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2009 Cal vs. USC - The Presnap Chessmatch

Based on the feedback from those of you that participated in our Golden Feedback, it appears as if many of you really enjoy game film play analysis.  I'm sorry for not providing more game film analysis on a regular basis, but school has once again kept me fairly busy (15 units and 6 classes: Mediterranean Cuisine, French Sous-vide, Advanced Sauces, Delicate Desserts, Unusual Proteins, and Dangerous Foods Preparation).  I will try to provide a little more analysis here and there.  Please bear with me in the following analysis as since I no longer have Photoshop on my laptop and I had to use Paint instead.

While watching the Cal vs. USC game between practicing my Julienne cuts and while waiting for some creme brulee to finish cooling down, I noticed something pretty interesting.  I noticed USC's QB Matt Barkley make a fantastic pre-snap adjustment to take advantage of the Cal defense.  At the college level, it doesn't seem like a lot of QBs are allowed to make pre-snap adjustments.  Some offenses merely have the entire offense look to the coaches on the sidelines before the snap, to get signals from the coaches which will dictate whether the offense will run the original play or run a different play.  In these offenses, the QB is just a stupid mindless automaton that directs the offense under the command of the sideline coaches.  Other offenses allow the QB some control to change direction of runs or change the play to a few select pre-determined plays (Cal's offense).  And then there are only a few QBs at the college level are allowed to pretty much do whatever they want (if I recall correctly, I think Boston College's Matt Ryan was given the freedom to change the play at the line of scrimmage to any play he desired - don't quote me on that but I could have sworn I read that in an ESPN Magazine or something).  USC's QBs are either the second or third option, meaning they definitely can change plays around and perhaps they can even do whatever they want with the offense. 


Above is the pre-snap look.  USC has 11 personnel on the field (1 RB, 1 TE, 3 WRs).  They are facing a 2nd and 17.  USC comes out in a formation that has the TE to the offense's left, bunch WRs to the offense's left, and the RB to the QB's left.  Cal lines up in its 3-4 defense with only two defenders defending the bunch.  USC's QB Matt Barkley sees that only two Cal defenders are in the immediate vicinity of their bunch WRs (if playing 7 and 8 yards off is even really in the "immediate" vicinity).  Barkley then instructs the RB to Barkley's left, to move to Barkley's right.  This subtle change in the pre-snap formation is key to this play's success against the Cal Defense.



Above is the pre-snap look after the subtle change in the offensive formation.  Now the USC offense is showing a distinct zone read formation because the runningback is in the "weak" position ("weak" position is to the opposite side of the TE).  The USC offense has now strengthened its running threat ability because if the play is a zone read run to the offense's left, the runningback will be running behind to the strength of the offense (the general rule is that the strength of the offense is the side which the TE is on) which is the offense's left because the TE is on the left.

Prior to the change in the pre-snap formation, USC's formation seemed to suggest either a bubble screen or a pass.  There wasn't really a threat of a zone read because most pro-style offenses that occasionally use the zone read (such as Cal and USC) won't run a zone read to that side of the offense unless there is a TE on that side.  But now, by moving the runningback to the other side of the QB, USC's formation suggests either a bubble screen or a zone read left.  I've shown the zone read left with a red arrow.

It's this change in formation which threatens a zone read which puts pressure on the backside defender (the "backside defender" is the defender who the offense is running away from).  In this case, the backside defender is Cal's strong-side linebacker, Eddie Young, who I've circled with a yellow oval. 



Cal's SLB (strongside linebacker), Eddie Young, knows he has the zone read to look out for and will probably bite in on the zone read to help defend the run. 



Of course, USC's QB Matt Barkley was planning this all along.  Barkley purposely moved the RB before the snap to give the distinct zone-read look to get Eddie Young to bite, even if a little, on a zone read fake.  The play is really a bubble screen to the bunch WRs (shown with the red routes).  Barkley would rather run the bubble screen instead of the zone read, because there are 8 Cal defenders in the box defending Barkley and the RB run.  On the other hand, there are only two Cal defenders on the screen defending the 3 USC WRs (presumably another Cal safety is off the screen helping defend the bunch but he's so far away from the bunch that he's not in prime position to stop a bubble screen).


Above is the play post-snap.  Barkley has given a slight fake to the USC RB who pretends to take the ball on a zone read (the red arrow).  This causes Eddie Young to bite down on the play fake (the yellow arrow).  Because Young bit on the play fake, it has created a larger void (the "bubble") than if he hadn't bit on the zone read fake.  Also, notice how big of a buffer zone the two Cal defenders have given the bunch.  I know it's 2nd and 18, but the large buffer zone they've given up is like at least 5 free yards of run-after-the-catch.



USC's Matt Barkley passes the ball to WR Damian Williams who has a huge "bubble" of protection and tons of uncontested yardage to gain.  I've put a thick yellow circle where Cal SLB Eddie Young was lined up before the snap.  As you can see from this picture, the zone read fake has caused him to move away from the bunch WRs and towards the QB, thus putting him further away to stop the play than if he had just stayed home at his pre-snap position.



In this picture Damian Williams has caught the ball and has begun picking up tons of easy yardage.  I have placed the initials "E.Y." in the picture above by Eddie Young so you know which player he is.  Alternatively, I guess I could have said he's the defender who is trailing Damian Williams and behind the play.  Eddie Young probably wouldn't have been trailing Damian Williams and be behind the play if it weren't for the subtle pre-snap change in formation orchestrated by Barkley.


Here is the Youtube video of the play in its entirety (special thanks to ieeeBear who created the video for me):



Conclusion:   What really made this play interesting was the fact that it appeared to be either a bubble screen or a downfield pass from the formation pre-change, but then Barkley changed the play to a bubble screen with a zone read fake based on how the Cal defense was lined up.  The zone read fake was critical in creating an even bigger bubble area for the WR.  Overall, this is an excellent example of the pre-snap chess match between the QB and defense.

Many teams, including Cal, run plays (similar to the one above) which have the zone read slash bubble screen option (the QB can either hand off the ball or throw the bubble screen).  It's not a totally uncommon play and it works really well because it puts the defender between the offense line and the bunch (such as Eddie Young in the play above) in a bind because he has to beware of the zone read run which pulls him away from the bunch, and he also has to be aware of the bubble screen which if he chooses to defend the screen then that pulls him away from the zone read run.  So either way, Eddie Young was pretty screwed on this play and it wasn't his fault - it was just really good chess by USC's Matt Barkley.