Cal vs MSU: A second look

Watching a game live, drunk, and having only a sun-soaked video monitor with fewer pixels than an iphone to watch replays, you tend to miss a few things.  I decided to re-watch the game in hopes of answering a few lingering questions (Did Sundberg blow that snap?  No, it went right through Anger's hands.  Were Nasty Nate's interceptions as bad as they seemed?  No, they were worse.).   Beer helped my write some truly insightful insights in my notebook, like "SYD'BONER" after this play:

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Syd's hit wasn't the only thing hard.

Thanks to zoonews, I also discovered the beauty of Tivo's 8 second rewind button and slow motion replay, but a word of caution to you slowmoers out there: before watching the same screen shots 7 times in an effort to grab a player's number, see if another replay from a better angle immediately follows.  It will save you several minutes and some dignity.

Here's what I saw upon closer inspection:

1) Cal's pass rush was a lot better than it seemed.

No, Cal didn't record a sack.  Zero sacks won't cut it for much of the season, and after hyping the Cal D-Line for the last 6 months I was pretty disappointed that they didn't make me look good.  But even though they never dropped Hoyer for a loss, the Cal pass rush applied consistent pressure from the first drive (Rulon Davis @ 11:07 left in the first quarter) to the last (both Defensive Ends @ 0:27 left in the fourth quarter).

 

In general, blitzing (especially up the middle) wasn't as effective as I would have hoped, though a Worrell Williams inside blitz at 0:15 in the second quarter caused Hoyer's ill-advised interception to Syd'Boner Thompson.  On the other hand, Cal was often able to pressure Hoyer rushing only three down linemen, such as the pass with 0:27 left in the fourth.  Hoyer spent much of the game fading away and throwing off his back foot due to the pass rush, which led to a few completions, many incompletions, and the aforementioned interception.  Against less experienced quarterbacks that hold the ball longer (Hoyer is a 5th year senior), this pressure will cause sacks.

 

This probably won't come as a revelation, but the D-Line and outside linebackers also did a great job playing the run.  Rulon Davis and Tyson Alualu repeatedly beat MSU tackles, penetrating upfield to snuff out run plays (for those of you with the torrent, look at 5:45 in the 1st & 5:15 in the 3rd).  Eddie Young in particular did a fantastic job stringing run plays to the outside; watch him take out two blockers at the 4 minute mark in the 1st quarter.  Both outside linebackers played very close to the line of scrimmage for much of the game, effectively playing a 3-4/5-2 hybrid and making it difficult for Ringer to turn the corner.

 

2) Keith Browner is a beast

After watching Cameron Jordan and Ernest Owusu at defensive end during spring practice, I was sure they would make an immediate impact.  But Jordan was suspended for a DUI two weeks ago and Owusu was largely invisible.  Instead, redshirt sophomore Keith Browner, not even listed in the two deep, was everywhere in limited minutes.  He played well on MSU's two minute drive before halftime aside from jumping offsides at around 1:10.  He penetrated the MSU O-Line to stuff a run with 50 seconds left in the third, and snuffed out a screen at 14:44 to go in the fourth.  I'm excited to see what Jordan can do against WSU this weekend, but Browner may be the biggest surprise so far.

 

3) Nate looked worse on TV

The first throw to Morrah was right on the money, but his mechanics were bad.  Instead of stepping up into the pocket (as Riley did all night), he was nearly parallel to the line of scrimmage as he flung the ball across his body.  It showed good arm strength, but you want to use your body to throw the ball, not fight against it.

The first interception didn't look terrible in person, as Wiley hid behind another defender before Nate released the ball.  What I didn't notice in person was a second defender coming across the field behind Wiley; if Wiley hadn't picked it, I think the other defender would have at least batted it down, and if you probably shouldn't throw into double coverage in the red zone.  For the second interception, I wrote "Abysmal pass 5 yards behind.  Horrible."  I should have included "into quadruple coverage."

 

The one silver lining, especially to someone sitting on the east side of the stadium and probably to pussies like HydroTech and BearsNecessity (kidding!), was that the boos were much less noticeable on TV than they were in person.  After a few seconds of grumbling, the mic men started a stadium wide "Go Bears" chant that was very clear and much louder than the boos.  Thanks, mic men, for preventing us from looking like the douchebags that we are.

4) Conservative offensive gameplan

More than half of the passes thrown by Riley were swings, screens, or quick drops with only one read.  The third down pass on our first series (9:05 in the 1st) was a 4 yard clear out for Best when we needed 8 yards.  The coaches obviously wanted to keep things simple for Riley in his first start; his job was to take care of the ball and not lose the game.  I expect the coaches to open things up very gradually over the next three games in order to keep building Riley's confidence and comfort leading the offense; we probably won't need Riley to be a hero to win the next three games, but we will need the entire playbook to beat ASU. 

 

Interestingly, Nate's first interception came on a more complicated pattern, as Nate attempted to look off defenders to the left and throw back across the middle.  Nate has more experience, and the coaches seemed more comfortable opening up the playbook for him.  I doubt they're as comfortable with him now.

5) We miss Craig Stevens

I've been worried about our blocking from the tight end position all year, and we've got a ways to go until it's ironed out.  Tad Smith whiffed on a block at the 1:40 mark of the second quarter, but Best somehow made something out of nothing and got to the corner for a touchdown.  With 1:40 remaining in the fourth quarter, Cal had a 2nd and 6 around midfield and needed a first down to run out the clock.  Cameron Morrah was destroyed by Greg Jones (the Spartans top linebacker, it bears mentioning) and Best was tackled for a 5 yard loss.  If Morrah gets a good block at this point, we might be looking at a 3rd and 3 instead of a 3rd and 11 and may not have to give the ball back to the Spartans.

 

6) We don't miss Brian De La Puente

This isn't to denigrate De La Puente, our graduated left guard, in any way.  He was all Pac-10 honorable mention last year and made the Chiefs roster as a free agent.  But watching Chris Guarnero in his first start, it's clear why the Cal coaches moved him from backup center into a starting position with Mack returning for his senior year.  He had a nice weakside block with 7 seconds left in the first quarter and a couple other strong blocks early in the second (14:15 & 11:48) before being beaten at 10:30 to force a punt. 

 

At 3:05 left in the second, we saw our present and future centers open a HUGE hole for Best, who might have gone for a touchdown if he had not run into Sean Young.  And at 3:00 in the 4th, Guarnero cleared out the strong side for Best's Marshawn bodyslam run. 

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Twist sleeps with this photo under his pillow

via www.goldenbearsports.com

Along with Mitchell Schwartz, who also had a strong game and helped spring Shane Vereen on his 80 yard TD run, the future of our offensive line looks bright.

7) Those misdirection goal-line plays were awesome

Yeah, they looked awesome in person but they were even better on replay.  The first TD pass to Cameron Morrah at the 6 minute mark in the third quarter completely froze stud OLB Greg Jones.  Jones looked in every direction as Morrah released into the endzone for an easy score.  Of course, Jones got his revenge later on the aforementioned 5 yard loss, but Morrah (and really Cignetti) won this round.

 

The second TD pass built on the first one.  Morrah ran a similar route but this time brought the outside man (in this case a safety) with him...allowing Ta'ufo'ou to release from the backfield untouched into the vacated area.  Although Forsett up the middle for no gain was a favorite of mine, I think I'll get used to Cignetti's goal-line offense.

 

8) Terrible play that was worse on TV

With 3:15 left in the 4th, MSU had the ball in Cal territory down 14.  Hoyer threw to Dell in the middle of the field between three Cal defenders.  Syd went for the pick and missed, and Hicks gave a half hearted shoulder shove which Dell easily bounced shook off.  He went in for the touchdown to make it a one possession game.  In this situation, all you're really concerned about is tackling the guy in bounds and not giving up a big play.  Thompson and Hicks, our two most experienced defensive backs, barely attempted a tackle between the two of them and let MSU back into the game.

 

9) Terrible play that wasn't as bad on TV

True freshman linebacker Mychal Kendricks kept a 97 yard MSU scoring drive alive with a roughing the punter penalty at 12:00 in the fourth.  From the stands, it looked like Kendricks hesitated before deciding to shove the MSU punter to the ground, but on closer inspection it appears his momentum carried him into the punter.  Still a terrible play, but not as blatant as I first thought.

10) Great play that wasn't as good on TV

Darian Hagan's spectacular interception simultaneous catch at 5:35 in the fourth would have been a pick if he had used his hands to grab the ball, instead of trying to cradle it with his body.  Still a great break on the ball, but an interception beats a 50 yard completion.

 

11) Great play that was better on TV

TIE.  Riley's pass to Morrah while being dragged down on 3rd and 13 (7:15 in the 4th) was phenomenal, but what I didn't see at the time was how nice of a spiral and how strong of a throw it was.  It may have looked like a desperation pass (and it was), but it was thrown with a clear plan and purpose, and with a surprising amount of arm strength.

The inside wide receiver screen to Sean Young on 3rd & long with 9:15 in the 4th was beautifully executed.  Sean Young did a great job weaving in and out of traffic, but it was the downfield blocking, particularly by Noris Malele, that made it possible.

Go Bears!

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