Thursday, September 23, 2010

Tuscon under the Lights

The truth is the only thing that has separated these two teams since 2005 has pretty much been homefield advantage. Both have had pretty similar athletes, with Arizona having a few more on defense, and Cal a few more on offense. Cal's had the better offensive coaching, Arizona the better defensive coaching. Until now.

Now, for the first time Stoops has one more slight edge over Cal: QB. Simply put, Nick Foles saved Mike Stoops' job and probably kept Arizona from toiling away in the middle of the conference the next few years. Exhibit A: Matt Scott's performance at Iowa last year. Arizona fans - that was your future without Foles.

Yes Arizona has talent all over the place. But just ask Cal fans what a middling QB can do to an otherwise talented team.

And for me, if anything tips the scales toward Arizona this weekend, it's Foles. They're at home, which is usually just barely enough. But now they have a potential all-conference QB on top of it. Do I think he's an all-timer? No, but he runs the offense extremely well, he can make all the throws, and most importantly, he's steady. That is more than I can say for Kevin Riley, for example.

When Cal Has the Ball

First off, there isn't a lot to say about what to expect. These teams know each other pretty well. It's going to be about execution and not getting rattled. With that, onto some game thoughts.

I don't see Cal grinding out the run against this front. If Cal is going to have success on the ground, it is going to be like it has for the past few years against Arizona -- a big plate of brick wall seasoned with some big plays when Arizona gets too aggressive. I wouldn't be surprised if Vereen breaks off a few big ones. His legs look 100%, he seems to have his vision back, and Arizona is going to be bringing the heat. But those runs will be few and far between I think.

So, pucker up, because the offense this week will rise and fall on how well Riley delivers the ball through the air. The good news is Allen is healthy, so we should see the return of the high percentage plays designed to get him the ball in space, which should free up Jones some and Vereen some on the edges. Cal's skill players have always managed to have decent games against Arizona.

The bad news is that these passes are not going to be gravy. Cal is going to need them to supplement the run with a heavy dose of these short throws on first and second down to avoid getting into long yardage. Because of all the teams on the schedule, Arizona is probably the worst team to get into long yardage situations against, along with Oregon.

The other good news is Tedford and Ludwig know this, and unlike my thoughts on Pendergast, I have confidence that Tedford and Ludwig have seen this before, will game plan appropriately for this pressure and be ready with ways to counter it. Plus, Riley is actually pretty good when he sees blitz or knows the pressure's coming. His problem is when blocking breaks down on a longer developing play, and the play starts going awry.

The other thing Cal is going to need to do is get Miller and Stevens involved in the passing game. There will be opportunities to find these guys if Ludwig is willing to take them out of pass protection and get them into the seams.

When Arizona Has the Ball

Bob Gregory never really figured out the Leach offense. Cal's defensive success and failure has turned on how it's dealt with the run game of Arizona. Stoops has stubbornly stuck with the run since he brought in the Tech offense, seeking to avoid the three and outs and lack of balance that always plagued Mike Leach against quicker defenses.

And while I generally agree with Stoops' philosophy here, his dedication to the run has probably been the only reason the Cal defense has been able to hang with this offense (that and a guy named Willie Tuitama who managed to keep Cal in a few games). When Cal has beaten UofA, they've contained the run. When they've lost, they haven't (at least at key points in the game).

Everyone is interested in how Pendergast will defend this offense. The closest analog in the NFL, in terms of what Pendergast has schemed against, is the West Coast Offense, which he would have faced when playing Seattle, and before that, when he faced San Francisco when he was on the Cowboys staff in the 90s.

As we all know, the key to stopping the Leach/Dykes short passing attack is (1) tackle well and limit yards after catch and make them dink and dunk their way down the field, (2) disguise coverages since Foles definitely reads pre-snap, and (3) don't jump routes early.

All of this seems consistent with what I've seen from Pendergast and this defense. Yes, they're aggressive up front, but they've shown good tackling, and discipline on pass coverage in the secondary. What we haven't seen yet is much coverage disguising, simply because it hasn't really been needed thus far. But given Pendergast's NFL defenses, I suspect that is in the works.

And then of course, Cal has to keep the run in check. They did well with that last year, but got absolutely shredded in Tuscon two years ago. Arizona has struggled a bit this year running the ball, but they haven't really needed to rely on it much. But if Cal can make Arizona more one-dimensional like last year, it may neutralize the effectiveness of Foles' quick throws.

The last key to defending this offense is turnovers. Grigsby has shown a propensity to cough it up, and Cal is going to need every big play it can get Saturday.

Special Teams

I suspect the kicking game is going to be big here, and Tavecchio will be called upon to make some probably critical FGs. Cal has had trouble punching it in on the goal line against AZ and other tough run defenses, so they may need to settle for FGs. That makes this Tavecchio's first big test.

Field position is also going to be critical because of how quickly Arizona can score. While Foles has shown he can lead long drives, the more passes that (or any) offense throws, the more likely a mistake will occur. In that regard, combined with Arizona's return threat in Cobb, this will also be the first look at Genyk's coverage schemes under fire.

If you can't tell by now, I am skeptical about this game, just like I was in 2008. This is a tough place to play, that offense is feeling it right now, and without Mohamed or a versatile OLB on one side, Arizona has the potential to run this defense ragged chasing down dinks and dunks. I also have serious doubts about Cal's ability to keep the offense on the field with this OL.

Cal's two hopes lie in catching the Cats in a letdown after Iowa, and getting some big plays to take away home field advantage and give the defense a chance to bring pressure. Both things could very well happen.

But if I am betting on this game, it feels like a 30% chance of a runaway AZ win, and 70% chance AZ wins in a nailbiter.


Shawn said...


I'd say the more analogous offense would be IND's offense. The spread look with 3 wide and Manning in the shotgun. The handoffs are to the RB at his side, or otherwise quick throws in the flats. Foles is no Manning. And Manning would work the sidelines and downfield more. I think the challenge is to bottle and crowd the middle to force Foles into making more outside passes that require greater touch.

oldblue said...

I think once again, the defense will be the key to this game. Our only chance of winning is if the defense has a great day and I'm not just talking about causing three and outs, but forcing a few turnovers. After the performance against UNR it may be difficult to imagine the defense having a great game, but I think they can and will play better against a more conventional offense.

The notion of Riley trying to consistently complete a bunch of short passes to overcome the inability of our OL to block for Vereen and Sofele is not comforting. I think Riley has his biggest problem throwing short passes that require some touch. Granted, he can miss at any distance, but when touch is required, he has a problem. I hope he can hit Allen when he is open or in single coverage.

We have lost in Tuscon with better teams than this one to worse teams than Arizona has this year, so I'm not optimistic.

Anonymous said...

This has nothing to do with this game. I was just wondering whatever happened to Allen Bridgeford. Also, any chance of Autin Hindler playing sometime this year?
thank you.

Anonymous said...

I think the key to this game for Cal is having some success attacking the AZ defense through the air with 15- 20 yard completions. This offense has been passive for the past few years--only taking what the defense gives them—either throwing in front or over coverage. I agree that Cal’s offensive line has not shown an ability to dictate pace so it comes down to Riley being able to make throws and open up the field. If they try and dink and dunk they will lose any chance at prolonging momentum. Riley has to play at a high level because every defense is going to keep the ball in front of it until Riley proves that he can make them pay. I agree with you, they have to utilize the TE’s and have some success in the middle of the field. I have no idea what to expect of the defense. Lets hope the best—Go CAL.

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