Colorado - the Dan "Dumpster Fire" Hawkins era continues.
1. Run game. I have some concerns, but until the Arizona game, I am not sure what conclusions we can draw. I saw multiple factors conspiring to stifle the run game a bit. Some seem like they can be fixed; some concern me more.
First, Vereen clearly is not 100%. By no means is this to say that if he were, the run game would have gone over 250 Saturday. But there were creases that he appeared never to even see on Saturday. It's not so much that he lacks vision - we all know he's got that (although not quite the vision Best had). Rather, when you don't have the burst to blast through creases as they open, you don't even look around the corner for them. There were a few times where Vereen just plain missed daylight.
Assuming he shakes off the cobwebs and gets his legs into midseason form, I'd expect some of those runs to get to the second level in a few weeks. That said, you have to love the guy's ability to grind out yards creatively, spinning, scrambling, and stumbling for extra yards, even where he's not 100%. In that regard, he's more versatile than a pure speed back like Best.
Second, while I thought the OL actually opened some big holes on a number of occasions, which the RBs didn't always capitalize on, some of the failed plays were just whiffs on blocks. Whiffs concern me less than guys getting overpowered consistently, being unable to move their man consistently. In particular, I saw whiffs by the TE and FB. While Miller shouldn't be having these problems (and if I'm Genyk, I am barking in his ear all week about it), Ladner, Wark and Stevens are young, and will get better.
Third, as has become a virtual staple of opposing defensive game plans since mid-2007, Colorado was bringing an 8th and sometimes 9th man into the box. This is not an excuse, as I have said before: if you can't grind out positive yardage against 8 and even 9-man fronts from time to time, you don't deserve to win the conference. You have to do it, and good teams can. Cal 2004 through the 2007 Oregon game did it. This group does look like it is going to struggle to blow people off the ball and overpower crowded fronts. This is going to rear its head from time to time this season.
However, Ludwig does seems to be leaning harder on Riley's arm and the short pass to substitute for the run game a bit, and loosen up the defensive front. And whereas those shorter passes have in the past looked a little predictable and simplistic, the past two games have shown some nice variation, and precision. We'll see when Cal plays a bit quicker defenses, but Riley was able to connect with Jones and Allen with relative ease against two future NFL corners.
I think this OL is never going to bulldoze tired teams in the second half and cruise to victory like Tedford's teams used to. But I am not ready to write this running game off just yet.
2. Which brings me to the return of the 2-WR sets. While this has always been in the arsenal, Ludwig seems to be going to it more than we've seen since Dunbar came, either with two TEs or a TE and FB. This looks much more like vintage Tedford. We saw a good deal of it Saturday. While I generally like this setup if you have two legit WRs who can block, catch, and stretch defenses (which we appear to, finally), this is a double-edged sword.
On the one hand, it tends to crowd the box on run plays by bringing more defenders down. On the other hand, it also usually means better pass protection. I also think it opens up more deception and mismatches with TEs, FBs and RBs in the passing game. And, while it sets up nicely for short yardage running which can signal run, if you use it all the time, it becomes a much more unpredictable set.
It will be interesting to see if Ludwig sticks with this, and what he does with it, but personally, I like seeing more of it.
3. Riley needs to learn to slide. The guy had two reckless runs vs. Colorado where he led with his head as he fell, both of which were eerily similar to the play in which he was concussed vs. Oregon in 2008. If the QB draw is going to be part of the game plan (which it should be), he needs to learn how to finish the play properly. If he goes down, I think we can all agree it is likely going to be a long season.
Time to stifle the pistol.
1. Browner and Price are going to be attacked early and often. At least, that is what I would do if I were Nevada. While both guys have good abilities in certain respects, neither really has the closing speed to play the edge in the read-option offense. The way you shut down a read-option offense with a mobile QB is speed on the edge (along with discipline). If your guys on the edge cannot cut off the corners, there is nothing altering the runner's steep angle downfield. That can mean at least 4-6 yards a carry if they attack the edge. While Kendricks on the other side, with his speed, is perfect for defending this offense, Browner and Price concern me a bit more.
2. To disrupt or react? This is the age-old question against option offenses. If you have ridiculous speed on defense, you can get away with pressure and disruption because your players have make-up speed. If you don't, you have to be more disciplined and conservative. But if I am Pendergast, I disrupt this weekend. Here is why.
The "option" component of Nevada's run game is typically predicated on the QB reading a particular player and then deciding whether to hand off or keep. Usually, but not always, the player being "read" is left unblocked. To decide how to be sure the right player is left unblocked, the OL has to sort "count backwards," as it were, from that player and figure out who blocks whom as to the remaining defenders.
But if they do their "counting" and figure out who's got whom, and then all of a sudden the defense scrambles the egg and slants, stunts, zone blitzes, or does whatever, it screws up their assignments, and their timing. This can be dangerous, but again, if you've got speed, this can really give the QB and OL a headache.
This is especially true because once an option QB starts to lose confidence in his OL, he will start hesitating, making the wrong read, moving a step slow, mishandling the mesh with the RB, etc. Option is so much about feel, vibe and rhythm. And as much as running QBs like to run, they don't like grinding out yards up the middle, with guys hanging off of them. They like getting into the open field untouched.
What makes the read-option so deadly is when a QB knows exactly what he wants to do, he gets to daylight in the blink of an eye, the defense starts getting gassed and desperate, and the QB gets confident. In contrast, if the QB can't get into this rhythm, or if he thinks he's going to get contact early, he will become tentative and make bad decisions. See Masoli v. Cal 2008, Boise St. 2009.
I hope Pendergast attacks the OL and Kaepernick, because I think it can work. This is a good offense, but it is a rhythm offense, not a win ugly, grind-it-out offense. And frankly, as prolific a run game as this offense generates, until they prove they can make you pay through the air, I think the scheme is getting a little too much credit. The citing to gaudy yardage is growing a bit tiresome. How many years have the service academies led the nation in rushing? Yet those teams rarely beat any major BCS schools. Unless you have balance, these option rushing attacks only take you so far.
3. I am more concerned about broken plays than design QB runs. The scariest thing for a defense when it comes to mobile QBs is broken plays, not design runs. At least for good defenses. You can lock down everyone in coverage and beat the OL and hurry the QB. Normally, that's a victory. But if that QB tucks and runs, and there's no one around for 10 yards, a mobile QB can kill you.
For this reason, I would definitely dedicate one spy to Kaepernick at all times until he burns you through the air. Not a revolutionary idea, but it certainly would remove the risk of wasting otherwise airtight coverage and good pass rush. And until Nevada proves it can beat teams through the air, Cal should gamble that it can cover the pass with one less defender in the back 8.
4. Corners have to shed blocks and not get used in the open field. This is another area where a defense can outmuscle an option attack. Physical play at the corners shedding blocks and making tackles or forcing play back inside will cut off the edge runs that Nevada feasts off of. Big test for the corners this week.
5. Watch the TE. I think this Cal defense is going to be vulnerable to TEs all season. And while Nevada is a not a huge vertical threat, the TE is the perfect weapon for read-option teams because of the quickness of the passes and seams TEs attack. This is an area I expect Cal will give up some yards.
6. No need to take shots deep early on offense. If guys are open great. But this is not a team you want to be going three and out against. They don't care if you score. They expect to trade TDs with you. What kills an offense like Nevada's is having to sit on the sidelines while you eat clock. I sense more dink and dunk coming from Ludwig this year. This is the perfect game to do that. Move the sticks. Get chunk yardage.
The other collateral benefit to this approach is that Nevada may have some talent on defense among its starters, but it lacks defensive depth. And eventually, the starters are going to wear down if they are on the field for long drives. That is when Cal can look for the bigger play. I think those opportunities will be there late in the game.
In terms of a prediction, I can't shake the feeling the Cal defense is going to handle its business. Even Gregory fared decently well against option-based rushing attacks (last year's Oregon game was really more about blowing it against a good passing attack that busted the game open early). Although Kaepernick has a whip for an arm, I don't think the offense as a whole is there yet with the passing game. And unless they can make Cal pay through the air on first and second down, Cal is going to have an extra man keying on the run, which should give them the advantage.
And offensively, while I think Nevada will probably have some success against Cal's rushing attack, I think Ludwig is going to stick with the short pass and have success there. Yes this game can be a trap, but Cal should win by at least two scores.
Thursday, September 16, 2010