Cal vs. Oregon State Post-Game Thoughts

(1) To send more pass rushers or to not send more pass rushers?  For most of the game Gregory was sending 4 pass rushers.  Sometimes he'd send 5 if he was feeling a little frisky.  But for the most part, only 4 pass rushers were devoted to pressuring Canfield.  I agree with this strategy.  I do not think more pass rushers should have been sent to pressure Canfield. 

I'm sure that last sentence is quite shocking to a lot of Cal fans - especially the ones advocating for a more aggressive defense that sends more than just three or four pass rushers.  Even I, initially, in the CGB podcast last week, suggested that perhaps this is the game where Gregory just needs to get crazy ultra aggressive and send lots of pass rushers because Canfield is so good that he can pick apart 7 and 8 man zones anyways. 

I made that statement prior to seeing film on Canfield.  Subsequently (but still prior to the game), I was directed to some video of Canfield's completions against USC's defense over at Trojanfootballanalysis.com.  After seeing that film, I decided that blitzing Canfield was not really the correct strategy.  Why?  Canfield gets the ball out so quickly and efficiently.  He hits his TEs and RBs on short check-downs to neutralize the blitz.  When an offense's QB can get the ball out quickly against a blitzing defense, it just neutralizes the blitz and allows the offense to gain big yardage (see the final Cal drive of the 2009 Cal vs. Arizona State game for a pretty good Cal example of this).  Blitzing against an offense that can get the ball out that quickly and efficiently is extremely risky, and has much less reward than normal blitzing strategies.  Canfield was getting the ball out extremely quick - and against USC's very fast pass rush too!  USC's pass rush is much faster than Cal's pass rush, yet Canfield neutralized them.  It doesn't matter if Cal was sending five or six pass rushers per down to get a quicker pass rush, Canfield still probably would have been able to get the ball out.  He did it against USC's faster defense and I have little doubt he would have done it to Cal's defense. 

So what do you do?  How do you defend such an efficient QB?  Play really good coverage.  Tighten up those zones.  Make Canfield hold onto the ball longer and pray that your pass rush gets to him.  Perhaps man up, play man coverage, and a little bump and run to knock the QB/WR timing off. 

But I'm sure most of us are thinking that Cal is no good at playing coverage.  That is true.  But Cal is pretty bad at pass rushing the QB too.  Essentially Gregory is presented with two evils: (1) Blitz Canfield with a poor pass rushers in hopes that pressure does get to him and open yourself up to big gains; (2) cover the field with some poor coverage defenders, and hope that Canfield makes a mistake or your pass rush gets to him.  Gregory had to choose the lesser of two evils.

Both strategies have their pros and cons.  But I think that option #2 is the safer option that gives Cal a better chance to win.  Option #2 would force Canfield and the OSU offense to drive the field for longer increasing the chances they'd make a mistake.  Option #1 could lead Canfield to drive the field in only a few plays leaving little chance for them to make mistakes. 

But Option #1 comes with greater possibility of sacks, say you!  True.  But did you watch that film of Canfield?  Did you see how quickly he got that ball out against a USC defense that is faster than Cal's defense?  I'm sure Gregory had little doubt that Canfield could repeat that performance against us.  Thus, Gregory opted for option #2: cover the field with some poor coverage defenders, and hope that Canfield makes a mistake or your pass rush gets to him.

FYI, Canfield's was only sacked by USC 3 times on 47 pass attempts against USC (43 pass attempts + 1 positive rush gain + 3 sacks) for a percentage of 6.4%.  That's a pretty low success percentage.  A very low success percentage.  It's just about not even worth it to blitz when the success rate is that low. 

In summary, our pass rush sucks.  Our coverage sucks.  OSU's passing offense is great at neutralizing blitzes.  Gregory was presented with two options: (1) blitz and get defeated quickly; or (2) not-blitz and get defeated slowly.  He opted for option #2 in hopes that the slow death might result in OSU mistakes which would kill drives (penalties, turnovers).  I can't blame Gregory for his decision.  I think it was the right one.  It was the lesser of the two evils.

Tedford understands this concept of not being overly aggressive against great offenses that can get the ball out quickly.  In yesterday's press luncheon he said:

On how to pressure Arizona's quarterback against a line that has only yielded four sacks so far this season and whether that is a concern
"There's no question. I don't know that you're [going to get to Wildcats QB Nick Foles]. You can try to get to him, but they get the ball out so fast, that I don't know. [Even] if they just let a guy run free off the edge, they probably get the ball off. So there's a lot of times where they get the ball out very quickly. But that doesn't mean you just abandon the rush. There's going to have to be times that we mix it up and we pressure and we cover. So that's how we're going to have to go into it." 

Clearly, Tedford is conflicted.  Of course he wants to pressure the Arizona QB, but he's afraid that it would be futile in some instances.  Nevertheless, he does surrender to the idea that you're just going to have to roll the dice some times and bring the pressure - although he seems to imply that the use of added pressure via additional pass rushers is something very strategic and something that will happen judiciously.

(2) It's even harder to sack Canfield because he takes really deep drops even from shotgun.  Most teams don't have their QBs drop back much more when the QB is in shotgun, but not Oregon State.  Canfield, while in shotgun will still perform a pretty deep three or five step drop, dropping back up to an additional 6 yards from the shotgun location (so he's 11 yards from the LOS) to pass.  That makes it especially hard for your pass rush to get to him as since they have to cover more yardage.

(3) My Sunday Morning Couch QB advice for the defense.  (Please take this advice with more than a couple of grains of salt, or perhaps more appropriately just ignore it as since I'm not a coach) Clearly, Cal lacks the pass rushers to merely rely on three or four pass rushers to get pressure.  Clearly, Cal lacks superior zone coverage players both at the linebacker, cornerback, and safety positions.  Despite Arizona's ability to get the ball out quickly on offense to neutralize the blitz, one of the few remaining options I see for the defense is to play tight bump and run man coverage with the cornerbacks, and send five to six pass rushers at the QB fairly often.  While blitzing does open yourself up to bigger completions down the field, this should hopefully be minimized with this strategy by the tighter man coverage and applying a quicker pass rush.  The quicker pass rush will force the QB to hopefully throw the ball earlier than he wants causing more inaccurate throws, or for him to throw the lower percentage throws.  Alternatively the tighter coverage on the receivers may cause him to see nobody as open and hold onto the ball longer thus allowing the pass rush to get to the QB. 

Using various pre-snap looks and disguising the coverage and pass rushers can help cause confusion for the offense.  The defense already does this, but it should continue to show more pass rushers than it actually pass rushes, and vice versa.  Throw in some defensive line stunts for some added spice.  Overload blitzes, maybe.  Some of these strategies can achieve pressure without actually sending more pass rushers.  

I think such a strategy might come as a welcome relief to Cal fans.  Of course, it is not guaranteed to work at all.  But just the mere fact that Gregory is trying something else will be a relief to fans.  It seems as if many fans are desperate for change.  Any sort of change.  Anything.  But even something that perhaps is even worse than Cal's current strategy?  Many fans who advocate for a more aggressive offense seem to assume that the results will be better than the current results.  Such an assumption may not be true.  I understand that when X isn't working, it seems like there is no harm in trying Y.  But it is possible that X > Y, and that Y will be more harm than X. 

(4) Our offensive line kinda sucks.  Against Oregon State, it was pretty bad in the interior positions, namely at LG, C, and RG.  I think in general, that is where we are the weakest from week to week.

In the podcast, CBKWit makes the argument that this is one of our highest star rated offensive lines perhaps ever during the Tedford era.  CBKWit made this comment in response to my remark suggesting that the OL's poor performance could be a talent issue.  It seems that CBKWit might have been disagreeing with me.  If that is so, CBKWit is clearly making the assumption that the higher the star rating of the player, the more talented they are.  Such a notion is generally true, but not always.  CBKWit seems to make it a forgone conclusion that is always true and thus this year's highly rated OL suckage cannot be due to lack of talent; hence obviously a coaching problem.  I disagree.  I think it's possible that there is a talent issue here, perhaps as well as a coaching issue.  I have not discounted the talent issue, whereas CBKWit seems to have done so.  CBKWit points to last year's OL which started Guarnero (prior to injury), Cheadle, and Boskovich (after Guarnero's injury) as evidence that this OL shouldn't be this bad due to the fact that so many of this year's starters saw playing time last year and were fairly productive.  Last year, I personally thought Guarnero was doing fine at guard.  However, I was not that impressed with Cheadle or Boskovich.  Furthermore, last year's line was anchored by Alex Mack and Norris Malele who were both three year starters or so.  Thus, I am not convinced that just because he have players from last year's OL, which performed decently well although not great, means that this year's OL cannot be suffering from lack of talent.

To summarize my position, I do think we are lacking in talent at the offensive line.  However, I am not adverse to the idea that the problems could also be a coaching problem too.  Last year, Tedford stated that Cignetti didn't focus on technique with the QBs because as an NFL coach, he was more interested in schemes rather than technique (NFL teams usually assume you have the requisite technique to perform in the NFL already).  Marshall is an NFL guy too, and perhaps he's having this same problem. 

Prior to this season, I didn't think the entire OL as a whole would be this bad.  Although I knew nothing about Marshall, I had hopes that he was proficient enough to sustain an offensive line that can give Best and Vereen 5+ yards per carry even against some of the tougher defenses of the Pac-10 just like the OL seemingly did under Coach Michalczik.  But things are pretty bad.  The run blocking isn't there.  The OL has little explosion off of the line.  Power schemes aren't working.  Inside zones aren't working.  We don't use outside zones any more.  Pass blocking is probably the better of the two but still nothing to brag about.

So is it time to fire Marshall?  I don't know.  I think it's a bit early for that kind of talk.  I don't know what he's teaching the kids so I am going to refrain from saying he should be fired.   Many Cal fans who want him fired are pointing at the on-field results as evidence of his incompetence.  Perhaps that is indicative.  Or perhaps we're just lacking talent. 

In the past, Cal has had been pretty lucky to have diamond in the rough NFL guys on our OLs.  Cal seemingly has always had one or two NFL guys on the offensive lines for most years.  But this year, do we have NFL players on the line?  Nope.  Doubtful.  As of now, I don't really see NFL futures for any of these guys.  It's possible that one or two could break through and make it big on Sundays, but they sure as hell aren't playing well right now for the 2009 team.

So what do you do when the offensive line sucks?  You work around it.  You use more deception.  Hence the fly sweep fakes - although those have disappeared quite a bit in the past few weeks.  You use the wildbear (more flysweep fakes).  You use playaction deception to buy the QB time.  You don't do a lot of 7 step drops because it requires your OL to pass block longer.  You get the ball out quickly.  You call short passing plays. 

Basically, with the OL not doing that well, you have to limit what you do.  Not a lot of deep drops and long developing plays.  No straight dropbacks without some sort of deception to buy the QB some time.  In other words, our passing game has been limited in its diversity due to the lack of superior offensive line blocking.

(5) Missed tackles still a problem.  Missed tackles have been a pretty big problem all year.  I guess that's one thing I personally took for granted with having Follett, and especially Felder and Williams around, was that those guys squared up on the ball carriers, and dropped them cleanly.  But the current set of guys, they're not quite squaring up perfectly.  They're nicking the ball carriers who then squirm away for a few more yards of gain.  They're reaching and arm tackling.  Have we really seen any of those big square-up hits that Williams and Felder used to always deliver?  Nope. 

Why is this a problem?  Probably due to inexperience, but also because they're not reacting on the ball quick enough.  If they were getting there on time then squaring up shouldn't be a problem.  But these guys are getting there a bit late, reaching, and arm tackling. 

(6) The key to winning this game was through the passing game.  Here's the gameplan for the opponents that Cal plays: shut down Cal's running game and force Cal to pass.  It's that simple.  Cal's passing game has to be clicking for it to win.  But Riley and the passing offense were only successful 55.9% of the time today (completion percentage). 

Cal's running game was averaging 2.53 yards a rush between Best, Vereen, and Holley.  Cal's passing game was averaging 5.9 yards per pass attempt.  Game theory says that Cal should have passed more.  On the day, Cal ran the ball 24 times, but some of those were sacks so we'll say 22 times.  Cal passed the ball 34 times.  That's a passing 60.7% of the time, and rushing 39.3% of the time.  That's markedly different from usual Cal gameplans that involve rushing the ball anywhere from 55%-65% of the time.  Nevertheless, I don't think Cal was passing enough. 

I know Tedford and Ludwig like to establish the run first to open up the pass.  But it because quite clear early on that OSU was looking to stop the run, and they were being successful in their attempts.  You have to just give up on the runs when they're not working at all that early on.  You have to use the pass to open up the run, instead of vice versa.  So, I am being a bit critical of Ludwig for not pass enough; however, I do understand that when the offense as a whole kind of sucks, no matter what you call you might be screwed six ways to Sunday anyways.

(7) A little slide protection.  Cal's first play of the game featured what looked to be a little slide protection.  This is something that we have rarely seen in the past 4 years or so.  This scheme put Best on the end blocking a defensive end.  Best quickly lost this battle which resulted in Riley getting rushed, Riley shoveling off the ball to Best, and Best running for a loss of 4 yards or so.

(8) Magic Numbers revisited.  Well, a long time ago I made a prediction on Cal's season based on how well the QB's completion percentage would be.  Basically, my reasoning was that Cal's success would be very closely correlated with Cal's passing game success which can more or less be measured via the QB completion percentage. 

Here's what I predicted:

If Cal's starting QB can complete greater than 65% of his passes, Cal will most likely have an 11+ win regular season.

If Cal's starting QB completes between 62%-65% of his passes, Cal will most likely have a 10 win regular season.

If Cal's starting QB completes between 60%-62% of his passes, Cal will most likely have a 9 win regular season.

If Cal's starting QB completes between 58%-60% of his passes, Cal will most likely have a 8 win regular season.

If Cal's starting QB completes between 55%-58% of his passes, Cal will most likely have a 7 win regular season.

If Cal's starting QB completes less than 55% of his passes, the 2nd string QB should probably be starting.

I haven't looked at this prediction in a while.  And when I just looked at it now for the first time in over a month, I cringed.  Right now, Riley is completing 55.6% of his passes.  That means, I think Cal could be aimed at a 7 win season this year.  Ouch.  It hurts even more when you think about how highly ranked we were pre-season and how much we were hyped as the team that could finally beat USC.  But in all honesty, all that preseason hype was a bit much.  People gave us too much benefit of the doubt.  So if you ignore all the pre-season hype, it doesn't hurt as much and it actually makes sense.

Cal had questions at QB, WR, and OL.  Simple measures of all their success (or lack thereof) can usually be seen in the the RB's production and the QB's production. 

In 2008, Jahvid Best averaged 8.1 yards a carry.  This year he's averaging 6.1 yards per carry. 

In 2009, Riley completed 50.7% of his passes.  This year he's completing 55.6% of his passes.

While the QB completion percentage has gone up, it's still bad.  To put things into perspective, Kyle Boller only completed 53.6% of his passes in 2002.  Cal clearly is having offense problems.  So what are the causes of the problems?  For the most part, I think it's talent talent talent.... err, lack thereof. 

Passing and rushing begins in the trenches.  It starts with the OL opening up holes and sustaining pass blocks.  They haven't been getting that production.  There haven't been holes.  There haven't been great pass blocks.  Whether the problem is due to incompetent coaching or lack of talent is debatable but I think the problem is mostly just lack of talent.  In a couple years we'll probably have our answer when we know if any of this year's starters are playing on Sundays, but I'm already pretty sure the answer is going to be no.

(9) Coach critique.  I'm not too fond of dishing out tons of coach criticism because I'm not at practices.  I'm not seeing what the coaches are teaching the kids and how they are handling things.  All I can do now is look at the on-field results and try and make some sort of judgment from that.  But even then, on the field results aren't always indicative of the coaches.  As good as a coach may be, some players just aren't talented enough or just make untimely mistakes.  Sometimes there's nothing more that you can do about it.  Some players have it, and some don't. Some players perform better than others regardless of the coaching they receive.  That is one of the truest facts in any type of performative sport or performance.  The greatest coaching in the world can't make up for the lack of innate talent and innate consistency.

But as Ragnarok said in the podcast, if we merely step aside and don't critique the coaches because we lack the requisite knowledge or because we're not at practice, we're simply putting the state of the program in Tedford's hands and admitting our own ignorance.  Ragnarok calls this a "cop out" and seems to think it's an unsatisfactory alternative.  It seems as if he thinks fans should have a voice despite our lack of knowledge and connectedness to the program.  I know a lot of fans feel the same way.  I am not going to argue that we can't critique the coaches.  Certainly, fans have the freedom to do so.  But that doesn't mean the critique is accurate or even warranted.  You'd never think that from reading some of the critiques though.  By the sound of it, a lot of us are genius football coaches.  Go ahead and critique the coaches, but I just wish there was a little more self-awareness of our lack of substantive football knowledge and knowledge of the situation.

With that out of the way, allow me to critique the coaches.  Please disregard everything from here on out because, well, let's face it, I'm a cook not a football coach. 

Alamar.  He has to get it together.  Special teams have sucked for a while.  I've been pretty tolerant of it.  But now I'm finally growing tired of it.  Kickoff coverage is below average.  Kick return blocking sucks.  Our field goal kickers haven't been great despite supposedly getting some of the top kicking talent in the nation.  Our place kickers have been unsatisfactory for the past few years too.  Perhaps Alamar should just do TEs, and we should bring in a dedicated special teams coach?

Ludwig.  I'm a bit perplexed why the offense seems to have become less diverse over the past few weeks than what we saw earlier on in the season.  Perhaps Ludwig was merely trying out new things early in the season.  Maybe that's all he was doing, but I think it was working too.  It gave defenses a lot to think about and it kept the off guard.  But the offense as of late has seemed to become less diverse and I find it a little disappointing.  I also would like to see a bit more down-field passing.  I think Riley is best throwing the deep balls, such as gos/flys.  He's pretty good at posts too.  He's perhaps shown the most accuracy with the seam routes.  We've been very successful with the seam throws against opponent zones and even man coverage (Minnesota game, ASU game, OSU too).  We have the TE to make those tough catches too, in Anthony Miller. 

In regards to Ludwig is calling bubble screens and easy swing passes, I understand those are generally easy passes and a safe way to keep the defense honest and from stacking the box completely, but I'm not sure Riley's even that good at those throws.  I have no idea who Zennie Abraham is, but he has noted that Riley's best throws are the routes which do not require "leading" the WR.  In other words, routes without a lot of lateral movement.  I hadn't quite thought about it like that, but I certainly had noticed that Riley's best routes were the deeper down-the-field routes (which require little lateral "leading" of the receivers).  As Mr. Abraham notes, Riley consistently misses those bubble and swing passes.  Sometimes the passes are behind the receiver (backward passes), and thus laterals which can be fumbled and recovered by the defense.  The passes need to be forward passes.  Riley is also just a bit slow to throw the bubble screen passes.  He doesn't get the ball out to the WR quick enough. 

Does Ludwig need to be fired?  I don't think so.  Not yet.  Going through so many offensive coordinators has hurt the offense.  As I reported in my Emerald Bowl Pep Rally and Luncheon report, one of Cal's notable starting offensive linemen of the 2008 squad felt that the team was still not 100% confident and proficient in the new pass blocking schemes that Cignetti brought to the offense in 2008.  Ludwig has shown promise.  And I think with more talent, we can do just fine with him.  For now, I think we should keep him to maintain some continuity for the Cal offense that it has needed for a long time.

Gregory.  I do think he's a better coach than most people think.  Nobody was complaining about Gregory in 2008 when the defense was dominating.  But people are complaining this year.  What's the big difference between 2008 and 2009?  The loss of three great linebackers who all had multiple years of starting experience, a decline in Hagan's abilities (he missed some of fall camp, and I think he self-admittedly stated that he wasn't quite pushing himself as much as he could), and a decline in Ezeff's abilities (missing practices to take a class).  Oh, and a pretty crappy offense which isn't giving the defense any help.  I don't think this year's defensive struggles are really due to lack of defensive coaching.  I see it mostly as a talent issue.  The guys just aren't as talented as last year's players, and they aren't as talented as we all hoped they would be at the start of the season. The DL is fine.  But the LBs only have about half of their game together.  They're pretty good at stopping the run but they're pretty bad in pass coverage.  The DBs have been pretty bad except for Syd.  Overall, I think the defensive woes are more a talent issue, than coaching. 

Tedford.  Many of us might not like how he runs the program, or how he keeps certain positional coaches or coordinators around.  Nevertheless, I do think he's still the right coach for Cal.  Few could have done what he did with our shoddy program.  Even fewer would have stuck around like he did through the thick and thin.  He is completely dedicated to this program.  That shows.  That helps sell this program.  It sells it to recruits.  He also has honor and a reputable reputation.  He raises the kids first and foremost to be good upstanding people in the world.  It's life and academics first; football second.  Football just isn't about winning games.  Tedford recognizes this.  He hasn't sacrificed morals, or jeopardized the University's reputation to win a few more games unlike other notable coaches around the country.  Tedford has shown a willingness to challenge himself, reflect, and learn from his mistakes.  Not all coaches have the courage to set aside their own stubbornness and pride to say they were wrong and that changes need to be made.  Perhaps Tedford still has to make more changes within his positional and coordinating coaches ranks.  Perhaps he will.  But of all the coaches on the Cal Football team right now, I do think that Tedford is the most important of them all.  There should be little talk of firing Tedford.  Things have not gotten that bad yet at all.  He has set the program in the right direction.  With more time, talent, shiny new facilities, and a supportive fan base, I do think he can officially get us to a BCS bowl or the Rose Bowl.

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