Cal Football Defense Gamefilm Review: Mirroring The Oregon Ducks

Darron Thomas was shadowed for most of last year's Cal-Oregon game. (Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images)

(For those who want to read more about the Cal defense vs. Oregon offense, check out my notes on the  first half Cal run defense vs Oregon run offense here. PDF, 19 pages, 17 additional plays, 5800+ words, $3. More Cal-Oregon free/paid content to come.)

You could write ten words about a football play. You could write an epic. That's how intricate every little interaction is on the field. That's how complex actions can boil down to the simplest outcomes. 

Cal's narrow defeat to the Oregon Ducks last season requires some close study, and a lot of it has to do with what happened on the defensive side of the football field. How on Earth did we take the number one team to the wire last year? Why did a team that got rolled by middling Oregon State and USC squads lock it down against a team that came a field goal short of winning a national championship?

Some of the clues start coming together on the first play. Here's the video.

We touched on the Cal pass defense strategy vs the Oregon pass offense last week. After the jump, here's more of the explanation.

For those unfamiliar with the offense Oregon runs, this is their version of play-action. It has some advantages (the quick drop and setup by the passer should give him immediate opportunities to pass the ball), but also some disadvantages too (the longer the quarterback progresses through his reads, the harder it'll become for him to zone in and make a positive throw).

Indeed, this is what happens on this play. It looks like the player that came out of the backfield (actually not a running back at all, but #80 Lavasier Tuinei) was Thomas's first intended read on an out pattern, but the defender was on him and forced Thomas to move away from that throw. Thomas came back to the middle of the field to try and find his tight end #42 David Paulson, but Cal safety #11 Sean Cattouse did a good job jamming him at the line and not allowing him free space up the middle. #17 Chris Conte is on his way to help plug any hole for Thomas to throw through. Defensive pressure eventually forces a Thomas throw-away.

Of greater context to the overall game result is the type of strategy that Cal seems to employ. Watch what the linebackers do on this play. 

Cal_defense_oregon_play_1b_medium

Mike Mohamed (the middle linebacker) heads straight for the quarterback Darron Thomas. Weakside linebacker D.J. Holt treads toward the sideline LaMichael James is running towards. You can see already that Cal seems to be having at least one critical player focus on the quarterback and the other focus on the running back in an attempt to shut them down one-on-one.

Does this trend continue? Well, let's check the fourth play of that drive, a fourth down and short situation for the Ducks.

Oregon runs the zone-read. Thomas takes the snap and reads Cattouse. If Cattouse advances past the receiver and tries to block the mesh, he probably hands off to James. Since Cattouse retreats into coverage, the right side of the field opens up, and Thomas withdraws the ball and keeps it himself.

From the Oregon perspective, the crucial plays happen with the receivers. David Paulson takes a few steps forward and engages Cattouse past the first down marker, giving Thomas crucial running space in the backfield. That's still nearly not enough, as Cattouse sheds his blocker and gets hands on Thomas just before he turns back toward the first down marker, but that's as far as he goes.

More importantly is Tuinei, who comes in motion toward the playside and executes a cut block. Even though the cut block is too low and Anthony doesn't get taken out of the play, he does push him back a yard or two. Thus Anthony can only make a play on Thomas after he's picked up the first down. Crucial wide receiver blocking.

So what about the overall defensive scheme? At first glance, it doesn't look like the mirroring man coverage is happening on this play. While D.J. Holt is clearly ready to take on James through the hole and try and stuff him, Mohamed engages a blocker on his side. 

However, there is someone focused on stopping Thomas.

Cal_defense_oregon_play_4b_medium

This time, deep safety Chris Conte takes the responsibility to mirror the quarterback. You might think it's a bit of a risk to have the safety playing so far from the line of scrimmage trying to stop Thomas, but Conte has good foot speed and Thomas is side-stepping rather than ramming his way toward the line of scrimmage, so using the safety to spy the quarterback isn't as far-fetched as it sounds.

Conte actually forces Thomas to bounce outside from his original move and makes Paulson come back inside to try and block him, but thanks to the wide receiver blocks Thomas manages to scramble for his first down. Thomas isn't quite as decisive as Jeremiah Masoli or Dennis Dixon would've been on this sequence, but he has more than enough athleticism to keep the play alive and pick up the yards necessary for a first down.

You can see that Cal is dedicated to two basic principles on these plays.

  • One unoccupied defender spies and takes the quarterback.
  • The rest of the front seven tries and take the running back up top.
Oregon's offense is by no means simple, but you eliminate a lot of options if you're able to stuff their two main playmakers with defenders of your own. Early on, it appeared that defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast was determined to make sure that anyone but Thomas or James would have to beat them. And for most of the game, the strategy worked flawlessly.

(For particular plays that involved Darron Thomas being shadowed/mirrored by Chris Conte, check out Cal-Oregon Plays 36 & 42 of the first half notes I mentioned at the start (again, only $3). More notes on the run D as well as the pass D to come.)

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