Thursday, September 24, 2009

Oregon Preview

Chip Kelly: The Tedford that Duck fans have been longing for...or a canard?

Before the season started, way back in the Spring, I circled this game as a loss. Oregon looks a bit worse offensively than I expected, so I'm a bit more optimistic. But make no mistake, I am still very uneasy about this game.

But frankly, I am always uneasy about the Oregon game. There is something about this matchup since Tedford got here that just makes it uncommonly tense every year. With the exception of 2006, it's always a defensive struggle, it always comes down to the last few minutes, and every play just seems magnified.

The things that point in Cal's favor this week are (1) Cal won last year despite multiple turnovers; (2) Oregon's offense is worse this year; (3) Cal's offense is better this year; (4) Oregon might have lost a bit more on defense from last year than Cal, and (5) TJ Ward is out, and a RS freshman is playing in his place.

The things that should worry Cal fans are (1) It's only a matter of time before Oregon's offense starts clicking - it happens every year; (2) It's only a matter of time before teams figure out how to take some things away from Cal offensively - it happens every year; (3) There is a good chance Best is not able to shake loose this week, and Cal has yet to prove it can win in that scenario - it lost almost every game last year in which that happened (the exception, you guessed it, Oregon - go figure); and (4) No offensive player except Tepper has taken a meaningful snap in that stadium. And now I am hearing Thompson may be a scratch due to the flu.

I am not saying this is going to be a disaster for Cal. But I just can't see Cal having its way with Oregon. I'll be pleasantly surprised if they do, and not surprised if this one's an ugly nail biter.


I hate to rehash the basics of the Chip Kelly spread, because it's beaten to death, but in a nutshell, Kelly says they have four main run plays: inside zone, outside zone, counter and draw. And then there's the passing game. We all know it's more complicated than that, but the one thing that definitely rings true is that the inside zone play is their bread and butter, and it pretty much sets up the rest of their offense.

That play is basically a form of the option where the QB puts the ball in the RB's belly and then either hands off or keeps. In either case, the ball carrier then reads the defense and the blocks and heads to the bubble. It can be more complicated than that, but that's basically it. The objective is (1) to fool the defense with the play fake as to who has the ball, (2) to fool the defense as the direction the ball is going, because the QB and RB ultimately run opposite directions after the fake/handoff, and (3) to eventually suck the defense in so they are susceptible to outside zone and other plays. It's very effective when executed properly, and if you go to sleep even once, you can get burned badly.

In terms of pass, bottom line, this group is just not very good. Masoli is short, he doesn't read defenses very well, and he's basically only reliable throwing on a roll-out or throwing quick outs and lateral-type screens. He is dangerous on roll-outs because his run threat can get DBs to bite, and because he has a nice arm. But I don't see him standing in the pocket and throwing darts on skinny posts for 15 and 20 yard gains.

I'd guess Oregon will still try to throw the ball, try to use some play action, and try to spread the ball laterally to keep the defense honest. But I don't think it will be anything Cal hasn't seen, and I doubt we'll see the passing precision we've seen the past three weeks.

In general, there are three keys to stopping this offense:

1. Disruptive defensive linemen blowing up the offensive line. The fake/handoff exchange (and the accompanying read) takes a moment. If Alualu comes barreling through the line or pushes an OL backwards or into a gap, it screws up the timing and typically dooms the play. Cal had some success with this last year. USC did too.

2. Outside linebackers must stay home and play disciplined.
The outside linebackers have easily the toughest job on the field against this offense. They have to stay home and not get sucked down inside, but they also can't be flat footed. On most read runs, the runner is reading the OLB (or DE in 4-3). If he pinches, the runner bounces outside. If he plays contain, the runner will dive inside if there's room. The key is to do neither (unless the defensive play says otherwise, say on a stunt), so that neither gap on either side gets any bigger, i.e. so there are no bubbles.

But staying home can make you flat-footed, and that's the challenge. You still have to shed quickly and close in with speed. This is the area that concerns me most about Mohamed, Young and Bishop. None are particularly good shedders. The hope is if they can hold their ground, the playside ILB, corner and safety can get there.

Someone commented on my post-game thoughts on Minnesota that this may be the game where Follett, Felder and Williams' absence is felt for the first time. I think that could be right.

This is the key matchup in the game, on either side of the ball, period.

3. Get them in 3rd and long. Masoli is just not a very good passer or reader of defenses. I am sure he'll make plays, but if he's under pressure, he's going to make mistakes. If Cal can win the down and distance war, the defense will be in control.

I predict Oregon is going to get their yards on the ground, and probably break a few big ones off. I also think they'll catch Cal sleeping with a few new wrinkles. As bad as they've played, I just can't see Cal shutting down this run game. So if you're expecting Cal to stay under its 62 yard-rushing defense average, you might want to hide your eyes.

Where Cal can, and I think should, control the Duck offense is against the pass. If they can take away the pass, it will put the game in the Cal offense's hands (barring turnovers and special teams gaffes, both of which I sense coming on like a bad case of dysentery - I just have that queasy feeling).


I think this is where we are going to see how far Riley has come. It's no secret that the way to beat the Oregon defense is through the air, because lord knows Nick Aliotti isn't going to let you run the ball. Many coordinators talk about stopping the run, but few actually walk the walk. Aliotti would sell his family into slavery, commit crimes, defile himself, whatever, you name it, in order to stop the run.

Aliotti - stop the runs at all costs.

But Tedford, to his credit, has always been stubborn about continuing to try and run against Oregon, and by game's end, they've managed to accumulate some yards. But in the early going, Oregon just shuts it down. They put 8 in the box, the safeties are totally dialed in to run first, and they pretty much sell out and force Cal to throw. Historically, Cal has been able to win through the air. Longshore burned them deep in 2006 and 2007, and both Riley and Longshore had success throwing the ball last year.

Enter Riley tomorrow. This is the game where he will be called upon to make key passes, especially on third down. Winning the Oregon game has often been about big third down throws when the 1st and 2d down rushes are getting stuffed. Those plays are what separate the good QBs from the great ones. Longshore, for all his faults and haters, always seemed to find a way to make big third down throws against Oregon (not always against others, but definitely against Oregon).

I also wouldn't be surprised to see Cal try and spread the ball around early the way they did against Minnesota, especially to get the ball to Best in space. This again will require Riley to keep the offense humming. I really think we're going to learn more about Riley tomorrow than anyone else on this team.

On offense, I predict Cal will do what it always does against Oregon: struggle to run the ball, save for a few big plays, and attack their secondary all over the field until it yields points. Then they'll go back to the run. Could be wrong, but this feels like that kind of game.


1. Special Teams - All We Can Do Is Pray. Remember the scene in Major League, when Cerrano is giving JoBu the rum and lighting up a smoke for him, to try and conjure the power to hit a curve ball? Well Alamar better be sticking needles into a doll likeness of Oregon's special teams coach, and every Cal fan better start doing a rain dance or lighting some herbs and saying some chants, because that's what it's come to folks. The special teams (with the exception of Anger) is officially in the hands of the cosmos.

All I can say is, if you think you are going to win a game in the most hostile stadium in the conference by giving Oregon the ball at the 50 and muffing punts, you're in for a monumental letdown. This could do Cal in, or if they can at least get the punt coverage down, it could be a field position weapon. Either way, a big key to the game.

Pray to JoBu Cal fans, because he's all you got right now.

2. Turnovers. Cal has won these games largely because they've won the turnover battle. And even then, they've barely gotten out alive. Can't say enough how important it is they not lose that battle tomorrow.

3. Riley needs to learn to slide. The next two opponents are hard hitting, head hunting defenses, and they will try to take Riley out, I guarantee it. Riley has already led with his head twice this year, and I frankly don't get it. With as much time as Gould spends with his RBs telling them how to fall, you'd think the same instruction would be drilled into the QB's head, especially after his concussion last season.

4. A little payback for Ludwig. Oregon fans are not bashful about their disdain for Ludwig. They think the offense stagnated under him, and they think he squandered good teams with his playcalling and QB management. I happen to disagree. First off, pornstache Belotti wanted to go to the spread, but Ludwig was a pro-style guy from Fresno State (similar to Tedford). Belotti insisted (despite not having the personnel to do it). When it didn't work, everyone blamed Ludwig. I still don't understand why Belotti hired him if that's what he wanted.

Second, the guy had very little talent to work with on offense, and a terrible defense backing them up. Then he recruited a kid named Dennis Dixon and touted him as the next great Oregon QB. Of course, he was run out of town before he could coach him, and that was that. Third, and maybe the biggest reason Oregon fans never cut him a break: he followed Jeff Tedford, the guy Oregon fans have never gotten over losing to moribund Cal. Predictably, they wanted him to be like Tedford and produce like Tedford. He wasn't (for the reasons above, and because there's only one Tedford no matter how many Chip Kellys and Gary Crowtons you bring in, as Oregon fans are painfully learning).

I happen to think Ludwig's timing was just off. The jury's still out on how good he is, but from what I've seen so far, his Utah season looks a lot more like what he's capable of than his 2002-2005 seasons at Oregon.

For his sake, I'd enjoy watching him carve up the Oregon defense, while Belotti grits his teeth on the sideline, dying to rip the headset off Kelly's head and start calling plays. Here's hoping Ludwig gets a little payback. For a douchey article on Ludwig by your typical provincial Oregon journalist, here you go: link.

All in all, throw the numbers out the window, because this one could go any way. I think we're going to see closer to the Oregon team everyone thought we were going to see this weekend. They're going to play better than they've played the last three weeks, and are going to give Cal some trouble. But Cal is the better team. As long as they limit mistakes, they'll win. If they make mistakes, start drinking.


SamoBear said...

Once again--great pregame analysis. One thing that wont be a factor tomorrow like it was in Berkeley last year will be the H20. Sunny and 81 for gametime forecast.

I think D'Amato's kick-offs tomorrow could actually be helped by some wind--but kick-offs are not are only problem as you state, its our hairbrain coverage.

On Defense, I think Eddie Jordan's angle of attacks will be exposed for big runs on his side--unless he gets bailed out by Holt, Hendricks, or Ezeff.

If there was Mass service in my town tonight, I would be going...

Go Bears

SamoBear said...

Check that--Eddie Young..not Jordan
Go Bears!

SD said...

I agree Young is going to have to learn to disengage better. He tends to try to bully his guy and as a result the play goes right by him. The hope is that he has matured a bit in that regard. Williams had this problem at times in 2007, but it got better in 2008.

Anonymous said...

Unbelievable, you called this game like nobody else on the internet. I'm really impressed with your pregame analysis this year. I made a lot of money betting using your writeup...

SamoBear said...

This is one of those games that is probably not worth the time/money to analyze since we will likely not have to deal with this type of offense again and you already pointed out our exposed weaknesses in the pregame analysis.

I would be much more interested in your take on the psychological/mental impact this non-competitive game has on the rest of the season, since we have only played one Pac-10 game.

Canard said...

Just so that you have your facts straight for the future:

2001--Ducks finish #2 in the nation with Jeff Tedford as OC. Tedford hired away to lead Cal. Ludwig hired away from Fresneck to become Oregon OC.

2002, 2003, 2004--Ludwig is the OC for two of the worst pro set offenses Oregon has ever fielded. 2003 was okay because we finished third, but lost the Sun Bowl. Kellen Clemens, eventually drafted in the second round of the NFL draft, didn't like Ludwig's lack of communication skills as the QB coach.

Offseason 2004, Ludwig is encouraged to "seek other opportunities and gets hired on at Utah. Oregon hires Gary Crowton to become the OC. He is the architect of the first Oregon Spread/Op unit in the 2005 season.

2005, 2006, Crowton is the OC and after the '06 season he is hired away by LSU. He recommends that we check out Chip Kelly, toiling away in obscurity at UNH.

2007 Kelly resurrects Dixon from the trash head and makes an impressive run into November, when Dixon's knee blows.

2008 Kelly takes fifth stringer Masoli and finishes second in the Pac-10. In the offseason he is named Head Coach in waiting.

2009 speaks for itself. In over his head early, Kelly seems to have found his stride.

Bottom line is that yesterday you saw what we saw in Ludwig. Ineffective use of running backs. Ineffective use of screens. Lack of misdirection. Lack of use of the tight end. Predictable play calling.

Oregon fans were glad to see him go.

Utes fans were glad to see him go.


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