Friday, October 2, 2009

USC Preview

If everyone plays as hard as Alualu, Cal will win.

Cal doesn't have to worry about playing with eyes in the back of their head this week. There isn't a ton of deception in what USC does. It's your basic pro style offense and defense, that derives its effectiveness more from talent and execution than from confusion and mismatches (though there is a little of that too). But SC can do that because they have the best players in the conference. And in fairness to the coaches, they execute pretty well most of the time. They also play very hard, which isn't always the case for ultra-talented teams. Once again, Cal will have its work cut out for it.


To me, Cal should be approaching this like a throwback Big 10/SEC game. Don't expect your offense to win it for you by scoring 30 points, because it ain't going to happen. The Cal defense should assume the attitude that they are going to take the USC offense out of its game and its comfort zone, put them in difficult field position, pressure the QB, strip the ball at every opportunity, lay as many punishing hits as possible, and then get just enough from the offense to seal the deal. That's pretty much been the Cal-SC game most years anyway, but this year in particular, the defense should be licking its chops, not playing passive contain defense.

This USC offense is still very dangerous, and they have a rock of an offensive line, the conference's best receiver, best fullback, and the second most dangerous tailback after Best (McKnight would be all conference if he played at Cal). But they are more prone to error and to stalling than I think I've ever seen them under Carroll. There's an opening there and the Cal defense needs to jam a crowbar in there and rip it open.

Things Cal Can Exploit

Barkley Turnover Potential.
Barkley does a ton of things extremely well for a freshman. If I had to pick one recruit under Tedford that I wish Cal had signed, he would be it. I think he is that good, and he's going to be a star. So Cal better take their shot while they've got it, because from now on, QB will be a strength of this offense, not a weakness.

However, right now, Barkley does some freshman-type stuff that Cal can exploit. First off, he telegraphs pretty blatantly. I haven't really seen him look off receivers or even do a ton of quick checkdowns. If he scrambles, he's good at finding an outlet, but in terms of standing in the pocket and fooling DBs with his eyes, I don't think he's there yet. Against Cal's zone defense, especially in long yardage, there are opportunities to anticipate routes and throws.

Second, he will heave off his back foot under pressure at times. He's smart enough to heave it high, and he's strong enough to throw it deep and usually out of reach, but he still is a bit more careless with the ball than I would like if I were his coach. Yes, he's only thrown 1 pick, but most of his passes have been very high percentage and not into coverage. Again, Cal may have some opportunities to turn him over or at least anticipate and break up passes.

Third, he's got a sore shoulder. It might not affect his throwing a ton, but you can bet it won't feel too good getting sacked.

Finally, he faced one decent secondary in Ohio State, and they held him in check until the last drive (11/28 167, INT, sack). Then Tressel went conservative and Barkley led them on a drive, albeit of mostly screens and dump offs, but he led them up the field (let that be a lesson about conservatism Bob Gregory). The other defenses: San Jose State and Washington State.

The point is, he's only been tested once and through three and half quarters of that test, he looked pedestrian and his offense only managed 10 points, 7 of which came off an 47-yard INT return to OSU's 3 yard line. He hasn't seen a bunch of different looks against fast defenses, and he hasn't really been under much pressure.

Other turnover prone players.
I always scoff at the notion that a team is turnover prone. It's usually certain players. On this team, it starts with McKnight. He is the quintessential athlete playing RB. He forgets the RB part sometimes, especially the ball security part, when he starts making all those crazy cuts, and the result is he gets stripped.

Similarly, though they may have been fluky fumbles, SC runners fumbled two times vs. UW, and the team has lost 6 fumbles through four games (Cal lost 3 by contrast, all fluky). I attribute some of that to the fact that the constant rotation of backs (1) does not let the runners get into a rhythm, and (2) makes the guys want to try and do it all when they're in there, instead of just grinding out the yards. These things keep the kids from settling down and playing in control, and the result can be fumbles or other bad decisions.

It's the rule that if you want to beat SC, winning the turnover battle is critical. Cal has chances to do that this year more than any in recent memory.

Things Cal Needs to Watch Out For.

Screen Game. USC has murdered Cal with bubble screens. They get the ball to their athletes in space and get 7-12 yards a pop. Expect more of the same Saturday. They will use McKnight and Williams on short slips bubbles and fires and let the OL and the athletes do the rest. Here's a refresher from last year, notably the last play of the clip - TD on a quick screen to Johnson.

The key to stopping this is (1) don't spend all game giving a 7-yard cushion, and (2) if you do, have the OLBs ready for this play so they react quickly. Yes Williams is good and yes it's risky he'll put a move on a pressing corner. But if you give him 7 yards he's just going to gash you. And at some point, you need to trust your safeties and your pass rush too.

And in general with every kind of screen, LB tackling is key. Too often this season we've seen Cal in position on screens only to fail to make tackles to stop first downs. You can't have that against SC. Don't go for the big hit and whiff, just swarm and wrap up.

Varying Release Points for Receivers
This is probably the method of deception that USC employs most effectively. For years, USC has had great success with passes to tailbacks, fullbacks, TEs and slot receivers, but releasing them late, from unconventional spots, or into holes in the zone. The two most dangerous variations I've seen this year are (1) the pass to the fullback on playaction where he's acting like a lead blocker, and (2) the pass to the slot WR who releases into the flat after running laterally behind the offensive line like he's going to kick out the OLB. Cal fans will remember the latter because Steve Smith ran it on 3rd and short vs. Cal in 2006 and score a TD off it (the play Hughes complained was the difference between Carroll always going for it and Cal never doing that). More bad news: Dickson killed the Bears with this last week. Here's a little sample of what they did to Wazzu last weekend.

In man coverage, these are much less of a problem because there will be someone watching these guys. But in zone coverage, these players tend to get ignored initially. Especially on the fullback pass, both the tailback and the fullback head downfield to carry out the run fake, and the defense is usually keyed on the tailback. Every time I've seen USC make this pass, the fullback is wide open.

Similarly, on the WR release, the WR almost hides behind the OL for a couple seconds and then springs into the flat. By the time the zone defender gets a read on him, the ball's already on the way.

The best way to counter these plays is man coverage, but I don't think you're going to see a lot of that from Gregory, especially on slot receivers and fullbacks. In zone, the key is just to be aware of these plays as they read Barkley. As I said, he telegraphs, so they as long as the defense can avoid biting hard on the play fake, they should be able to get there in a hurry. On playaction, the tailback rarely gets the pass, so key on the fullback. And anytime Williams lines up in the slot, if you're going to zone, he should be priority #1. He is the best receiver in the conference bar none and Cal should defend him that way.

In sum, I really think Cal can win this game with defense. USC still has the most talented players on offense, but they've got just enough roughness to smooth out right now that a good defense can keep them in check. I hope the Cal defense goes into the game with this mindset.


Despite all the injuries and new faces on the USC defense, don't think for a minute Cal is going to have an easier time moving the ball. The USC defense is like the Texas Tech offense - it's going to do what it always does, even if USC loses the game. It's about Pete Carroll's airtight scheme and ridiculously talented players. Defense is so much more about superior talent than offense. That's why there's all kinds of great offenses out there on lesser teams like Air Force and Tusla, but the best defenses year in and year out are the teams that get the best recruits, teams like USC, Florida, Oklahoma, Alabama, LSU, Florida and Texas.

Things Cal Can Exploit

USC Is Playing Younger Players Due to Injury. USC is as banged up on defense as I have ever seen them, and is playing some younger guys and backups. Most of them are still blue chippers, but experience still counts for something. In particular, the front 7 is pretty green. They are mega-talented, but they just don't have as many snaps as some of the past teams. It doesn't mean they won't still be the best defense in the conference, because they will. But it does mean they are more prone to the occasional slip up a couple times a game. Tedford's always been about the setup, like with the fake screen TD that almost was last year. A young defense is more vulnerable to being set up.

The Short Pass. Carroll typically gives up the underneath stuff to try and keep everything in front. Rodgers killed them with the dink and dunk in 2003 and 2004. Especially when they move the pocket around, there are holes all over the place inside of 10 yards. I don't know why, but the coaches haven't really attacked this area of the field as much with Riley. Quick slants, dumps to the TE, quick outs -- these should all get Riley in rhythm and slow down USC's LBs a bit to loosen up the run.

Use Best as a Decoy. USC is going to be so keyed on Best it's not funny. This young defense has been hearing all about this guy in practice all week. They watched what MD did to him last year. They saw how Oregon shut him down, and how SC contained him last year. They believe they can do it again.

Suck them in. Best might be the best decoy in all of college football. His mere presence on the field is a glaring distraction. Can you imagine what a pump fake to him in the slot would do to whomever is covering him? Someone is going to be open, and a draw play up the middle is going to be open. All Cal has to do is fake to him on a play that they always go to him on, and there is going to be daylight. I frankly can't believe the coaches haven't done this more.

Things Cal Needs to Watch Out For.

Pass Rush. Tepper and Schwartz are going to get tested like never before. These two DEs, Perry and Griffen, are the two best pass rushing DEs I have seen since Carroll's been there. Perry is a bit banged up, but the guy has 6 sacks a freshman. Griffen has 3. These two are pure speed rushers and absolute terrors on the edge. Here are some clips of the defense against Wazzu last weekend.

Aside from the tackles moving their feet, Riley has got to step up in the pocket. He absolutely cannot sit back there patting the ball waiting for guys to get open. He's got to step up, and get out of there. If he does, there will be opportunities. And the middle three need to do their part to give Riley that cone to step up into. This pass protection is the key matchup in the game. If Cal can't give Riley time, it's going to be a long day.

Sealing the Edges on Inside Runs. I have never seen a defense make so many shoestring tackles using a LB or safety coming around the outside of the OL and tripping up the RB as he runs through the middle of the line. SC's players are so fast that they gamble they can get around the edge quickly enough to make the tackle before the RB hits the hole. Maualuga was a master at this, and he tripped up Best twice on plays that would have gone for at least 15-20 yards last year. Why do I know they would have gone for big gains? Because they were right at the hole Maualuga left in the defense when he took off around the edge. I've seen Mays do the same thing.

Cal's edge blockers and backside blockers, typically TEs and WRs, need to chip these guys hard just to keep them out of the play. Cal has struggled with this type of blocking all season, and I've commented on it before. If they don't take care of business here, USC's speed is going to contain Best all day long.

Opportunistic Secondary. Throw anything over 10-12 yards over the middle at your peril against this defense. Nate Longshore never learned. And Riley apparently didn't last year either, throwing a pick in the endzone. The plays are there occasionally, but your accuracy has to be perfect. And Riley isn't that guy. Neither was Longshore.

A common thread in Cal's losses to SC is they keep turning the ball over. SC has picked Cal off...get ready: 9 times from 2005 through 2008. That's just over 2 times per game. And they've gotten a pick in every game. No one else comes anywhere close to this kind of turnover production against Cal. This has been a huge advantage for USC in these games. If Cal expects to win, they simply cannot keep repeating this.


1. Kicking/Punting and Field Position. Make USC drive the length of the field. Cal needs to get Anger back on track, and needs to cover kicks and punts, so USC has to work for everything. I think we'll see Anger boom a couple now that he's back in the comfort of Memorial. This is critical in games like this.

Also, SC is down to a backup punter and a their kicker is a bit shaky. Cal needs to seize the advantage on special teams.

2. Playing Four Quarters. It sounds like a cliche, but Cal has just been owned in the fourth quarter against SC, more than against any other team. Cal needs to go into the fourth quarter with the mindset that THEY are going to put USC away, not just try to hang on (which is frankly how they've looked the past few years).

3. Wide receivers. With the exception of a couple big catches, Cal's WRs have been neutered by USC. I don't think this group is good enough to make any noise, but I'd like to see the coaches try to get the ball in their hands on some short slants and quick screens, just to get them involved. Ross is good with the ball in his hands. Jones showed he can catch a laser on the slant. Use them.

4. Show Some Guts. This is the biggest recruiting weekend I can remember under Tedford. The list of guys visiting Cal for this game is star-studded. This team is trying to get its mojo back and fighting for its life to stay in the conference race. Don't play like you're just trying to hang around. Go out and take it. Tedford and Gregory need to show some balls and some fire this weekend and unleash the hounds.


Anonymous said...

how are you not at espn or si?? i havent seen such detailed and solid analysis anywhere else... thanks again for your great work!


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