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Armed Forces Bowl Review: Part XII: Final Thoughts

Here are my final thoughts on the Armed Forces Bowl.  In case you missed the previous installments, here is Part I, Part II, Part III, Part IV, Part V, Part VI, Part VII, Part VIII, Part IX, Part X, and Part XI.  (Ed Note:  I've been wanting to do an Arvo Part joke this entire frigging time, but have managed to hold off, probably for all of our sakes, but I mean c'mon!)

I think the bowl game can be distinctly broken up into two segments.  The first being the segment when Longshore was the QB, and the second being the segment when Riley was the QB.  The game changed so dramatically when Riley took the field.  Of course, the question is: why? 

There are many answers and factors.  Some are big scale factors (such as the team's motivation and morale), and others were small scale factors such as missed blocks here and there or great passes here and there.

Big scale factors why the team struggled in the 1st Quarter (2 drives) with Longshore as the QB and did not struggle in the remaining Quarters (9 drives) with Riley as the QB:

(1) The team was demoralized in the 1st Quarter.  This has nothing to do with the team feeling demoralized that Longshore was their QB, but about the team being demoralized from going #2 in the nation to a 6-6 team.  Any demoralized team plays less effectively as one which is excited and eager to go out there and play,  Needless to say, I don't think the team was exactly thrilled to be in the Armed Forces Bowl and probably wasn't that confident that they weren't going to get beat again.  But once the Cal offense started putting points on the board, the entire team, both offense and defense became energized and team morale went up.  The team played with more energy and fire (not to be mistaken with effort), and the overall performance of the team improved across the boards.

(2) Air Force was fresh early on.  Air Force sure did have a lot of fight to them early in the game.  They were eager and confident to take down one of the top Pac-10 teams who was still reeling from its fall from #2.  They got even more eager and confident when they started ripping apart the Cal defense.  But contrast Air Force's players in the 1st quarter to the 4th quarter, and the difference is obvious.  The Air Force players were tired, frustrated, and demoralized that Cal was mounting a comeback.

(3) It's hard to prepare for the triple option.  You can practice defending the triple option with the scout team for months.  But without running the triple option with the speed and effectiveness of Air Force itself, you really can't 100% prepare for defending the triple option.  For the first quarter, the Cal defense was still adjusting to the speed and quickness to which Air Force was operating.  It was only until after halftime until the Cal defense finally looked composed and ready for the speed of Air Force's execution.

Small scale factors why the team struggled in the 1st Quarter (2 drives) with Longshore as the QB and didn't struggle in the remaining Quarters (9 drives) with Riley as the QB:

(1) A few missed blocks on run plays early on.  This isn't to say that the Cal OL had their share of missed blocks on run plays when Riley was the QB, because they did.  But the missed blocks in the 1st quarter were critical in stopping the Cal drives in the 1st quarter.  On Cal's first drive, the Cal OL could only muster a 3 yard gain, a 1 yard gain, and a 0 yard gain.  On Cal's second drive, the Cal OL also gave up a 3 yard loss on a run play.  While the Cal run blocking wasn't phenomenal in the latter 3 Quarters, I do think it noticeably improved. 

(2) Improved pass blocking in the latter 3 Quarters.  Pass blocking for Longshore was adequate.  There was one play where the OL got beat badly.  But pass blocking for Riley vastly improved when he was in the game.  As I noted in a previous post, Riley was only pressured twice on his 19 dropbacks and those two pressures occurred in the second quarter meaning that the AF defense didn't even get close to Riley for the remaining 35-40 minutes of the game.  I think the reason for this improvement in the pass blocking is a combination of the DL having to account for a mobile QB, the OL becoming energized and inspired by the improvement in performance of the entire team, and Air Force getting tired. 

(3) Air Force didn't have the defenders to stop the Cal air attack comeback.  I think we saw enough evidence of this from the plays we covered.  I believe the Air Force Defensive Coordinator didn't want to play man coverages or to really use anything other than their base 3-4 defense because he believed he his personnel wasn't skilled enough to matchup in man coverage.  Thus, we saw lots of zones early on and Air Force defending Cal's passing attack with their 3-4 defense.  Only towards the end of the game did we see Air Force switch to man defenses in what looked to be a desperation move. 

(4) Riley's mobility created problems.  Riley's ability to scramble and be a threat on QB boots creates problems for the defense.  It keeps the defense honest when pass rushing as well as defending against the run.  As I showed in one play, Air Force ignored Longshore on zone reads and went straight for the runningback.  In a play not covered by this series (but pictures of this play can be found here), an Air Force defender lets Forsett (who has the ball) run right by him because the AF defender thinks Riley has the ball on a boot and thus must cover Riley.

(5) The presence of Desean "THA1" Jackson, Robert Jordan, and Thomas Decoud.  These guys were crucial in Cal's comeback.  Jackson caught the first Cal touchdown which ignited the comeback.  His mere presence on the field also demands attention from the defense.  Robert Jordan had a huge day with 6 catches for 148 yards.  And Thomas Decoud finished the day with about 10 tackles or so which is darn good for only 3 quarters of play.

(6) Riley had a phenomenal game.  He only had 3 incompletions; the goal line pass, the hail mary, and a lame duck which slipped out of his hands.  I personally don't count the hail mary as an incompletion since it's one of those "ah, what the hell" kind of throws, so I like to think Riley only had two incompletions.  Make no doubt about it, Riley had a fantastic game.

(7) The switch to the 3-4 defense in the second half.  When switched to the 3-4 defense and began stopping Air Force's offense, the AF offense became demoralized.  This puts pressure on the AF defense to stop the Cal offense.  Needless to say, the AF defense wasn't doing well to stop the Cal offense (6 straight Cal scoring drives not counting the drive just before halftime).  Cal's switch to the 3-4 defense doubly impacted Air Force on both sides of the ball.  The AF offense felt demoralized by the stiffened resistance of the Cal D, and the AF defense felt the added pressure to (somehow) stop the Cal air attack.

Final thoughts:

I want to touch on the tender subject of Riley vs. Longshore.  Quite unfortunately, immediately after the bowl game it seemed as if Longshore took too much of the blame for Cal's performance in the 1st quarter.  As I've discussed in previous posts and shown in plays we've covered in this series, I think the reason why Cal struggled so much early on has nothing to do with Longshore's performance.  He did pretty well.  There was possibly one questionable pass, and a questionable decision on a zone read, but other than that, I think Longshore was for the most part wrongly victimized for the entire Cal team (both offense and defense) not playing well early on. 

We saw a few missed blocks here and there.  A critical dropped pass killed a 4th down.  The entire team looked demoralized.  The defense was getting gashed by a motivated Air Force triple option. 

But then came Riley (and THA1 and Jordan).  Riley evaded a defender in his face due to a bad block and threw a touchdown pass.  That gave the team some life.  The Cal defense felt like weight was lifting off their shoulders and the outcome of the game wasn't completely on them to hold Air Force scoreless since the 1st quarter Cal offense wasn't scoring (0 out of 2 on 2 drives).  The Cal offense seemed motivated by the realization that they could score and elevated their play.  Soon the Cal offense looked unstoppable and was gashing Air Force's weak pass defense with deep passes and the game was won.

In my opinion, the biggest reason why the team played so much better when Riley was the QB, was because they became motivated.  Not motivated because Riley was the QB as opposed to Longshore.  Not motivated because they wanted Riley all along or something, but motivated because the Cal offense scored with a big play after games of trudging and bumbling along.  The motivation provided by the first touchdown sparked a huge emotional change for the entire Cal team.  Both offensive and defensive squads began to play better due to the influx of motivation and inspiration from the touchdown.  Riley benefited from that improved play and because Longshore was already out of the game, he didn't get that opportunity. 

Bottom line, the entire Cal team played to their potential in the 2nd, 3rd and 4th quarters.  Riley's touchdown sparked the team to play to its potential.  Had the team been playing to its potential for all four quarters, regardless of who was the QB, Cal would have scored more than 50 points and won by 30.