Monday, November 30, 2009

Big Game Recap



67-33 (.670)                                         17-19 (.472)
3rd winningest Cal coach              17th of 22 winningest Furd coach
7-1 in Big Games                                 1-2 in Big Games



Remember back in 2005 when, after beating the Ayoob-led Bears in Memorial, Carroll delivered a little poke in the eye, saying SC had talked about putting some "separation" between themselves and Cal, and that he thought that win accomplished that? Though Tedford's not the type to take shots like that, the same could be said about this Big Game win. More importantly, coming off wins over Oregon and SC, had Stanford beaten Cal, you can bet Harbaugh would be telling recruits about how Stanford had not only closed the gap on Cal, but had passed them by. In that sense this game really could have meant a sea change for the two programs.

Instead, Cal looked more like its old self again, more like the team everyone thought they might be, and Stanford looked like a team that still wasn't quite ready for the success it had been enjoying recently. Stanford was supposed to be the physical team with the nails QB, but they got run all over and their QB threw a game ending INT. If you can't rise to the occasion against your arch-rival, from whom you're looking for some payback, in the last conference game of the year, needing a win to keep your Rose Bowl chances alive, with a Heisman candidate at RB, you're not quite there yet. In other words, Pete Carroll would say, that "separation" between the programs is still alive and well.

One other thought about Harbaugh before getting some game observations. Since he rumbled onto the scene a couple years ago, I have been struck by how unintentionally comical his corny hyperbole is. From his "enthusiasm unknown to mankind" platitude, to his painfully ironic use of the term "blue collar" to describe his Leland J. Stanford University footballers, Harbaugh is like the kid who wrecks his first motorcycle popping a wheelie while driving out of the dealership. He's playing with words he doesn't understand. His latest gaffe: the use of word "hubris" in the Big Game press conference.

It's not just that he used it in a college football press conference. Though it's a little highbrow, I could maybe see that. But it's the silly way he kept saying it over and over again, as if the more he said it, the more grave it would seem. And that's not even the best part. The cherry on top is that while I am not really comfortable throwing around Greek terms in a football press conference, if you're going to do it, please make sure you're not guilty of the offense yourself. Instead, Harbaugh unknowingly starred in his own parable about hubris that Sophocles himself could have written.

It is the irony of ironies: a coach talking about hubris after he just went for 2 up 48-21 with 6 minutes left the week before. If there are football gods, what Harbaugh did against USC was the equivalent of taking a piss on the leg of the Statue of Zeus at Olympia. Anyone who does that, then talks about the dangers of hubris days later, and then goes out and steps on his dick in the biggest game of the year...well, I just have to chuckle on so many levels. All I can say is, you guys can keep him down on the Farm as long as you like.

Some game observations:

1. Vereen. Before this season, if you spent five minutes talking Cal football with me, you know I'd inevitably find a way to work Vereen into the conversation. I've been talking this kid up as the quintessential Ron Gould tailback since Cal signed him out of high school. Based on watching him last year alone, I thought he had the potential to put up Arrington-like numbers once he became a full time starter, precisely because he executes the Gould method to a tee. What that means is he can manufacture yards multiple ways, even when they are hard to come by.

He avoids crushing hits and out of control falls, which will allow him to stay healthy and strong late in games and throughout the season. He always stays low to the ground which allows him to slip tackles. He is patient in waiting for holes to open but decisive to the hole once he commits, which allows him to find yards even when the blocking is not there. He can catch, throw, and has elite speed. And most importantly, he's humble - he's not going to ruin a good 4 yard run by dancing or running backwards to try and turn it into a 40 yard run.

A number of times against Stanford, Vereen found holes that weren't there initially, found a way to squeeze through them, and then clawed his way forward for a quiet 3-4 yards. When that happens time and again, it is demoralizing for a defense. As well as the OL played, Vereen saved their butts on a number of plays that were blown up just like so many others had been this season.

Bottom line: there will never be another Jahvid Best and he's a once in a blue moon player. Stop and give that thought its due. That said, the future is bright with Vereen taking handoffs the next two years.

2. Bob Gregory. Bob Gregory deserves credit for what he did this week. That was as vanilla a defensive game plan as I've seen from him this season, and yet that was as focused and non-hesitant as I've seen his unit play since conference play started. He clearly stripped the defense down for this game, and the result was guys playing with their hair on fire (minus Cattouse's sleepwalk on the first TD) instead of looking lost.

That took some guts and some confidence in his players, because Stanford is at their best when you try to play them straight up. And I know Harbaugh was expecting Gregory to mix it up - throw the "kitchen sink" at him as Harbaugh put it in the press conference. Instead, Gregory simplified everyone's role until they knew it cold, got his best players on the field situationally (something missing from some prior games this season), and got his group playing with reckless abandon. There are some people who will tell you that is the surest way to win a football game.

It wasn't perfect, and there were still some lapses, and some bail-outs by Stanford mistakes (in fairness Cal bailed out Stanford plenty as well - more on that in a moment). But for most of the game, the Cal defense played with confidence, purpose, and largely contained what had been a very productive offense for most of the season.

3. The re-emergence of the short downfield pass. I am glad to see this is making its way back into the offense, because it is a great weapon, and has really been the missing attack point for much of the season. Tedford/Ludwig (or perhaps Riley) had sort of been neglecting the short middle of the field, opting instead mostly for sideline passes, screens, and deep balls. As I've said before, teams scouted this tendency pretty easily, hence the way everyone jumped all over the screen game and short sideline stuff.

The quick strikes to Lagemann, Tucker, and Jones, mixed in with the medium range middle passes to Miller, tend to keep the linebackers and DBs more honest. Throw in a decent run game, and it makes the offense much harder to defend on first and second down. The last time Cal's offense attacked the field routinely with that kind of balance: 2004. It remains to be seen whether the offense can again approach its 2004 form. But for now, trying to attack the same way is a good start.

4. Riley. Another game, another combination of gutty play, a knack for keeping the chains moving, and throws that make you wince. I don't remember a QB quite as mercurial as Riley at the college level. The kid is still a mixed bag throwing a 7 yard stick or slant route on target. Even on the clutch shorter completions, Riley's passes were behind the receiver, including the TD to Jones.

But he continues to lead the team on scoring drives, makes some ridiculously athletic throws on the run, and most importantly, he keeps finding ways to keep drives alive. Like a baseball hitter who consistently finds ways not to make an out, that is the single most important thing a QB can do, no matter how he does it. And to be fair, had his receivers made some easy catches early on, Cal might have pulled away earlier, and Riley might have looked better.

Bottom line: I don't love everything he does, but the guy got another win on the road. Can't argue with that.

5. Some impressive individual performances. Aside from Vereen and Riley, there were a handful of guys who had good games: Summers-Gavin, Mohamed, Alualu, Thompson, Miller, Lagemann, and Payne. All of these guys really impressed me. The reassuring part is that aside from Alualu and Thompson, all of those players are not only back next year, but most have at least two more years on the team. Makes you realize how much youth there is on this year's team.

6. Offensive line. Three things to say. First off, excellent effort and intensity - best game of the season in that regard. Every guy was getting off the ball fast, and playing hard to the whistle. It really set the tone for the offense, which is the line's job.

Second, you can tell this group is maturing in terms of pass protection. They are communicating, adjusting to pressure, and picking up blitzes better than at the beginning of the season.

Third, outside of Summers-Gavin and for the most part Schwartz, I didn't see a lot of great individual performances in the run game. I am not going to name names, but guys are still getting pushed around and thrown off blocks too easily. I recall one player pulling and actually getting knocked on his back by a guy on whom he had a great angle (by play design). Not good. Particularly in zone blocking or plays where there is really no down blocking or angles of advantage, much of the time, this group is still not able to hold its blocks very long.

The good news is this offense has plenty of plays with blocking angles that mitigate this somewhat. On the power runs, the unit was able to be more dominant and the results showed - Vereen shredded Stanford on those runs. He was also able to get some yardage in zone blocking, but it was much more about his creativity in finding the hole than about the OL opening anything big up for him. And on his long run outside, that was pure speed, not great blocking.

Bottom line, as I had figured before the season, this group's strength is not in dominating people one on one but there are plenty of plays in this offense that mitigate this problem. All they require is guys knowing their assignments, playing hard, and a having a patient tailback. The team had all three on Saturday and the result was a good game running the ball.

7. About "almost giving the game away." I have heard from more than a few fans, some of whom are pretty level headed, that Cal got lucky to win that game, and that but for some gaffes by Luck and boneheaded calls by Harbaugh, Cal really should have lost. Here is the problem with that analysis: it ignores the fact that the same could be said of a couple of mistakes by Cal.

Off the top of my head, a few gimme plays come to mind that could have changed the complexion of the game had the Cal players sealed the deal: Riley's overthrow deep to Jones, Ross' drop down the sidelines, Riley's underthrow to Tucker, Tucker's losing sight of the deep ball, Bishop's two missed INTs. An argument can be made that the missed passes were all TDs. Heck, if Mohamed just takes out Gerhart's legs on that last catch and run, instead of trying to strip the ball, Gerhart likely goes down at the 30 instead of the 13. Then Stanford scoring doesn't look so probable.

My point is not to highlight Cal's mistakes. Nor at the same time is it to suggest that Cal's mistakes weren't costly or that it played a perfect game. The point is for every Stanford mistake, Cal had at least one to match it. That is football. The difference between winning and losing is making your opponent's mistakes mean more than yours. Ultimately, Cal was able to better afford the mistakes it made because it made a few more plays, and it capitalized better on Stanford's mistakes.

One last point about this. I have no problem with another team's mistakes playing a big role in a win, so long as the mistakes were the ones the winner game planned around. Cal's game plan was to make Luck beat them on defense, because they figured he was more mistake prone. They did, and he made mistakes. No shame in that.

8. A final word about resolve. I like what I have seen from this team in terms of heart and determination. It hasn't always been picturesque, but they've found ways to scrape out wins time and again, particularly on the road. In those wins, instead of taking turns making mistakes at key times like in 2007, guys took turns stepping up with big plays. Ross, Jones, Miller, Lagemann and Tucker have all made big catches this season. Riley has led multiple late scoring drives. The defense has gotten three game ending INTs, a game ending sack, and forced a 3 and out to set up a game winning drive.

I don't remember a Cal team that had so many plays and series like that in a season. It says a lot about the mental makeup of this team. Down 14-0 on the road, with the Rose Bowl already out of sight, a lot of teams, including some past Cal teams under Tedford, might well have dropped the intensity down a notch. And no doubt a few guys probably did that privately during the game last week. But other guys didn't. It's those other guys making plays at key points that kept the game alive, picked their teammates up, and eventually sealed the deal. That is the essence of a team win, and those are the best kind of wins to be a part of.

Here's to another season with the Axe, while Harbaugh claws his way to .500 with enthusiasm unknown to mankind.

6 comments:

poscguy said...

Thanks for the great analysis - I truly enjoy and learn a lot from your posts. Regarding the "almost giving the game away¨section, you do not address Tedford's last play call before the field goal (taking the knee instead of at least letting Vereen run and try to get a TD to seal the win. It just seemed like such a heartless move to take a knee, like he didn't trust his team to not fumble. What is so weird too is that the call was in complete contrast to the attempt for a TD by Vereen in the ASU game. It's like Tedford grows a pair and gets bold in one game, then tucks his tail between his legs and leaves his team's fate in the hands of a very powerful and effective offense. If I'm a recruit or a player on the team, I think it's the weakest move possible and I'm not happy with it. You have any thoughts?
Also, you didn't mention Hairball's handshake, or lack thereof, following the game. Guy has absolutely no class.
Thanks again!

Bear with Fangs said...

Great post.

And to one up you, I've been talking Vereen up since he came out his mother's womb. So there.

SD said...

Tap out. I know when I've been beaten.

Anonymous said...

Once again, great job!

Anonymous said...

Great analysis and insight as always. I agree with everything you said except for the line play but only because i don't have the knowledge to know who's doing what like you do. Were/are you a coach?
Thank you.

abraham said...

Good stuff. I definitely wanted to hear your thoughts on that last call by Tedford though. I personally thought we should have tried to score 6 on that one. The offense had no problem moving the ball and scoring for much of the last three quarters so it would have been nice to try to put the game away there.

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