a pop warner team.  People always tout Oregon's defensive stats, but the fact is their defense rarely dominates games when it needs to, and has been over-hyped the last couple years.

This is easily the most disturbing mascot in all of sports.
The empty, haunting eyes, the shit-eating grin, joy and
horror balled into one. Be honest - can you really look
into the eyes for more than a second without wanting
to look away? 

Onto the matchups.


The Oregon Offense

Kelly's version of the spread option offense is built around two concepts: spreading you out with the formation, and then running the ball toward empty spaces or "bubbles" in the defense. Sometimes the offense employs a zone read element, sometimes it uses a straight hand-off, and sometimes it uses a veer or Nebraska-style pitch option.  The zone read is a bit like what Air Force does, in that the QB motions for a handoff and runs in tandem with the RB while he reads the DE.  If the DE crashes inside, he hands it to RB going outside or he keeps it outside.  If the DE plays contain, he hands it off up the middle or he keeps it up the middle.  The run angles are typically lateral first followed by a cut upfield once the QB or RB finds daylight.

As you can imagine, executing these option elements well is effective in and of itself, but there are two other wrinkles.  First, Kelly uses a lot of wacky motion to change up formations and create holes in the defense or matchup problems.  Second, he uses a good deal of misdirection to get the defense moving laterally, which again creates those bubbles.  

The combination is a real headache to defend, because the first instinct is to stay home, but that tends to catch defenses a bit flat footed.  On the other hand, if you overpursue, you will get burned on the big play.  Defenses that have had the most success are those with fast linebackers and defensive linemen who can be disruptive my blowing up double teams and getting penetration into the backfield.  In other words, defenses like USC's.  Not very common.

Besides turnovers, the only other way to contain this offense is to force it to throw.  Masoli is still pretty green in the passing game, and his strength is as a runner.  If Oregon is forced to throw, their offense becomes much more ordinary and defensible (like any offense).  

Cal d-line versus Oregon 0-line
Cal's d-line is the key to this game in my opinion.  If they can disrupt what Oregon is trying to do in the run game, and keep them out of their rhythm, it will prevent the RBs and QB from getting any kind of speed out of the backfield.  This will allow the LBs to beat the offense with their speed.  If they cannot, the back 7 will not be enough to slow this offense down and it will be a long day.

Oregon has a very good offensive line.  Max Unger is considered neck and neck with Mack as the best center in the country.  The line is athletic and disciplined just like Cal's, and they are well-coached.  Other than SC, this is the best line Cal will face all year.  Though good blockers, they are not overpowering in the run game, so Cal has a chance to get penetration.  But what Cal's d-linemen, particularly Hill, have to avoid is getting turned.  With all the lateral running and misdirection, they have to stay square to the LOS and hand fight.  

Edge: Cal.  I am going out on a limb here a bit, but I look at our starting 3 and see more talent.  Jordan and Hill are young, so their technique is still raw, but they have the potential to be playmakers and I have seen both of them abuse people at times.  Alualu is having an all Pac 10 season and I expect that to continue on Saturday.  He has been about as perfect as you can be at the position and he has been dominant.  Watch him for a few series on Saturday instead of watching the ball and you will see what I mean.  I am glad this guy is a junior.  

QB Masoli vs. Cal linebackers and DBs
Masoli is a 5-11, 215-lb dynamo who looks a bit more like a TB than a QB.  And he runs and hits like one too.  Here's a taste of the what he can do with the ball in his hands - the first carry in the video (the second carry is by the RB Blount, who's a load too):

He's a JC transfer, new to the offense, and thrust into the starting job as the 3rd string QB after the first 2 QBs went down.  But most Oregon fans will tell you they're happy he's the starter.  He's not quite as well-rounded or polished a passer as you'd like, but he's made the team more physical and given them an attitude.  

Linebackers have to spy him and contain him.  But most importantly, above all else, they have to hit him so hard that he doesn't want to run the ball anymore.  At some point, he's going to have to pass.  And if he's tired of getting hit, he's going to make bad decisions with the football.  

Edge: Cal.  Since 2006, Cal has seemed very able to contain running QBs.  Especially in the 3-4, I think Cal is going to give Oregon's run game some trouble.  Oregon has not seen the 3-4 all season.  If they mix up looks, bring pressure, and play fast, the line is going to have some trouble, and Masoli is going to make some bad reads.  

And in the pass, I think he will make mistakes, especially against a zone.  He's just too new to the offense not to.  Especially playing on the road, it'll be interesting to see if Gregory can dial up what he did back in 2006, which completely mesmerized Dixon.  Zone blitz would be great to see Saturday.

Caveat: Cal has had trouble with the veer or pitch option.  For whatever reason, Gregory missed that day at defense school where you're taught to take the pitch man's (QB's) head off even if he pitches the ball.  This is an excellent way to get free shots on the QB and get in his head a bit.  They never did that versus AFA last year, and if it hadn't been for Riley's great game plus Syd blowing out Carney's knee, it would have cost Cal the game.  If Oregon runs the veer or pitch option a lot, Cal could be in trouble.  


The Oregon Defense

When you think Oregon defense, you think of two things.  First, sweaty, stressed out Nick Aliotti rubbing his forehead in the coaches' box trying to think of new ways to stop the run, but failing to do so.  Second, it's watching 19th year starter Patrick Chung roving the field in a Ducks uniform.  

Oregon runs a conventional defense that doesn't trick you and doesn't overpower you.  They have the best pass-rusher in the Pac 10 in DE Nick Reed, another great pass rusher at the other bookend in Tukuafu, a very good corner in Jairus Byrd (though who has never been able to stop Cal, and Patrick Chung at safety who is working on his 3rd PhD at Oregon.   

Last year, Oregon had Cal's offense scouted cold (just like they do every year) and Cal couldn't get much going early on.  Oregon gave Cal some trouble in (surprise) shutting down the run in the first half and getting some pressure on Longshore.  Tedford went to max protect and more blockers in run, and it did the trick.  I would expect the same progression this time around.  

Chung: In his 19th year at Oregon and his
47th uniform combination.

Cal o-line versus Oregon d-line and linebackers

Cal is majorly banged up on the 0-line.  Malele sat out all week with a bad ankle and a bad knee, but will play at RG.  Boskovich will be filling in for the fourth week in a row at LG.  And Cal is down to its 4th string right tackle, JC transfer Donovan Edwards.  I happen to like Edwards - he played the whole second half vs UCLA and I thought he did pretty well.  He's pretty light on his feet, and has long arms.  But he's only playing in his second game, and he's about to go against the best pass rush combo in the conference in Reed and Tukuafu.

Aside from the pass rush (where I think Cal is in trouble), Cal needs to put helmets on the linebackers.  They did a decent job of this last week, but it was UCLA.  Oregon's linebackers aren't great, but they have always had Cal's run game well scouted, so they are going to have a good feel for where the ball's going right out of the chute.  Cal's o-linemen are going to need to be fleet-footed to beat these guys to the point of attack.  

Edge: Oregon in the pass rush.  The only counter is Riley's mobility.  But I think he's going to be hurried much of the day.  
Edge: Push in run game.  Cal's run game looked better last week once they figured out how to beat UCLA's twists and stunts.  And in straight power run, they are pretty effective.  But they are still a bit of a slow-footed group which makes it hard to get in front of the linebackers especially in zone blocking and pulls outside.

Riley and WRs vs Ore secondary
This is where Cal can put this game away if they can get it together in the pass.  Oregon can be torched if you can execute.  USC abused their secondary, Boise State rolled them up, and Purdue had a lot of success as well.  Individually the players are pretty good, but they just leave holes in the zone (kinda the way Cal did last year).  Byrd is a very good corner and Chung is a great safety.  But they have had trouble with quick receivers and deep balls this year.

The question is whether the receivers can avoid drops and Riley can be accurate.  No way to know, but I am encouraged that Tedford named Riley starter early in the week.  The players can talk all they want about not caring who's in there, but if you are practicing all week with the guy you know is the starter, it helps you envision the game situation while you practice.  

I also think Tucker, Ross and Boateng have started to distance themselves a bit from the other receivers because of their speed and ability to get open.  As they become the clear cut starters, it will help with the timing and chemistry with Riley.

Finally, I always believe the rain favors the better passing team.  Anyone can run in the rain.  But if you can pass with precision in the short game, eventually you will catch a defender slipping or flat footed.  I think Cal's passing game is the better of the two. 

Edge: Cal.  Again, going out on a limb, but I saw some things from all three receivers last week against a pretty good secondary, that makes me think these guys are getting better every week.  All three are fast enough to beat any corner in the league. If Riley can deliver it and they can hold onto it, I think they can take it to the Ducks.  

Other things to watch for:

1.  Cal's tackling.
Oregon has extremely strong, shifty and fast runners.  Cal blew a few tackles last season that allowed Oregon to drive the field.  Blount in particular is hard to bring down.  Cal has to tackle well to keep this offense in check.  They usually do at home.

2.  Defending gadgetry on special teams.
Bellotti has always played games on special teams, whether it's opening with an onside kick, doing that crazy shifting thing on field goals or running fake punts (he's done that stuff this season).  Cal has to be ready on special teams - they almost weren't Saturday.  Had UCLA gotten that first down, there would have been no flea flicker and things might have been very different.  It boggled my mind that Alamar didn't have the gunner covered on that play.  

3.  Tavecchio.
Kicking has always been a big part of the Cal-Oregon game, and with the rainy weather, I'd expect that to be the case.  So far I have been impressed with him.  His kicks have that nice draw to them that good kickers have, and the ball jumps up real high.  I think this kid may end up keeping the job the way he's kicking.  But this will be his first true pressure game.  

This game is always a pick 'em and this year is really no different.  Both teams are breaking in new QBs and young players on offense.  Both teams know each other well on defense.  The thing that makes me lean toward Cal is that if he's on, Riley is the kind of QB that can make plays happen, and Oregon is the kind of defense that can get beat by that kind of QB.  Also, I have to wonder if Cal winning twice in a row has gotten into Oregon's head a bit.  If I have to pick, I'll say Cal, but barely.  


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