Cal @ UCLA Post-Game Thoughts

(1) Riley played well.  I can't really remember any bad passes off the top of my head.  He looked pretty sharp today.  His passes to Marvin Jones were right on the money.  His pass to Best was perfect.  There was even a quasi throw-away pass that Riley threw on the run which was perfectly placed where only the wide receiver could catch it (although the pass ended up being incomplete).  I was really impressed with Riley's ball placement today.  He wasn't just making the throws today, but also was placing the ball very well too. 

Riley showed pretty good pocket presence and would scramble when things started breaking down.  His gutsy play on his QB scrambles and QB draws was inspiring.  He just seemed calmer and more poised today than in previous games.  Perhaps it's mental, or perhaps it's because the offensive line wasn't sucking like it did against Oregon and the offense wasn't facing USC's defense.  Riley's completion percentage today was 60.1% - which is fair, but I think Riley played better than his completion percentage suggests.

(2) Cal's inside zone runs tip off the defense to which side the offense is going to run to before the snap.  These are the plays where Cal motions a WR who stops on the backside (the side of the offense that Cal is running away from) to block the backside defender.  When Cal does this, it's obvious it's a run as since Cal doesn't playaction out of the inside zone (we have in previous years but we really haven't seen it this year).  It also tips off the defense as to which way the run is going. 

I guess Ludwig likes the inside zone as since it has become the blocking scheme that Cal has used the most this year.  Last year the outside zone was our most-used blocking scheme and it was pretty dominant.  I actually like the outside zone better because it doesn't tip off the defense as to which way the run is going and because it gives Best and Vereen more options on where they can run.  However, the fact that Cal isn't using the outside zone runs this year must mean Ludwig feels we're not quite suited for it.  If that's true, that must mean he's thinking our offensive line this year doesn't have the quickness and athleticism to get moving laterally very quickly - as is required with the outside zone.  Anyways, I wouldn't mind seeing more outside zone runs rather than these telegraphed inside zone runs.  But maybe I'm making too much out of this issue.  In previous years, Cal's power man blocking schemes always telegraphed which way the run was going because Cal ran its power scheme to the strong side of the offense like 98% of the time.  Even when Cal let the defense know which way it was running its power scheme, our run offense was still pretty dominant and we would average like 6.0 yards a rush anyways.

(3) Cal's running game was pretty inconsistent.  Case in point: Jahvid Best had 102 yards on 18 rushes, 93 yards of which came from one run.  That means Best gained a whopping 9 yards on the other 17 rush attempts.  Yeesh.  This isn't a diss on Best, but moreso a diss on our offensive line.  I know UCLA's stellar defensive tackle Brian Price was blowing things up left and right, but still.  If it wasn't for Best's and Vereen's big play potential, I don't think Cal's offensive line had enough in them to sustain a drive.  Thankfully, Cal's passing game showed up today and it didn't put too much of a burden on the Cal rushing attack.  Cal's blocking still has to get stronger at the point of attack.  Right now, it's pretty lacking no matter what scheme we use.  Power hasn't been that great, inside zones haven't been that great, outside zones have actually sucked this year, and the outside toss sweeps haven't been great.  Best's sick Reggie Bush-like touchdown run came on a toss sweep, and if it wasn't for Jahvid Best being so sick (in the "awesome" slang sense, not in the influenza sense), that play would have been stopped for a loss because UCLA was on that play like white on rice. I'm a little surprised we didn't see more outside zone runs today and toss sweeps to get the ball away from Price as since he was blowing everything up in the middle.

Overall, I think this year's offense is fairly mediocre despite our Heisman runningback.  The run blocking hasn't always been there (but Best's and Vereen's big play potential makes up for it sometimes), and Cal's passing game has been off and on.  When both the running and passing are working, Cal's offense has enough firepower to put games away.  But it's when one isn't working when things start turning south.  Cal's offense is going to have to turn things around this season to win out.

(4) Gregory continues to use more man coverage in pass defense.  In the first three games of the season, Cal used zone defenses perhaps on 90% of the plays it ran to defend against passing plays.  After Oregon destroyed our zones with pump fakes, Gregory switched to more gutsier man defenses against USC.  Gregory still used the man coverage pretty often against UCLA.  I think the amount of man and zone that Cal is using now is perhaps closer to 40/60 man to zone.  I suppose this will please most Cal fans as since it appears that many of us react very negatively to zone defenses - although nobody was complaining about the zone defenses last year and in 2006 when we were intercepting balls left and right.  I think it's good that Gregory is mixing up the man/zone coverages up more.  I think that by mixing it up more often that the opposing QB doesn't quite get in that rhythm of always knowing he's going to see zone and knowing what he has to do.  I mean, the opposing QB is almost always going to know what coverages Cal is playing before the snap.  So it's not so much that mixing up the coverages is confusing the QB - it's just keeping him out of that mental and dropback rhythm of timed passes. 

Also, the benefit of using zone coverages is that it allows the cornerbacks to get more involved in run defense.  When cornerbacks are playing man coverage, they're looking at the WRs they're covering instead of the QB and the ball, and are often "run off" the play by the WRs.  But with zone coverages, the cornerbacks are watching the QB and the ball, and can tell whether the play is run or pass, and therefore help in run support if it's a run.

So there's advantages and disadvantages of using man or zone.  The reason why Syd had so many great run stops early this season was because Gregory was playing zones a lot and it allowed Syd to peek at the QB and the ball to see the play.  If Gregory continues using man coverages, you're probably going to see the offenses get more easy runs to the outside where the WRs are running off the cornerbacks (because the cornerbacks don't know if the play is run or pass because in man coverage they're looking at the WRs).

(5) Cal's pass rush was pretty weak.  Outside of Tyson Alualu, our guys on the defensive line really aren't doing that great of a job getting pressure on the QB.  Jordan has had a very quiet year thus far and I think he's been a bit over-hyped by the Cal fanbase.  I mean, there were some people saying he was going to go pro early.  No.  Not gonna happen.  He's been largely disarmed from game to game by individual offensive linemen.  Cal really lacks a dominant pass rush on the whole from both the defensive line and the linebackers.  I think this problem will continue throughout the year and come back to bite us. 

Seeing who is good at pass rush is pretty easy.  The top two things I look for are (1) explosion off the line; and (2) penetration (a product of good technique, quickness and sheer power).  Alualu gets off the line very fast and gets penetration very quickly.  As for our other defensive linemen... eh, not so much.

(6) I would have liked to see Cal use the delayed blitz a little earlier, or perhaps twist the defensive ends in.  As I said in my previous point, Cal's pass rush was pretty weak.  UCLA was blocking for Prince very well on pass plays.  Prince was stepping up into the pocket to avoid the deep Cal defensive end pass rush.  Naturally, the next step to counter good pass blocking and a QB that steps up into the pocket is to delay blitz, and twist the defensive ends in.  Gregory finally got around to using the delayed blitz late in the game and it led to a nice Eddie Young sack which stopped a UCLA drive on a critical 3rd down.  But we never quite saw the defensive ends twisting in.  By that, I mean, the defensive ends would take a step up the field as if on their normal pass rush, then cut back inside behind the inside pass rushers.  Well, since Cal uses the 3-4, the twisting would probably be done by one of the DEs and an outside linebacker rather than both of the DEs.  By twisting, the outside pass rushers are relocated to the inside and right into the area where the opposing QB will be stepping up into the pocket.  Not quite sure why we didn't see this today.  But what do I know?  I'm just a couch potato.

(7) Vereen fumbling kickoff returns a bit too much.  Okay, so this has only happened twice.  Once against USC, and against UCLA, but it's a bit concerning.  Today against UCLA, Vereen wasn't even looking into the sun (the sun was behind Vereen).  But Vereen just fumbled the catch and destroyed any chance of a return.  Fumbling these kickoff returns is also dangerous because that's a live ball.  If the ball gets away from Vereen it can be recovered by the kickoff coverage defense for a score, or perhaps a safety if Vereen bobbles the ball, steps out of endzone, then has to go back into the endzone to recover the ball.  Clean catches is just one of those small things that can't go wrong because there is huge potential for losing the ball or getting backed up against your own goalline. 

(8) Kickoff coverage continues to suck.  I'm a pretty tolerant guy.  While most Cal fans have been calling for special teams coach Alamar's head on a silver platter for like the past 7 years, only now am I finally getting fed up.  I even had a dream on the Friday night before the game that he had been fired.  Anyways, here is where UCLA started their drives this game:

36, 48, 48, 39, 24, 27, 22, 38, 20, 20, 33, 23, 16, 32, and 47. 

That's an average of 31.5.  So UCLA was starting at their 31.5 yardline on average.  If you take out the touchbacks, then UCLA is starting at their own 33.3 yard line.  In other words, the opposing offense only needs to go about 30 yards to be within field goal range.  These starting field positions cannot be so advantageous.  I'm not quite sure what it is about or kick coverage, but it just doesn't cut it.

(9) Whether a punt returner decides to fair catch or return a punt depends on the quality of blocking by the punt return team, and the decision is up to the punt returner.  I'm not trying to pick on people here, but I think I have to talk about this - not because there was an argument about this in the live thread, but also because I've heard people at games saying really ridiculous comments regarding punt return.  I guess how punt return works is not common knowledge (just like it's apparently not common knowledge that liquid dish washing soap cannot be used in dish washers!).

Whether the punt returner decides to return the punt or not, is a choice purely up to him.  The coaches do not tell the punt returner prior to the play whether to fair catch or not.  This may seem obvious, but against USC two weeks ago, I heard someone in the stands say "why do the coaches always tell Syd to fair catch???  They should tell him to return it!!!"  I had an epic face-to-palm after hearing that comment.

So basically, as the punt is in the air, and as the punt returner is watching the ball in the air, the punt returner uses his peripheral vision to "see" whether the punt return coverage is good enough to allow him to catch the ball safely, and return the ball. 

That's it.  It merely comes down to how good the punt return blocking is, and whether the punt returner feels he can make the catch and return the ball upfield, or not.  Nothing is pre-determined.  The coaches aren't telling the punt returner prior to the play to fair catch or not.  The punt returner doesn't fair catch because that's what he likes to do. The coaches and the players want to return punts.  They do!  Believe it or not, they do!  The coaches are not going to pull a punt returner from the game because he fair catches too much. As I said, sometimes the punt return coverage sucks and the punt returner has to fair catch.  Sometimes the scheme dictates that the punt returner will have to fair catch.  For example, if the punt coverage team is trying to block the punt (as in a full-out block rather than the usual punt scheme which sends some defenders on punt block and punt return blocking), then the punt returner will more than likely have to fair catch because all of the punt return coverage men went for the block and didn't block the defenders.

It comes down to the punt return coverage, and the punt returner.  The quality of the punt coverage (and sometimes the scheme itself) that will essentially influence whether the punt is returned or fair caught, but nothing is predetermined.  The coaches prefer that all punts are returned if possible.

(10) Ludwig breaks out the split backs formation.  If you watch the team in pre-game warmups, the team uses this formation quite a bit.  We've never seen it in the games itself, but it finally got used today.  Cal passed out of this formation which is pretty normal as since split backs is a fairly weak run formation. 

(11) Ludwig pulls a guard on playaction for added deception.  On the touchdown pass to Best, and on another play action play, Ludwig showed off a new blocking scheme.  This scheme pulls a guard across the formation (on the TD pass to Best the left guard pulled to the edge of the right side of the offensive line) to set up on the edge for pass blocking.  The purpose of guard pull is to make the play look more like a run play to the defense.  Defenses often watch, or key in, on the movements of the offensive line (against Cal, defenses especially key in on the guards because Cal likes to pull its guards) to determine whether the play is a run or pass.  If a guard pulls, the play is usually a run.  For example, Cal's power man blocking run schemes pull guards.  So by pulling a guard on a playaction pass, it really makes the play look like a run.  Indeed, Cal had the UCLA defense fooled pretty bad.  UCLA's safeties bit HARD on the fake. 

Cal has hasn't really used pulling linemen on pass plays.  The only time I can really remember this happening was in 2007 against Oregon State.  On that play, Cal pulled center Alex Mack on a non-playaction passing play.

(12) Cal uses both the number/wristband system, and the hand signals system to send in plays.  There is apparently some confusion about this.  Perhaps I am also to blame for this confusion because I've talked about this a few times and I think my statements have varied (although I'll explain why below).  If so, I apologize.

The number/wristband system is what Cal used since (at least) 2006.  I'm not sure what system Cal used in 2005 and prior.  But in 2006, under former offensive coordinator Mike Dunbar, Cal would use the number/wristband system.  This system would have the sideline QB (only one QB sending signals) signal in a hand signal corresponding to a number to the QB on the field.  The QB on the field would read what number was sent into him, and look on his wristband for the corresponding play.

The hand signal system uses hand signals to signal in the entire play.  There are no numbers used.  The hand signals say EVERYTHING.  They say the formation.  They say what the play is going to be.  If you can figure out these hand signals, you can know what play Cal is going to run before they snap the ball (you also have to figure out which QB is live and which is the dummy). 

I know for a fact that Cal was using the number/wristband system from 2006 to 2008.  I know this because it was in 2006 that I learned the hand signals and began watching the sideline QBs.  This year (2009), Cal started off the year using mostly the hand signal system.  Actually, Cal used both the hand signals and the number/wristband system, but used the hand signals more often.  Perhaps 70% hand signals and 30% number/wristband system.  Now though, half way through the season, things have flipped, and it appears as if Cal is using 30% hand signals and 70% number/wristband system. 

Why has there been this change?  Well, I don't think it has to do with simplifying anything for Riley, as was suggested by a commenter.  Afterall, whether the team sends in plays via numbers or actual hand signals doesn't influence whether the play is any simpler for Riley or not.  The play is still the same.  It's merely the form that the play is transmitted to Riley which has changed.  Instead, I think this just goes to show that Ludwig is just calling more plays that he expected to call in the game.  You see, the plays that Ludwig expects to call, usually go on the wristband.  Plays which Ludwig perhaps doesn't expect to call, and that don't make it on the wristband, are signaled in via hand. 

So what's the point of using numbers/wristband versus hand signals?  The most obvious reason for using the number/wristband system is that the number/wristband system is near impossible to pick.  At the very best, if you astutely observe the numbers being sent in, at the very most you can say "they're going to run play number 23 again!"  If you remembered what play number 23 was when they ran it the first time, then you will be able to know what they're running again.  But the number/wristband system is impossible to pick unless you have the wristband to see what plays correspond with what number. 

But I think the real advantage of using the hand signal system over the number/wristband system, is that such a system allows the offensive coordinator to call the play that perfectly fits the situation at hand.  The wristbands only hold 150 plays (300 if you want to count the flipped version of each play).  Sometimes the play you want, isn't one of those 150 plays.  But with the hand signal system, it's not a problem.  The offensive coordinator just tells the sideline QBs to run XYZ play - the play that the offensive coordinator wants but isn't on the wristband, and the sideline QBs will signal in XYZ play.  Voila! 

(13) Cal's new 10 man defense is probably due to all the subbing and player injuries.  It was widely reported that Cal did a lot of subbing against UCLA because of the heat.  Not surprising, Cal did its first ten man defense this game too.  It happens.  It shouldn't.  But it does.  It gets even more confusing when you have injuries.  Once you have guys that are injured, as well as lots of subbing, it gets crazy confusing on who is in and out.  Yes, the coach in the box could have seen this problem.  But at the same time, I think it's almost understandable if he doesn't because he's dialing up the next play and also watching the offense to see what the offense is doing.  He doesn't really watch the defense because he knows what the defense is doing (or more correctly: he assume he knows what the defense is doing).  So the blame really comes down to the players themselves (those on the sidelines and in the game) for not adequately notifying their substitutes to go in, and the sideline coaches for not making sure they were getting one for one substitutions as oppose to one for none substitutions.

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