Anticipation was high for what the new coaching staff would bring to Cal and the creativity in the game against Northwestern did not disappoint. With 195 plays on offense, defense and special teams it was hard to choose which ones to breakdown on video and with GIFs. With so much to cover I am going to head right into the breakdowns.
I am going to start with my favorite play of the night. Ironically it isn't a #BearRaid play, it is a play executed before the snap by Cal's defense. We knew Andy Buh would bring a 4-3 alignment but we didn't know a lot about his tendencies before the game. Even through the first half the defense looked pretty vanilla, probably due to all the preparation for the option run game. When he did open up the playbook it was very effective.
In the pic below we can see that it is 3rd and 13 with Cal backed up to their own end zone, this was with 9 minutes left in the 4th quarter. Cal is in their base 4-3 which means 4 defensive linemen, 3 linebackers and 4 defensive backs (2 corner backs and 2 safeties). The labeled players are Linebackers #7 Jalen Jefferson, #8 Michael Barton, #47 Hardy Nickerson and Safety #6 Alex Logan. Northwestern is spread with five men lined out wide (3 receivers, the "superback", and a running back). #32 white is running back Mike Trumpy and #14 white is wide receiver Christian Jones.
Pre-snap Cal moves into a blitz look with linebackers #7 and #8 moving up to the line of scrimmage, #47 moving to cover wide receiver #14 and the safety #6 moving to cover the running back #32.
Northwestern sees six pass rushers to his five blockers and does a check-with-me audible to move #32 Trumpy into pass blocking. The coaching staff also notices that wide receiver #14 is lined up against freshman linebacker #47 Hardy Nickerson in single coverage, an obvious mismatch (any wide receiver against a linebacker is a mismatch).
After the audible Cal moves back into the base 4-3 look but with Safety #6 Alex Logan much closer to the line of scrimmage. Northwestern has moved Trumpy (#32) into the backfield.
Lets see what all this movement looks like:
The result of all of this movement? Northwestern has audibled into a play where there is one fewer receiver in the routes and one where #14 becomes the primary receiver. At the snap Cal has #14 double covered with Safety #6 and linebacker #47.
The quarterback has no choice but to throw the ball out the end of the end zone. Cal won this play before the snap by out maneuvering the Northwestern coaching staff. This is a creative and effective way to counter the check-with-me.
There was another play in the 4th quarter, 3rd and 13, the drive before the one above where pre-snap deception of the coverage led to a defensive stop. In this play again Northwestern is 5 wide, the mirror image of the play above with 3 receivers to the bottom and two to the top of the screen. Again #32 is the running back and #14 is the wide receiver. Cal is in a 5 defensive back or "Nickle" defense with 4 linemen and 2 linebackers (#7 Jefferson and #8 Barton). The DBs are safeties #5 Michael Lowe and #6 Alex Logan and corners #2 Darius Allensworth, #20 Isaac Lapite, and #21 Stefan McClure.
The Northwestern quarterback, Trevor Siemian, notices two things in his pre-snap read: there are seven players showing blitz and #14 is completely uncovered. I cannot take credit for seeing this, the gentleman behind me pointed it out "nobody is covering the Northwestern receiver!". Siemian calls an audible and his running back #32 comes in to block. He likely assumes that there is some sort of zone blitz going on and that the two receivers at the top of the screen will be single covered or that Cal has made a major error and has actually no one to cover #14.
In either case the quarterback would be wrong, this is a cleverly disguised Cover 3 zone scheme where the Corners and Free Safety are each responsible for a deep third of the field while the other 2 DBs and 2 linebackers drop into short zones.
Instead of having one receiver running free or two single covered receivers, Northwestern has two receivers with coverage over and under a situation so dangerous that Siemian has to throw the ball away.
Here is what it looks like in action:
Twice the defense wins before the ball is even snapped. I hope we see more of these disguised coverages and some disguised blitzes. If I can find these in the game and on film, opposing offenses can too. The key will be for Andy Buh to continue to be creative in his disguises.
On to the #BearRaid. The first play of the game was a big one as Brendan Bigelow, #5, managed to use his speed to get around the end and up field. The explosive play was a great way to start the season.
Cal is lined up with Trips receivers toward the top of the screen and one receiver to the bottom of the screen, Bigelow is in the back field. Northwestern is in base 4-3 defense. I have included the blocking assignments (which I know makes the pic busy); the three most important blocks are pulling guard #73 Jordan Rigsbee who will block the Defensive End, Right Tackle #64 Steven Moore who will block the back side middle line backer, and slot receiver #11 Richard Rodgers who will seal the play side middle backer.
The play has been designed so that the pulling guard and "down blocking" (blocking the player diagonally to the inside) tackle and slot receiver have advantageous angles to reach their blocks and seal the edge for Bigelow. The Northwestern players crash towards the quarterback and running back (attempting to plug their assigned holes) further helping the blocking angles.
The result was that I and about 50,000 other cal fans roared "Go Bigelow!" to start an epidemic of hoarse voices.
One of the problems the Cal offense encountered was that the running game lost effectiveness after the first series. Much of that can be contributed to adjustments that the Wildcats' defense made.
Later in the 1st quarter Cal lined up with the same personnel in the same formation and ran the same play. This time Northwestern has a Nickle package on the field, replacing the outside linebacker with a defensive back, the alignment looks the same as the play above.
This time Northwestern is ready for the run. The key difference is that the play-side defensive end heads up the field to force Bigelow to turn up before he gets to the edge. This redirects Bigelow to the backside persuit of the linebackers. The linebackers take angles more parallel to the line of scrimmage to "string the run out" (to make Bigelow run towards the sideline instead of up field) and the safety crashes toward the line of scrimmage.
The result is that Bigelow has no where to go and he is unable to fully utilize his speed.
I am sure you also notice in the GIF that the blocking on this play is no where near as effective as in the previous play. Part of that is because the Northwestern defenders did a much better job of fighting through the blocks, part of it is because blocks were missed. Even if every block was perfect this play would be less successful because of how much the safety is crashing. The key to making this a devastating play can be seen in Jared Goff's fake throw. If the defense is playing this much run defense then a pass to the single covered receiver at the bottom of the screen could be very effective. Also a play where Richard Rodgers sneaks behind the linebackers for a pass could be effective too. I have to admit that I have not gone back to watch for these specific plays, if you saw them please let me know in the comments.
What I did see were the following pair of plays where the run did set up the pass.
This running play was Brendan Bigelow's third carry of the evening. Cal is lined up with 4 wide receivers, 2 on each side (#6 Harper and #11 Rodgers at the top and #1 Treggs and #28 Bouza at the bottom). Bigelow, #5, is lined up to the right side of quaterback Goff. Northwesten is in their base 4-3 defense.
At the snap, Cal's offensive linemen block down (the d-lineman to their left), the center double teams the play side defensive tackle. The outside receivers run Go routes while the inside receivers head into the flat. Like many plays in this offense the receivers' routes are mirror images of each other.
The defensive end on the back side is left unblocked and Goff fakes a pass to his right after he hands off to Bigelow. Brendan shows us that last year's big runs were no fluke.
And another angle, just because it is so much fun to watch Bigelow in the open field:
This next play shows (from late in the 1st quarter) why the ultimate expression of the #BearRaid is a balanced run/pass combo. Cal is in the same formation, except that Bigelow is on the other side of Goff. This effectively means that the formation is reversed even though the receivers do not change sides of the field. Northwestern is either in their base 4-3 or in a nickle package that looks like the 4-3 against our spread.
In this play the circled defensive end, who would be the back side end on a run, will be unblocked. The difference between this play and the previous is that the run will be faked and Goff will throw a screen pass to #1 Bryce Treggs and #28 Bouza will block for him.
The linebackers and defensive backs are frozen by the play action allowing Treggs to get the reception and run for first down yardage.
The defensive end shows a weakness that will be exploited with this type of play: if the D-End is athletic enough (and apparently gets 50 plays to practice) he can tip the pass which can lead to bad results. Maybe a true read option would force the DE to "stay home" and not leap into the passing lane. A hand-off to burn him would have gone a long way in this game. The run above was designed to go away from the unblocked DE meaning that he has no run contain responsibility and can jump freely.
There is another play out of this formation that shows how both teams are adapting throughout the game. With 1:22 left in the first half Cal is backed up 1st and 10 at their own goal line. The Golden Bears are in the spread with treggs and Bouza at the top of the screen and Harper and Rodgers at the bottom. Lasco (#2) is the running back lined up to Goff's left. Northwestern is in their base 4-3.
Having a linebacker lined up over Bouza is a mismatch in favor of Cal but Northwestern has a solution: they call a zone blitz where the linebacker at the bottom of the screen blitzes and the defensive end at the top of the screen drops into a shallow zone coverage. It is a brillant tactic: if this is a run, then the blitzing linebacker will be plugging the hole since the tendency of this formation is to run to the opposite side of the running back (across the formation), if this is a pass the tendency is to pass shallow to the left where the defensive end is heading.
This is a pass, but not just any pass, a Jailbreak Screen. It is the perfect call. The screen pass negates the pressure of the blitz, the defensive end is no where near Treggs and is blocked by Bouza. The cornerback is dropping to a deep zone and the linebacker on that side is stuck behind the defensive end. On a Jailbreak Screen the offensive linemen punch the D-line then head down-field to block. #2 Lasco is tasked with making sure the last defender on the defensive line (in this case a defensive tackle) cannot turn around and make a tackle from behind. Treggs then puts on a show.
It looks like a kickoff return the way Treggs runs.
I was impressed by the play of our team overall. Working to keep the run game effective, reducing drops and tipped balls will help the offense be even more effective. I hope the offense adds a couple plays each week to keep the defenses honest. The Cal defense has work to do but the talent is there and the coaching decisions look good.
I didn't comprehend how much longer the game would be with two fast paced offenses (and fake injuries). There were Cal fans literally falling asleep in the stands around me. They looked narcoleptic as one moment they would be nodding off like it was a lecture in Pimentel and the next moment they would be on their feet cheering and giving high fives.
In college football experience really matters. With so many freshmen and sophomores seeing significant playing time there are going to be growing pains but if those pains look like last Saturday I will enjoy every moment of agony.