Cal vs. Stanfurd, Post-112th Big Game Thoughts

(1) Tedford's decision to center the ball on 3rd and 8 was a conservative decision but not a wrong decision.  Let's get something out of the way first.  Tedford centered the ball.  He didn't take a knee.  I see a lot of people, and newspaper writers who seem to think the only point of that play was to not stop the clock and make Stanfurd use their last timeout.  If those were the only reasons, then Tedford would have just called a run play.  But Tedford centered the ball.  Centering the ball places the ball directly between the hash marks to give the kicker a straight-line kick.  As we all know, the further you move left or right from directly between the hash marks, the smaller the width of the uprights become due to the angle.  Thus, centering the ball is more crucial in college football than the NFL because the hash marks in college football are wider than the NFL.  And centering the ball is also more crucial the closer you get to the goalline because the angle of the kick is harsher from the 10 yard line right hash (for example) as opposed to the 30 yard line right hash.  In short, Tedford centered the ball.  He did not just "take a knee." 

This decision to center the ball was clearly a conservative decision.  I personally would have run the ball left (because Cal was on the right hash).  Running the ball left serves two purposes: (1) it keeps the clock running; and (2) it can potentially center the ball.  Of course the runningback might take the ball outside one of the hashes rather than keeping the ball between the hashes and thus the ball is no more centered than it was earlier, but the benefit of actually running the ball is that there is a potential to score a touchdown.  By centering the ball, Tedford gave up any chance that Cal might score a touchdown.  At the time of that 3rd and 8, Cal was up 31-28 with about 2:45 left on the clock in the 4th quarter.  A touchdown would have made the game 38-28 (assuming Cal goes for the PAT and makes it).  That would have made the game a two-score game and essentially would have iced the game - or at least made it very difficult for Stanfurd to come back.  On the other hand, centering the ball and kicking the field goal merely assured that Stanfurd needed a touchdown to win, as opposed to 10 points to tie or 11 points to win (if Cal had scored a touchdown on the 3rd and 8 with a play). 

I suppose it's possible that the team could have executed a run play to the left and told Vereen to directly between the hashes as much as possible.  Such a play preserves the chances of getting a touchdown (although those chances are probably reduced because Vereen is restricted to his running space), but it also serves the purpose of centering the ball (although the centering probably won't be as accurate as a QB-centering). 

I do believe that centering the ball is more important than most critics of Tedford's decision realize.  This should not be confused with saying that centering the ball is extremely important.  However, critics of Tedford's decision don't even mention the lowered chances of a successful field goal kick from a far hash at extremely close range.  To them, it appears, as if there is no difference between kicking a field goal from the 11 yard line far hash, and from the 11 yard line center.  This is where they are wrong.  Clearly there is a difference and kicking from a far hash is harder.  How much of a difference does it make?  It's a small one.  Small enough that many coaches will just ignore the diminished percentage, and essentially trade a slightly bigger chance at missing the field goal for a chance at scoring a touchdown by running a play on 3rd down instead of centering the ball.  Using numbers, it might sound like this: a kicker has a 95% chance at making a field from the 11 yard line center; a kicker has a 90% chance at making a field goal from the 11 yard line far hash; and the team has a 15% chance at scoring a touchdown on a run play from the 11 yard line.  Most coaches will gladly take a 5% less chance at a field goal to keep that 15% chance of scoring a touchdown.  Obviously Tedford isn't one of those coaches.

Was Tedford's decision wrong?  No.  I don't think so.  There are two ways to win the game in Cal's situation.  You go for a touchdown on third down, and if you get it, you ice the game with a 10 point lead.  Or you kick the field goal, go up 6 points, and force the offense to score a touchdown.  Both ways are valid ways to win.  Of course one is more conservative than the other, or one is more aggressive than the other, but neither way is wrong.  What is a wrong decision in football?  Had Tedford passed the ball on the 3rd down to get a touchdown, I think that would be a wrong decision.  You clearly want to run the ball on the 3rd down to make the offense use its last timeout.  Even if Tedford passed the ball and Cal scored a touchdown, I would still criticize the decision as being wrong.  Anyways, I don't think Tedford's decision is "wrong" as so many of his critics suggest.  Conservative?  Sure.

If you want to talk about "wrong" decisions, then let's talk about Stanfurd Head Coach Jim Harbaugh's decision to go for it on 4th and 8 on his own 23 yard line with 3 timeouts remaining.  That was wrong.  That decision pretty much gave Cal a very good chance at scoring a touchdown that would have put Stanfurd into a 10 point hole, and at the very least it gave Cal an extremely good chance at a field goal which would put Stanfurd into a 6 point hole.  The 6 point hole now required that Stanfurd get a touchdown to at least tie the game or win it.  On the other hand, if Stanfurd had punted the ball on the 4th down and subsequently forced Cal's offense to punt on Cal's next possession, then Stanfurd would only need a field goal to tie the game.  If Stanfurd scored a touchdown, they would have gone up 35-31 which then would have required Cal to get a touchdown to win the game. 

Clearly, Tedford's decision to center the ball on 3rd down was conservative, but it was nowhere near as "wrong" as Harbaugh's decision to go for it on 4th and 8 from his own 23.  That decision was clearly wrong (no quotes). 

Addendum:

Coincidentally, Cal's first field goal of the game, was from the 11 yardline right hash - the very same position that Cal was in during the 4th quarter with just under three minutes remaining.  Tedford had no problem kicking the field goal from the far hash then.  On their face, these situations seem the same, and people might suggest that Tedford's actions were inconsistent.  But the situations were slightly different.  The first field goal kick was early in the game and Cal had tons of time left in the game to score again even if the field goal was missed.  But the second situation was near the end of the game.  Cal needed points and knew that they might not get the ball back this game.  Thus, the added risk of a far hash kick may be less acceptable, hence why Tedford centered the ball.

And, of course, CGB did delve even further into these decisions last week, which you can read about here.

(2) Tedford should have gone for it on 4th and less than one yard.  Another conservative decision.  I personally would have gone for it.  It's hard for the defense to prevent the offense from gaining less than a yard.  That first down which never occurred could have led to a touchdown drive or perhaps another field goal.

(3) Gregory kept the 3-4 defense on the field on most third downs.  When Cal forces opponent offense into 3rd downs, Cal usually brings out its 3-3 defense.  However, in Big Game, the first thing I noticed was Gregory keeping the 3-4 defense out on the field for third downs, even third and longs.  Why?  He clearly wanted greater run support against Stanfurd runningback Tony Gearhart.  Cal's pass rushing linebackers, and nickleback are less effective in run support than Cal's bigger 3-4 linebackers.  I liked this decision by Gregory.  It did concern me though because this decision also allows Stanfurd to put a slot WR against LBs.  That is a huge mismatch that Stanfurd tried to exploit, but believe it or not, Cal's linebackers played very well and didn't allow too many easy completions against them.

(4) The wildcat might be better served if it handed the ball off to Sofele on the fly sweep more often.  When Cal uses wildcat, the runningback will usually keep the ball.  Usually may be an understatement.  I think that perhaps 95% of the time, the RB will keep the ball.  Stanfurd's defense was clearly not respecting the fly sweep action much during Big Game and was just hitting their interior gaps to stop Vereen.  They were pretty successful too, as since Vereen was mostly limited to tough 2-4 yard gains.  If Cal handed the ball off about as equally as the RB kept the ball, it would get the defense into more of a read-and-react mode allowing the offensive line to push back the DL with more ease, and freeze outside defenders who are responsible for outside containment of the fly sweep allowing Sofele to gain an advantage.  But since Ludwig has the RB keep the ball a very high percentage of the time, the defense is less likely to be read-and-react, and will just play the RB as opposed to the fly sweep. 

(5) Cal's offensive line shows up for once!  The run blocking clearly wasn't the best we'd ever seen, and perhaps it wasn't even "great" but it was better than we have seen for a couple of months now.  I don't know what Marshall did during the week to motivate the guys, but it seemed to work.

(6) Trick plays; the flea flicker.  When they work, everyone heaps praise on the coaches.  When they don't work, everyone always says something like "that was a wasted play, why'd they get fancy when they didn't need to?"  The announcers said pretty much exactly that after Cal tried to run a flea flicker.  Cal's intended WR (Boateng?) was open deep too and had beaten the deep defender.  That could have been a touchdown if Riley had space to step up into the pocket.  But instead, Cal's LG (Summers-Gavin) got beat very badly on the play.  The LG lost his individual battle and his defender was the one who pressured Riley to scramble and throw the ball away.  Again, it takes 10 men winning their individual position battles and executing for plays to work.

(7) Cal throws in a new blocking scheme!  Cal's past power running scheme has utilized a backside pulling guard.  There have always been just one pulling blocker.  But against Stanfurd we saw the revealing of a new scheme where Cal had two pulling blockers.  This occurred out of the 12 personnel set (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs).  Cal would put two TEs to one side of the formation.  One TE would be on the LOS in their normal position just outside of the offensive tackle, and the second TE (sometimes called H-back) would be just back and outside of the first TE.  The side that the two TEs are lined up on is the strong side.  Cal would actually run to the weakside and pull the strongside guard (the backside guard), and the second TE.  This play works well theoretically for two reasons: (1) it breaks Cal's tendency to run strongside; and (2) it makes it riskier for the defense to overload on the strong side of the offensive formation in anticipation of a strongside run. Cal also ran this same scheme with 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) from the Weak-I formation using the fullback on a pull in lieu of the second TE.

(8) The outside zone returns!  I'm not really sure why Big Game was the game that it made a reappearance.  But in the 4th quarter we saw it run a few times.  Perhaps Ludwig saw something schematically that he wanted to exploit, but that doesn't quite explain why we didn't see the outside zone earlier on in the game.  Or, perhaps Ludwig felt that the Stanfurd defense was getting tired and would be too slow to stop the outside zone.  He did use a new wrinkle in that he used some pre-snap motion to the playside with the fullback.  This pre-snap motion gives the fullback a head start on his block, and allows him to get further outside. 

(9) Cal covered up the TEs a lot.  This was actually something that I did notice slightly during the game but had forgotten about by the time I got home.  Commenter Missing Barry asked me about this, and despite his questioning I still didn't recall these plays.  But after watching the game again, yes, I did finally remember some of these plays. 

Cal rarely covers up their TEs.  By "covering" or "covering up" I mean that the TEs become ineligible receivers and thus cannot go downfield for a pass.  Cal rarely does this because it removes the TE as a passing threat to the defense.  Why does Cal do it then?  Well, if covering up the TE removes it as a passing threat to the defense, then the TE becomes a blocking threat to the defense.  Because of this, the defense has to respect the run a little more.  And that's just what Cal wanted the defense to do.  Cal, in formations where the TE was covered up, would mostly playaction pass.  In other words, Cal purposely used formations where the TE was covered up to cause the defense to bite harder on the run-fake (because the defense expected run due to a covered TE), to open up the pass. 

When Cal covers up the TEs, it's usually out of the I-formation with twin WRs to the side of the TE (the strong side).  Because the rules requires that the offense have at least seven men on the line of scrimmage (LOS), one of the WRs has to be on the LOS.  5 OL guys, plus 1 TE, plus 1 WR, equals 7 men on the LOS.  However, in these formations that Missing Barry noticed, Cal was covering the TE up with 12 personnel (1 RB, 2 TEs, 2 WRs) rather than the usual 21 personnel (2 backs, 1 TE, 2 WRs) for I-formation.

(10) Cal's punt which was blocked was due to a player not winning his individual battle.  I know we all love to hat ("hate" for all you CGBers, or non-CGBers who are unfamiliar with our slang) on Alamar but I'm not sure we can blame that blocked punt on him.  Cal's long snapper, Rios, missed his block pretty bad and thus his defender got into the backfield for the block.  I know lots of people might be thinking, "well, It's Alamar's job to prepare his players so if they mess up then its the coach's fault."  My response is that the players play the game and not the coaches.  At some point, you have to stop blindly blaming the coaches and you have to start looking at the individual players.  Does this mean I don't think Alamar is on the proverbial hot seat?  No.  He definitely is.  Not for this blocked punt, but for many years of sub-par kick return and especially kickoff coverage. 

My point here is that there isn't a lot or any blame to be placed on Alamar for this blown play.  It wasn't a scheme issue or confusion between players on who to block.  All the Cal blockers knew who to block, it was just a matter of the defender beating the long snapper.  Rios just got beat bad.  He knew it too.  Despite him recovering the blocked punt, after the play he had his head down and slowly walked off the field.  He knew he was responsible for that block. 

(11) The 112th Big Game was perhaps Riley's most clutch game.  I don't know if I would say it was his best game.  That was probably the Maryland game earlier this year where Riley finished with a 65.4% completion rate, four touchdowns, and zero interceptions.  But Riley sure was clutch towards the second half of the game.  He got yardage when nobody was open, and he threw some great balls too. 

I sort of hate using that whole cliche "maturity" line, but after the Arizona State game and this game, I do feel like Riley's matured.  Matured not in the sense that he's been messing around and now he's finally decided to get his head in the game, but matured in that he's seasoned.  He's seen it all.  He's been through lots.  He's played in a variety of situations to the point where it's nothing new and he's more familiar with things.  He's probably less rattled about the situations than before.  And I hate making these kind of statements based off of snippets of TV coverage, but he did just seem more calm, poised, and "in the zone" than ever before. 

In the podcast this week, some of my fellow Marshawnthusaists expressed the idea that perhaps Riley is now the second best QB of the Tedford era.  I whole-heartedly disagree with such a notion (imo, at least two other QBs come to mind before Riley), but I do admit that this game has inched him up the ladder a little bit.  If he really turns things around in 2010, perhaps he can take the title of the second best QB of the Tedford era, but that's going to take a lot of work.

(13) Empty set is killer.  I love empty (when Cal spreads out the defense with five receivers - and not necessarily wide receivers).  I love it for two reasons: (1) Cal seems to be fairly successful out of it; (2) if nobody is open Riley seemingly is always able to run for a few yards of gain.  I'm glad that we've seen the use of empty formation increase over the past few weeks.  I've been advocating for it quite a bit as since Cal usually runs seam routes, and vertical routes out of this formation and those routes are routes that Riley is pretty good at hitting. 

In previous post-game thoughts against Arizona, I've noted how Ludwig had been using 5 WRs in the empty set.  Such an observation was significant because Cal used to only use 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB) out of empty.  So the switch to 5 WRs out of empty was a surprise.  But in Big Game, Cal went back to using 11 personnel. Why this special change?  Well, first of all, using 11 personnel helps disguise the empty set.  Cal uses 11 personnel in other formations, so when Cal sends 11 personnel into the huddle the defense doesn't really know if Cal is going to line up in empty or another regular formation.  But when Cal was using 5 WRs for empty (and Cal only uses 5 WRs for empty and nothing else), the opposing defenses knew they would be seeing an empty formation.  Because the defense knows this prior to the defense breaking the huddle, the defense can call a play in response to not only just the personnel group, but the formation too; whereas with using 11 personnel, the defense can only call a defensive play in response to the personnel grouping and not formation. 

Side Note: The defense can call a play in response to the offense's formation without seeing the formation post breaking of the huddle based on tendencies.  For example, Cal usually passes from shotgun on 3rd and long.  Defenses, can extrapolate from this and can make the (generally correct) assumption that if Cal sends 11 personnel on the field, that they are going to see a shotgun formation too.

Cal was also using a little neat trick with the empty sets to get player mis-matches.  Specifically, Ludwig would put the TE and RB out as the widest receivers leaving the slot receivers (the WRs) inside and lined up against safeties and linebackers.  This is a very simple tactic to get mismatches.  I will cover this in-depth in a frame by frame analysis later on.

(14) Luck's ill-fated pass.  So Mohamed did a great job reading Luck's eyes and getting the perfect depth.  Even if Mohamed wasn't there, I think Cattouse might have INTed the ball anyways.  Cattouse was on the intended receiver like white on rice.  If Cattouse hadn't intercepted the ball, he definitely would have at least defended the ball.  I can see why Luck thought his receiver was open, because his guy definitely was for a moment.  But by the time that Luck threw the ball, and by the time the ball would have gotten to the intended receiver, Cattouse had cut in front of the intended receiver to defend the pass.  What Luck needed was to put more air under the ball to get it over Mohamed.  But more air under the ball might not have helped anyways actually because Cattouse was there to pick anything thrown near him.  So I guess what I'm saying is Luck was screwed even if Mohamed wasn't there and even if Luck had put more air under the ball like he had wanted to.

(15) Vereen rushes 42 times!  Not much to say here but Vereen was beastly.  Sure he's a bit slower than Best, but what he lacks in pure speed, he makes up for in his uncanny ability to gain a few extra yards when surrounded by four defenders and having no business getting any additional yards.  He just has that subtle elusiveness to intricately weave through the defenders and trash to get those yards nobody really thinks he'd get.  I suppose this is a bit surprising because Cal really hasn't had a RB like him before.  Previous RBs just brutally powered their way through the trash and defenders (Lynch, Arrington, Echemandu).  Best sort of puts his head down and runs through them but without tons of power.  But Vereen just kind of slips through them - like magic.  

(16) Cal owns the time of possession 39 minutes to 21 minutes.  Stanfurd's defense had to have been tired.  Being on the field for that long, having to defend 88 offensive plays!!!  Geez.  Cal has been averaging 65.2 plays per game prior to Big Game with a 4.87 standard deviation.  It's been a while since done statistics, but doesn't that mean something like 95% of the data points will be within two standard deviations greater than and less than the mean?  So that means 95% of the time Cal will run anywhere from 55.46 to 74.94 plays per game.  Running 88 plays in a game put Cal 4.68 standard deviations above the mean!  That's ridic.  Straight ridic.  Perhaps this is why Ludwig wanted to try some outside zone late in the game; he wanted to see if the Furd defense had the energy in them to defend the outside.

(17) Cool story, Hansel.  So my parents' neighbor went to Big Game.  He apparently knew some big Furd donor and got to go with him to the game or got his tickets or something.  The Furd donor has luxury box suites.  The neighbor got to the stadium early before most of the fans got there.  In the luxury boxes, there was tons of free food around.  My neighbor, taking advantage of the situation, began gorging himself on all the food set out for the rich Furd donors who hadn't arrived yet - everything from fancy burgers to monster sized hotdogs.  When the Furd donors arrived, they were quite stereotypically, old and white.  Stanfurd, quite intelligently, had a coffee bar in the luxury suite area so the old fogies could stimulate themselves to an awake state to watch the game.  Also, quite intelligently, the luxury suite area had a full bar where the rich donors could then drink themselves into a stupor after the loss.  Some famous people that were in attendance in the luxury suites: Condoleezza Rice, and Jim Plunkett.  Best part of this story: the old Furd donors did not appreciate the loud cheers of the neighbor.  Quite literally, when the neighbor would cheer, the old Furd donors would turn around to him and say for him to not cheer so loud.  Something about the cheering overloading their hearing aids or something.  How rude of the neighbor.  Doesn't he know that he's at a football game?  You're not supposed to make noise!

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Bonus Thoughts from college football games from the weekend of Friday, November 27th, to Saturday, November 28th.

Texas vs. Texas A&M - Exciting game.  Texas A&M got risky and frisky with some blitzes and man coverage.  They got burned.  Perfect examples of what can happen when you roll the dice.  I'm not saying Cal shouldn't be more aggressive (sending more pass rushers) on defense because this is what happens, but this certainly is what can happen. We should all be aware of the risks.  Also, if I recall correctly, Texas A&M missed a short field goal from far hash that could have made a difference in the game.  Just another reason why perhaps Tedford isn't completely crazy for centering the ball on that 3rd and 8.....

Alabama vs. Auburn - Auburn really showed some 2-minute drill ineptitude at the end of the game.  They needed to drive the field in about a minute, and ended up calling about 3 plays in all that time.  Their QB was confused.  The coaches weren't getting playcalls into the game quickly.  It was one ugly hot mess.  That is what happens when you don't practice the 2-minute drill and you don't have a system to get playcalls into the game quickly.  Thankfully, you'll never really see Cal do the epic failure that Auburn did.  First of all, Cal practices its two-minute drill every practice.  Every single day, they practice scoring in under two minutes.  

Second, and I've talked about this before, but Ludwig has installed a great two-minute drill system.  In previous years, the sideline QBs would signal in the playcall to the starting QB.  The signals would take a few seconds to signal in, and then the starting QB would spend another 15 seconds telling the play to the players - in actual team language.  Meaning, the defense can hear what the offense's playcall is.  Sometimes, you can figure out what parts of the play will be based on the terminology (some of the terminology was too closely tied to the words/routes that they were meant to represent).  But now, the sideline QB just signals in a number, one through nine.  This takes about half a second.  The QB will then yell out the number to the offense.  All the offense players have those 9 plays memorized.  The players need only to merely line up and run their play.  This takes less time than the previous system.  The additional benefit of the new system is that the actual playcall terminology isn't being yelled out by the QB so the defense can't hear it, thus further protecting the playcall.

To Center the Ball?  Or to Not Center the Ball? 

Texas vs. Texas A&M - aTm doesn't center the ball and misses a short field goal that would have made a difference in the game. 

Arkansas vs. LSU - Arkansas doesn't center the ball and misses a short game-tying overtime field goal.

Arizona vs. Arizona State - Stoops centers the ball for a game winning field goal and the kick is good.

It's like the football gods are talking to us and telling us to center the football.  This weekend might be the undeniable proof that so many center-the-ball haters need to finally appreciate Tedford's decision.

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