I am sure many Golden Bear fans once again have that familiar feeling, that feeling of watching football with a rational, grounded mind. It is that certain equanimity, missing from most college football fanbases, that Cal fans can proudly call their own. I am not talking about accepting mediocrity, or being content with losing games. I am talking about watching games with an awareness of how good your team actually is, whether you're a USC fan or a Washington State fan.
Until this last game, the media hype, unabashed optimism, and a small sample size of games conspired to make that challenging, even for the for the most cold-blooded, battle-worn, curmudgeonly Old Blues. That is precisely why I said I'd wait to pass judgment on how good this team was until after the UCLA game.
Unlike week 2 or 4, by this time, I figured Cal will have been jabbed in a variety of its pressure points: (1) facing teams that have enough film on this year's personnel and schemes to be ready for its game plans, (2) facing a range of offenses and defense, both in terms of scheme and ability level, (3) facing conference opponents with a target on its back due its rank, and (4) meeting the challenge of quashing some of its long-standing nemeses: non-conference BCS road win when favored, beating USC, and beating UCLA on the road. In years past, these pressure points have been acid tests for Tedford's teams (which they have failed), and they typically don't all surface until about this point in the season.
So what have we learned? Based on what I have seen, I'd say this team is about 1-2 wins better offensively than last year's team, and about 1 win worse defensively. In terms of record, comparatively that says 9-3. Mind you, that's not a prediction since the opponents and scheduling are different. But given the personnel similarities, last year's team is a good benchmark for comparison. And comparing the two teams, this group appears to be a bit better.
The offense has improved slightly in terms of its actual execution, but considerably in terms of flexibility and variability. In terms of execution, i.e. how well the players are actually playing, I'd say the QB and WRs are playing noticeably better, the OL and RBs are about the same, and TE and FB are slightly below last year's level of play.
In terms of scheme, the offense seems to have spread its wings a bit under Ludwig. We are seeing a greater variety of plays, some greater use of deception, and more diversity of attack points. Even in the losses, Cal showed a number of things offensively that have been missing the past couple years. You get the feeling this offense is on the verge of really getting going.
Riley. We are starting to see the real Kevin Riley, the mean of his ups and downs. Thus far, the good: he throws a great long ball, doesn't turn it over, and can make plays happen with his feet. Those are three things Cal hasn't had in a QB since 2004.
The struggles: lack of consistent, repetitive accuracy on the short and medium routes, and lack of mastery of the playbook and reads to the point that he's a step ahead of opposing defenses. At this point, it also does not appear he is going to hurt defenses with the second and third option on pass plays - it's primary receiver, scramble, or bust right now for the most part.
The good news is the things he's good at are god-given, and the things he needs to work on usually improve with experience. So there is room for optimism. You can already see that Riley is starting to get the feel of when he can beat defenses, with the scrambling and the deep ball. Once he gets comfortable spreading the ball around on intermediate routes, the offense is going to be tougher to stop.
Passing game starting to draw boundaries. As the season has worn on, more and more of Riley's passes have been one of three varieties: (1) very short, (2) to sidelines, or (3) deep. With a few exceptions, the 10-20 yard balls over the middle have been missing.
On the one hand, this is a sound scheme (if it is by design), because those are the least likely to be picked off. On the other hand, it is limiting the receivers somewhat in their ability to do much damage, or even at times to get open. These three kinds of passes are the easiest to defend, especially if defenses start to see that the middle is not a threat. If guys are getting thrown to over the middle constantly, it opens up the sidelines a lot more and it pulls the LBs back a bit into coverage, which can make the draws and run game even more effective.
Plus, as scary as some of Riley's overthrows have been over the middle, that part of the field is wide open. It will be interesting to see if Riley and the coaches start trying to attack it more, especially if teams start taking away the deep ball and the sideline stuff.
Lack of reliable run game. What has not improved offensively is that this team still has no "rice and beans" offense - the plays that sustain the offense between all the big plays. Right now the Cal offense is living off Red Bull and vitamins instead of real food. 500 yards of offense doesn't matter if you can't get 3 yards when you really need it. Great offenses can get those yards on the ground. This team is still relying on the big play the way the Cal basketball team relied on the three pointer last season. When the big play isn't there, it is struggling to manufacture yards. Exhibit A: the entire second half versus UCLA.
Offensive line struggles. The key to this lack of staple offensive rushing production is not mysterious. The offensive line (including FBs and TEs) is struggling to block LBs and dominant DLs. They do fine (not great, but fine) straight up against down linemen. And they do fine when they have a good angle on LBs from the snap. But they are not getting good blocks on crashing or flowing LBs and disruptive down linemen. This was a problem last year as well.
I keep hearing about how you can't run into 8 man fronts, and you have to bounce outside or throw to punish defenses for that. I don't agree. You have to prove you can get yardage against those sets from time to time, even if it's only 3-4 yards. You see it in the NFL. Good teams run against 8 man fronts. Heck, in 2005, plenty of teams stacked the box against the pass-inept Ayoob offense, and the team still averaged 235 ypg rushing (#2 conference). They got those yards with a dominant offensive line
(Side note: I shudder to think how great that 2005 team could have been had Rodgers stayed - Lynch, Jackson, the OL, Hughes, Bishop, Mebane, #1 scoring defense, #2 rush defense. That was an undefeated team waiting to happen. Makes you wonder how things would be now.)
This OL is still young, but right now, it is getting beat in the run game. If it doesn't start being able to chop wood against defenses, it is going to be a ball and chain around the offense's ankle.
Ludwig is an upgrade. To Ludwig's credit, instead of just running the same run plays over and over, he has added some different wrinkles to get the ground game going, notably the wildcat, more fly sweep action, well-timed draws, and the use of the option. The option and the draw were responsible for most of Cal's rushing yardage Saturday outside of Best's TD (which was all Best). Eventually these will stop working if they are overused. But by mixing them in with the bread and butter Tedford run plays,even if that bread and butter isn't working all that well, Ludwig is giving the offense more of a chance to keep defenses honest.
I really think Cal has a good one in Ludwig, and I hope he gets the chance to stay another year and really kick this offense into high gear.
Unlike the offense, the defense is playing worse than last year, pretty much across the board with the exception of defensive line. They are getting beaten through the air long, medium and short. Though they are stopping the methodical ground game, they are still giving up multiple big runs a game. And though their sack total is high, their pass defense stats show that their pressure is not taking opposing offenses out of their comfort zone. To the contrary, they are allowing opponents 63% completions and 129 passer rating. That says the pressure isn't working.
Talent level. I say it constantly: defense is much more about talent than offense. On offense, your scheme can account for a lot. Look at Texas Tech. Most Tech players never see the NFL, but they put up ridiculous numbers. Same with Air Force. But the best defenses year in and year out are the Alabamas, USCs, Oklahomas, etc. Though they have great coaches who get the most out of their players, they also have future NFL starters (not just players) on their defenses.
This team does not have that elite level of talent. They have probably one surefire NFL starter/backup in Alualu, and a handful of guys who have a chance of making a roster but that's it. After watching this unit for 6 games, I'd say Alualu and Thompson look like first team all-conference players, and maybe a few others make honorable mention. No shame in that, but it's important to keep this talent level in mind when evaluating the defense.
Bad reads and being out of position. In particular, at LB and DB, this defense has taken a step backward. With the exception of Thompson, both groups are struggling to make reads and are getting caught out of position. The best examples are the big runs teams have had - Maryland, USC, Oregon, UCLA. Guys go to the wrong spot (Mohamed), chase the wrong player (Ezeff), take poor angles or leave their feet too early (Thompson), or just plain bury their head in someone's chest as the runner goes by them (Johnson, Young).
For some of these players, it is just a question of lack of experience. But for some, it is lack of instinct. The former will improve with time, and in particular I think we'll see improvement at LB over the course of the season. The latter probably will not.
Constant shuffling of LB spots. While I have a number of issues with Gregory, which I will get to, one that relates to this issue of being out of position is all the shuffling around at LB. I get that you want to figure out where they fit. But seriously, you don't know where Devin Bishop, Mike Mohamed, and Eddie Young should play at this point, in their third, fourth, and fifth years in the program, respectively? This constant moving around is almost certainly making these guys think too much and play tentatively. You can see it with Mohamed in particular. Give them their spots (which can still be multiple, such as one spot on 1st and 2d down and another on 3rd down - as long as it's fixed), and let them get comfortable with it.
Lapses in technique. But beyond being out of position, even when they are in position, their technique is failing under duress and they are still getting beat. Case in point would be Hagan's coverage on the acrobatic sideline catch by the UCLA receiver. He was right there, but he turned around a split second early and lost a few inches (admittedly a tough play, but if he watches the receiver's eyes like he did vs. Damian Williams in the endzone last year, he probably breaks up that pass). Same thing has happened to Ezeff, Mohamed, and Bishop trying to cover TEs - stride for stride but poor ball technique. This is on the coaches. This is what you work on in practice.
Passive game plans. Notwithstanding some of the talent limitations, this defense should still be performing better than it has. And that is where I take issue with the game planning this year.
I understand that if people are going 5 wide and throwing within 2 seconds, you want to avoid jailbreak blitzes every play. But Cal is consistently rushing 3, and occasionally 4, and dropping 7 or 8, yet they are still giving up chunks of passing yardage. At some point, if your coverage defense isn't getting it done, you have to acknowledge that the conservative play is just death by 1,000 cuts.
Where is the zone blitzing from last season? Where are the twists and delayed blitzes? Where is the corner blitz? Eddie Young ran a delayed blitz Saturday and got a sack. Why not do that a few times with Kendricks or Mohamed, who are even faster than Young? Owusu gets zero pressure rushing straight up, but virtually every time he's gotten a sack or pressure this season, it's been off a slant or a stunt. So run those stunts.
This defense has good athletes. Not all of them are necessarily equally good football players, either because of experience or just plain ability, but the right calls can mitigate some of that. Blitzing is one of those calls. And guys like Owusu are a perfect example of that.
Passive game plan = passive attitude. As much as defense is about talent, it is also so dependent on attitude. Lawrence Taylor's crazed dog mentality sums it up. The Cal defense needs to be told on Sunday before the week of practice begins that they are going to impose their will on the opposing offense, that they are going to be the unit that the team rides to a win, not the offense. They need to practice with that mindset and they need to play with that mindset. And the best way to ensure that happens is to put in a game plan that reflects that mindset. Rushing 3 or 4 and dropping 7 or 8 every play doesn't do that. Playing read and react and keeping everything in front of you on every play doesn't do that.
Promising young defensive line. This unit looks like it's going to continue to be strong the next couple years. Guyton, Tipoti and Payne all look like future rocks on the front line. Owusu still looks like he's working through some technique issues, but he definitely has the ability as a pass rusher if the right calls are made. This group looks like the strength of the the defense right now.
Hagan's return. It's hard to say your #2 corner can make that big a difference, but you could see how some of Hagan's ability to jump short routes changes the game on defense. When he and Thompson are in there and playing at 100%, it either means a more likely pass breakup or it forces teams away from the sideline and into the middle of the field on the short and intermediate stuff. That's when INTs and sacks are more likely to happen. That is what we saw last year.
If Hagan is really healthy, and Thompson can stay healthy, I do think we'll see less vulnerability to the short sideline routes that have been killing this defense.
Coverage. An abomination plain and simple. There's not much to say except that it is sloppy and in disarray. Here and there, the gunners will make great plays. But other times they just look like they're lacking in urgency, like they are waiting to see what the runner is going to do instead of trying to close in and take his head off.
I have been saying for years Tedford needs to take these units over personally, hold tryouts for special teams and make it a privilege to be on the special teams coverage units. And then he needs to talk not just about stopping people, but about changing the game on special teams - creating turnovers, knocking people silly, and stealing momentum. That is what special teams is all about.
Alamar: Leave Anger alone. This one actually irks me more. Brian Anger was the #1 HS punter in the country coming into Cal. He already knew how to blast sky bombs before he ever put on a Cal uniform. And before he was ever coached by Pete Alamar, he was fine. He didn't even struggle early on last year, so clearly the adjustment to D1 was not a problem. Plus, as far as I know, no one on Cal's staff can punt, including Alamar.
So my question is this: why is it that every time I see Anger coming off the field, Alamar is right there jawing in his ear? You have to wonder if there's a correlation between Anger all of a sudden shanking punts this year and Alamar's constant commentary.
Kickers and punters are different than other players. They're like golfers. They get a handful of chances to do something that requires perfect coordination in one sweeping movement, with guys running at them.
Their psyches need to be handled differently. You don't chat at them during a game. You call the play in the huddle - punt left, punt right, etc., and you let them execute. And if they don't execute, you wait until practice to talk about it. And even then, you can talk to them about direction, but not too much. As long as it's high, you should have the athletes to cover. Don't waste the kid's talent trying to turn him into a surgeon with the football.
Kickoffs. I think there may be some of the same problems here. If Tavecchio can truly kick into the endzone repeatedly in practice, then it's clearly mental with him. So, let him be. Let go of the crazy blooper kicks and cute angle kicks. Tell the kid to let it rip and see what happens. It can't be much worse than the average starting position we're giving everyone anyway. With the height he's getting, it's almost a certainty he can kick a line drive out of the endzone. So let him try.
I think this team has the potential to win the rest of its games. Though it lives and dies by the big play, the repeated big plays in almost every game, going back to last season, shows it is not a fluke. You can almost expect one every game. Even against SC, they were there but for maddening execution errors.
But this offense cannot carry this team to wins if the special teams and passive defense continue to give teams life and let them hang around. The attitude has to change on these units. They have to play with their hair on fire, not like they're trying to avoid making a mistake. If they can summon this attitude, this team can run the table, because it will be the most talented and well-coached team top to bottom in every game the rest of the way. If they cannot, they will get exposed by Arizona's and Oregon State's offenses at a minimum, and possibly others.