Friday, November 6, 2009

ASU and OSU Thoughts

All growns up.

Last Saturday's game was Exhibit A for why QB play is the pivotal difference maker in college football. Cal couldn't run it. They couldn't protect Riley. They were getting nowhere with their screen game in the second half. Nothing was really working on offense. But on the last drive, Riley bought time with his feet, and threw clutch pass after clutch pass. There was nothing special about those play calls. It was just Riley finding guys and being accurate.

On the flip side, while the Oregon and USC losses were certainly not all on Riley's shoulders, there is no question that Cal left at least 20 points on the field in each game due in large part to him not playing up to his potential.

Cal hasn't had a first or second team all Pac 10 quarterback since 2004, and only one honorable mention (Longshore 2006), and yet fans keep expecting each year is going to be Cal's year to win the conference. The best non-USC teams since USC's reign began: Cal 04, Ore 07, Ore 09. What do all three have in common? A QB having an elite season. Rodgers, Dixon and Masoli were all talked about for the Heisman. They all ran their offenses to near perfection. And they were all (when healthy) consensus all conference QBs.

The point is, when Riley is on and playing up to his potential, this offense can run with anyone and can carry the team. When he struggles, the team struggles. That is the reassuring part about last Saturday's game. For the first time in a long time, Cal needed to lean on its QB for the win and he delivered.


Rather than talk about the plays in game, I am going to talk about some of the players that stood out to me on Saturday.

Mike Mohamed looked instinctive again. Mohamed looked like the natural football player he showed signs of being last season. The last time I saw a Cal inside LB sniff out inside runs, shed and fill gaps, and flow to the ball like that was Bishop in '06. Mohamed isn't quite in Bishop's class in several respects, but like Bishop, he looked like a natural inside linebacker Saturday, rather than an outside linebacker trying to play inside. I hope Gregory leaves him where he is and lets him get comfortable at the position. Then we just need 2 or 3 others like him.

I like Fisher at LG. I like what I saw from him, especially in run blocking. He's quick twitched and has a nice intensity about him. At times this season, I have felt like the OL has been getting off the ball a bit slow, sort of lumbering. Fisher seemed to pop out of this stance a bit more, which is what you want from your interior three. ASU had some really good DTs, including all-conference caliber DT Guy, and Fisher handled himself decently well. OSU has Paea, another load. With Fisher likely to play again, it will be interesting to see how he does.

Payne and Tipoti are wrecking balls. Payne has been battling injuries, but even for the few plays he was in there, you can see his potential. More than anything else, he shows some legitimate quickness. On two tackles I saw, he kind of came out of nowhere to tackle the ball carrier at full speed.

And Tipoti isn't quite as fast as Payne, but he's a bulldozer. The guy consistently pushes the center straight back. Hill's talent and experience are definitely going to be missed this week, but these two guys rotating all game long should provide plenty of problems for OSU front line.

Josh Hill can play the run. He makes me nervous in pass coverage, but the kid can flat out tackle. You can teach that technique all you want, but the timing and the nose for how a guy is going to break, is somewhat innate. And Hill seems to have it.

Corners who can shed blocks and make big stops on the perimeter are not only rare, they are difference makers. How many times has Syd been the only guy between a TFL and a 15 yard gain? Hill's tackle on that 3rd down to force the last ASU punt was textbook. Now if he could just tighten up those cover skills.

Cattouse is the first ballhawking safety I can remember under Tedford. Tedford's safeties have always been big hitters, and sometimes good at reading the pass. But none have really been guys who could make plays on the ball, or arrive just when the ball was getting there and blast a guy: Giordano, Gutierrez, McClesky, DeCoud, Hicks, Johnson, the list goes on - all fast and physical, but not ball hawks. And that has long been a complaint of mine.

But watching him make that ridiculous swat at the ball without touching the WR, and knocking a receiver out of a catch on another play, it seems like Cal has found that guy in Cattouse. Between all his picks and breakups last season, his filthy hit on Decker this season, and the plays he made in his first start Saturday, I think the future is bright for him. And he's only a sophomore.

I am starting to feel sorry for Best. The coaches are trying everything to get this kid the ball, but the blocking is just terrible. It is pathetic how the press keeps talking about his low rushing numbers against USC and Oregon. If Best was running behind Cal's 2005 OL, he probably goes for 2300-2400 yards. Can he drag 3 tacklers with him and grind out 100 yards on 30 carries? No. Does that make him a bad runningback. Of course not.

Best is still a phenomenal talent. And in a balanced offense with decent blocking, he would be devastating.


Cal better be practicing how to defend the TE pass. OSU loves to go to their TE Halahuni, and he's done some damage this year. Cal has proven they are vulnerable to the TE pass - Dickson, Ayles, Paulson all had big days against Cal. Cal just needs to be ready for these plays and not get caught flat footed. Halahuni is not as tall as Ayles or Paulson, so the jump balls they got burned on in those games won't be as big of an issue.

Cal had better be practicing how to defend the bubble screen. OSU will run this all day. That is their offense: spread you out with bubble screens and fly sweeps, and then pound the rock with Rodgers inside. If Cal doesn't jump all over this play, Riley will just keep running it.

Cal seems to have gotten better at lining up to cover this better, i.e. not leaving the inside receiver uncovered, and then getting after it quickly once the throw is away. That will have to continue, because unlike the past teams who have run it, OSU has the ability to turn that play into a back breaker.

Canfield will shred this defense if he is not pressured. Canfield is tall, has a quick release, and knows the offense. If he gets time, he will pick the defense apart. Gregory is going to need to sell out here and there to get pressure, as well as try to mix up looks a bit. I've said it before - they don't need to send the house, but they do need to use stunts to try and frustrate blocking schemes and confuse Canfield as to where the pressure is coming from. Canfield is error prone if he's pressured. But if he gets time, as we all remember from Memorial in 2007, he can be pretty good.

Cal's receivers have to fight off bump and press. OSU likes to play press and try to disrupt Cal's WR's timing with the QB. This has worked at times in the past. Cal's WRs have find ways to fight off the press and get free. If they do, OSU can be had, especially if Riley's deep pass in on, as we saw in 04 and 06, when Rodgers and Longshore torched their aggressive corners for deep ball after deep ball. Incidentally, in both those games, OSU's corners were pretty green, just like they are this year.

Final thought about the USC-Oregon game. As I watched that game, I couldn't help but notice something: whenever Oregon would make a big play, the USC defensive players were visibly frustrated, cursing, slashing their arms in disgust, hands on their hips. I saw this as early as the second quarter, while the game was close. And the mood on the USC sidelines was noticeably somber. No hootin' and hollerin'. No singing "Lean on Me" and yucking it up. And Coach Carroll's eyes were pretty big and glassy, and his demeanor was pretty pale much of the game, especially toward the end, when it became clear they couldn't stop Oregon. He certainly wasn't running around to his players talking about "winning forever," or trying to pump them up, or talking about how "jacked" he was.

Why do I mention this? Because after Cal's losses to Ore and USC, a lot of folks questioned whether Tedford should be more "upbeat" and "loose" like Coach Carroll. Maybe if he were, the argument went, the players would have found a way to break out of the funk in those games. Instead, the implication was that the sidelines were a tomb because Tedford was too stoic.

Well, whatever Carroll's methods are, they certainly weren't working on Saturday. For a guy who is all about having fun and whose teams take that to heart, that sure didn't seem to show itself on the field. Carroll's players were already whining and bitching while the game was still very much unsettled, and his sideline looked like a morgue. And Carroll's pallor was such a stark contrast to his whole "pumped" and "jacked" schtick that it all sort of seems like, well, a schtick.

The point is, it's amazing what getting whipped will do to all that looseness and bravado. Even for Captain Com-Pete himself.


Anonymous said...

Thank you for your insights. I always look forward to what you have to say as you are very knowledgeable and not spouting off like a lot of the media I read.

Can you explain to me what a stunt is? I hear that term thrown around a lot but havne't a clue what it means. Thanks!

SD said...


A stunt is a defensive play call wherein the defenders break from their normal gap assignments to attack in a less conventional way. The objective is typically to create confusion, disrupt blocking schemes and reads, or get a defender penetrating unblocked.

Like many things, it is easier to give examples than to explain it. One of the most frequently used stunts is what is commonly known as a twist, basically a criss-cross. Let's say the NT and DE to the NT's left are twisting. At the snap, the NT slants hard into the gap to his left, between center and guard. The DE waits a split second and then slants to his right running just behind the NT's right hip, and comes barreling into the area where the NT used to be.

The idea is that the center will follow the NT and leave his area unblocked, parting the seas for the looping DE.

Now throw in a delayed blitz by the inside LB whose lined up over the guard, following right behind the looping DE, and someone has a pretty good chance of getting into the backfield.

There are dozens of little combo plays like this that you can run with DL and LBs, even safeties. Slant DEs outside, slant every DL one direction, run double twists with both DEs and OLBs, the list goes on.

The best part about stunts is that if timed and executed properly, they can increase pressure without increasing the number of defenders applying the pressure.

Incidentally, a team does a lot of stunting and slanting with their front DL is OSU. They like to disrupt the inside gaps and force the ball outside so their speedier athletes can make the plays.

Anonymous said...

Great analyses/observations as always. I agree with everything you said, esp. about the importance of the qb. I'm not a big fan of Riley. We'll never go to the next level without a good (doesn't have to be great)qb.
Thanks again for your great site.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the stunting explanation, SD!

I get it, except I now have to ask, what are the downsides to stunting? Otherwise, I would guess there would be stunting done on every play.

Anonymous said...

As always your analysis beats any on yahoo sports or espn. Thanks

SD said...

The chief downside to stunting is that, like blitzing, it can leave openings in the gaps the stunting players vacate. It can also just swallow up your stunting player and take him out of the play, for example if he slants away from the ball, or the runningback cuts back right into the gap he vacated.

However, your point is not lost on a lot of defensive coordinators. There a number of guys who like to send some kind of stunt or slight variation at offenses on nearly every play. Other defensive coordinators rely more on well timed stunts and do it less often.

Some of the difference is due to philosophy - some DCs prefer everyone to stay home and man gaps and limit the big play, while some prefer to force the offense's hand on a matchup-by-matchup basis.

The other issue is talent. Stunting (and blitzing) is all about making something happen. If your defenders can't make something happen on a stunt (or a blitz), you may just be wasting them or taking them out of the play completely by sending them on stunts and blitzes. Zack Follett made things happen. Alualu makes things happen. Mika Kane did not make things happen. Cody Jones did not make things happen. Eddie Young doesn't really make things happen.

If you don't have impact players, there is a school of thought that says you let them play within themselves and leave them home to man gaps.

SR said...

About that last drive. I thought the Sun Devils went into a prevent defense after the penalty, and we all know what the prevent D prevents...... winning!

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