Tuesday, September 8, 2009

So Much for a 21-Point Spread

This is starting to follow a script for home openers. Shock the visitor and take the momentum on a turnover or special teams play, pressure the daylights out of the opposing QB, and run the ball down the other team's throat in the second half. And of course, have some defensive lapses, but make stops when you need to.

So, as excited as everyone is, should we take any more away from this game in terms of optimism than after Tennessee 2007 or Michigan State 2008? I think it's a fair question. Everyone was pretty high on Riley after last year's Michigan State game, and pretty high on the whole offense after beating Tennessee in 2007. But neither quite delivered the same goods thereafter (obviously for very different reasons and under very different circumstances, but still).

My answer however this year is yes, I think we can be a little more optimistic about this team than we were after the last two successful home openers. But it's a cautious yes, something every self-respecting, kool aid averse Cal fan can understand. The main differences I see in this year's team than 2007 or 2008 are: (1) depth, (2) a legitimate pressure defense (that includes a secondary to back it up), and (3) a talented offensive line. Neither of last two teams had the aggregate of all three of these things at the level this year's squad does.

Good teams succeed when their personnel and scheme match up well, and lose when they don't. Great teams always match up well, because they have enough variety of weapons to exploit the various weaknesses and openings each opponent presents. Depth, pressure defense, and good line play are just more weapons, but they happen to be extremely effective, as we saw Saturday night. Depth allows you to wear the other team out and avoid injury to your starters, which allows you to play at a high level all season. Pressure allows you to disrupt offenses that may otherwise have a way of beating you. And good line play opens up the run, gives the QB time to get into a rhythm, and wears out the opposing defense.

The reason I am cautious though, is that the distance Maryland traveled, their youth, and the fact that Cal jumped on them early, took them down a notch pretty quickly. That allowed Cal to start playing loose and ratcheting up the pressure everywhere. While that's what good teams do to other teams, I will remain skeptical until I see this team bring that kind of execution and mojo on the road at Minnesota.


Obviously, when you beat a decent BCS program 52-13, there's a lot to like. But I'll focus on a few I found particularly notable.

1. Gregory's disguising of blitzes, sets and coverages.

I have always felt the most effective pressure a blitzing defense can apply is mental pressure on the offense before the ball is ever snapped. This is never accomplished on just one play. It's accomplished over several plays that set up the big plays later. Gregory did a real nice job of this Saturday.

The sacks and big plays off of pressure were not simply the result of Cal having better athletes on defense (though that helped). Maryland's offensive line and RBs were confused more than once. For example, when Jordan recovered the fumble on the sack, it was on a simple twist. But it was a twist in the middle of three LBs showing blitz. When the ball was snapped, only 1 blitzed and the other two dropped. Certainly not a revolutionary play call, but when this comes at you all game, in different combinations, it can be daunting.

But the other piece to this scheme is the coverage. As I said in my preview, clever and varied zone blitzing can be a nice counter to timing and precision routes, because among other things, it leaves the QB unsure where his "bubble" in the zone is going to be. If he knows he's only got a second to make a read, and he knows the defense has been mixing it up every time, it's going to make him uneasy about predetermining where the bubble is going to be. That leads to hesitation, which leads to leads to sacks, INTs, or throw aways.

This is how defenses can start to actually dictate what the offense does a bit. Gregory's group still has work to do, but I saw really nice use of blitz packages Saturday.

2. Backups making plays on defense.

Since Tedford arrived, Cal fans are no strangers to unheralded backups making big plays on spot duty on offense, or as key reserves, whether it's Vinnie Strang or Burl Toler or Anthony Miller in the Emerald Bowl. It is the hallmark of Tedford's precision, system-oriented coaching. But the same really can't be said of defense under Tedford. The team really hasn't had the depth of talent to trust its backups for much more than occasional snaps.

But Saturday night, we saw plenty of defensive reserves come off the bench in non-garbage time and make key plays. Whether it was Bishop's getting pressure on a blitz or making a couple big hits, or Josh Hill's ridiculous open field tackle, or Kendrick Payne's pass deflection on a spin move, these were the kinds of plays Cal fans typically expected starters to make.

This is a big difference between the USCs of the world and everybody else. Their reserves make big plays. Nice to see Cal getting a little of that.

3. Offensive playcalling and use of motions and formations.

Not much to say here except I thought Ludwig and Tedford did a nice job of attacking the defense in a variety of ways, and a nice job of neutering some of Brown's blitzing by switching things up at the LOS. Blitzing is gambling, and good gamblers go with odds. It's hard to gauge your odds if the offense is shifting around before the snap. Cal showed nice multiplicity of formations and use of motion, while still running the same or similar plays.

Look for them to capitalize on this by starting to add plays and wrinkles against teams that don't blitz as much.

4. Smooth execution on offense.

This might have been the cleanest, most well-executed game I've seen offensively from one of Tedford's teams in a while. No guys sprinting onto the field just before the snap. No desperation QB timeouts just before the play clock ran out. Most plays were blocked perfectly, to a man, and the ones that weren't didn't involve linemen running out into space and blocking nobody or whiffing. Everyone looked like they knew where they wanted to go, and the team looked very business-like, no-nonsense on offense. In other words, Tedford was probably pretty happy.

5. Shane Vereen.

Vereen just killed Maryland Saturday. Not just how he played, but how the coaches used him. It seemed like every time they went to him, Maryland either wasn't ready, he had a mismatch, or he just owned them with a couple moves. He had a great sideline catch keeping his feet in bounds. He made some silly cuts to get into the endzone and to get first downs. He's more than just Best's backup. He's really a different weapon in his own right. I don't know how much credit he's going to get this year, but at based on last year and this game, he's going to have a heck of a season.

6. Rice and Beans Run Game

Last year after the Wazzu win, I made the comment that I wanted to see if the offense could sit down and just feed itself with a fork and knife, manufacturing yards bit by bit, rather than just mainlining TDs into the vein with big plays. As we saw, the team had a bit of trouble with this last season. While I'm not ready to conclude this team will get over that hump, I definitely saw signs Saturday. In particular, I saw what I like to call "rice and beans" rush offense.

Jahvid's 73 yard run is the sizzling appetizer. You get one, maybe two, per game. The 5 and 6 yard runs up the middle and off tackle on first down are the rice and beans. They may be boring, but without them, you leave hungry. Last year, this team couldn't get those nice big carries repeatedly against most teams. Saturday, thanks to dominant blocking by the OL, the first half rushes looked like this:


After that the game was pretty much in hand. Those are decent numbers in terms of situationally trying to establish a run game in the first half of a game. Sprinkle in a legitimate passing game, and that makes the offense very hard to stop.


1. Defending the run on the edge.

Cal made some of the same mistakes on Scott's TD this year as they did when he burned them last year. The play has been broken down ad nauseum already, but you just can't have lapses like that. It's not a tricky concept and Cal is going to see it all year. USC ran it at San Jose State all day long, so Cal better figure it out. The OLB and CB need to hold their ground at a minimum, and should really be shedding. The playside ILB needs to beat his man to the ball. The safeties cannot miss the tackle. You can bet they'll work on this one a few times.

2. Kickoff coverage.

The kicking sucks, but don't expect a quick fix. But the coverage is inexcusable with this kind of athleticism. And the kicks were high enough for the coverage to get there, including on the big return. Cal continues to be middle to low in the conference in kick coverage yardage. Come on guys.

Tight end pass coverage.

This has long been a problem for Gregory's defenses. Maryland burned us badly last year with this, and the TEs got into the act again this year. Part of it is Gregory giving up the dink and dunk underneath stuff, but our LBs are too fast to leave these TEs open like that.


Kendricks - Great instincts, elite speed, needs to work on tackling. 12 tackles in his first game is a heck of a debut. I expect big things.

Bishop - Decent instincts, love the reckless abandon. Great closing speed.

Holt - Same as Bishop, but younger, which is impressive. Better than I thought he'd be. Needs to improve instincts, but bright future.

Josh Hill - Ridiculous open field tackle when he lost his helmet. And I like that he didn't get chippy afterward like Hagan always does.

Owusu - Freakish get-off for a big guy. Needs lots of work in run defense. Package guy only right now, not a 3-down guy. Jordan, Alualu, Owusu could be the best pass rush line in conference though.

Payne - No dropoff versus Hill. Tedford said this summer he could be "a household name, like Mebane." Enough said.

Holley - Showed ball carrying skills that looked a tad better than Will's (though Will was under-utilized). Great catch and run ability. Blocking was fine - saw nothing to worry about here.

Curran - Surprisingly good blocker. Better than Miller on Saturday in my opinion.

Miller - Decent blocker, but looked more like a WR blocking than a TE. Releases nicely and has quick feet.

MSG - Very good for first start. Almost missed on a couple, but saved them. Great at finishing blocks and getting the last shove in, the way Mack used to.

Cheadle - Also really good for first start. Really strong at the point of attack and mowed some people. Both he and MSG need a little work on pass pro, but never really got used. We are going to be fine at guard.

Jones - no need to explain.

Official recap and stats here.


Chris said...

Kendricks is leading the nation in tackles after week 1

SD said...

Great minds think alike. I thought I was the only person who checked that when I saw he had 12 tackles! I love it man. The way he plays, he could seriously keep up a pretty crazy pace.

Eric said...

Love the analysis - couple of things I saw.

Payne - actually played better than Hill and holds the point well and can occupy blockers better than Hill. Hill is a 2 gapper who's looking to make penetration but at times leaves the ILB exposed.

Hagan - made some technique errors on run plays when he had force responsibility. He didn't flatten out which allowed the runners to get around the edge. Otherwise I think the run defense was ok. The one long run was due to a fault by Mohamed

Underneath coverage. Still a problem, LB's drops get too deep which allows underneath routes to be completed and we give up too many RAC yds.

Holley - great hands.

Veren - Also a weapon outside of the backfield.

Price - great speed and plays with great leverage. Pad level is so low OT's are going to have a hard time stopping him.

Calvin - game still seems a little big for him.

SD said...

Yup Eric, especially re Hagan. Not sure too many folks picked up on that. Hopefully it was just a bad game.

And you gotta like your backup Soph NT looking better than your Jr starter. And Tipoti just drove the center straight back a couple times when he got in there. Great depth.

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