Tuesday, October 19, 2010

Thoughts on USC

I have to say, as bad as that loss was - and that was the worst loss Cal has suffered under Tedford's watch - the collective emotional aftermath for Cal nation has progressed like a decomposing corpse in the inverse, from solid waste into the effervescence of hilarity. A sublimation from the agonizing to the absurd. Somewhere in the ether, Camus is biting his bottom lip and fighting back tears of adoration.

Look, the game was the worst thing I have seen in a Cal uniform in a long, long time. Easily Tedford's biggest gaffe as a head coach. From the game plan, to the game management, to the execution, to (worst of all) the lack of fire, this was the football equivalent of Brundle-Fly fusing with telepod. And after showing such promise liquefying Stathis' limbs and looking like he was going to close the deal just moments before -- you know, like beating UCLA (wait, was that actually promising? was anything this season actually all that much to get excited about?) -- it just makes the failure all the more epic.

But it's still just a bad loss. Say it ten times fast: "It's just a bad loss. It's just a bad loss." And yes, there have been a few more than anyone would like the past few years. And yes, Tedford's conference record has been middling the past three years. Let's all say it together: the program's on-field record has been middle-of-the-conference since 2007, and that is not acceptable.

But even at all that, we are still simply talking about a team looking horrifically awful in a game, and with some admittedly disturbing frequency the past few years.

Is that acceptable. No, absolutely, positively, not. Is it cause for binge drinking, a cold shower, some self therapy that it's ok to forget about football for 48 hours? Yes. Is it even cause for suggesting that Tedford's seat is getting warm. Yes.

But is it cause for seppuku, for tearing up season tickets, for coveting douche bags like Harbaugh? If your answer is anything other than an unmitigated "No," please watch the following:



With all that, I will say this: what happened Saturday is not going to be fixed by watching tape, practicing harder, or hiring different position coaches alone. Something has to change, something big enough that it needs to wait until after the season is over. This team lacked too many things in too many phases of the game for some minor tweaking to be sufficient.

Without going off on a tangent about what those things are, because there is so much football left to be played still this season, right now, I'll just say this: I think at a minimum, the entire offensive scheme and/or recruiting philosophy may need a serious look. It's not that the offense is to blame chiefly - Cal's defense is probably more to blame in many of its blowouts - but in college, there is far more room to overcome personnel deficiencies through offensive scheme than there is on defense.

In its raw form, with the right personnel, Tedford's offense is very effective. But like any offense, without the right personnel, it struggles. And over time, teams figure out how to defend it. When those two things converge, like they have since Longshore's ankle collapsed, it ain't pretty. Further, the latter tends to exacerbate the former. The more familiar teams get with your offense, the more talent you need to stay ahead of them.

What is becoming apparent is that Tedford is struggling to find the right players (and assistants) to make the system hum the way it's supposed to, starting with the QB. And while it would be easy to say he is not doing an adequate job of adapting the system to the players he has (which he is not), I must confess, I am not sure you can do that with this offense once you cross a certain threshold of number of ill-suited players (and assistants) for your system. I don't think you can dumb this offense down, or frankenstein it with prosthetic appendages, and still maintain an advantage over the opponent. I could waste pages explaining why, and I may in a later post, but bottom line, this offense needs to be what it is and spread its wings, or cease to be.

I am not ready to throw in the towel and say the right personnel groupings are not out there somewhere within reach. But right now, they're not on the field, and they're not in the starting lineup. Some of them are, but not all of them. Food for thought.

Back to the game we just watched. Some things I noticed:

1. Lack of Focus. Like most of Tedford's lopsided losses, the team was simply not ready to match the other team's intensity and focus in the first half, and it cost them the game. USC combined an intensity that the Cal players clearly were not expecting, with a very good game plan and execution, some of which Cal was also clearly not expecting. The latter I can excuse, because frankly, USC did some things that were downright impressive schematically on both sides of the ball. The former is inexcusable.

Of all the things I saw Saturday, the only one that really befuddled me was how mentally unprepared this team looked. They were unprepared to match USC's intensity, unprepared to make plays when their number was called, and unprepared to pick themselves up when they got down a few scores and stop the snowball. I am still at a loss to understand that. Playing SC in the coliseum is the apex of Pac 10 football, arguably all of college football. How do you come out flat and uninspired?

I said last year after the Washington game that the Washington loss strongly suggested to me that the team lacked the right kind of leaders. The juniors and seniors on this team who have played SC two or three times, and been to the coliseum before, needed to set the tone for the team all week. Instead, a lot of the team's elder statesmen looked the most out of synch. I won't name names, but watch the tape. Cal will never beat SC with that kind of leadership void, period.

So first and foremost, coming out flat is on the players, particularly the team leaders, but also every starter. You don't need your coach to hold your hand and get you up for a game all week long. Please. This is what you practice, lift, condition, and play for all your life, from pop warner to college game day. The chance to bring the lumber against the best players. And for most of the players, it will be the highest level of competition they ever encounter on a football field the rest of their lives. If you can't get the fire burning when you put on your helmet and take the field against USC, then it's time to pick another extracurricular activity in college.

However, I also think the lack of mental preparedness falls on the coaches. For the third year in a row, the team just looked flat out of the gate and then tight and uncomfortable the rest of the way. Yes, a lot of that is talent disparity which breeds lack of confidence (which I'll get to later). But at some point, the pattern is indicative of the constant, and while some of the players have changed, the results have not.

At a minimum, something is not right with this coaching staff in the area of mental preparation, and hasn't been for three years. I can't put my finger on it, but I think Tedford knows it. That is why, I suspect, he is trying all of these techniques to change up the team's mental focus. His teams are so well-coached and disciplined in so many respects, but at times it is like they are not expecting the other team to actually try and disrupt what they are doing, almost as if they cavalierly expect the schemes to work like they do on the chalkboard.

While I think Tedford recognizes this, he and his staff need to do something else to address it, because whatever they are doing is not working. One thing I'd suggest is more positional competition during the season. If a guy is going to play like a chipmunk out there, I don't care if he's all conference or a three-year starter. He ain't playing like it, so why treat him like he is? Let him watch his backup do his job.

For example, let Marvin Jones sit out the rest of the game after dropping two balls, especially after dropping the one at Arizona. Bench Mitchell Schwartz if he gets pimp slapped by an injured pass rusher. At least for a few series, maybe a quarter or two. Then let them think about how that felt all next week and see if they don't come out a bit more jacked up for the next opponent.

2. Defensive ineptitude. As bad as the offense was, and it was horrible, the defense pretty much put the game out of reach. To give up 28 points in just over one quarter with almost no resistance -- that is the equivalent of taking pretty much 75% of the offensive game plan you worked on all week and setting fire to it.

By early in the second quarter, the offense was relegated to being pass heavy, against a defense that is salivating to come after the QB. That's bad any time, but against probably the most athletic defense in the country, along with Florida and Alabama, on the road no less, it is the death knell. Cal probably lost this game the moment the players took the field, but between the sidelines, Cal lost this game on defense in the first quarter and a half. They managed to keep USC out of the endzone on just one drive in the first half. That is a joke.

It was a combination of bad scheme, bad execution, and a talented QB playing with ridiculous confidence. I thought Cal brought too little pressure, and tried to play a physically superior offense straight up, both up front and in the secondary. Cal doesn't have the players for that, which people seem to forget. What they have is speed and they did not use it.

As for execution, though the secondary had its awful moments, and the DL too, the linebackers just got punked all day. USC ran at Keith Browner time and again, and every time, he got sucked into the wash. Mohamed was a shadow of himself, clearly not healed 100% and whiffing on reads (probably because of the injury). DJ Holt was better than Mohamed, but he too got gobbled up way too often by OL and FBs. Kendricks was the only one who played decent, although USC rarely ran to his side, by design I am sure.

Finally, Barkley was nails. The guy had all day to throw, receivers whom he trusted, and made some tremendous passes that most QBs could not make. It is not an excuse, but it certainly eliminated a lot of the secondary's margin for error.

Which is precisely why the defensive game plan was so ill-suited for this opponent. Cal should have flooded against the run and blitzed the heck of Barkley early, to compensate for Cal's athletic disadvantage (you're kidding yourself if you think USC has somehow fallen to Cal's level athletically). Instead, Panda-gas channeled Bob Gregory and let Barkley file his nails and have a career day back there.

3. Offensive line ineptitude. The offensive line looked like deer in headlights, and that is on the coaches, particularly Marshall. How they could look so ill-prepared to counter SC's pressure is mind-boggling. SC got a sack with a three man rush in one of the first series - and it was a quick one, not Riley holding the ball too long. In the first series, the OL should not look that flat. How does that happen?

While I think the defense put the game out of reach, the OL sunk the offense. This unit has been embarrassed by USC for three years running now. At some point, something has got to change. I do think if there was ever a time to get Galas and MSG in there as starters for a full game, now is the time. I am not saying who needs to sit, but those two need to be playing. Cal needed some bulldogs in there, not a bunch of bunnies.

They also need more talent. I keep saying it, but Cal is never going to win the conference or beat SC without some all conference players on the OL and at QB. And Cal hasn't had that for a while.

4. Offensive offense. While the defense gave the game away, the fact that Cal was so pathetically unable to manufacture so much as a drive for much of the first half, is sad. It's like nails on a chalkboard watching an offense lurch like that. Yes, SC was daring Cal to throw, and yes the dropped balls were killers that if caught might have opened up the run, but as I've said before, you have to be able to run against 8 man fronts if you want to win this conference.

While the passing game is bad, offense still starts with the run. Cal's run game is broken, and has been since Dunbar took over. A lot of it is OL personnel, but at some point, you have to acknowledge that you don't have the horses to run what you want to run. Yes, at times, this year, the offense has generated some rushing momentum, but it still cannot run for short yardage and cannot run against loaded fronts. And passing the ball is not the answer. That is not enough of a counter unless your passing game, including protection, is elite, which Cal's is not, and which is harder to come by.

Cal needs to find a run game that can manufacture yardage against unbalanced defenses. Some things to consider: adding some option element, going with more no-huddle, actually using the wildcat to both fool people and speed up the rush - combining misdirection with a quick read, and using more overloaded goal line-type sets. All of the above allow less athletic teams to move the ball on the ground. Something has to change, because the slow developing power runs and zone runs are not cutting it against the better defenses anymore.

Though Cal should never give up 21 points in the first quarter, it can't go into games with the notion that if the defense gives up a few big plays, the offense is incapable of slowing things down and chewing up some yardage.

5. Drops. Dropped balls just confirm that this team lacks focus. It's not skill, and it's not practice. It's all upstairs. Good receivers want the ball in big games, and don't care if they take a hit. They need to be throwing to Keenan Allen 8-10 times a game, mostly short and medium range, like OSU has done with James Rodgers. He is the only receiver that looks like he wants the ball when it's coming out hot.

6. Playing the reserves. Regarding the lack of substitutions, I'll just say this. I think you play your first teamers coming out of the locker room, but if you're still down four TDs in the fourth quarter, then you put in your reserves. In games like that, the locker room talk at half-time is about getting some respect, not laying down, and executing the game plan you came in there with. You have to let the starters take the field and try to realize that, or it's just empty talk.

But then, once the fourth quarter rolls around, I think you have to get your backups valuable road experience against good athletes like SC has. Tedford almost seemed like he did not want even to give the slightest semblance of a concession that his team had lost, similar to when he called the timeouts at the end of the game in 2008, even though it was well out of reach. While I get the never-surrender mentality, especially because losing to SC clearly eats at him, at some point, you need to remember that playing reserves in a blowout is more productive for the team than showing the players that you will never give up, like Cool Hand Luke flailing helplessly at Dragline after the fight was over.

7. USC is still USC. I said before the game that it's a player's game, but if all else is equal, the team with the mental edge wins. And if that edge is big enough, even a less talented team can win. We see that all the time when SC goes out and loses to teams like Washington.

But if an athletically superior team takes the field, at home, and plays with its hair on fire, it will win almost every time. And that is what happened Saturday. And based on what I saw, no matter what Cal did, I don't think they had much of a chance. I did not think that going in, but seeing how jacked USC was, I have a hard time seeing Cal get the W in that game.

Cal is not in the same class as USC talent-wise, and has never been. Ask yourself how many Cal players would start or see significant playing time for USC right now: Allen, Jordan, maybe Coleman, and maybe Vereen (at CB if at all, certainly not RB).

As for citing to SC losing to Washington and Stanford, both of whom have inferior athletes, I don't put too much stock in that as meaning that Cal should beat USC too. I watched those games. SC looked much better, and much more fired up, against Cal from the very first snap than they did in either of those two games. If SC played like that against Stanford and Washington, it is hard to imagine them losing either of those games.

This is not to diminish the puss way Cal lost, or all of the things that looked very wrong about this team on Saturday. But I think people need to remember that this Cal team still has a ways to go to overcome a few years of weak recruiting at many positions.

As a final thought, I'll just say that this team is better than they played Saturday. They ran into as motivated a USC team as I've seen in a while (Kiffin is a dildo, but gotta hand it to him getting his guys up for this game). And they took every bad mistake you can make and combined them into one game, in all three phases. They will not face a defense like that the rest of the way, and they will not face a QB like that the rest of the way.

What they will continue to face is their own mercurial inability to lock in and suck it up each week, like they're playing the game of their life. That will be this team's and the coaches' biggest challenge the rest of this year: finding the players who can play with laserlike focus every week, and riding those guys to wins.

8 comments:

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the excellent writeup. Your analysis was the one I looked forward to the most after that agonizing loss.

abraham said...

SD,

Some burning questions?
1. I believe it was last year, maybe a couple of years ago, I asked you this question: do you think this program is fundamentally flawed (as far as the general spirit of competition is concerned)? At the time your response was more about the X's and O's, talent and other technical aspects of winning. How about today?
2. Looking at his face Marshall looks like the real deal but after watching our Oline play so far under him do you see him coming back next year?
3. How about good ol' Ludwig, do you see him coming back next year?

Jim said...

SD,

As the first respondant said, it's always a pleasure to read your take on the state of the Cal football team. As sad as it says to admit it, it helps my psyche.

That being said, what should be done from here on out? I like what you said about changing it up offensively (misdirection, more wildcat, etc.). I've often wondered why Cal doesn't employ more no huddle. Riley seems to be better when he doesn't have to over analyze things. He was very good in the no huddle at ASU last year. I think we need to dictate more offensively rather than react. I like that Pendergast, at least, has that mentality (that we will impose our will on you) even if he's a bit stubborn at times. Playing that hybrid D against UofA (with DJ Campbell playing some LB) and his adjustments against the pistol when we played UCLA showed me he can scheme.

I've read in a couple of places that it might be best for Tedford to get back to the OC/QB coach role. Sarkisian calls plays, Kiffin calls plays, heck, even Harbaugh calls their plays! I understand why Tedford went to more of the CEO role, but I wonder what your thoughts are in that regard?

What's tough is looking forward. Will next year bring anything better? I know there's a lot of football left to be played in '10, but it's tough not to be concerned already about '11. It would seem like Tedford's hoping for Maynard, Bridgford or Hinder to be the next QB -- my bet is on Maynard. Where will the improvement come from on the OL? A new coach should/might help but is there any talent? Defensively, who will replace Mohammed next year? Where will our LB depth come from? Aside from Steve Williams (who is going to be very good) and Marc Anthony, who do we have to play CB?

That's for a future discussion, but suffice it to say, I will be looking forward to your prognosis when the time is right. Thanks for your time you take on your blog.

Anonymous said...

I appreciated your perspective and I agree with just about everything you wrote. I beleive that what has been occuring to Cal against good teams is a consequence of a systemic aversion to risk taking. At some point it became obvious Tedford was reluctant to attack a defense at it's seams. Instead, throws are in the flat, if they are downfield, they are over the defense--always taking what the defense gives rather than dicating where the interaction takes place--avoiding turnovers at all costs. Likewise, the defense would patiently give up yards and time of possession, expecting at some point to capitalize on the other team's errors. This ideology is passive and football is an aggressive game. In retrospect, I think that the departure of Jim Michalczik was much more significant than thought. Talent is not the issue--Cal is athletically more talented that Utah, Boise State, OR State, etc. but they lack the leadership on and off the field that beleives, once they have been smacked in the face, that they can beat good team. Worse, they lack enough leaders on and off the field who get angry when they get smacked in the face. Remember how chippy some of those SC/ Cal games would get? Sadly, the truth is that Cal is a soft football team and it is looking less likely this condition will change under the present coaching staff. Thanks again for your continued commentary.

pompusone2000 said...

Thanks. I agree with above poster that yours is the review I look forward to reading.

Richard Hourula said...

As a long time fan of Tedford it pains me to say that the Cal football program is regressing. From 2004-06 the Bears were 28-9. In the following three years, 24-15 and 3-3 so far this season. From '04-06 the Bears suffered three blowout losses, one a year, Tech, U$C and Tenn, respectively. Last year alone the Bears were blown out three times. From '05 through this season the Bears have had one good QB year, Longshore in '06. I expect Barbour will at the very least let Tedford stay through the first season at the revamped Memorial Stadium. But I'm shocked to find myself thinking that he's taken the program as far as he can. I hope I'm wrong but being whipped by Nevada and falling behind 42-0 at the half to any football team indicate otherwise.
Am I wrong?

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the write up and the analysis. As always, I'm always impressed with your thoughts and analysis. My respect for you increased as you were able to talk about this embarrassing loss without using any four letter words. I wish you well; may you never quit on Cal. As for me, I just about gave up. Like most Cal fans, it's the Rose bowl or nothing. With two pac 10 losses, the only way to salvage the season is to knock beat stanford and knock them out of a BCS (or Rose) Bowl. I'm not even looking forward to next season. Sure, we'll have a new QB, but if Tedford is right and Riley is the best option then I'm not going to get my hope up. I don't think I'm even going to come out to the Fan Appreciation Day. I hope in the off season I find something else to look forward to because Cal certainly ain't it.

Oldblue said...

I agree with everything you said and more than anything, I agree that when the starters play flat and don't exhibit the focus to win, they should be sidelined and the back-ups should be playing. It should be as simple as, "Oh, you didn't come to play? Well, then, we'll put in someone who did." This sends the message that a soft attitude won't be tolerated, even from the "best" players. When that message gets through, the best players will deliver the goods.

Tomorrow's game against ASU will tell us something about whether focus has improved, but it will be the road games, against OSU in particular that will demonstrate whether Cal can play with focus on the road.

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