Cal fans are sure eager to watch a January game in this House of Horrors.
Playing the Bruins has never been easy for Jeff Tedford. In our home victories, the Bears can never comfortably put UCLA away until late in the 2nd half. And when we go to LA, all sorts of foul bad luck bedevils us, things that belie strategy, planning, and even execution.
So I write up this preview with total certainty that about 95% of what I write will be invalidated by a few fluky plays or some utter nonsense that'll end with one team's fanbase churning. Beating the Bruins has never been easy, and based on what I've seen of both teams this season, I don't see that changing that much
UCLA Pass Offense versus Cal Pass Defense
Riley has a fairly strong arm that can take the ball to most places around the field, but he's scatter-shot. The ball he throws can reach anywhere on the field, but as of late has sailed wide, high, or long of its intended target.
Prince, by contrast, doesn't have a particularly strong arm yet. Oh, there are times he can put it up for a receiver (including that play action fake to Randall Carroll that the frosh dropped), but those moments are few and far between. When asked to throw anything that isn't a three step drop, he's erratic, and his throws often end up nowhere. With slants, screens, dumpoff options, and anything short range he's excellent though, which makes him the closest thing to the reverse of Riley.
In other words, he can do exactly what Oregon did to destroy Cal--throw the short pass and break down the zone defense. That's always a worrisome sign. Hopefully Gregory will be a little bit more aggressive (he showed signs against USC) with an offense that just doesn't have the wheels, and let his secondary get a chance to make plays and shut down UCLA's passing.
If Prince can get into his five step drop and find his receivers for 15-20 yard gains like Barkley though, then I'll start popping out the scotch and drink drink drink.
UCLA Run Offense versus Cal Run Defense
Although the Bruin run game has not lit it up, they shouldn't be underestimated. Jonathan Franklin is very capable of hitting the holes, has a good command of what to do behind his offensive line and hit the holes. He's lacks the breakaway speed and only has limited cutback ability, and he struggles rushing to the outside. But he's strong, and he grinds yards, and that's what exactly you want from a guy with a youthful O-line that can't execute all its blocks.
UCLA does have a platoon of running backs: Damien Thigpen, Christian Ramirez, Chane Moline, Derrick Coleman. They all saw action in the Furd and Oregon games, and you'd expect a healthy mix of at least several of these guys trying to spell Franklin with some quality carries.
This is a battle Cal must win. Although they settled down after the McKnight TD run, they've still got a lot of improving to do. This is a young, inexperienced offensive line and Cal's defensive linemen need to punish them like Muhammed Ali on Ernie Terrell. Make sure that Bruins offense knows your name when you're done, Tyson.
Norm Chow's playcalling reflects that: He hasn't really taken many risks with Prince back there. His team practices a very conservative, some might say stodgy form of offense on the field, where they generally run the ball on 1st down, run the ball backed up in their own end zone, run the ball in the red zone. Between the margins Chow lets the Bruins pass a little bit more since there's less risk of a disastrous error.
It's funny that people criticize Tedford and Ludwig's playcalling when Chow is probably the standard bearer of conventional. And he's supposed to be the offensive master.
A few little tidbits I saw from Chow's offense
- The Bruins ran a wildcat formation once and handed off for a modest gain. They also did it against the Furd with Ramirez.
- The Bruins ran some formations out of the Pistol (mostly running), and used plenty of pre-snap motion.
- Chow likes bringing his running backs out of the backfield as a dumpoff option, similar to how he used Reggie Bush in 2004. He used the fullback on one 3rd and short and occasional screens to the running back in both the Furd and Oregon games.
- There was a lot of max protect schemes that put more guys in coverage, sometimes having them slip off to be the dump option for Prince. Chow seems concerned about making sure the Bruins don't give up sacks and make things manageable for his quarterback, so he doesn't get pressed into making serious mistakes.
- Chow still exploits mismatches, although most of the time it's just making sure Prince throws to the guy that's less likely to be covered. In essence, the mismatch Chow tries to find is receiver guarded by no one.
- In general, you see few risks from Chow, since it's clear he doesn't (and probably shouldn't at this point) trust Prince to throw to the flats. He wants safe spots for Prince to pick up safe yards. Sometimes it pays off, sometimes it doesn't.
- The one time Prince tried a lazy throw to the outside against Oregon, pick-sixed, game essentially over. I'd be very surprised if Prince threw anything to the outside that wasn't a screen or didn't involve a receiver getting huge coverage space. Will Bob Gregory concede that space?
Cal Offense vs UCLA Defense
The UCLA front seven is only a step down from USC's. Now, USC's current front seven isn't as great as their 2008 incarnation, but they're pretty good. However, not even the Trojans have a gamechanging tackle like the monstrous Brian Price, who can alone disrupt what an offensive line wants to do. Good luck to Summers-Gavin and Cheadle, who will likely draw this monstrous assignment.
Watching a few series on the Furd-UCLA game, this Bruins D-line can be dominated for periods.
However, tell me if this sounds familiar. UCLA set up to stop the opponent's stud running back, dared the Furd to throw deep and burn them. The Cardinal utilized the power run scheme with Gerhart, but also (most importantly) were able to connect on deep throws to their receivers (interesting note: Harbaugh seemed to watch last year's Cal-UCLA game too, using the flea-flicker to draw the Bruins deep and complete a big throw that set up the third Cardinal score).
Cal's passing game hasn't been able to step up when the run game fell apart. We should expect the Bruins to do exactly the same. No defense in the Pac-10 is going to respect Riley until he shows he's worthy of it.
What gives you hope? The list of quarterbacks UCLA has shut down: Nate Costa, Jonathan Crompton, Carson Coffman. The one quarterback they haven't shut down was Andrew Luck, and he's far from a finished product. Unfortunately, at this point I have no idea which category Riley lies in--at this point it's a tossup, but he does have the potential to play like Luck. He hasn't shown it in conference play though.
Although Bear-killer Alterraun Verner is still back here, the rest of the UCLA secondary is young, so hopefully Cal's receivers can take advantage of that. Play-action roll-outs (which Luck did well on a few occasions) could be just the trick for Riley, as long as his receivers can evade man coverage. Having Boateng back could be critical to break down the open areas UCLA's coverage schemes provide (usually 8-10 yards down the flats or 5-10 yds around the hashmarks). Also, look for Anthony Miller, Vereen and Best to be featured in the passing attack if Riley and his receivers continue their connection issues.
Cal run game versus UCLA run defense
As for Cal's offensive line against UCLA's front seven, the pass protection should hopefully be alright. The Bears were much improved against USC (giving up three sacks is pretty good, although they're still vulnerable off the edge), so you have to figure the line will play better, especially with Summers-Gavin coming back burning for redemption after Oregon. UCLA is good but not great in pass rush, although we did say the same things about Oregon.
The Furd ran a lot of power run by pulling a guard, but also some sweep plays where they pushed Gerhart toward the outside and had the O-line run with him. Cal's O-line is much heavier though and really can't provide that mobility, and Best is the furthest thing from Gerhart. So that's probably not the best equivalent, although we might see some power blocks here and there.
The better model for us is probably Oregon. Oregon's zone blocking had pretty good success racking up 200 yards, and this was with Nate Costa fairly shut down. The Bruins have had a lot of trouble defending outside runs, especially if they're able to seal off Price. It would be interesting to see of the Bears try pulling their guards a little more to force Price out into the open and away from the action, since you figure the Bruins would commit more men to the side of the line where Price is not.
If Cal's O-line can replicate the successes of zone blocking with Oregon (LaMichael James ate UCLA up, and he's probably the closest equivalent to Best in the conference), and get some success in the air, it might be all the Bears need from their offense to hold on.
For those who are confused with everything I just said, Bruins Nation broke down Cal's running game pretty well, including a nice look at how we utilized the Wildcat last week.
Cal has shown a direct snap look as well as a Wildcat in their last game against USC (the two aren't the same). The direct snap plays they showed against Oregon and USC mainly involved snapping the ball to Jahvid Best and letting him run - nothing fancy. It worked once against the Ducks because someone missed a tackle. They also tried to get fancy and run a sort of counter-type play out of the direct snap, but they didn't get anywhere with it. The TV announcers were talking about this being their "Wildcat", but I don't agree - it's just a direct snap to your great athlete and letting him work.
As far as the "true" Wildcat, Cal's version isn't full-grown yet. Not sure if they just installed it for USC week, but they didn't really seem to be all that comfortable with it, and just used it on a few drives late in the game. For those of you who didn't get to see the original Wildcat as run by Darren McFadden and the Arkansas Razorbacks, the Wildcat is three main things:
- Unbalanced line - providing a different look to align against, tilted towards the speed sweep side
- Fly motion across the formation - immediate threat to the outside
- An athlete to receive the snap - this is the most obvious trait and the one that gets pointed to first
- Series-based football of plays that complement each other
It'd be fun to see the Wildcat this week, although I'd prefer we use it when we're ahead rather than behind, just to give the defense we're facing something to think of.
If Cal can put up 20+ points on the board, I'll be very pleased, since I'm not sure if the Bruins offense is capable of three touchdowns. If they can get to 30+, I'll be ecstatic--a performance like that will show us that the Bears offense is back on track
Cal Special Teams vs UCLA Special Teams
Percentage of field goals made? UCLA 9th, Cal 111th.
Punting? UCLA 6th, Cal 69th.
Punt returns? UCLA 44th, Cal 88th.
Kickoffs? UCLA 10th, Cal 99th.
Kick returns? UCLA 35th, Cal 44th.
Punt return coverage? UCLA 21st, Cal 110th.
Kick return coverage? Cal 32nd, UCLA 118th.
5 special teams advantages for the Bruins in what figures to be a low-scoring, defensive battle. Why shouldn't we be worried?