A Golden Spotlight on Cal Football vs. Oregon

Scott Olmos-USA TODAY Sports

More appropriately, the title of this week's spotlight post should have been "In Search Of Silver Linings." Although I was fairly certain that no one would blame me if I dropped the ball on this one(too soon?), I drew upon my vast reserves of editorial integrity and forced myself to re-watch the film. Surprisingly enough, the game was not as mind-numbingly awful as I had originally perceived. If not for poor tackling, bad angles, "special" teams, and the utter inability to hold onto the ball, this could have been anyone's...aaand I'm not even fooling myself at this point. The better team won and it wasn't remotely a contest. No excuses. Dial up your favorite saying about adversity and character and let's move on. Our guys have seen how far they have to go. Now let's see if they're willing to keep working to get there.

In Defense of Vanilla

There's been a lot of grumbling that beleagured DC Andy Buh's schemes are too simple. For good or ill, we're not going to be getting the exotic blitzes or scheme-of-the-week game-plans that were the hallmarks of the Pendergast era. (Maybe this means we'll only give up 50 to ASU instead of 60+.) Like our offense, we're transitioning from a scheme-dominated system to an execution-based one. In theory, this will be easy to teach, easy to learn, and will help our younger guys play fast sooner rather than later. Sadly enough, this has been more of a theoretical exercise than reality so far.

However, one of the flickers of daylight around an otherwise overcast game was the improved play of our defense. Let's take a look at what has been one of the rarest of occurrences, A Forced Three-and-Out:

Oregon is in their standard 4WR spread formation. Their tailback is slightly behind the quarterback which suggests that they're about to run their infamous Inside Zone Read.(IZR) Cal counters with a 4-3 under front with Jefferson(#7) on the line threatening blitz.

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At the snap, Mariota reads McCain. However, instead of rushing upfield, McCain drops back into coverage while Jefferson rushes from the opposite side. It's an unusual wrinkle towards defending the IZR; usually the unblocked defensive end is taken out of the play completely. In this case, McCain is still part of the box and is helping with gap coverage(B gap) as well as covering the edge.

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Because McCain doesn't crash inside, Mariota completes the hand-off to Tyner. He heads towards the A-gap where it's hat on hat blocking between offensive linemen and defenders. Fortt(22) is exactly where he's supposed to be...

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...and does exactly what he's supposed to do. He fills the gap and makes the tackle for just a 1-yard game with help from Coleman.(#91)  Per Eugene (Thanks!), Fortt was wearing #22 instead of his customary #11 because he and Rodgers were both playing on special teams.

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It's 2nd and 9. Oregon has four wide receivers, but this time puts them in trips left. Tyner is again offset and behind Mariota which suggests Inside Zone Read. Cal is in their base 4-3. Jefferson(#7) moves wide to help with zone coverage against the trio of wideouts. Logan(#6) also shifts over into coverage. Best guess is Cover Three with three deep zones and four underneath.

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At the snap, Mariota reads the unblocked defensive end, Kragen(#13). Kragen shuffles his feet and moves slightly up field. However, he stays home and forces Mariota to hand it off. Many defensive coordinators are now having their ends slow-play the zone read instead of using the scrape-exchange. (where the end crashes on the running back) By staying disciplined, he's forcing the run back inside and trusting that his teammates will cover their gaps.

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Coleman and Moala hold their ground and completely clog up the A and B gaps. There's nowhere for Tyner to go. Kragen stays with the play and makes the tackle after a short gain with help from Coleman. Nothing fancy here. Just good assignment football.

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Now it's 3rd and four. Oregon again goes 4 wide with trips to the bottom. Cal is in the same base 4-3 with an OLB(Jefferson, #7) and safety (Logan, #6) positioned to help defend the trio of receivers. The two ends (McCain and Kragen) are standing instead of down.

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It looks like Cal is playing one of their staples, Cover Three. There are three deep zones with four underneath zones. At the snap, Coleman slants hard towards the weakside A-gap drawing a double-team while Moala stunts below him.

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It's just a basic four man rush. But McCain beats their RT to the outside and forces Mariota to step up.

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A receiver (#7) looks to be coming open underneath on a drag route, but now Moala pushes past his man and forces Mariota to move again. Both Nickerson (47) and Fortt (22) are in nearby coverage. (*Some artistic license may have been used with the definition of "nearby.")

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Mariota is still alive, but under pressure from Kragen. Hurriedly, he checks back underneath and throws before he wants to...

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...and the throw is behind the receiver. Jefferson was closing fast and might have made the stop in time. This almost _never_ happens, but Logan got juked and was trailing well behind the Duck wideout on an in-route. In this case, the Cal Dline saved the day. Their pressure compensated for soft coverage underneath and turned what should have been an easy completion into a punting situation. This whole series was all about execution and teamwork. Our guys were disciplined in their assignments, won some 1-on-1's by fighting off blocks, and made just enough plays to stop a high-powered offense in its tracks. We'll need to see more of the same if this defense is going to keep growing into a cohesive unit.

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Because we're all glass-half-full types, let's look at the much maligned Bear Raid running attack. After playing rope-a-dope for most of the game, the Cal offense has completely lulled the Ducks into a false sense of security. Jokes on you, breadcrumb eaters! Look who has 3rd and goal. Cal comes out with their standard 4 WR personnel. However, Richard Rodgers (#11) is positioned as a wing. Oregon has five men on the line of scrimmage with a lone safety behind two linebackers.

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At the snap, Rodgers crosses back across the formation. The Duck safety follows him immediately which suggests that this is man coverage. Cal's center (Adcock, #58) hits their backside defensive tackle initially before moving on to the 2nd level to take out their middle linebacker.

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Rodgers takes out their blitzing outside linebacker while Kline goes back to pass. The Duck safety has followed Rodgers all the way across their formation and watches in fascination as Kline shows off his curious shot-put throwing motion. By now, Adcock has engaged their middle linebacker while Crosthwaite takes on their defensive tackle. Rigsbee and Tagaloa have established leverage and are driving their men out of the way. Both Treggs and Powe have their corners locked up. It's a great display of run-blocking; every Cal player is dominating their counterpart. Extra credit to Adcock for hitting two Ducks en route to opening a huge lane through the A gap.

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You can see the huge hole just waiting for Coprich to stroll through...

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...so naturally, he stumbles. Just to make it interesting. It's still Touchdown Bears! Good call by the Cal coaches to recognize Oregon's tendency to go man near the goal line and call a play that took their safety out of the equation. Better execution by the Oline and receivers to blow open a huge hole for Coprich.

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Well Cal fans, this is about where we thought we'd be at this point of the season. Clearly, the past few games have shown us that our team still has a long way to go before we can square off against elite foes. But having weathered the storm against two top-5 opponents, we're ready for the competitive phase of our schedule. The games are all winnable from this point forward; it's just a question of whether the coaches and players can keep growing together. Time to show the Pirate that the Bear Raid trumps an Air Raid hands down.

Go Bears! Let's beat the Cougars!

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