Disclaimer: I'm not an expert. Rely on the following football analysis at your own risk.
In football, sometimes a play fails. Quite often, a fan's quick conclusion will be that "the play sucks" or "the playcall sucks" or "the offensive coordinator sucks." But is this necessarily true? I don't think so. I think it's possible that the play could suck, the playcall sucks, and the offensive coordinator sucks, but there are also other reasonable explanations for why a play might not succeed. For example, a play could not succeed due to poor execution by players on the field or just even better execution by the defense. Or a play could not succeed due to the defense being in a formation which the offensive coordinator wasn't expecting which just so happens to confuse the offensive players on the field or alternatively puts the defensive players in a better position to defend the play. Or a play could fail just due to some good ol' plain bad luck (WR's toe barely stepping out of bounds, player tripping or losing his footing, etc.). Some times, and perhaps more often than not, the reasons why a play fails are usually a combination of many of the above reasons.
So in this following analysis, I want to go over a play which failed. And I hope to discuss perhaps why this play failed. Join me in this analysis, as we look at a play where Cal lost yardage on a run play versus USC.
Here is the pre-snap picture. Cal is facing a 1st and 10 from its own 27 yard line in the first quarter.
Cal has 11 personnel on the field (3 WRs, 1 RB, 1 TE). They offense is in a trips formation, with the strength of the formation to its left (the side that the TE is on) and the trips WRs to the other side (the right side).
It's a little hard to see the formation and the alignment from the sideline view, so let's switch to the endzone view. Voila!
Let's see what defense USC is in. It looks to me like they're in a 4-3 defense. Although they aren't *aligned* in the 4-3 look, they have their 4-3 personnel out on the field.
(Note: I had to do look up the USC roster to confirm which numbers corresponded to which players, so I'm pretty sure they're utilizing 4-3 personnel out on the field right now, although I'm not 100% sure).
Quite interestingly, USC has drastically changed its pre-snap formation from a traditional 4-3 look due to the formation of the offense. In particular, you should note that USC has placed FIVE defenders (2 CBs, 2 LBs, and 1 DE) towards the trips WRs. The fact that they did this seems to suggest that they have a lot of respect for Cal's triple WR threat on that side of that field and wanted to ensure that there are enough defenders there to defend any possible bubble screens, or pick routes.
Here's the pre-snap motion. Cal brings across K. Allen (Cal WR #21) across the formation. Allen isn't just sliding sideways across the formation like an H-back, he's going full speed across the formation. This gives the impression that Cal is going to run a jet sweep handoff to its left.
Here's the picture of the play just after the snap. You'll note how the offensive line is driving to their left. This is again for the purposes of selling the jet sweep (if you haven't already figured out from the title of this post, this play isn't actually a jet sweep). If the ball carrier is running left, then the offensive line is going to block left for him.
Another critical aspect of this play is the fact that the QB is turning over his right shoulder. It may seem so inconsequential which shoulder he turns over, but it is CRUCIAL. Turning over his right shoulder helps sell the jet sweep because it appears as if the QB is looking towards Allen on the jet sweep for the handoff.
But in fact, this play is not a jet sweep. The QB does not hand the ball off to Allen, and instead hands it off to the runningback, Sofele (Cal RB #20). If you're looking at the above picture, you're probably noticing that this play doesn't exactly look like it's going to go well...
And it's not because there are a few problems. First of all, there are two missed blocks at the point of attack. Cal's Center has missed his block. Cal's right tackle has also failed to block the USC linebacker which has come (very quickly) come over from the trips to defend the offense's right B-gap (the space between Cal's RG and RT).
Second of all, the USC defensive end which was also defending the trips formation is coming in unblocked off of the edge of the formation down the C-gap (the space outside of the RT).
Now imagine if there weren't two missed blocks, and an unexpected defender coming from the outside. I've photoshopped out those defenders and you'll see that the RB, Sofele, would have had a gigantic running lane.
Let's go back to the pre-snap picture. After seeing how this play fails, I'm sure a lot of people are probably wondering... Why did Cal run this play? Why was Cal running to the weak side of the formation (the right side)? Why didn't the QB hand the ball off to the WR on the jet sweep?
These are all good questions. So let's get the easiest question out of the way first.
Why didn't the QB hand the ball off to the WR on the jet sweep?
As you can see from the picture above, if Cal actually had run the jet sweep on this play, the play probably would have gone for big yardage. USC wasn't exactly in the greatest position to defend the jet sweep. If Cal's QB, Maynard, had any wits about him, he would have handed off the ball, right? Right. But here's the thing, he wasn't allowed to hand off the ball. The playcall was for a run. Maynard does not have the ability to alter plays at the line of scrimmage on his own. In previous years, we've seen Rodgers, Ayoob, Longshore, and Riley change plays at the line of scrimmage. Not once this season have I seen Maynard do it. I'm not counting check-with-mes because although Maynard is changing the play at the LOS, he's doing those at the direction of the coaches and not on his own.
Why did Cal run this play? Why was Cal running to the weak side of the formation (the right side)?
Let's try and remember that just because a play fails doesn't necessarily mean the coaching staff is a bunch of idiots. They tailor each gameplan specifically for each opponent based on hours and hours of film study and scouting. Cal's offensive minds probably called this play because they saw something in the defense which they thought they could exploit. If I had to take a guess, they probably thought USC would over-pursue on the jet sweep to Allen (arguably Cal's most dangerous offensive weapon) and that would have opened up a weak-side run to the RB. In other words, it's like a cutback lane for the RB. In even more other words, this is almost like an outside zone running play which is designed to get the defense flowing in one direction, but only to have the RB cut back across the flow.
And that last sentence pretty much answers the second question of "why was Cal running to the weak side of the formation." They ran to the weak side because the offense was expecting the defense to over-pursue to the strong side to defend the jet sweep.
Ladies and Gentleman, this play may have failed, but there is clear intelligent design behind it. Everything from the trips formation, to the motion, to WHOM they are selling the jet sweep to (Allen), to the offensive line's direction of blocking, to the should the QB turns over, to the point of attack for the RB. It's all carefully planned.
But, unfortunately, this play failed. I already pointed out a few reasons why it did above (missed blocks, and an unexpected defender). So next I want to go over what I think the offensive staff was EXPECTING USC to be in for their defense, and how this play would have performed (theoretically) against that defense.
So I think the Cal offensive staff was really expecting that the defense would be in a bit more of a traditional 4-3 defense look. They were probably expect the USC DE to be in his traditional spot, in a 3-point stance, on the line of scrimmage. And they were probably expecting one of the linebackers to be in his more traditional 4-3 look on the other side of the formation across from the Cal tight end.
In the picture above, I've photoshopped out the two USC defenders who were where they weren't supposed to be, and photoshopped in those two defenders where they were probably should have been. And as you can see, if those two defenders were where they were supposed to be, then USC would be in a much more traditional 4-3 look. Note the four defensive linemen. Note the three linebackers (one across from the TE, one middle linebacker, and the other linebacker spaced out wide across from Allen in the trips formation).
If USC had been in this more traditional 4-3 look, this running play would have resulted much better. I've shown the blocking assignments for the offensive line in the picture above. As you can see, every defender in the box has been accounted for. Cal's six blockers would block the six USC defenders (4 DLs, 2 LBs). Cal's motion man (Allen) would be serving as a decoy for the third USC LB (I didn't include them in the picture above, but they would be far off to the offense's left side). Assuming Cal's WRs block their defenders (the two CBs) then Sofele just has one defender to beat, the USC FS (he's the deepest defender in the picture).
Here are the blocking assignments below:
TE = DE
LT = LB
LG = DT
C = DT
RG = LB
RT = DE
Motion WR = LB
WR = CB
WR = CB
This of course only leaves Cal's QBs and RB to be accounted for against USC's two safeties...
QB = SS
RB = FS
11 = 11
Boom. Perfect. Cal was expecting USC to be in a more traditional 4-3 look. USC would have had every Cal player accounted for. Cal was EXPECTING this. Cal was HOPING for this. Cal had it already PLANNED out how they would block against what they would EXPECT USC to defend the formation.
BUT... unfortunately, USC did NOT defend this play as the Cal coaches were expecting it.
USC vs. Cal 2011 (via CaliforniasGold)
In football, some plays succeed, and some plays fail. Sometimes plays fail because they are bad playcalls (wrong play in the wrong situation). Sometimes play fail because there is bad execution, bad luck, or just a great stop by the defense.
It's arguable that perhaps this playcall was bad because USC came out in a defense which Cal wasn't expecting. Of course, to say this, one would have to scout USC to see what their tendencies are for defending similar trips formations, and provide proof that USC doesn't tend to defend these plays with a more traditional 4-3 look. I haven't done this. And on the assumption that the Cal coaches are calling plays which they believe can exploit the defense due to their (hopefully) carefully crafted gameplans from hours and hours of scouting and film study, then I'm going to assume the choice of calling his play in this situation was probably fine.
Unfortunately though, this play failed due to two missed blocks, and USC being in an unexpected formation which resulted in an unblocked defender entering the backfield. So in conclusion, this play failed partly due to scheme (resulting from USC's unexpected formation), and partly due to execution.