Saturday, November 8, 2008

Gritty defensive performance squandered

A ballsy peformance by Gregory's defense. They attacked all game long despite playing an offense with a lot of speed and a lot of weapons - that showed a lot of guts and a lot of trust in the scheme and the players. They played almost airtight zone all night. Even Turner's TD "catch" was pretty much a prayer catch because the coverage was so tight - that's why he dropped it (whether the refs saw it or not). And Cal pretty much shut down the run until the last half of the 4th quarter. It seemed like just when you felt like Cal needed a stop so they could get the ball back, the defense came up with a play. Gregory outcoached Sarkisian, plain and simple.

But you don't play the whole game on defense. Unfortunately for Cal, your offense has to take the field when you get the ball back. As good as USC's defense is, and it definitely lived up to the hype, 3 points is abysmal. There are plenty of legitimate excuses, starting with a patchwork o-line. But 3 points? From a Tedford offense? I know someone who will burning his eyeballs out and rubbing his forehead raw watching film tomorrow, trying to figure out what went wrong. I think he'll find plenty to work on.

But first, let's acknowledge some good things:


1. 21 Gun Salute to Verran Tucker.

Ever since Geoff McArthur graduated, I have been waiting on a Cal receiver to step up as that tough, athletic, go-to guy that McArthur was. Jackson, Hawkins and Jordan weren't those guys. Tucker seems like he could be - had that kind of game last night. He played physical, he made great catches, he fought for the ball, and he gutted out some serious pain (I cannot believe he came back on the field after that knee twist). The team needs a fiery receiver to take charge in this offense.

And that one-handed grab was hands down the best catch I've seen by a Cal receiver under Tedford, and as good of a catch as I've seen at the college level. This kid is really coming on and I think he's going to be a good one when it's all said and done.

Verran "Good Hands" Tucker

2. Boateng the human shock absorber

That double-lick Boateng took was frighteningly similar to the one that took Jackson's head off in 2006. The difference: Boateng held on. I frankly don't know how he did, and I don't want to know how many IQ points he lost on that one. But that was a hell of a catch. And though I normally think WRs in general talk too much trash relative to the value of most of their catches, I have to say I enjoyed watching him jaw at the SC defense as he put his helmet on. If you're wondering why Tedford shyed away from recruiting smaller quicker receivers in favor of bigger guys, there's your answer.

3. Nice fakes in the screen game.

I have been critical of Cal's screen game all season, as too slow-developing and too easy to read. Tonight I saw some good fakes and taking advantage of tendencies. On at least one play, they faked the screen to one sideline and then turned and threw the other way. USC beat some blockers and blew it up, but it was a good call. And the almost-TD to Vereen was vintage Tedford. They faked that little slip screen they've run for years, got the safety to bite, and sent the slot receiver deep after a little feigned blocking posture (Vereen, who is not often used as a receiver). That's a play they spent all game setting up, and they used it at the perfect time.

These were two looks we haven't seen all year (or much at all in past years that I can recall), so it is encouraging that the coaches are adding wrinkles every week. Frankly, I'd have liked to see more variety because there are a lot of options with these plays and personnel. No doubt the run game getting stuffed really limited what they could do. When your best offensive play of the night is a fake screen pass, you know you've gone deep in the playbook.

4. Decent games by Boskovich and Edwards.

Though Boskovich has been starting for a few weeks, he's still a rookie starter and this was his first big game to start. And I thought he played very solidly. He seems like a very physical run blocker when he has a down lineman lined up over him. And he keeps his feet moving. He's still a bit slow pulling or blocking downfield, but that's kind of a unit-wide problem with this group. He really handled his man much of the night.

Edwards also played well at RT. Though his guy got by him in pass rush, he kept him outside most of the time so the pocket did not collapse. And he was able to do a decent job of angle blocking on runs off tackle. For only his second start, I was encouraged by what I saw.

Cheadle played ok too, but is maybe a few games behind the other two (which correlates to his playing experience).

5. Riley missing high

Riley made some nice throws, but he missed on quite a few. While I am concerned about some of his accuracy issues, the nice thing about him is that he clearly makes sure that if he misses, it's going to be where it cannot be intercepted. Rodgers was the same way - recall in late 2004 when Cal was out of receivers, he threw a lot of balls high and though his completions went down, for the most part he did not turn it over. Interestingly, Riley's one low throw was tipped for an INT (reminiscent of Jordan's tipped ball in the 2004 Holiday Bowl that kind of killed Cal's momentum).

This is a major area where Riley is an upgrade over Lonshore. Longshore's 2 INTs that were called back were both low throws into tight coverage and terrible decisions. The second one probably wouldn't have been picked had there not been interference, but it also wouldn't have been completed.

6.  Good use of Morrah in the passing game

USC was giving Cal the middle of the field and had trouble covering Morrah.  Particularly in the 3rd quarter, Cignetti called a half dozen pass plays to Morrah and he was open on all of them.  The problem was Riley missed the throw, Morrah dropped the ball or cut wrong, or the defense managed to make a great play.  But those were good calls and if Riley and Morrah can get on the same page, those are going to be deadly pass plays.  

Which brings me to the topic of things that didn't go so well.


1. Inability to block linebackers

In fairness, this is arguably the best linebacking corps in the nation. And they were as fast to the ball as I've seen in the Pac 10 in a while. Maualuga made some plays last night that maybe 2 or 3 guys in college football could make. In particular, the way he was able to come all the way around the outside of the OT and back inside to nip Best's ankle as went through the LOS was ridiculous. Cal's blocking scheme did not (and could not) account for this, largely because he started out in the ILB position, but made plays like an OLB. That said, Cal never adjusted to this.

Similarly, on screens and sweeps, Cal lineman whiffed on a lot of blocks in space, or made contact but couldn't hold them. This has been a problem much of the season. Some of it is younger linemen getting used to the speed of the defense, but I saw Mack whiff on a couple too.  And Will T had some trouble with USC's quickness as well.  If Cal is going to beat USC, it is going to have to either get a power RB to break some of these initial hits by speedy LBs, or it's going to need people to make these blocks better.

2. Tight end blocking

Morrah and Smith are blocking poorly and have been most of the season.  Morrah (who's in most of the time) has trouble holding blocks for more than a second, and occasionally he is completely missing his guy. Cal's run game relies so heavily on sealing the edge and the TE is critical for this. This has to improve if Cal is going to run the ball effectively.

3. QB play

This is not about Riley vs. Longshore. This is about Cal needing more elite-level play from the QB. Riley may end up being pretty good, but the fact that he still struggles with some accuracy problems, is slow with his reads, and still takes sacks when he shouldn't, in his 3rd year in the system, is troubling. Heck, Longshore looked more in command of the offense when he was a RS Soph than Riley does now. But Longshore is no better than Riley. He is what he's always been - a decent, predictable game manager who struggles under pressure. As they are currently playing, these are not the kinds of QBs Cal can ride to victory over the USCs of the world.

I am by no means saying Cal will not beat USC next year or the year after if Riley is the starter. But since Aaron Rodgers, Cal's QB recruiting, player development, and performance has been kind of mediocre. I hope Riley changes that, but thus far, he's behind where he should be and that is not encouraging. And Longshore has never improved over his 2006 year (arguably he has regressed).

Some of that is on Tedford as a coach (you don't have mediocre QB play four years in a row and not take some of the blame as a coach). But I do think some of it is on Tedford as a recruiter. He has to pick not just talented guys, but guys who are going to succeed in his system. We'll see how Riley, Mansion, Sweeney and Bridgford pan out.

4. Cal needs to use Best and Vereen together more

There is too much speed and talent on this offense not to have these guys on the field together to really test defenses. With Best, Vereen, Morrah, Tucker and Boaten/Ross, you've got 5 guys who are as fast and athletic as any in the conference. With only Best or Vereen on the field, defenses can just spy them and play them straight up. But if one is in the slot, maybe on a LB, or lined up wide, all of a sudden, it makes the defense have to cover both of them. They scored out of this combination versus UCLA. There are opportunities here that I am surprised the coaches are not taking.

Other things of note:

1. Carroll trying to run it up. Not that the game was necessarily in hand, but USC was clearly trying to make the score look better for voters. Normally, I don't care about this kind of thing, but it just bears noting that this is the difference between Tedford and Carroll. Tedford would have run the ball and then taken a knee. USC passed and went for it on 4th down. Class versus crass.

2. Tedford not challenging the Turner TD catch. This is a bit debatable, since the TV announcers didn't even catch the drop until after the extra point. But after Tedford got burned by the Maryland refs when he trusted they'd review the safety call, you'd think he'd have learned his lesson and challenged this one.  At least call timeout to give your guys time to look at the TV replay.

3. Boateng failing to call timeout on the illegal formation. Good job to Boateng for recognizing the problem. Bad job for doing what he did in response. First off, he called attention to the formation problem by waving at Ross so emphatically. That definitely caught the ref's attention (though generally it's better to tell your teammate he's wrong than hope the ref doesn't catch it). 

But more importantly, once Boateng saw that Ross wasn't going to get into the right formation, he should have called timeout.  By stepping up to the LOS knowing he was covering Ross up (but also knowing we only had 6 men on the LOS), he was ensuring the play would get called back once Ross released (after giving the defense a free preview of our best play call of the night). Really frustrating moment for the coaches I am sure.  Both will get chewed out in film study for this, but Boateng will learn the tougher lesson about leadership and heady play under pressure.

In all, a gutty peformance by the defense that was squandered by sloppy, unfocused play by the offense. I like how Cal hung in there, and I am encouraged it was as close as it was with such a young team and a banged up o-line. But this one felt like Cal left a lot of points on the field.

Cal can't lose focus now.  The conference is still technically up for grabs, though I don't expect USC to lose the rest of the way.  But Cal only needs Arizona to lose for second place, which all things considered, would be a very good end to this season.  So winning out is huge and this team has nothing to hang its head about.  If they are really serious about believing they are ready to take the next step, they need to go into Corvallis and get their first legit road win of the year.  We'll see this week if this team is really different than last year's team by how they bounce back from this.


oldblue said...

I agree that Cal left a few points on the field. The first TD noncatch brought back thoughts of the non-TD in 2002. The receiver corps and QB's are not in sync. At this stage of the season, this is disappointing. We clearly had a solid game plan, the defense played their best game all year and the offense sputtered, notwithstanding that USC's defense is second to none.

The only solace is USC didn't get what they needed, which was a decisive, lop sided victory. As well as our defense played, the score would probably have been higher for SC if they could have kept their penalties under control. Cal's field goal would never have happened without the roughing the passer call that gave us a first down instead of a turnover. Our time of possession was greater than SC's, even though they racked up over 400 yards in offense and that was because of their penalties. That will also hurt them in BCS points. If you're so good, why do you need to repeatedly resort to tactics that are against the rules?

When was the last time SC was held to two touchdowns and a field goal? Certainly not this season, and I doubt their offense will be shut down by anyone as well as Cal did.

The way we played against SC is a basis for optimism against OSU, Stanford and UW. They just need to work on maintaining focus and get ready for the trip to Corvaliss. Cal's 3/4 defensive alignment should succeed against OSU the way USC's would have if they had abandoned their 4/3 alignment. OSU will be no picnic, but I'm looking to see us do things against the Beaves that were missing against SC.

Anonymous said...

Great post. Only nit is your statement that Carroll tried to run it up -- he didn't. He ran on first down to see what Tedford was going to do. You could even see him looking across the field to see and, when Tedford called timeout, he said "okay, run it again." He then ran it straight up the gut three more times knowing they would get nothing. And, on fourth down, it is kicking the field goal that would have been the classless move (see Urban Meyer against Miami earlier this year, which had half the state of Florida calling him out). Running it into the line at that point is exactly the thing to do. USC's players generally exhibit very little class and Carroll has to take some responsibility for that, but his approach at the end of the game was exactly what you would hope to see in that situation.

SD said...

Fair point anonymous, and I noticed that too. But why not take a knee after the timeout? I get it on first down because there might have been too much time left. But after that, it seemed like he could have just taken a knee, at least on 3rd and 4th down. Maybe I'm being picky, but it just seemed like Tedford would have taken a knee if the tables had been turned.

SD said...

Good point about the FG oldblue. I really liked the offensive game plan and playcalling. Had those passes by Riley in the third quarter been completions, Cal had a chance to win that game. Cal had USC beat more than a few times - Ross got behind the coverage on the overthrow, and Morrah was open almost every time the ball was thrown to him. And of course, the Vereen "TD" was a beauty. I am very encouraged by the game Cignetti called.

JT said...

nice thoughts, everyone. just one minor nitpick, oldblue: USC beat Arizona a few weeks ago, 17-10.

danzig said...









Sydquan Thompson 06-07

Wrecking Crew 01
Deleted due to copyright - will upload soon

Wrecking Crew 02
Deleted due to copyright - will upload soon

Lavelle Hawkins 01

Lavelle Hawkins 02

SD said...

thanks Danzig - will update.

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