Friday, October 30, 2009

Washington State Film Study

Of late, the annual Cougar scrimmage has been the tonic for what ails the Bears. It makes Jahvid feel like Jahvid again, Riley feel like he can throw darts all over the field, the d-line feel like they're unblockable, and the reserves not feel silly for actually taping up before the game.

But this year, it looks like a lot of the media and fans are putting an asterisk next to this one: "another victory over a bottom dweller - how is this different than MD, EWU, Minn, UCLA?" "the defense surrendered too many yards and looked soft doing it," "the kickoff coverage still bites," "we still don't know if this team is any good or just better than a few really bad teams," the list goes on.

Fair enough. Beating a team that is in full scale rebuilding mode shouldn't give a ton of comfort to a team that still feels like it has something to prove. But I do think it's a bit overreactive to dismiss the ways Cal dismantled them and focus only on some of the struggles. Cal didn't just beat them offensively and on special teams; they chopped them to pieces all over the field. By the end of the first half, they had 35 points, 3 passing TDs, 5 plays of over 20 yards, 160 return yards and a 1 ST TD.

And yes, the defense served up chunk after chunk of yardage through the air, which I will get to. And yes that is a glaring concern. But let's be fair here. Almost everyone plays down to teams like Wazzu. But with a 5-score lead in the second quarter? You can't expect the defense to not to lose a little focus. And something else that bears mentioning: in the second half, Wazzu failed to score a point and only crossed midfield twice, and that was with Cal playing a lot of reserves. I think the defense is allowed to take some confidence away from this game and not feel like it was a complete failure.

That said, one thing is starting to become apparent after watching the other conference teams the past few weeks. This Cal team is probably going to go as far as its offense can take it. If the defense can get stops, turnovers, sacks, and shut down the run, that will be a bonus. But more often than not, the offense is going to have to be the unit that puts pressure on opponents. Which is precisely why it was so critical for the offense to gain some confidence as well. With that, onto the game observations:


1. The continued diversification and evolution of the offense. Last year, the offense found its identity, kept things a bit simpler, and ran with it. This year, every game we see a new wrinkle and plays built off previous wrinkles. For example, early on we saw the QB draw. Then we saw the option with a pitch. Then we saw the option where Riley kept it. Then we saw the wildcat with a read option handoff. This week, we saw a read option where Riley kept it and ran untouched for 15 yards. Defenses now have a lot to think about.

This is something a lot of fans have been waiting for from Tedford's offense, because for the first few years, it felt like the potential was there for that. It's nice to see that Ludwig has that in mind.

2. More deception in the passing game. Last season, it seemed as though the passing game was fairly vanilla, and its success was less dependent on catching defenses out of position and more on just making a good play. This season, though Riley has had some pinpoint passes, we are also seeing a lot more plays where guys have separation or are wide open, indicating the defense has been exploited.

The best example from Saturday was the the 60-yd bomb to Ross. That pass was out of a similar formation and what appeared to be a similar line call or signal from Riley, as the earlier TD pass to Jones. Riley even looked the same direction as he had on the Jones pass just before he threw to Ross, but just threw deep instead of underneath. This was a nice use of multiple options out of the same set. If defenders are playing zone and watching Riley, it is going to look like the same play.

3. Good for Gregory for mixing it up on defense. From the 4-down linemen to the stunts and blitzes, I thought Gregory showed a lot of commitment to finding ways to get better and finding ways to play to his unit's talents. That is what a good coach is supposed to do. And I think the results show that this team can get pressure in other ways, by playing to its strengths.

4. Richard Fisher looked pretty good at LG. Granted it was late in the game, but he was moving people around pretty well, and definitely looked like the best of the OL reserves out there. After going from walk-on to finally getting a scholarship this year, it would be great to see him get in there with the 1s this week if Summers-Gavin is hurt.

5. Riley is starting to show signs of seeing how he can beat defenses. He is getting that look about him at times, like he knows where he wants to go with the ball, and expects the guy to be open or the run to go for yardage. Players in Walsh's system (and its offshoots) used to say that the QBs would often call the play in the huddle and say it should be a first down or a TD, just based off the call and the way to the defense was being set up. Riley's got a ways to go, but you can tell he's getting to the point where he's starting to see the bigger picture.


1. Run blocking.
The yardage was better, but much of the good running was just Cal's speed - Wazzu still had guys there waiting on a lot of plays. Better defenses would have stuffed those plays. Expect a lot more stuffing and less gravy against ASU this week based on what I saw.

The counter to this will likely be Cal's use of the diversity of run looks that Ludwig has been building into the offense: fly sweep, read option, draws, counters, mixed in with the staple power runs, inside zones, and toss sweeps.

2. Still can't properly defend the flanker screen. Cal is still relying on a slower OLB who is way out of position to get all the way to the sideline, usually chasing the guy from behind, while the corner gets blocked easily after giving a huge cushion to the split end. On Wazzu's second quarter drive, Cal had Browner at OLB in tight, the inside WR totally uncovered, and the corner Hill giving about a 7-10 yard cushion to the outside WR. The ball goes to the inside receiver, and Browner (a converted DL) tries to run down the WR while the corner Hill gets blocked 10 yards downfield. Easy 10 yard gain for Wazzu. What a circus.

First off, if you are going to put the onus on the OLB to stop this play (which is not unheard of), you need speedier OLBs or you need them out wider. Mohamed and Kendricks look like the only LBs fast enough to cover this play if it's to the wide side of the field. Second, whoever is at OLB has to recognize the GIANT bubble created by the combination of (1) no coverage over the inside WR and (2) a 10 yard cushion given to the outside WR. When he sees that, he has to be coached either to (1) start creeping over before the snap, (2) take a massively wide angle as soon as the ball's thrown, or (3) the safety needs to recognize the bubble and creep over.

The thing you cannot do, which Cal's defense continues to do, both against 2 and 3 WR sets, is leave BOTH a gaping hole over one of the WRs AND give the other WRs a huge cushion. You can't do those things and expect not to give up at least 6-7 yards per play.

3. Riley's yips on the freethrow passes. Riley continues to have problems with the gimme passes. The concern here is that in tight games, the great play calls that produce these wide open receivers are going to be pivotal moments in the game. Cal has to drive the stake in the opponent's heart when the opportunities present themselves, such as when Vereen was wide open on the sidelines vs. USC.

I think Riley is largely doing what he's been asked to do, and he's leading the team well. But to carry the team, which it's looking like the offense is going to have to do, he is going to have to stick the daggers when he gets an opening.

4. Kickoff coverage. The saga continues.

5. Defense starting slow against the pass. It seems like the defense enters games not prepared to play fast against the pass from the start. They seem to need to adjust to the speed and pace of the opponent's passing offense before they settle in. At this point, it is a foregone conclusion that they will see a steady diet of quick passes the rest of the way. The coaches need to have them ready to defend this stuff from the start. In other words, assume you are playing Texas Tech every game, because any offensive coordinator worth his salt is going to run those plays against this defense until they can prove they can stop it.

More thoughts later.


Hans Jacob said...

I am growing addicted to this blog! What are your thoughts on our struggling defense? Bad schemes by the coordinator, lack of talent or just a tendency to lose focus? What we saw in the second quarter against WSU was heart breaking.

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