Cal defense: gave up 37 yards rushing Saturday.
This win was much less about seeing how good this team was, and more about how tough it was. Like I said, I'll reserve judgment on how good this team is until after UCLA (and it's still got some work to do in some areas to be sure). But in terms of toughness, I admit I am starting to be a believer. The way they hit, the way they finished blocks, the way they got after the QB and the way they made big plays in crunch time - all of it showed grit, something Tedford's teams have lacked more often than I'd like since 2004.
When you play on the road as the favorite, teams are going to give you their best game. They're going to make runs and you're going to look ugly at times. Minnesota pulled out all the stops. They got a performance for the ages by Decker, a game that will have Gopher fans uttering his name in hushed tones over beers and cheese curds for years to come. They got a poetic TD pass from Decker on a genius trick play to tie it up late. They were christening their new stadium. And they got every special teams break you could get, plus some egregious bailout calls. I know a lot of teams would have folded and had a good excuse for doing so - sometimes the home team just gets hot and gets all the breaks.
But even with all that, Cal still won. It's funny - Cal played the role that for so many years Cal fans could only envy - the powerhouse team that comes to town, gets Cal's best game to make it interesting, but pulls away late due to better talent, better coaching, and more toughness. Nice to see for once.
As for thoughts on the game, in no particular order:
1. Blitz pickup needs some sharpening. Got befuddled a couple times vs. Minnesota. Film study will fix this. But let it be known, for all MD's bluster about blitzing, Minnesota blitzed much better. I came away impressed by how disciplined their defense was, and how well they drew up and executed their blitz packages.
2. Backside defenders making tackles in the run game. On more than one Cal offensive run play vs. Minnesota, I saw a tackle by the backside defender when the play was going away from him. On at least two occasions, the blocker was a wide receiver (Boateng once, and Jones once). The defender just pinched down inside and even the though the play was going away, the defender managed to get in there and make the tackle. Granted, the lack of daylight on the playside slowed the RB down a tad, but this sort of thing has been a problem before.
Seems minor, but it's also such a minor fix, that it really shouldn't be an issue. These backside defenders are not supposed to make plays like that. Heck, use a cut block if you have to, but this needs to be fixed.
3. TE blocking. Still having some problems here at times.
4. Marvin Jones' blocking. The guy is fine one on one in the open field on a corner, but he's kind of weak when he's in tight or on a crack back. A bit reminiscent of the way Jackson used to block. I realize he's pretty thin, but I'd like to see a bit more hitting from him, as these are sometimes key blocks.
5. Kickoffs. Two things. First, it is time for Tedford himself to take the bull by the horns and run the special teams unit like he runs his offense - with detail-obsessed, no-nonsense, painfully repetitive precision. Practice until you can't get it wrong. I get that he's supposed to delegate as a head coach, but however he and Alamar are handling it, it ain't working. And if you look at the stats going back 7 years, Cal's kick coverage has been middle to low in conference every year.
And I am not talking about the kicks. The coverage is abysmal. Guys are out of position, they are lackadaisical, they are down the field upright and off balance like they don't know what they're going to do or don't expect to make a tackle. It's not for lack of talent, as this team is loaded with athletes. It's about discipline and focus. Time to step in coach.
Kickoff coverage is a kamikaze mission. It's a blitzkrieg. You come down the field like you're shot out of a cannon, low to the ground, ready to run through a wall and smother the ball carrier. You stay in your lanes, you play disciplined and you close in until there's nowhere to go.
Second, it is time to start thinking about mixing in other kicking strategies - squibs, line drives, etc. The distance is not going to fix itself over night. And the directional and pop-up kicks are backfiring more than they're working. I think Cal is just getting too cute with it given its limitations at kicker.
6. Riley's late throws and locking on. Riley had a heck of a game and this is a bit picky. But some his throws are still late, and eventually they are going to get picked. The one Tucker had to steal back was late. Also, most of the game, he's still pretty much looking down his primary guy. Not always, but enough of the the time that a safety is going to pick him off one of these days. The guy played a great game, but this is an area I'd like to see him improve on.
7. Stop worrying about the secondary. I can literally hear the hands wringing over the cyberwaves. People, listen to me. This is not your father's Cal secondary. This is not Harrison Smith throwing his arms up in desperation as the ball sails over his head safely into the receiver's arms. This is still the second or third best secondary in the conference behind USC and maybe UCLA, and probably the best on third down.
But, for a reality check, this is also not last year's USC secondary, giving up 134 pass yards per game. If you were hoping for that, you should stop watching now. What this is is a very good, well coached secondary, with a sound zone scheme, within a defense predicated on stopping the run and the deep ball. By my count, with the exception of two one-in-a-million plays (Decker's Kurt Schilling "bloody chin" TD catch and Decker's Schilling-esque fastball TD pass), they've stuck to the script pretty well. And I think the numbers at season's end will bear that out.
To execute the plays that everyone is up in arms about requires, for the most part, a pretty specific combination of things: a veteran QB that knows exactly where he wants to go with it, with veteran receivers with whom he has chemistry, who trusts his receivers and the playbook, and an offense that is comfortable throwing in rhythm on first and second down. As inferior as MD, EWU and Minn are perceived by fans, all three happened to have this combination. I am willing to go out on a limb and predict we are not going to see that combination much if at all the rest of the year, except maybe vs. Washington. Go down the list:
Barkley/Corp (no - run first, conservative),
Canfield/Moevao (no - run first),
With the exception of Ore St. and Washington's experienced QBs, this list is a bunch of QBs with very little experience, behind mostly suspect OLs, who I don't see throwing 40-50 times a game with laser timing routes to receivers on first and second down.
Plus, even good passing teams still have to run the ball to beat Cal, something no one has been able to do with consistency this year, and very few did last year. If Cal continues to shut down the run, which I think it will, the only QB who can maybe beat them anyway is Locker, and Washington will need turnovers and big plays to beat Cal.
Also, instead of ruminating over what seems like bad pass coverage, let's look at the actual numbers. The defense is currently giving up 207 passing yards per game. Let's compare to Cal's pass yardage defense over the last 5 years:
2004 - 238 (Pac 10 9th - 1st was Wash 185)
2005 - 240 (5th - 1st was Ore 223)
2006 - 240 (9th - 1st was Ore 170)
2007 - 214 (2d - 1st was USC 189)
2008 - 193 (5th - 1st was USC 134 (as an aside, take a minute and let that last number sink in))
207 is currently well ahead of every pass defense Tedford has had except 2007. Granted, we're only one quarter of the way through the season, but still those numbers are interesting. And consider one other point: that's 207 yards given up to pass-first teams who have been trailing Cal in every game, all game long. When you shut down the run, you are going to get thrown at a lot. And when you play quick pass offenses like the last three opponents, you're going to give up yards.
I am not saying this secondary is perfect. But when you're averaging 48 points, 488 yards, and zero turnovers on offense, and 62 yards rushing, 3 sacks, and 2 TOs per game on defense, and you have a home run-hitting offense, 207 yards passing per game on defense does not mean the sky is falling.
7. The dreaded third quarter on offense - some perspective.
Lots of hand wringing here as well, over the three 3 and outs and lack of offense in the 3Q. I recall the announcers putting up one of their silly graphics about all the Cal drives ending in punts or non-scores, and you can just feel that little graphic repeating itself in the fan complaints this week. People: ignore 95% of what the color announcers and talking heads say, especially in the college game. Most of them don't know squat, especially about the teams they are covering, and are content to quote the media guide fluff and recycle the same boring themes each week. (Exceptions are Papadakis, Pawlawski, and Norrie, who actually know what they are talking about. Fouts knows, but he gets too into the game and is too biased. The rest are empty suits, opinionated windbags, or guys who suck at commentating - Mark May, Craig James, Lee Corso, the list goes on.)
Let's break down the offense on those drives. To begin with, there were only three series in the quarter, due to getting the ball late in the quarter after the punt fumble. That was not the offense's fault.
1. First series: three rushes for nine yards, the last being Riley's QB draw coming up barely short. Not great, but by itself, not cause for alarm.
2. Next series: Incomplete, 8 yd reception by Vereen, and then Vereen slipped on what would have been a sure first down run, as the hole was there. Freak thing.
3. Last series: Incomplete, huge gain on a back breaking screen to Best nullified on B.S. holding call, followed by two incompletions. Again, I'd chalk this up to a freak bad call.
I just don't see anything there that screams offensive ineptitude. Take the slip and the bad call away, and all of a sudden it's not a bunch of 3 and outs. And give Minnesota some credit. Cal wasn't going to score on every drive. Be prepared for teams stopping the offense, or the offense making some mistakes.
Finally, keep in mind, Cal won the 1Q and the 4Q, and never gave up the lead. That counts for something, right?
8. Cal won't face another QB-WR combo like that all season. They took everything else away from Minnesota. 37 yards rushing, 113 yards passing to the rest of the team - that's 150 yards of offense minus Weber-to-Decker.
10. Tyson Alualu is playing like an All American, let alone all conference. He had two sacks, and the only reason he didn't have three was Weber hastily threw the ball away as Alualu was pulling him down. The guy faced double teams most of the day, against maybe the biggest OL Cal will see all year, and they couldn't handle him. Appreciate this guy while you can, because for the college game, he's pretty darn good.
11. Fantastic play calling. There were so many examples. But maybe my favorites were three calls late in the game in crunch time. Whereas people are upset about the third quarter offense, the fourth quarter offense was nails when it counted. First, the long pass to Ross to set up the go ahead TD. They had 8 in the box, and Ross was in tight - looking a lot like run or short pass. Game is on the line, it's first down, you're on the road, Minnesota's got the momentum. And Ludwig trusts his QB and backup WR and puts the ball in the air. Clever, gutsy call.
Then after the pick, Cal's got the ball back, it's 3d and 7 and everyone is pretty much expecting pass. Minn is showing blitz but they end up only sending one extra guy pretty much playing pass. Even the announcers are calling for play action (did I mention never to listen to the announcers?). And what does Ludwig run? The option. On third and long? Loved it. What was even better is that Riley had run a QB keeper twice on third and long already that day, so it really sucked them in once they saw him start running.
The third great call was the pass to Miller over the middle on first down, just after Riley got the 1st down on the sneak. Cal is just outside field goal range, they've gotten the momentum back, they've just gotten a first down on four straight run plays, and there's about 5 minutes left. We've all seen Tedford opt to run the ball, avoid a turnover and eat clock in these situations. Especially on first down. Gotta love Ludwig calling for the TE pass over the LB's head there. Minnesota never saw it coming. That play pretty much iced the game.
Riley was great in the clutch, but Ludwig's calls were behind those great plays to seal that game. Really, really impressed with this guy.
All in all, a gritty road win that this team and the coaches really needed.
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