Oregon State 35, California 7: All Scheme, No Fundamentals

When Jeff Tedford became the head coach of the California Golden Bears, the schemes that were implemented on both sides of the ball were really simple. We pounded the ball down people's throats to set up the pass with our power blocking schemes--it was bruising and effective. On defense, we played primarily zone defensive coverages to stop the run and make opposing quarterbacks throw 3rd and long. For many years, this was a formula for success that resulted in many winning seasons, with mostly competitive losses. Say what you want about Tedford's teams pre-2009, but if they lost, it was generally because the other team earned it from snap to finish.

Not the case the past two years. Why is that? 

People have complained about the Tedford playbook for our quarterbacks being too complex based on our recent struggles with Kevin Riley (and even further back, Nate Longshore). While I think it can be somewhat of a problem, there seem to be more glaring issues. Two units in particular--the offensive line and the defense--aren't being coached well and aren't being put in positions to succeed.

Offensive line

First, the departure of Coach Michalczik to the Raiders has been mentioned about a hundred thousand times, but it bears mentioning again. We had some average offensive linemen physically when Coach M was around (and some definite gems, but not always), but they performed pretty well. Why? Simple schemes that allowed the players to focus on executing.  There were talented players for sure, but even when our offensive line didn't have the greatest units, they were able to execute well enough to keep our offense semi-productive.

Coach Steve Marshall has been a pretty good recruiter, but right now whatever he's teaching his players isn't working. Guys aren't getting good leverage, people aren't getting off the snap right, and they're being asked to execute too many schemes. They're asked to run outside zone, some inside zone, and a lot of power. They aren't particularly good at any of them. Perhaps it's too much for them to handle. Perhaps they're not conditioned as well. But they shouldn't be playing THIS badly.

They're all committing too many fundamental errors.  They're getting blown up by defensive linemen and left chasing them into the backfield. They're committing bad penalties (snap infractions, holdings, crackback blocks, etc.), some when Shane Vereen has already run way past them or almost immediately off the snap. They're leaving guys unblocked (a cardinal error everywhere) to come careening at the quarterback or running back. It's insane. I've never seen a Cal offensive line look so lost, and this has been going on two years running.

Cali49a (who follows line play better than me) illuminated some of these issues.

The right side of the line and the center (the starters) are so weak, I don’t even know where to start. It is not a good sign when you can see your OLine’s numbers or them looking backwards as a defender blows right by them. Holding penalties, multiple false starts, allowing defenders to shoot gaps to stop runs for losses. That happened way too much today and until that stops, this offense is going to continue to struggle. It’s the same OL suspects in Cal’s losses that struggle mightily.

IMHO, Mitchell Schwartz is doing ok. He makes some mistakes but not nearly enough that warrants my attention. Brian Schwenke has quietly improved over the past 6 weeks. Most improved OL imo. Chris Guarnero. It’s time to sit on the bench. Dominic Galas plays with fire in his belly and despite the penalties gives Cal more than Guarnero. Justin Cheadle. Time to join Guarnero on the bench. Richard Fisher is dying to get on the field and he knows his assignments. Donovan Edwards. Time to join the other two guys. Matt Summers-Gavin is not a tackle. Move him back to guard or keep him on the outside and provide him with more help on obvious pass plays.

The OLine needs to play with a mean streak every game. Only a few of the OL guys play with a mean streak every snap. You can probably guess who they are. But there is no way Cal can beat the big boys when big uglies up front can’t get their act together.

Perhaps the talent on the offensive line is weaker than it has been (i.e. no Alex Mack types on this unit). But the coaches should still be able to find a way to utilize their talents properly and have them executing proper technique. Right now our offensive line just continues to make mistakes against strong defensive coaches (Oregon State twice, USC twice, Washington once, Oregon once). We shouldn't be going three and out with all the talent we have  at the skill positions. Our quarterbacks should not be running for their lives against good opponents and continuously dealing with collapsing pockets. Our tailbacks should not be getting stuffed in the backfield the moment they get the ball.

Tedford has said that offensive line changes will be made next week. But for me, it starts with Marshall. Whatever progress he's made on the recruiting front, he's completely undone it with his in-game coaching and practice preparation. We might have a bottom-tier executing offensive line in the Pac-10, and that's very much on him.

Defense

Eight games through, I've seen all I need to of Clancy Pendergast's vaunted aggressive schemes. And I've come to a verdict. I don't like his defense.

I've noticed a rather disturbing trend. When Cal scores first, our defense plays very well. Our players gets more confident and our blitzes tend to disrupt the offense. Our defenders play closer in and get inside the quarterback's head. They've had five games like that, two against Pac-10 bottom feeders (UCLA and Arizona State), one against a good opponent (Arizona), and two against overmatched units.

But when the opposition scores first? Open the floodgates. Because we start panicking and overcompensating. Eventually the discipline in our unit breaks down and opposing offenses take immediate advantage. All in all, we've given up 45 points a game when we fall behind first. Yikes.

Here are some of the things that go wrong.

We overpursue and give up huge runs both inside and outside. Jacquizz Rodgers killed us on several occasions yesterday when he feinted inside to bring the cornerback in (Steve Williams on one occasion, Marc Anthony on a few others), and then bounced to the outside. When the Beavers ran their zone schemes inside, the inside linebackers ran into the line and out of the play. Who's looking forward to the Oregon game and trying to shut down LaMichael James?

This unit isn't much different from the one that held Quizz down last season, and the Beaver offensive line isn't that much better. That Rodgers so casually dominated us yesterday is baffling and unacceptable.

We find ourselves prone to misdirection.
Think of all the reverses Oregon State ran successfully yesterday. The fly sweeps from Markus Wheaton were successful as always as the outside defender bit inside on the run at least once or twice. Because our guys are always trying to be aggressive and get into the backfield, our defensive discipline breaks down and we give up huge gains, particularly to the outside and to the flats.

When our all-out blitzes don't get at the quarterback, we get burned. Witness the first passing play where Cal sent plenty of guys at Ryan Katz and Katz swung the ball out to a wide open Rodgers, who scooted easily down the sidelines for a first down. Remember the all-out blitz when four Cal defenders went straight for the quarterback and Katz simply floated the ball over the heads of the defenders into Joe Halahuni's waiting hands on the screen. Halahuni then dashed into the end zone to make it 28-0. These are the perils of blitzing with too many players.

Sorry, but if I have to choose between a disciplined Bob Gregory defense that hemorrhages yards but generally holds down the points (I will always believe 2009 was an anomaly given the sparse back defense we had to use) and a Pendergast defense that feasts on bad teams and gets feasted upon by good ones, then I'll gladly take the former. Or better yet, something in between. Going from extreme to extreme isn't really helping matters, and making what looks like a fairly competent defense look great at times and absolutely hopeless at others.

I'm hoping Pendergast can adapt by next season and tone down the aggressive nature of his schemes. Because smart coaches and smart quarterbacks have been beating it up.

Conclusion: So what's the commonality between Pendergast and Marshall? These guys are pro coaches.

Marshall hasn't coached in college in eight years. Pendergast hasn't coached in college in 18 years. Do you think there might be a bit of a disconnect between what the coaches are trying to implement and what the players are capable of executing?

See, in the NFL scheme is much more important than technique. Almost anyone who makes it to the pros already has pretty sound mechanics and development. There's more of an emphasis on getting players to establish big playbooks to outscheme the opponent and run a greater diversity of plays. You can't do that in college. Guys only have a very limited set of hours to practice with coaches (witness how many teams have moved to simpler spread concepts to work more on executing the gameplan). Things have to be simple.

I'm not sure if Pendergast or Marshall have figured out that it's not the same on the college level. Even Pendergast admitted in his press conferences that he's tried his best to adjust to the lack of practice time to implement the new defenses. Schemes like Pendergast's take time to put in place, and that's one thing college players don't have (as compared to pro players, who are in a 9 to 5 grind on practicing this stuff).  Marshall's schemes were supposed to take awhile to implement.  Twenty-one games into his tenure though, it doesn't seem like there's been any improvement from the players that have been going out there game-in, game-out.

(For an example on how to do it right on the college level, take a look at Oregon State, which has THREE WALK-ONS on their offensive line, yet dominated a talented Cal front seven for most of the game without much problem. They're executing things right, we're not.)

Yes, Marshall and Pendergast have proven to be able recruiters based on their pro credentials attracting young high school blue chippers. But can we trust them to develop our players when they get here? I'm not sure if they're on the same page with their players, who seem to be unable to adjust when the going gets tough. There's too much scheming and not enough teaching.

Frankly, I don't think Tedford is going to be able to stand for performances like 35-7 much longer and first halves like what's taken place against USC and Oregon State, where we've been flat-out uncompetitive.  It's time for Cal to reconsider returning to its roots. If we do lose Marshall and Pendergast, I'd seriously consider going back to college coaches (see what Jeff Genyk has done for our special teams!) who understand the rhythms of the college game and know how to make successful units tick at this level. Right now we're trying to be a pro team in a world of amateurs, and it's not working. It's got to change.

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