From what I saw against Nevada, it appeared to me that Pendergast was trying to both vary, and disguise, the defensive assignments. Against a more advanced option attack, particularly one with an experienced QB, this is a good way to keep the offensive coordinator and QB guessing a bit. Otherwise, once they figure out how you're defending, they'll do two things to beat you: (1) attack your weakest player(s), and (2) change up the reads. Paul Johnson probably does this better than anyone.
Taking this approach is certainly consistent with Pendergast's statements about forcing the offense's hand and not just sitting back and reacting. And there is something to be said for not just going into a game and waiting to see what the offense does and try to be perfect at reacting to it.
The problem with this approach is that it increases the possibility of individual players blowing their assignments. This is exacerbated by (1) it's the first time you've faced the offense, (2) you have a short week to prepare, (3) your players aren't fluent in the defensive scheme yet, and (4) you lack the necessary speed or instinct at certain positions.
So what do I expect to see this week? First, I would expect to see guys being a bit less quick to bite on fakes. Recall I mentioned before the Nevada game that one of the best defensive keys to read when defending Nevada’s (or any) option are the pulling linemen, as they very often take you to the ball, or at the very least, they rarely take you away from it. Reading your keys is critical against any misdirection offense, because if you watch the ball, the backs, and the QB, you are going to get run. Not always (and you have to watch for counters), but almost always, the linemen will tell you where the play is going.
I have a feeling the defense got an earful about this before the Nevada game. But you can yell at guys all you want. Until they actually get burned doing the precise thing you tell them not to do – in this case, watching the wrong thing -- a lot of times, it’s not going to sink in. I suspect they now get it.
Second, I would expect the ILBs and safeties to be better about flowing in a more evenly distributed manner, as a unit, toward the ball, rather than individual players running around like crazy chickens chasing ghosts. UCLA is not nearly as deceptive as Nevada, so I don’t expect plays where two safeties and 2 ILBs get sucked into one tiny quadrant of the field and leave an ocean for the RB or QB to do pirouettes in. But I also think these players, who are really the ones tasked with the hardest reads, will do a better job of spacing after more time practicing against this offense.
Third, I expect (and truly, I hope) to see some punitive hits on Prince. This guy is already nursing injuries, and while he’s a pretty tough kid, he’s not going to continue to keep the ball (nor will the coaches let him) if he’s getting the business every time he keeps it. Pendergast definitely seems like a force-their-hand type of coach. This is an excellent way to do that, and I’d expect we’ll see that.
Lastly, I still think this defense is going to place a premium on stopping the inside run. I know everyone had a conniption watching Browner and Price blindly tackle the RB vs. Nevada. But if you don’t stop the dive play against the option, you’re playing right into the offense’s hand. The option is designed to open up the inside run, by eventually getting people out of their gaps. Teams with weaker OL and RBs use it because they cannot overpower defenses up the middle, but they still want to run up the middle.
If you watch backs in the prolific option offenses, their big runs still come up the middle, often late in games, as do their back breaking short yardage runs. Franklin and Coleman gutted Washington State up the middle. James killed Stanford up the middle. Taua did it to Cal. Look for Pendergast to focus on sealing that off and spilling the plays to the alleys, where his safeties and ILBs can use the sideline to corner the runners.
Slow-Developing Run Plays
I’ve complained before about how slowly Cal's run plays have been developing, and I am starting to see a pattern that may explain it. Riley at times looks like he’s running in cement as he runs back to give the handoff after taking the snap under center. He needs to be quicker out of the snap. This is actually one of the reasons teams like the pistol – it gets the run started more quickly without letting on where the ball is going. But the loping, methodical steps Riley takes as he gets the ball to Vereen is just a killer. It makes it tremendously easier for the LBs and safeties to get a jump on the runner. I definitely think this is why we see so many runs where guys are just waiting for Vereen as he hits the LOS.
I understand that with some power runs, you need to wait a 1 or 2 count to allow the pulling lineman to get there, and to let the hole open up. But this offense has got to mix in some faster developing plays where the RB is moving vertically earlier. Some zone plays can work like this, so hopefully we’ll see it.
I think people remember last year’s game with rose colored glasses. Despite an insane first half offensively by Cal, UCLA was still driving to make it a game in the fourth quarter when Kendricks picked the ball off to seal it. UCLA’s offense was chipping away and had really put Cal on ice in the second half. Cal frankly milked a lead for much of that game, and got a lift from Best’s long run and Kendricks’ INT, and UCLA consistent inability to get TDs in the redzone.
This year, UCLA’s offense is better than it was last year, Cal’s offense appears the same, or perhaps a tad worse. Even if their defense is the same, I expect them to be a more difficult opponent than people are giving them credit for.
I also think this is going to be a violent, physical game. UCLA is confident after three good wins, and wants some payback for last year. Cal is ticked off after losing to Arizona, and wants to show they can stop the pistol. A lot of the players on these two teams are familiar with each other, and this is always a grudge match. I think you will see a very motivated UCLA team.
In the end, Cal’s two advantages are home field and the big play. I expect Ludwig to attack CB Hester and UCLA’s aggressive secondary, and try to loosen up their run defense with some vertical plays. If UCLA gets down, their run-heavy pistol will not work.
But if Cal can’t strike with the big play, which is a distinct possibility, and this game gets close, it will be anyone’s game, because I am not sure Cal can grind it out against UCLA.
I’d say Cal has a 10-20% chance of getting up big and running away with it, but more likely this is a close game until the fourth quarter. I still give Cal the slight edge at home, with a good RB, a senior QB, and a senior ILB. But my money’s on this being a nail-biter.
Friday, October 8, 2010