Tuesday, October 14, 2008

Offensive tendencies vs ASU

I will not run play-action out of the I formation
because you think I tend to run out of the I, but
you know I think you think I will run, so you
will be expecting me to fake the run and pass, so
I will run out of the I formation, and you will be
fooled, ha ha ha ha ha ha ha.

Armchair QBs all over Cal fandom have been claiming this week, and even before, that they can too easily predict what play Cal is going to run out of certain formations. The two chief complaints are (1) that if we're in the I-formation, we always run, typically strong side (especially where the receiver motions down and then stops behind the o-line), and (2) if we're in the offset I, we always pass. Building on those complaints, folks are calling for more deception, more breaking of tendencies, and more play-action out of the I formation. Naturally, I re-watched the ASU game to see what was there. Here is what I found:

On the first drive vs ASU, coach went play-action out of the I formation, and Longshore was clearly looking deep. Credit to ASU because they covered it well in the secondary, and there was nothing there. Longshore threw it away. Fast forward to the second drive, again coach called play-action out of the I-formation, again Longshore looked deep and found nothing (again, good job ASU), so he checked down to Vereen along the sideline and it went for a first down. The very next play? Offset I, run play.

The rest of the game, Cal mostly ran out of the I (notably they often ran weak side, not strong) and didn't really go back to the play-action, and mostly passed out of the offset I (with two interesting other exceptions that I saw - a sweep and a draw - the former failed, the latter succeeded). At no time did I see ASU cheat up when Cal came out in the I, as if they were expecting run. Ditto for cheating to pass defense vs offset I.

Another thing I noticed is Cal actually tried some clever/aggressive things in the second half, but the ASU defense, to their credit, sniffed it out. They tried the end-around to Ross. They tried a screen to Morrah where he hid behind the o-line and ran left to right. They went deep to Calvin on a go-route. ASU killed all three of these plays (though I think there was PI on Calvin).

What do we take away from this? First, not only were the coaches breaking tendencies (we definitely tend to run out of the I and pass out of offset I), but they were looking for the knockout punch in doing it. Second, the coaches seemed pretty sure the play-action out of the I would work, because they tried it on successive drives in the first quarter and Longshore lookeed deep both times. Third, it didn't work on either play. Fourth, Cal's tendency to run out of the I did not seem to hinder its success running the ball in the first half (much of which I attribute to mixing in weakside runs); same goes for passing out of offset I. Fifth, ASU didn't play the I-formation like it was a sure run play in the first half. Obviously, in the second half, once ASU knew we were running, the linebackers stopped respecting the pass and crashed hard at the snap.

This is consistent with my point in the last post regarding Tedford's "rope a dope" style. He clearly wanted to show a lot of different looks early, hoping for two benefits: (1) catch ASU sleeping or gambling on Cal's tendencies from its film, and (2) establish different tendencies to slow the defense down and then run the straight ahead stuff right at them. (1) did not really work (though we scored anyway on those early drives). (2) worked very well in the first half. Cal had good success running out of the I, right at ASU, without any trickery or deception. Similarly, Cal passed well out of offset I, succeeding on a few screens and some TE passes. The TD pass to Morrah was out of offset I for example.

But there are two other considerations, that many people are likely overlooking. First, Tedford's play calls are not always pre-set. He likes to use a package of plays out of a particular formation and then let the QB choose the play at the LOS based on the formation. It is very possible that the reason Cal seems to run out of the I more often is because that is what the defense is giving them. That would certainly explain the considerable success Cal had running out of the I in the first half. This is particularly true when running weakside, because Cal ran strong side much more vs MD with little success because MD brought an extra guy over often times. ASU frequently shifted its LBs a shade over to strong side when Cal came out in the I formation, so that when Cal went weakside, they had good blocking angles.

Second, ASU is a very disciplined, cagey defense, more than people are giving them credit for. The decoys, deception and home run plays really weren't working against them. The way Cal scored on them was not big plays, but methodically attacking the small weaknesses in their defense, chunks at a time. Against gambling teams who try to predict what we will do, I think things like play-action out of the I formation will work.

Overall, what I saw is that this offense has some "tendencies," but they are neither accidental nor due to misplaced overconfidence in certain plays. The play calling in the ASU game suggests the coaches are aware of these perceived tendencies, and are trying to use them to our advantage. ASU played us well, and we had a few execution mishaps. Otherwise, some of those knockout punch plays could have gone for big gains, and Cignetti and Tedford might look more aggressive and clever than people are saying they are now.

Think about if you are Mike Stoops this week. Do you play the I formation as a strong run, weak run, or play-action? Based on the ASU game, you cannot predict before the snap, simply because of those few variations we showed. So you are put to a choice: (1) gamble that you know the tendency, sell out to stop it and hope you are right, or (2) play straight up and risk getting run over (when teams have not stacked or crashed, we have had success running on them). Putting defenses to this difficult choice is exactly what a good offense does.


daviszabb said...

I agree with your analysis of the first half, but you don't mention the second half. I think most people were satisfied with the first half, and much of the disappointment comes from the unimaginative second half that gave an albeit impotent ASU offense lots of opportunities to take the game back. Do you feel that this can just be written off to nursing a lead and not risking a NL interception (as you mentioned in a previous post)? And if so, can we expect the game plan vs. teams with a more potent offense (USC, Oregon, UCLA, and even UofA) to be a full game resembling the first half of ASU? Or will it be that if we enter the locker room at half time with a lead, we'll just sit back and run into a knowing defense, get no first downs, and hope our defense can withstand a dangerous 4th quarter offense (e.g. 28 points from UCLA in the 4th quarter against us in 2005)? Do we fear 4th quarter Nate so much that we'll just take our chances with our defense? It'd be nice to win every game in the 1st half, but can we do that against every team in the pac ten? Or is this just the game plan against against a more feeble offense?

SDGoldenBear said...

I agree we cannot win that way against more potent offenses, and if we try that, we will lose. We will see the coaches' true colors in terms of game management in those situations. But I have always maintained that Tedford will only nurse a lead IF he can. If he cannot, I do not think he will. But we haven't been in that situation too often under Tedford, so the jury's still out.

Frankly, vs UCLA (which might be our biggest blown lead) the problem was special teams, not conservative second half offense. Without Jones Drew killing us on kick and punt returns, and then Karl "Radio" Duh-Rell faking a punt when we only had 10 men on the field, we'd have won that game going away. But I would note that UCLA 2005 and UofA 2006 are the two biggest lead blows of the Tedford era, and both were on the road when we were ranked and they were not. Yikes.

As far as the second half of ASU, I think we did try to zing ASU in the second half, but they sniffed it out. A lot of good play calls just didn't work in the second half. We aren't that much better than ASU and they caught up to us a bit. Against a better team, I have to think Tedford will keep his foot on the gas more.

Vs Ariz, I expect we will see them gamble more to take away the run than ASU did. As I will put in my preview, Nate has been historically good at burning teams that sell out vs. run and go man coverage with a single safety. However, he's struggled against clever zones. Ariz does both, but they tend to try and hide their weakness. This year, that weakness is run defense, so I could see Nate looking deep early.

Your question about fearing 4Q Nate so much is very interesting. Where does Tedford draw the line? Will he risk a turnover with a small lead to avoid letting the other team back in? I am curious to see that this week, because this one has the makings of a 4Q where we will need to pass.

oldblue said...

I will be surprised if this game is decided before the fourth quarter. I think it is interesting that there is no line on this game, though I admit I don't know what "PK" signifies in the odds column. I would like to see us establish an early lead, which means first half success. I hope you are right about UofA gambling on our sets and getting burned early. If we can assuage them of that notion, we may well be in control the rest of the game. It will be interesting, though.

SDGoldenBear said...

PK means "pick 'em," meaning Vegas has no idea and thinks there is money to be made by not setting a spread, which really just means they think the betting public is more likely to lay a bet on a winner than they would for or against the spread. In other words, it really doesn't mean much.

I felt this was a loss before the season started. I am encouraged by the way our defense has played, so there is some hope there. But I think Cal is going to need big plays on defense and special teams to win this game. We shall see.

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