(1) Story of the game: Bad Execution Everywhere. Fumbles. Penalties. Dropped passes. Un-sustained blocks. Poor tackling. Poor recognition of offensive plays by defensive players. Poor passes. Bad playcalling. Missed field goals. This game was ugly and scary. How appropriate since it was on Halloween. While a lot of complaining has been made about the defense, and the offense, things would be a lot different if the players just executed and all won their individual player battles.
(2) Cal played sloppy and deserved some of those penalties, but ASU got some calls which they shouldn't have. Tepper's hands to the head call? Totally deserved. Jones' facemask penalty on his deep sideline go route? Totally deserved. But Conte's pass interference call? That was a bunch of crap. Receivers and defenders have equal right to the ball. Conte played the ball, and it just so happened that the ASU WR ran his route right into Conte. That should not have been a penalty. Miller's holding call? More bs. I can understand that to the ref who threw the flag that it might have looked like holding based on the way the defender fell down, but Miller didn't hold. It seemed like due to the sloppy nature of the game, that the refs were even more ticky tacky and threw even more flags. I don't remember a single call going against ASU that shouldn't have. But there were definitely at least two flags on Cal that shouldn't have been flags. I don't mind losing games with fair penalizing, but I hate it when a loss is aided by the help of incorrect flags from the refs.
(3) Riley's best *passing* game of perhaps his career. This game was perhaps the best passing game of Riley's career. Aside from one pass that should have been intercepted, and another missed easy swing pass to Best (if I recall correctly) he was incredibly in the zone - especially on that final drive. On that final drive, ASU was pretty aggressive in their defense by sending five to six pass rushers every other down. Riley recognized the blitz, and got the ball out quickly (when the offense is facing a blitz, the ball has to come out fast). If I had to give a grade for Riley's passing, I'd probably give him an A- or so.
But, as for Riley's *overall* grade, that's different. Riley did scramble around when needed to extend plays and make some great throws. But he also had three very unfortunate fumbles. I do realize that the pass blocking was not excellent, but the ball must be protected. Either get rid of the ball quickly, cover up and take the sack, or cover up and run. Riley's overall grade for this game is probably more in the B range due to his fumbles, and a delay of game penalty. But on the whole, Riley did a pretty good job managing the game.
(4) Riley comes with good and bad. The good: plays like the scramble in the 4th quarter on a 1st and 25 for a 26 yard completion to Marvin Jones. Having a QB who is a bit of a gambler can lead to awesome plays like this. The bad: plays like the 3rd and 2 playaction bootleg where Riley tried to dump the ball off to a receiver but instead put the ball right into the chest of an ASU linebacker - who miraculously dropped the easy interception. The way Riley plays, we can definitely expect to see some great and spectacular plays we haven't seen for the past few years with Longshore as our QB, but we should also be prepared to see some bad plays that we rarely saw for the past few years with Longshore as our QB.
(5) Riley comes with more fumble risks. This point is sort of related to the previous point. Riley is more prone to fumbling. This has to do with the way he carries the ball in a collapsing pocket. But also because he doesn't always get the ball out when the pocket is collapsing. I'm sure I'm not the only one that was a bit surprised to see Riley fumble. To me it was a surprise because it's something that we never really saw for the past three years. Why is that? Well, Longshore was great at getting the ball out quickly - even against a collapsing pocket. Therefore, the ball was rarely in his hands to get popped out for a fumble. But Riley is a different QB. He hangs on to the ball longer to make a play. With his style, we should expect a greater chance of QB fumbles. This is just another one of those bads that comes with this style of QB.
(6) ASU might have made a tactical error on Cal's final drive by sending five and six pass rushers over half the time. Prior to that final drive, ASU was doing a pretty good job getting pressure on Riley with just four pass rushers. They'd often send five pass rushers and get even more pressure, but they seemed to be doing just fine with four pass rushers. Yet on that final drive, they seemed to be a bit more aggressive than normal, and I think it was a mistake. By dropping more defenders into coverage, the QB will often have to hold on to the ball longer. Since ASU's pass rush was fairly effective, why not just drop seven into coverage, force Riley to hold onto the ball longer, and let your pass rush get to him? He already showed the penchant to fumble this game. But instead, ASU went a bit more aggressive than normal. They played man coverage, and without that seventh or sixth defender, the secondary opened up. Riley had space to make easy mid-range throws - mid-range throws that he didn't really have tons of room to throw earlier. Riley absolutely torched the ASU defense on their blitzes. Riley did a great job reading the blitzes, the coverage, getting the ball out quick, and placing the ball. I'm not defensive coordinator, but after it became apparent that Riley was getting the ball out quickly, the last tactic you want to do is to send more pass rushers. You're basically setting yourself up for death. I mean, it's essentially the same as blitzing the QB when you know the offense is going to run a screen. You just don't do it.
(7) Ezeff was not really at fault for ASU's 80 yard touchdown pass; Conte was at fault. I think there is a lot of blame getting pasted onto Ezeff for that touchdown. It sure looked like Ezeff was at fault. But he substantially wasn't. Here's what Gregory had to say about that play:
We were in a two-deep. It probably wasn’t the best call in the world. It was first down and we were taking a shot because they had run it a bit on first down. It was a play-action pass and we lost our middle linebacker and we also lost our backside safety on the play-action pass. They kind of jumped at the run a little bit quick as opposed to playing back a litlle bit. It was a combination of not great technique and I could have had a better call on first down.
Indeed, Gregory is correct. Cal was playing its 3-4 defense in a two deep - meaning Cal had two deep safeties each covering 1/2 of the field. This is not to be confused with a Cover-2 defense. A Cover-2 defense involves all zone coverage. But a two-deep implies that there are two deep defenders and the rest of the coverage is not zone coverage. Gregory, being the football expert he is (I know many Cal fans may dispute this), clearly made this distinction. If you look at the play, you'll see that indeed, Cal is playing two-deep and man coverage. Both Conte and Syd are locked up in man coverage. What happens is that Conte reads run, and bites down on the playaction, leaving his the WR that he is supposed to be covering completely undefended. The Cal safety to that side of the field (the "backside safety" that Gregory is referring to), presumably Cattouse or Brett Johnson, leaves his deep 1/2 of the field and jumps down to defend the wide open WR that Conte left unguarded. This opens up the deep 1/2 of the field opposite of Ezeff - which is NOT Ezeff's primary responsibility. The ASU WR whom the pass was thrown to ran a deep post which ran him right into Cattouse/Johnson's deep 1/2 of the field. Had Cattouse/Johnson been there, the play might have been broken up. Cattouse/Johnson probably would have been there if Conte hadn't been sucked up by the playaction.
Conte's error, caused Cattouse/Johnson to cover Conte's man, causing a hole in Cal's deep coverage, which resulted in a touchdown. It only takes one mistake by one player to cause a domino effect. This touchdown goes against Conte, not Ezeff.
(8) Riley doesn't come off the field during wildbear because it tips off the defense of the impending play. The Marshawnthusiasts talked about this in last week's podcast. It's been suggested left and right by many, and including me at one point, that perhaps Cal should just put a RB, TE, or WR out there instead of Riley. This makes sense if Cal isn't going to pass. But if Ludwig subs out Riley for wildbear, the defense will be notified of the impending play. The defense's coaches in the coaching box watch the offense's substitutions so they know what personnel are on the field. By keeping Riley on the field for the wildbear plays, the defense doesn't know until they see the offense line up, whether the play is wildbear or just some other play (Cal can and does run its regular plays out of the wildbear personnel).
(9) The wildbear pass on 2nd down was a bad playcall. I've been debating this for a while now. At first I thought it was a bad call. Then I changed to a more neutral stance saying it just merely depends on how aggressive you want to be. But now I'm changing back to the bad playcall party. Here's why.
Cal gets a first and goal on the ASU 8 yard line with 1:29 remaining. The playclock runs down to about 1:12 remaining at the snap of the ball on first down. The playclock resets at 40 seconds when there are 1:03 seconds of game time remaining. Had Cal ran the ball on 2nd down, instead of passing, the clock could have been milked down to about 24 seconds. Then Cal would have faced a 3rd down (assuming they don't score on the 2nd down run). Assuming ASU doesn't take their timeout (even if they did Cal could still milk the clock down on the subsequent play), Cal can center the ball on 3rd down, and then call a timeout with 3 seconds remaining. Cal can then kick the field goal to win the game and ASU never gets the ball back.
Now, proponents of the second down passing wildbear play say that the touchdown would have put the game away. This is only half true. A touchdown would have made the game a 26-21 Cal lead. Regardless of whether Cal gets the two point conversion or not, it requires ASU to get a touchdown to win the game or tie the game. While a touchdown is harder to get than a field goal - which seems to be the crutch of the argument for fans who support the second down passing play, this argument fails because it gives the ball back to ASU with time remaining on the clock. That result is undesirable and it is the last thing you want to do because ASU can potentially score again to win the game or tie the game. Had Cal milked the clock down, they could have kicked the game winning field goal as time expired without ASU ever getting the ball back. Even if ASU had taken a timeout somewhere in those final four plays, Cal still would have been able to milk the clock down to 3 seconds for one final field goal.
I understand that many Cal fans like to see "going for the jugular" playcalling by Ludwig or more aggressive playcalling, but that 2nd down playcall was the incorrect playcall and there is no valid argument otherwise. It's not that the playcall was bad because it was going for the jugular or because it was aggressive, it was a bad playcall because it disrupted the clock management and timing of the game. Cal could have won the game without giving ASU back the ball, but instead Cal attempted to win the game with giving ASU one more possession. This is an unnecessary risk. As Cal fans, who are constantly reminded of crazy shit like The Play, we all know that crazy stuff can happen. You don't want the other team getting the ball back at all. Ludwig's pass out of the wildcat was one of the worst playcalls of this year; hands down, no ifs, ands or buts about it.
(10) That specific wildbear pass play can only be used in goalline situations. That specific wildbear pass play can only be used in goalline situations. Why goalline situations? Because since the offense is so close to the defense's goalline, the defense has to heavily play the run as since they can't give up any yardage. Since the defense is playing the run so heavily, it sucks in the linebackers towards the line of scrimmage pretty quickly and thus allows for easy passes over the top. Furthermore, because the play occurs at the back of the endzone, the ball can easily fall out of play for an incompletion lessening the chances of an interception. Had the offense used this play somewhere else, such as at midfield, it would not have been effective at all since the defense doesn't need to play the run as heavily. Also, tipped balls are more likely to be intercepted at midfield since there is no out of bounds immediately behind the intended receiver.
I am very glad Ludwig does have a passing play installed. I hope he has more. I have been advocating for passing out of the wildbear for a few weeks now. Obviously, that particular 2nd down playcall is only really good for goalline situations, but there are perhaps a few other ways to pass out of wildbear where the offense doesn't need to be a few yards away from the defense's endzone. I hope to see a few of those here and there.