Golden Spotlight: More Post-Northwestern Thoughts

Stephen Lam

In which - NOPE, SWERVE - now that we a few days away from the game, what else can we learn from the game against Northwestern?

Here's a long winded introduction. In time, you'll find that this is as much of my style as those "in whiches" people like to give me grief about. If you would prefer not to read this, feel free to skip directly to the end of this section.

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Greetings, CGB! I've been writing here since January - and pretty much exclusively since late July - but this is my first fall on our staff, and I am excited to spend it with you all.

As I understand it, this Tuesday morning slot has been manned in recent years by Kodiak and HydroTech, who would put together insightful and detailed breakdowns of the previous week's game. Given the fantastic work that they have done, I consider it a serious honor to be given this spot and will do my damndest not to embarrass the high standard that they have set before me.

But before we continue, I want to make it clear that I am neither of those guys - my knowledge of the X's and O's is still very much in development, and as a result, you won't see that kind of extended breakdown from me. [I also prefer to leave that territory to them, as to not infringe on what they do best.]

What you will see in this space is pretty murky too, at least right now. Obviously, our team will remain the core focus, but how I go about writing about them, and what I write about will likely vary from week to week, especially in the early going, when I'm still figuring all this out. For right now, this column just contains things I saw at the game and my observations after rewatching. I would be happy to include some thoughts and opinions on anything anyone wants to hear about, though, so perhaps in future weeks, people could ask for stuff they want to see me write about?

Either way, it's going to be a bit of an adventure for both of us, but I do hope you will enjoy riding along with me. I think that just about covers everything I wanted to say before getting started. Now, TO THE GREAT AND GOLDEN UNKNOWN!

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Game Observations:

Any and all takes about Jared Goff have already been written at this point, so I won't blab on for too much longer about the kid - it wasn't a flawless debut, but it certainly left fans feeling encouraged for the future. One thing's for sure, Goff still has to learn to look off defenders a bit - his not doing so led to several close calls and near interceptions. Still, a year from now, this offense will be substantially more dangerous. And with this game on ESPN2...everybody knows it.

The switch to the 4-3 looks like it's paying some dividends in the run game. Playing with an extra body down on the line, Cal was able to hold Northwestern down for most of the game - 1/5th of their rushing yards came at the very end on a busted play by Lucas King. Otherwise, the Wildcats rushed for a very mediocre 3.9 yards per carry.

Two weeks of drilling on option assignments helped a lot as well, I would imagine. When Northwestern would try to option off a defender on the edges, everyone stuck to their assignments, which did not always happen in past matchups with UCLA (2011) or Nevada. The best example of this came in the third quarter, where Northwestern tried to run a speed option right near the goal line, but got nowhere due to Jalen Jefferson staying with Semien and Stefan McClure remaining with the pitch man the entire way. [I should note that McClure did get away with a horsecollar tackle.]

While we're still on the topic of rush defense - Avery Sebastian [11 tackles in a quarter and a half!], Jalen Jefferson [1.5 TFL] and Deandre Coleman [no tackles for loss, but several for no gain and close to none] were all fantastic assets in the run game, but there is no denying that Avery still needs some work in coverage. He definitely was responsible for one long catch early in the first quarter, and was the closest man around for several others.

Viliami Moala also got in on the action at times. At least once, he broke through the line and forced a Northwestern running back right into other players. If he continues to play well going forward, it may lessen the immediate need for Mustafa Jalil, who missed Saturday due to a knee "flare up".

Like everyone else, I thought Trevor Semian too much free time on Saturday night, only harassed or flushed out on occasion. The Bears recorded one sack by Dan Camporeale, a number that would have been higher if Campo had hung onto Semien several other times. Still, Brennan Scarlett's return is probably the most important one in the defensive front seven. Whenever that may be, he will need to provide a boost to the pass rush if the Bears want to see improvement at all. Get better pressure, and some of those short completions become sacks or off-target...

Jacobi Hunter did get in Semien's face once toward the end of the first half, forcing him to throw into three defenders.

We like to make fun of Alex Logan for his terrible performance against Ohio State last year, but I thought he played very well in replacement of Sebastian. Made several nice stops in the backfield and added an interception, too. Michael Lowe was pretty average - nothing particularly noteworthy from his evening, some good tackling, some bad breakdowns and slow gap fills. Safety still remains a position of concern, now that Avery is out again with an ankle issue of unknown severity.

Michael Barton - seeing his first game time as a Bear - had a mostly good game at linebacker, utilizing an athleticism that proved invaluable on several of his eight tackles. That being said, he also struggled to react at times, as well - because of his inexperience, he wasn't always fast enough in reading pass and dropping to his flat, and allowed several completions because of it. This should improve with more game reps. [I do stand by my prediction that Barton will be a tremendous player for us when he gets to start full time. He's only an RS freshman right now!]

Early on, Cal had a lot of success rushing, but as the game went on, Northwestern's safeties and defensive backs did a great job of attacking our runners before they could really turn a corner. A few times, the safety would come up to force Lasco further outside, and though that safety didn't end up making the tackle, the presence of an extra defender halted any further forward progress. Their cornerback duo obviously wasn't able to contain Harper or Treggs, but I thought Northwestern got great safety play, especially on Ibraheim Campbell's interception.

Chris McCain made very little difference as a pass rusher on Saturday. He did, however, do pretty good in stopping the run - his athleticism and effort almost always lead him to chase down players from the backside, and at one point, on consecutive plays.

Northwestern's Dean Lowry and Tyler Scott - both of whom are over 6'4" - swatted several balls at the defensive end spot, a problem that followed Goff pretty much all night. Is that limited to just fantastic play on their part, or is Goff doing something wrong? I'm not really sure. Maybe it's just a function and side effect of having all those short passes? In any case, it's too small of a sample size now to tell. Check back in on this item after Ohio State, when we have more evidence to go off of.

The Bone formation/Grizzly/whatever you want to call it has several distinct varieties, so we're going to need to come up with some creative names for the subpackages. Get to work on those, CGB. One look showed on Saturday was with Bill Tyndall in the backfield, working with Jacob Wark. The one instance we saw it didn't exactly set the world on fire, but it's an interesting personnel package to have - and it's not the only one we have, either.

I didn't see anything that concerned me too much on the left side of the line, but predictably, the right side looks like it's a work in progress. Matt Cochran didn't do anything particularly bad that I could tell, although I do think he looks awkward when pulling. Right tackle Steven Moore was responsible for two of the sacks to Goff - on the first, he pushed Ifeadi Odenigbo off and away from Goff at the snap, but the 6'3" 235 pound defensive end was too athletic to be stopped, and burst back past Moore for the sack anyway. A second came when Moore matched up against Tyler Scott and could not fend off his bullrush.

Goff's third sack came when he was flushed out of the pocket and hesitated about turning the corner against two Northwestern defenders.

The final one was a three man rush on the last drive of the game, with Freddie Tagaloa simply getting beat. The big sophomore lost his balance, and the end was able to get around him to the outside.

Penalties, penalties, penalties. One ultimately avoidable one on Chris McCain's ejection, and three false starts by three different members of the offensive line. Two more that came when D'Amato booted it out of bounds. Twice. Yuck. Obviously, you can figure that the staff isn't happy about this either.

I'm sure you all have realized this by now, but we were really two or three plays from winning this game. A dropped pass by Treggs right before halftime left four points on the field. That, and the two freak interceptions were the difference makers.

Speaking of which, if you haven't realized how fast Richard Rodgers is, consider this - on one of the two interceptions, Rodgers came from the other side of the field to nearly trip up Collin Ellis, beating Stephen Anderson, who was chasing Ellis from behind.

I'm not going to worry about the fake injuries. No, I don't like them. Didn't like them when we did them, either, but it is what it is. We'll just have to beat opponents in spite of those tactics.

The special teams unit deserves a grade of an A- for this game. There were many, many high points - Cole's punts being mostly fantastic, a perfectly executed fake field goal, good coverage, Khalfani's consistently strong returns, a couple of downed punts inside the five, plus Vincenzo D'Amato being perfect on the evening - and then there were a couple low ones, too. Namely that whole kicking the ball out bounds thing. Twice.

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Visuals

Remember, everything beyond this point is from the standpoint of someone learning football all the time. Nevertheless, I'll try to support any and every interpretation I have.

Goff's first two interceptions were fluky, possibly avoidable plays. The third one is just a bad read in general. Here's how the play starts.

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I'm not sure what coverage he's seeing right now - again, that whole still learning X's and O's thing - but I think it should be cover-4, where all four members of the secondary will drop back and cover one fourth of the deep field. I have numbered them for you in black. Because the cornerbacks are turned to face the quarterback, rather than squared up on a receiver, it's usually a sign of zone. Either way, it's the wrong read. Here's why...

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You can see that from these next two pictures that the cornerback on the bottom of the photo - #1 - has remained with Treggs. Now there is no cover-4, no 4th defender. There are, in fact, only three deep defenders - both safeties, and the cornerback on Chris Harper up top, players 2, 3, and 4.

More specifically, these three deep defenders are looking at half-quarter-quarter responsibilities, judging from the way they progress. Player #2 has dashed back to cover the deep half of the field, player #3 drops back into the deep middle, and player #4, while still trailing Harper, has responsibility for that final remaining section from the right hash to the sideline.

Goff has Harper running a post pattern and tries to throw it to him, which is a mistake. There is only one deep receiver, and two deep defenders with overlapping zones - essentially, Goff is trying to throw to one guy, who is being covered by #3 and #4 at once. Understandably, it is a difficult situation to win, and he doesn't, when Ibraheim Campbell makes a fantastic play on the ball for the interception. [Goff may have thought that it was cover-2 - routes like posts work fantastically against two deep coverage, since the middle of the field is usually open.]

The last point that I'd like to bring up involves a subtle change I spotted regarding the running backs splits. At Louisiana Tech and through most of the practices I saw, the running back lined up side by side with the quarterback, like below.

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Now, here's what happened on Saturday...[more than once]

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Notice that the back is exactly one yard in front of the quarterback now.

This doesn't look like it much, but like all things done on a football field, I do think it is purposeful. Because I am neither Tony Franklin or Sonny Dykes, I can't tell you what they intended, but here's what I assume they were trying to do:

Moving closer to the line of scrimmage allows the running back a quicker run into the right flat, saving maybe half a second, if that...but with backs as fast as ours, it might make all the difference. Two, this position allows our backs more room to maneuver as they run east to west - they have a bit more of a running start while they look for a hole to turn north and shoot through.

Anyway, that's it for this week. Feel free to share your thoughts, and/or let me know what you'd like to see from this column going forward!

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