Cal @ Nevada Post-Game Thoughts

(1) Cal defense looked a little unprepared.  One of my friends mentioned to me how ironic it was that everyone is pissed at Tedford, but not a word is being said about Pendergast.  Perhaps it's because Pendergast is new and Cal fans are giving him a pass, or that he rushes more four or five defenders consistently and that is why Cal fans are giving him a pass, but I think more blame for this loss should be directed at him rather than Tedford.  After all, Pendergast is calling the defensive plays and he's the one that is ultimately responsible for having the defense prepared week in and week out.

I'm not sure if it was the short week, or being unable to completely simulate Nevada's offense in practice, but the defense looked pretty darn confused.  That falls directly on the shoulders of Pendergast.  Cal OLB Browner was biting really hard on those zone read hand-offs and taking himself out of the play.  He was biting so hard on those fakes that it was making me wonder if perhaps he was told to do that and let the other Cal defenders worry about the possibility of the QB keeper (and option).  I haven't reviewed the game, but it didn't look like Cal was running the scrape exchange or anything so I'm a bit at a loss for explanation as to why he was being so aggressive on the RB without regard for the QB. 

I would have liked to see Cal laying the wood to Nevada's QB and the RBs.  If Cal is going to get beat on the zone read and triple option, then I want those Nevada decoys (whomever doesn't have the ball on the zone reads and triple options) to be seeing stars and feeling some pain.  I'm not saying to purposely injure them, but I think the defense has to start hitting them to make them hesitant, and afraid of having the ball.  You want those guys worrying about getting hit and not thinking about making the proper reads or hitting the right running lanes.  Of course, to do this, you have to have at least equal numbers at the point of attack.  Unfortunately, that didn't really happen last night due to so many Cal defenders being faked out.

I wouldn't say the defense was an absolute failure though.  There were some plays where Cal did have Nevada beat at the point of attack and stopped the zone reads and options for no gain.  But then too often Cal would give up a run for 12 yards immediately after that.  So I guess there was just a lack of consistency. 

What about Cal's passing defense?  Nevada was just tearing up the zones.  The Cal defenders weren't playing horribly.  Most of them were in the vicinity of the receivers if not right on top of them, but the Nevada QB and the Nevada WRs just made the throws and catches.  They executed great. 

What I did like seeing from our defense is how they were consistently going for the strips.  The coaches were definitely hoping for turnovers to stop the Nevada offense.

 

(2) Cal run blocking still pretty inconsistent.  When Cal runningbacks are getting hit in the backfield, or stutter and pause because there are no holes for them to hit, then there are big run blocking problems.  Cal has big run blocking problems.  I think I remember Sofele getting hit in the backfield at least three times.  Vereen was slow to hit holes multiple times because there were no holes. 

So what's the problem?  Is it talent or scheme?  It's not the scheme.  These are some of the same running plays we've been running for years.  I think it's the talent.  Our offensive line might be one of the weakest offensive lines in years, and perhaps even the entire Tedford era. 

(3) It's going to suck not having Riley next year.  I know he's a little inconsistent.  I know he missed a few easy passes but his experience is keeping us in the games.  The kid seems to clearly know the offense now.  He's reading defenses pre-snap.  He's making it through his progressions.  He's getting the ball out to receivers who are getting open. 

Believe it or not, he's still passing at a 64.2% completion rate.  I'll take it.  That's solid.  What's sort of frustrating is how that percentage could be even higher if Riley was hitting some of those easier passes he's been missing (in other words not being as inconsistent).   In such a year when the offensive line is not that talented, it's a blessing to have an experienced QB like Riley to help out in the passing game.

I know a lot of people have given up on Riley and would rather see someone else in there (and I understand why), but just imagine how much worse things probably would be if he wasn't our starting QB.  Yeah, I just went there.  I just said Riley is probably our best option at QB.  Shoot me, but I think it's true.

(4) Cal might need new set of audibles and blitz-beaters.  This is something I haven't talked a lot about since it's best to keep audibles under wraps, but it looks like other teams might know about them anyways.  One of Cal's staple blitz-beaters audibles are the hitch routes.  All the receivers run them.  Those are short routes which allow the ball to get out quickly before the blitz gets to the QB.  Cal has done this for YEARS.  This is something they did back when I was around the team.  This is on tape.  It's on tape of many games for many past years.  I wouldn't be surprised if the Nevada defender that pick-6ed Riley's pass had a good idea of what the play was when Riley audibled.  And maybe Riley really didn't see that defender because he was hidden behind Cal WR #1 Jones, but that doesn't really change the probability that the Nevada defender didn't know the play too.

(5) I have no problem with Ludwig passing so much.  Riley dropped back about 41 times (37 pass attempts plus 4 runs from sacks and scrambles).  Cal ran the ball 26 times.  That's 1.58:1 pass/run ratio.  That's 61.2% passing.  A lot of people say that Ludwig should have ran more.  Perhaps.  Vereen had ripped off some big runs.  But Cal was clearly also having problems run blocking too.  It was either a home run, or a single, or a strike out (to use a baseball analogy) when Cal was calling run plays.  With Cal falling behind and needing to keep as much time on the clock as possible, I think Cal did need to pass more.  Cal needed singles, doubles and triples to get yards quickly and conserve as much time on the clock to lengthen the game. 

I do like how Ludwig was getting Cal TE #80 Miller more involved in the offense in the second half, and by moving the pocket with QB bootlegs to avoid sacks.

(6) Turnovers killed Cal.  Cal basically had four turnovers.  Three INTs were thrown (although one was basically during garbage time) and Cal failed to convert a 4th down attempt.  If Riley hadn't had his high pass to Allen tipped then INTed, and instead Cal scored a touchdown on a drive, then Cal takes a 7-0 lead in the first quarter.  If Riley doesn't get pick-6ed and Cal scores a touchdown on that drive, then Cal leads 28-24. 

I may sound crazy, but as much as Cal's defense was having problems with Nevada's offense, the game would have been a tight one if Cal just wasn't turning over the ball and giving Nevada's offense more possessions and scores.

(7) Cal is not horrible.  Nevada was Cal's "A" opponent this year despite not being from a BCS conference.  Cal stayed with Nevada for the most part aside from lesser execution and turnovers.  So I see Cal as a pretty good team still.  Not great.  Not a 10 win team.  But a team that isn't bad.  I still see us in the six to eight win range. 

(8) I'm really not tripping that much about this game.  Nevada's offense isn't a gimmick offense.  It's an unconventional offense.  Lucky for us, only two other teams on our schedule run an offense like Nevada's (Oregon, and UCLA).  Getting blown up by the pistol offense sucks, and in no way am I happy about it, but I think getting blown up by a pistol offense is less concerning than getting blown up by a conventional offense.  If Cal was getting blown up by UC Davis' more conventional offense, and Colorado's offense, then I would be extremely concerned.   Pendergast probably needs to do some more scheming and brushing up on various theories on how to best defend options and zone reads though. 

(9) Why did Ludwig call three consecutive pass plays on the drive immediately following Vereen's long touchdown run which resulted in two sacks and a QB scramble? Answer: because Riley was sacked on first down.  The answer sounds crazy, huh?  But it makes sense.

Mercury beat writer (Jon) Wilner makes some argument about that playcalling in his latest "Grading the Week" post.  Saying how:

 

I thought the playcalling compounded Cal’s problems, specifically one sequence:

It was early in second quarter. Cal had pulled even 7-7 on Vereen’s 59-yard touchdown run, only to watch Nevada counter with a touchdown to take a 14-7 lead. On first down at the 20, the Bears come out … throwing!?!?

First down: Riley sacked.
Second down: Riley sacked.
Third down: Busted play, Riley runs for three yards.

...

Why in the world, after Vereen had busted that big run, did the Bears come out throwing? Seems to me like they should have kept running until Nevada proved it could stop them.

Basically, Wilner is saying Cal should have had a running play somewhere in there.  What Wilner fails to show you is the down and distance.  Here are the downs and distance:

California at 12:45 CAL NEV
1st and 10 at CAL 20 Kevin Riley sacked by James-Michael Johnson for a loss of 6 yards to the Cal 14. 7 14
2nd and 16 at CAL 14 Kevin Riley sacked by Dontay Moch for a loss of 4 yards to the Cal 10.    
3rd and 20 at CAL 10 Kevin Riley rush for 3 yards to the Cal 13.    
4th and 17 at CAL 13 Bryan Anger punt for 34 yards, punt out-of-bounds at the Cal 47.

 

Cal passes on 1st and 10.  There's really nothing wrong with that.  The stereotypical old-school football saying is to always run on first down but that's a bunch of bullshit.  Running 100% of the time on first down would be a huge tendency that defenses would key in on.  You want to mix in runs and passes on first down.  Cal has traditionally been very balanced on first down with approximately a 1:1 ratio between run and pass on first down.  And on the three drives prior to aforementioned drive, Cal ran the ball all three times on first down.  So this was Cal's first pass attempt on first down.  For the sake of keeping some balance on playcalling, and avoiding tendencies, Ludwig's call of a pass on first down really isn't a bad decision.

Cal then passes on 2nd and 16.  Is that a bad idea?  Not really.  There's no right or wrong answer here.  Cal has the option of doing either.  It's possible Vereen rips off another big run, or even a decent run of 5 yards, but it's 2nd and 16.  Cal needs 16 yards on two downs.  For most teams, that usually means passing the ball.  So I don't think it's really an issue that Cal decided to pass the ball on this down. 

Then on 3rd and 20, Ludwig calls another pass play.  Bad idea?  Not really when you are trying to get the first down.  What has a better chance of going 20 yards, a run or pass?  I'm going with pass.  I'm pretty sure most reasonable people are with me too.

Bottom line, maybe Cal should have ran the ball on that fateful 1st down and those back to back sacks would have been avoided.  Point taken, Wilner.  But Wilner ignores the idea of run/pass balance to support his argument.  Then Wilner ignores the resulting down and distance from the sack which occurred on the first play to further support his argument that Cal needed to run the ball on 2nd and 16.  I admit there's no right or wrong answer for calling run or pass on that 2nd & 16 play, but Wilner makes it out like it was a no-brainer must-run down like a 3rd and inches or something.  And that couldn't be further from the truth. 

(10) I actually liked Ludwig's playcalling after halftime.  I haven't rewatched the game, so perhaps my memories are not serving me well, but I remember Ludwig calling QB bootleg plays after half time.  I like that.  Nevada was getting pressure on Riley in the first half.  Best way to counter this?  Start moving the pocket if not max protecting.  Moving the pocket got Riley away from the Nevada defensive line.  It got passes to Cal TE #80 Miller, as well as a TD pass to Cal fullback #48 Stevens. 

Of course, once Cal went into the no-huddle offense there weren't any more moving pockets.  This is because (a) Cal doesn't incorporate moving pockets (such as half rolls and sprint outs) into their no-huddle offense (it's been this way since Ludwig became the offensive coordinator); and (b) Cal can't bootleg out of the no-huddle because Cal doesn't have the right personnel on the field, and Cal's no-huddle offense operates out of the shotgun rather than from under center.

As for (10)(a) above, Cal used to run moving pockets out of the no-huddle offense.  Cal use to use a lot of half-rolls in their passing game (see my old post on the 2007 Cal @ Oregon game for some half-roll pictures).  Now though, the half-rolls have disappeared since Ludwig took over as offensive coordinator.  Cal also never uses any sprint-outs.  In the past five years that I've been closely watching the Cal offense, I think we've only used the sprint-out once and that was in 2007 against Arizona State (in Tempe). 

As for (10)(b) above, all those bootleg plays occurred when Riley was under center, and when Cal had it's either 21 personnel (2 WRs, 1 TE, 2 backs), or 12 personnel (2 WRs, 2 TEs, 1 RB), or 22 personnel (1 WR, 2 TEs, 2 backs) on the field-- I don't recall.  The reason why the bootleg works so well out of these personnel sets is because there is a strong running threat because the offense has so many strong run blockers on the field.  That gets the defense looking for the run, and allowing for the naked bootleg and for the fullback and tight ends to get open.  When Cal is in the hurry-up, they use either 11 personnel (3 WRs, 1 TE, 1 RB) or 10 personnel (4 WRs, 0 TE, 1 RB).  Here there is little threat to run the ball as since Cal has its best receiving threats on the field rather than run blockers.  Additionally, Cal's hurry-up offense puts the QB in shotgun with the RB beside the QB, thus significantly decreasing any run threat and possibility of QB bootlegs.

(11) Ludwig is using 4 WR sets.  That's something we haven't really seen in years.  I guess Ludwig feels we have some pretty threatening WRs to put all four of them on the field, despite that meaning that TE #80 Miller is coming off the field.

(12) Was that a Vereen & Sofele play I saw towards the end?  Everyone is always wondering why Cal doesn't have more plays which puts the #1 and #2 RB on the field at the same time.  Most people really wanted to see this last year when we had Jahvid Best & Vereen.  Towards the end of the Nevada game, I could have sworn that I saw a play where both Vereen and Sofele were on the field.  Perhaps Ludwig reads the internet?  (joking)

(13) Once again, I'm not that upset about this game.  It's just one game.  I'm pretty sure Nevada will either win out or only have one or two losses on their record by season's end.  They're a really good team.  They run an uncommon offense that we're not going to see a lot of.  Despite the defense sucking pretty hard, we were still only a few turnovers and scores away from a tied game.  Cheer up, Bears.  At least we're not Washington State.

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