Jeff Tedford is getting a lot of heat and earning a lot more detractors for playing it too safe at the end of the Arizona game and not trying to win the game outright. You know, this whole "playing not to lose" mindset.
Yes, to the chagrin of a lot of Cal fans, I'm not pointing fingers at our head coach. People might blame him for his not-so-aggressive decision-making at the end, but this is all done in hindsight. They conveniently ignore the fact that Tedford, the coaches, and the players put us in a strong position to win this game in the first place with their gameplan and execution. It was a conservative game dominated by defense that the Wildcats somehow won with a random offensive burst and it was well within Tedford's rights to finish the game the way he did.
Let me share with you an anecdote about Tedford and his Golden Bears heading into Arizona Stadium, courtesy of an email a Cal fan who was there sent me, BearOnTheBorder.
Tedford got the boys out of the locker room and just stopped in an area where they were barely visible to most of the stadium. Everybody was getting fired up in front of Cal's allotment and I said to myself, "Is Tedford, of all people, about to do this?" As soon as Arizona turned the corner to get onto the field Tedford sprinted the boys out right in front of them crashing the party. To make things even better, pretty much the entire starting defense went out to the hash closest to our sideline at midfield and started jawing at the UA players as they made their overconfident trots to the sideline. I mean, it set the tone, man. It was ballsy because it could have blown up in Tedford's face. This wasn't a man who was playing "not to lose" as so many people have suggested. I completely detest that line of thinking. There is such a thing as a conservative game plan and you can play to win with that plan as much as you can if you're running the MSU "Little Giants" play at the end of a game. Tedford lived and died by the game plan and he never took his foot off of it. That's gumption. That's moxie. That's why I like Jeff Tedford.
With that being said, we love discussion, so onto our opinions in a special CGB Playcalling Roundtable. Feel free to discuss Tedford and playcalling in the comments. Keep things constructive and civil.
2nd quarter, 3rd and 14, Arizona 34: Vereen picks up 11 yards, but this was ultimately a conservative call that was meant to set up a field goal kick. Agree?
Avinash: Yes. Not much can go right on 3rd and 14 up 3-0. This close to halftime, you want to put points up. This strategy worked very well as Giorgio Tavecchio booted one through.
Kodiak: This was 4 down territory. Too close to punt. (plus end of the half) Out of Giorgio's range at the 34. I think the run call was meant to make it a more makeable 4th down attempt. When Shane Vereen picked up 11 and put us in FG range - I think it was a good idea to take the points.
Ohio Bear: I didn't have a problem with this one. It was a 3rd and long and we were in fringe FG ranage. The play call made sense to set us up for a chance to score.
atomsareenough: I don't have too much of a problem here. You don't need to worry about 4th downs in FG territory this early in the game. Especially since the game had been so low-scoring, you take the points. If it was a shootout, sure, go for it. If there was gonna be not enough time left for Arizona to march back down the field (say, under a minute), then maybe go for it. But there were 5 minutes left in the half, and nobody was scoring, so take the points.
Early 4th quarter: 4th and 1, Arizona 6. Vereen just picked up 3 and 2 yards on the previous two plays. A touchdown probably seals the game by putting Cal up 13-3. A field goal makes it 9-3. Do you agree with the decision to kick the field goal?
Avinash: No. I go for it. It's one yard. Vereen barely ever gets caught in the backfield for a loss or no gain--even if he doesn't get a lot of yards on his gains, he barely gets negative yards. A field goal still keeps Arizona in the game. A touchdown seals the game and takes tremendous pressure off the defense to produce. 9-3 isn't THAT much better than 6-3. You score the touchdown, the Bears offense gains confidence, the Bears defense can play with a big lead. Not a call I like.
Kodiak: Strategically, I can understand wanting to force them to get a TD to tie as opposed to a FG. But there's still too much time left to be playing that type of numbers game. Put your foot on their throat already. The game was there for the taking. Go. For. It.
Ohio Bear: I wanted to go for this one. I have mixed feelings about this one. At the time, the feel of the game/drive was that we would get that if we went for it. But to get the 3 points there made a lot of sense to me. We make it a 6-point game with under 12 minutes left. The way our defense was playing to that point, I thought it was a reasonable call to put AZ in a position of needing a TD to beat us. So I'm equivocal here: I wanted to go for it, but I thought it (probably) the better call to take the points and go up by 6.
LeonPowe: It's difficult for me to make this call without having observed how the offensive line was playing - was there a lot of moving the pile road paving run blocking going on? Or was the Arizona defensive line filling gaps and stuffing the run. From the previous two plays of 3 and 2 yard pickups, it looks like the D-line was winning the battles. Give me an incomplete on this one.
At the time, I wanted to take the points on the 4th and 1. Our defense was playing great, and that forced Arizona to get a td to win, which I didn't think they'd do. They did.
The 4th and 1 is a bigger call to me. You should trust Shane and an offensive line to pick up a yard.
Penultimate drive: 1st and 10, Arizona 27, 3 minutes left. Running the ball three straight times, particularly on 3rd and 8 to burn all of Arizona's timeouts and set up a long Tavecchio field goal. Agree with running all three plays leading up to the field goal?
Avinash: Probably not. Again, you're putting big pressure on Tavecchio instead of entrusting your offense to win the game. I don't like this strategy. Perhaps if it was a slow, methodical offense we were playing, but Arizona has shown they can play like crap and put seven points on you very quickly (see last week's Iowa game). I can see the merit of making them burn all their timeouts, but I'd have drove the ball another ten-fifteen yards before playing the timeout game. We tried to drag it out too early and it cost us.
Arizona was stacking the box. They knew a run was coming. Why not try playaction? With all the runs we were putting up there, and the fact we were progressively picking up less and less, the Wildcats were probably selling out with more guys inside. Take advantage of one-on-one coverage and make a big play to seal it. A first down effectively ends the game, timeout or no timeout--the Wildcats would have at best gotten the ball back with well under a minute left.
Don't like running it straight up on 3rd down. First down probability is low, ability to improve field goal kick is low.
Kodiak: I think all of us were screaming for play-action. Or some type of misdirection. I would have loved to see Riley fake an off-tackle hand-off and take it on the naked boot. I don't have a problem with running it on 1st and 2nd down. We were pounding them. It was a statement drive - a coming of age drive for the Oline and TE/FB's. They knew it was coming and couldn't stop us up to that point. That's confident, physical, smashmouth football. But, I hated the run on 3rd and 8. Give Marvin Jones or Keenan Allen a chance to make a play and win the game right there. We didn't even put it on the proper hash for Tavecchio.
Ohio Bear: The series of plays starting with 1st and 10 at AZ 27 before Tavecchio's miss: I set forth my views in the post game thread on this one. I understand running the ball once or twice to make AZ burn timeouts. But I disagreed there with the approach of setting up for the 40 yard FG by running the ball three straight times. I know a FG likely wins the game. But so does a first down. Why not give us ourselves a chance to win the game with a first down instead of putting all of our eggs in the Tavecchio basket? AZ was playing the run at that point, intent on stuffing us, burning their time outs, and making us try as long a FG as they could hold us to. The situation seemed ripe for a play action pass. If not on 3rd and 8, why not try it on the 2nd and 7 play from the AZ 25? With due respect to Tavecchio, our field goal kicking is not "money" enough to count on a 40 yard FG to ice the game. In that spot, I thought it the better strategy to try for a first down as another way to win the game. Making AZ burn the last time out was not, to me, a reward that overrode the downside of an incomplete pass.
LeonPowe: While I don't disagree with the decision to kick the field goal, I - sitting from a computer desk half a world away - wonder if we should have run a couple of "safe" options throws or more downfield play calls on first and second. Screen? Naked bootleg with the tight-end? The Fullback swing pass that Tedford used to love with Will T? Relatively lower risk, but capable of picking up a medium sized chunk of yardage. The other small gripe I have, is, if you're going to play conservative and go for the field goal, why not run the Stanfurd play and center the ball for Tavecchio. He had just missed one - if we're going to just effectively kneel down, why not center the ball and give him the best chance for the kick?
Berkelium97: After last week, I was not confident in Riley's ability to move the ball in these situations, particularly against a defense like Arizona's. In fact, I was more confident in Vereen and Tavecchio than I was in Riley. Should Cal have tried a pass on second down? Maybe. If it fell incomplete fans would be clamoring about how the running game was getting 6+ ypc on that drive while a previous pass to Miller had also fallen incomplete. Honestly, I thought Tavecchio would hit the 40 yarder. He had one earlier in the game and 40 is well short of his career high (51, if I remember correctly). In either case, fans would be griping about something. There was no easy answer for how to call plays on that last series of downs.
norcalnick: Here's my thought on playing for field goals and a 6 point lead generally: Arizona, prior to their final drive of the game, had driven the ball into the red zone once. ONCE! And that was because of a truly awful pass interference call on Darian Hagan, not from anything their offense did or Cal's defense didn't do. Based on how the defense was performing (brilliantly) I think it's completely defensible to play for a 6 point lead/9 point lead. And the incredibly frustrating part is had Tavecchio's first field goal been 6 inches to the left (it barely hit the uprights and almost went through anyway) everybody would be praising the coaching staff for a HUGE upset win on the road. It's a game of inches.
In retrospect I wish we had gone for the 4th and one, because the next Cal drive demonstrated that the Arizona defense looked pretty gassed and I think, knowing that, that Shane probably would have picked up the yard. But I didn't know that at the time, when Tedford made the call.
atomsareenough: I think we could've called some playaction on that 3rd down play, or at least tried for one of those high-percentage pass plays somewhere in that set of downs, something designed for a likely completion, and well in-bounds so if/when the receiver is tackled the clock keeps ticking. Yeah, you can say that Riley's inconsistency might be an argument against it, but you have to at least have the option of throwing the ball in that scenario if you want to win games. BTW, what happened to those 1st-down possession plays with Lagemann that were successful all of last year? Even if it's not Lagemann, maybe put Keenan in the slot and run one of them. Anyway, it was obvious that we were playing for the FG, and while I thought we had a good chance of making the FG, I don't like playing for the FG. It needs to be Plan B.
CBKWit: On that last series, I again didn't have much of a problem with running it. We were picking up 1st downs on the ground - why stop running? I do think Ohio Bear sums it up pretty well though: "I know a FG likely wins the game. But so does a first down. Why not give us ourselves a chance to win the game with a first down instead of putting all of our eggs in the Tavecchio basket?"
It's tough, because that toss sweep had just worked really well with Isi, and you knew the AZ defense was tired. It was really unfortunate to go from 2nd and 6 to 3rd and 8. Brutal.
yellow fever: What isn't noted is that people in our fourth quarter thread were screaming bloody murder when Riley rolled out on a first down pass play earlier in the drive. We're only second guessing this because it didn't work - if we'd called a pass and it didn't work, we'd be sitting here wondering if it was the right call to go for a pass and kill the clock. So...
TwistNHook: I agree, Yellow Fever. There is outcome bias inherent in all of the criticism. Cal had been pounding the ball on the drive very successfully and everybody I was watching with seemed satisfied with them continuing to pound the ball. Or kept their mouths shut about any concerns. This is the nature of things. If they call a pass and Riley throws an int, everybody complains about why they didn't just run the ball. The concern I have is ball placement.
Tavecchio missed wide right and I believe that the kick was from the right hash mark. The kick had the distance. So, perhaps if Cal had run a play to ensure the ball was placed dead red in the middle of the field, then the kick would have been good.
Final conclusions on playcalling
Ultimately, I feel these little plays, while they did influence the outcome, are far from an indictment on our head coach and playcalling. Factoring these problems into the fabric of the entire game, it felt like a pretty small part of the whole pie.
If you want to factor it in, just add Tedford's playcalls with Alex Lagemann stepping out of bounds instead of tiptoeing the sidelines. Or Tavecchio having a field goal suddenly hook at the final second and hit the post. Maybe add in Ross fielding a punt inside his own 5 or Anger subsequently punting a football sideways and setting up Arizona's only crucial score. Let's not forget Juron Criner making the catch of his life on Darian Hagan. Or Shane Vereen cutting outside rather than inside and leaving Tavecchio a tough kick on the right hashmark. See what happens when we get into this game?
The fact is you can point to many small things, both on the execution and playcalling side, and in the end we're just stuck chasing ghosts. There are plenty of little things you can point to in losing a one point game to a very good things, but they're little things. They're fixable. They're correctable. We can come back stronger and better. The team showed fortitude by punching the vaunted Arizona offense in the mouth for 58 minutes. When two weeks have passed, they'll be ready to do more hitting again.
Jeff Tedford's conservatism might have cost us a little on Saturday. But we wouldn't have been in position to win the game without him.