Friday, September 18, 2009

Minnesota Preview

Eric Decker: 60% of Minnesota's offense.

The first two games have been prologue, nothing more. Yes, this team appears to be upgraded in several respects, but really, from a 30,000 foot view, the results aren't much different than last season, or frankly, the season prior to that. Revenge win in the home opener, followed by a blowout over a weaker team. I have said since Spring ball started that I will reserve judgment about what kind of team this is until after the Minnesota game (and really, I will continue to do so until after UCLA).

Why? Because this is the first real chance for Tedford to exorcise one of his demons. By my count, he's got three: (1) beating USC, (2) winning the conference outright, and (3) winning non-conference BCS road games with a target on his back. The consensus is this is the best chance he's had to do all three since he's been here. He knows it. His staff knows it. His players know it. And they all know that everyone else knows it.

That's a lot of pressure. Throw in the annoying incessant questioning about the start time, flying out Thursday, the weather, the recent road struggles, and you can bet Tedford and the team want this one really badly. You learn a lot about a team and its coaches in games like that.

Before getting to Minnesota, some further thoughts on Eastern Washington.

1. Biting on fakes. I re-watched that first EWU scoring drive, and after doing so, one disturbing commonality among most of the back-breaking plays was biting on fakes. Whether it was Syd biting on the pump, Kendricks biting on Nichols' juke, or Eddie Young and Brett Johnson biting on the play fake for the TD, the defense just got played.

That says one thing loud and clear: no respect. Syd got beat because he got caught peeking. He got caught peeking because he thought he could jump the route and pick the ball off. You think he does that against Chris Turner in the MD game? No way. They went into that game dead serious, respecting their opponent and playing pissed off.

And on the TD pass, Young and Johnson crashed so hard toward the LOS you'd have thought it was the FG unit on the field. They gave no respect to the pass.

The good news is, it wasn't a question of talent or even scheme. It was just state of mind. But they better play with more respect against Minnesota. Because whereas you might be able to flip the switch vs. a FCS team at home, it's not quite that easy on the road against D-1 athletes.

2. Riley's QB keeper play. It might have seemed like just one play. But I promise you that single play probably changed the complexion of this offense from a scouting standpoint more than just about any play since Best's breakout run as a freshman vs. Tenn in 2007. This team has had a statue at QB for most of the last three years, and in 05 Ayoob could run but his arm wasn't a threat. With Longshore, that play fake would have immediately meant pass from a scouting standpoint. Now, it gives the safeties one more thing to think about before dropping.

Great wrinkle by Ludwig. My guess is Riley continues to go for big yardage on keepers for a few more weeks, and then hopefully can start beating people deep when they start gambling with the run.

3. Tight end blocking. At times it looks good, but at times it looks pretty bad. I remember one play they motioned a TE over to block right next to another one, and ran behind the two of them, and the defense still blew it up. Not a good sign. Part of it is youth, but you always worry with TEs that they think of themselves as receivers more than blockers, and thus don't approach blocking with the tenacity you'd like. Something to watch for in the coming games.

Onto this week's opponent.

Minnesota Offense

Scheme-wise, nothing about this offense really wows you, or is all that gimmicky. Though they swear up and down they've shed all remnants of the Dunbar spread, the one thing that seems to have stuck is the shotgun and quick passing. Otherwise, it's pretty straightforward. They seem to want to run first, sprinkle in some short passing and suck you in with play action. However, in both of their first two games, they've gone to the pass early because the run game hasn't been there.

When they run the ball, they don't try to fool you. In the two games I watched,I didn't see much pulling, trapping, or exotic blocking schemes, and not much misdirection. It's pretty much just about getting a good surge and then picking a hole and getting downfield. They have an obese offensive line, led by orca-fat LT Jeff Wills, weighing in at a svelte 6'7" 365. 100 cheeseburgers to you Jeff! And may you live forever.

All that girth hasn't helped much, as Minnesota is currently 91st nationally in rushing offense, averaging 110 yards per game. Against Syracuse and Air Force.

Minnesota's fat offensive line: Eating too much because they only rush for 110 yards a game, and rushing for 110 yards per game because they eat to much.

When Minnesota goes to the air, it's about as predictable as when Cal used to bring Clemons in for the QB sneak. The whole stadium knew where the play was going. In Minnesota, the ball is going to Eric Decker. The difference of course is that Decker actually makes plays regardless, and is an All American, whereas Clemons got stuffed every time and wasn't a starter, let alone an All American.

Decker has just about all the tools: speed, quickness, toughness, strength, precise routes, and great hands. He has the quicks to get open, the speed to burn you deep, the strong hands of a possession receiver, and the tenacity of a go to guy. He reminds me of a combination of Steve Smith from USC and a healthy Chase Lyman. Cal is not going to shut this guy down with one guy, or with tight zone defense.

But Cal can minimize his effect in a number of ways. First off, hit the living daylights out him every time he touches the ball. With the amount he gets targeted, he is going to take his share of shots. If he keeps getting punished, he will be tired by game's end.

Second, mix up coverages and pressure packages to confuse the QB Weber. He is always looking for Decker, and he telegraphs pretty blatantly and doesn't really look receivers off. If holds it too long because he's confused, he's going to get picked or sacked.

Third, focus on stopping the run first. Though Decker put up nice numbers in both games, Minnesota nearly lost those games because they couldn't run the ball. They squeaked by against lesser teams on some last minute plays. Decker made some plays, but he also wasn't a factor for large parts of the game because it was obvious they were in passing mode. If they get into third and long, or get behind, it will be easier to blanket Decker with an extra guy in coverage.

Here's some clips of Decker for your viewing pleasure:

Minnesota Defense

Like the offense, nothing too exciting here, though they are a bit more sound in what they do. They have contained both opponents pretty well. They run a 4-3, play very disciplined, keep everything in front of them, and flow nicely to the ball. However, their weakness is I don't see a ton of speed.

Everyone is talking about their linebackers and for good reason. They are big, athletic and aggressive. They attack and try to disrupt the play and are pretty good at diagnosing. Watching them, they remind me of Tennessee's 2006 linebackers and MD's 2008 linebackers, in terms of recognizing run plays, crashing hard and blowing them up before they ever get started.

The other teams that have LBs that play like this: OSU and USC. This has actually been a problem for Cal's run game at times under Tedford. The key to neutralizing this is misdirection, good play fakes, and cutbacks, plus a respectable passing game. Eventually, if these types of plays work, they'll slow down a step and that is when you can run right at them. Whereas Cal has struggled for various reasons in the past with this, Ludwig's mix of play calls shows some propensity to avoid this problem. I expect these LBs will make some plays, but eventually Cal will get the run game rolling.

But the real question mark is how Minnesota's secondary will defend the pass. Their secondary really hasn't been tested this season, but they got totally schooled on a play action bomb for a TD vs. Air Force of all teams. And they also got burnt for a long TD pass vs. Syracuse. They have one pretty talented corner in Simmons, but overall, watching them this season, I feel comfortable saying that if they go man or ever cover 1, Cal can torch them deep.

Again, the key will be to establish the run and suck them in. If Cal does that, it'll be up to Riley to make them pay.

Here are some highlights of Minnesota's last two games, showing the big TD passes they gave up:

Syracuse game link

Air Force game

Bottom line: this game is all about attitude. Cal doesn't need to worry about getting out-schemed or tricked. Minnesota is not a tricky team. Cal just needs to hit the field ready to out-hit, out-run, and out-hustle Minnesota. If they do that, they will control both run games, which will allow them to control the game. If they come out flat or give Minnesota momentum plays early, it could spell trouble. Let's see if they can exorcise the road demon this week.


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