Thursday, October 14, 2010

USC Preview

Now that Pete Carroll is gone, there will be no more Tedford-Carroll matchups. For a couple seasons, this was the premier matchup in the conference. Before moving on to this week's game, let's take a little trip down memory lane and pay tribute:

2002 - Kareem Kelly's phantom catch, "No, please, after you, Mr. McCullough"
2003 - "@#*% LA. Let's take their @#*%'n hearts."
2004 - 29-35 (82.9%), 267 yds, 1 TD, 1st and Goal from the 9...
2005 - 9-19, 98 yards, 0 TD, 4 INT
2006 - Patrick Turner's phantom catch, Steve Smith robs Hughes blind, USC boosters...I mean the refs...take away a fumble recovery and a 70-yard run by Lynch
2007 - 102 kickoff return yards, "No, please, after you, Mr. Washington," Longshore hooks up with Terrell Thomas
2008 - ineligible man downfield, 27 yards rushing, 138 yards passing, 0 TDs
2009 - Riley hooks up with Mays, and Bob Ueckers a wide open Vereen on fake substitution play, 0 TDs

It's Shawshank Redemption, Tedford style.

[Cue Morgan Freeman voice]

"Losses to Pete Carroll are funny. First you hate 'em, then you get used to 'em. Enough time passes, you get so you depend on them. That's institutionalized."

"Sh*t. I could never get like that."

"Oh yeah? Say that when you been here as long as Tedford has."

Coach Tedford, Carroll's gone. Now's your chance to be Red, not Brooks. Andy's waiting for you on a beach down in Mexico. The only thing standing in your way is this this guy:

I'll take that matchup, personally. Not saying Cal is going to win, because we all know that with SC's athletes, and the coliseum gremlins, winning down there is going to be a bitch. But on paper, this coaching matchup goes to Tedford and Pendergast.

I actually think the coaching matchup is being a bit underrated here. Not so much x's and o's, but more about attitude, focus, and confidence. Like I always say, it's a player's game. The players making plays when it counts is what wins games. But where both teams have good athletes, and both are well-coached and prepared, coaching can make a difference in terms of mentality, and that can be enough for the win on any game day.

For the most part, Carroll had the edge over Tedford in this regard. I always thought Tedford and his staff had better game plans vs. Carroll. But in the end, Carroll's players always seemed poised to make the big plays late in the game, and Tedford's players always seemed to misstep when it counted. I do think SC's depth and better athletes across the board, especially at QB, probably made as much of a difference as anything else.

But despite that discrepancy, Cal was still always right there (for which Tedford gets a lot of credit, for the record). And yet, every year, when the game was right there for the taking, somehow, Carroll's players always came up roses, and Tedford's came up short. I chalk that up to mindset.

But I think those days are over now. I always felt Tedford was sort of in Belotti's head a bit after having been on the same staff, but being a bit sharper offensive strategist than Belotti (which Belotti knew). In a different way, I could see the same sort of thing with Kiffin. Kiffin basically carried Tedford's clipboard when he coached at Fresno State. And while little Lane has certainly made his own way (for better or worse), psychologically, I have to think Tedford still feels like he's forgotten more football than Kiffin's ever known.

That kind of thing rubs off on players. They see it in body language, in the coaching staff's tone of voice all week in meetings, in the way they carry themselves during practice. Tedford and his team had that calm confidence against USC in 2002 through 2004, and it showed on the field. After that, Carroll's teams seemed looser, and Tedford's seemed tighter. I'll never forget a close-up in Cal's offensive huddle in 2008, and almost to a man, every Cal player's eyes were Clockwork Orange-wide open. The team looked rattled and uncomfortable, a far cry from the business-like demeanor of the 2004 team.

In contrast, I expect a pretty confident team to take the field this Saturday. And while I think SC is going to be fired up, I think they are going to be tight. There is no question that team knows it is on a thin precipice. Everyone wants to believe the sanctions don't matter, and losing Carroll doesn't matter. And as long as they're winning, they can go on believing it. But lose three in a row and the dynasty is officially over. I can't imagine that isn't going to cause some tightness at some point in the game if it's close.

As for the x's and o's, nothing really different than every year. It's two pro-style teams trying to establish the run, limit mistakes, and get after the passer. USC has always managed to make plays on both sides of the ball when it counted, and more recently get pressure on the passer and shut down Cal's run game. Same game plan this week.

The past two years, Cal has exposed USC's secondary, but has been unable to capitalize on open receivers, usually due to poor passes or drops. This too, about which much ink has been spilled, will again be a factor this week. Monte has no problem leaving man coverage, maybe 1 safety extremely deep, and giving up a gaping hole in the middle of the field. The key is getting the ball in the air before the receiver gets there. Riley waits too long, which is why he gets his receivers decapitated against SC.

But unlike a lot of folks, I think Cal will be able to run on these guys. Cal has really started to get comfortable with the zone scheme and Vereen is getting a good feel for finding cutback lanes. This is a good scheme to counter SC's speed on defense because it will get defenders out of their gaps, get the ball in Vereen's hands more quickly, and create space for Vereen.

I also think many are making a bit too much about the necessity of passing the ball. Yes you have to stay balanced, but a running team only needs to pass the ball enough to keep the defense honest. With all the screens and quick passes Ludwig has been calling, there is no reason Riley has to win this game with his arm. He just has to make USC pay when the WRs beat the coverage, something he has not been able to do against them.

Cal additionally has to face the fact that Tavecchio may not be as reliable as they'd like. Not sure if it's just a fluke or a bad case of the shanks. But you can't go into the Coliseum unsure about your kicking game. In response, if I'm Tedford, I tell my team this week that we expect TDs in the redzone this week, and we plan to go for it on fourth down inside the 20, not because we don't trust Tavechhio, but because we think we can run it down their throats.

That means every player knows that inside the 20, they have four chances to punch it in. Even if they kick occasionally, that will loosen up the playcalling, take the heat off Riley, and let everyone know it's not about amazing play calling or perfectly choreographed reverses or trick plays - just three yard gain, after three yard gain, after three yard gain.

And that brings me back to mentality. This team needs to regain its toughness. Cal has the athletes and the game plan to beat SC. They just need the stones to go along with it and they'll win. Beating SC in 2003, and then taking them to the brink in 2004, is really what put Tedford and Cal on the map. And they did it by kicking them in the teeth, and combining it with smooth execution. This game is a golden opportunity to get back on the horse and give SC a gentle shove off the edge of the cliff they've been standing on ever since they hired Kiffin.


Anonymous said...

Kareem Kelly had the phantom catch in 2002

pompusone2000 said...


SD said...

Correct Anonymous - thanks. Been changed.

Ken said...

Agreed. CAL needs to be aggressive, going 4 downs in the redzone. Rather go for the 7 and not get it than missing the FG..

old blue said...

Yes, we have the players [and coaches] to beat SC. The problem is, knowing it is one thing and believing it is another. It is indeed a game of players and if Cal's players beieve in themselves, they can win. Like it or not, it still revolves round Riley. He has to (1) perform at a minimum level of competence and (2) avoid making mistakes, like taking sacks and throwing INT's. With that, if the defense plays inspired ball and the run game maintains momentum, we should win.

Anonymous said...

If I had Aaron Rodgers at QB, i'd be pretty calm in the huddle, too. But with Riley, Ayoob, etc...

Yeah, if I could talk to Riley i'd tell him to "just throw the ball", "just let it go", "you got nothing to lose at this point", all great qbs have that don't give a damn attitude, "just let it fly, the hell with it..."!!!!

SD said...

In fairness, what I saw in 08 was not Riley in the huddle, it was Longshore. And Longshore, in his defense, didn't look that way in 2006 or 2007. And Riley actually looks pretty calm out there. It's just that he doesn't play that way.

I do think Tedford just needs to tell Riley to just keep moving the chains. The passes will be there. Just pitch and catch, don't rush, don't over-think being perfect on your throws. Just toss it.

To this end, I'd like to see them move the pocket a bit, roll him out, and give him some clearer vision lanes. He seems to get more comfortable when he's scannig the field rather than moving through pre-determined reads inside the pocket.

Jacob said...

One of the things I enjoyed about Riley as a rookie QB was his ability to move around and find ways of making a play. The top thing that bothers me about veteran Riley is his tendency to stand around looking confused for a few seconds in the pocket. If he focuses on not being a stationary target, and favors moving the chains over hail mary passes I think we will do just fine. As for going for it on 4-7 if we are within field goal range, I'd rather see a field goal. I remember last years Big Game.


Jacob said...

4th and 6 inches, trailing 21 to nothing and we punt it. Turned to my girlfriend and said "We just lost the game". Suffered through the rest of the half and decided that if they brought Riley back on I would turn off my first Cal game. Did and did. When you are losing catastrophically sticking to a losing plan is... you fill in the explicits.


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