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Cal vs. USC Post-Game Thoughts

(1) Riley had quite an off-day.  His INT on the first drive might have cost us the game all by itself.  That INT killed our early game momentum.  Cal needed points on the board early for the entire team, offense and defense, to believe that they can stand up against the best team in the Pac-10.  Instead, the INT deflated the offense and sapped some of the energy and confidence out of the crowd.  The decision to throw that pass was also a poor decision.  A 24 yard floater pass against zone coverages into a restricted space (the endzone)?  It either has to be a bullet between the windows or the ball has to be extremely high.  The pass was neither.

Part of Riley's problem is that he's a very aggressive QB.  He tries so hard to make something happen that he takes unnecessary risks.  On occasion his risks pay off (Riley's wobbler pass to Stevens in 2007 while being sacked is one example).  Other times, the risks he takes do not pay off (such as the INT against USC in 2009).  This is something that comes with the territory of having such an aggressive QB.  In contrast to Riley, Longshore was a very conservative QB.  Both styles of play have their benefits and risks.  Both styles can win games, and I don't think it's necessarily true to say it's better to have one type of QB over another.  However, the QBs have to alter their style of play to fit the situation at hand.  If the game is on the line or the team is down by a lot, the QB can take more risks.  If the game is well in hand, or the team needs to control the ball, then the QB shouldn't take risks.  Riley is still struggling a little bit with this aspect of QB play.  I understand he's trying to make things happen, but sometimes just throwing the ball away and taking 3 points is better than throwing a low probability prayer of a touchdown pass. 

Finally, does Riley need to be benched?  No.  Not yet.  It's still early in the season.  He's shown he can be a serviceable QB (see the first three games of the season).  Against Oregon the pass blocking sucked so that really isn't Riley's fault.  The USC game is really Riley's first really bad game this season.  I'm willing to let Riley have a few more games to show that he can be our QB for the rest of 2009 before we usher in the Brock Mansion party yacht or the Beau Sweeney era.

(2) Offense playcalling was good and ... interesting.  I was harsh on Ludwig after his playcalling disaster against Oregon.  I was pleased with what I saw against USC.  Initially, it looked like Cal wanted to try and establish the run a little bit, or at least give the impression that they were.  But USC started the game with 8 defenders in the box on every play to stop the run.  They were DARING us to pass and let it be known quite obviously to us, that they were trying to stop the run.  So then Ludwig appeared to throw a bit more than run.  When the defense is going to play the run that aggressively, I have no problems with calling more passes than runs.

What types of passes did Ludwig call?  Playaction QB boots!!!  I was happy to see Riley booting out and the defense having to account for him.  Riley made a few great throws while booting. 

As for Ludwig's wild-bear formations (the wildcat), I was fine with that.  It actually worked pretty well.  I think for that offensive style to be even more effective Best actually has to throw the ball once or twice to get the defense to fear the pass even just a little bit.  At one point during the wild-bear series, USC pretty much stopped covering Riley who was split out wide.  But... Best doesn't throw.  He should though.  Perhaps Vereen is actually better in the wildbear because of he can actually pass the ball (sort of).

As for the offense being predictable?  Avinash notes this in his post-game thoughts.  Well, all teams have some predictability to them.  It's only more noticeable for your own team because you watch your team every week whereas you only watch other teams a few times a season and thus you don't really pick up on their tendencies like you do your own team.  Plus, I know Avinash has been doing a lot of film work lately so I think he's having one of those break-through moments where he's really seeing things very well.  Bottom line, yeah, things can get predictable.  Sometimes predictability is all a part of the plan because the offense is setting up the defense. 

Also, some of the run diversity we saw against EWU and Minnesota has disappeared.  It seems as if the coaches might revert back to the run schemes they are more familiar with in big games while only testing new stuff on the weaker opponents.  I say this because (and take this with a grain of salt because I haven't reviewed the USC film yet) I haven't seen Cal use some of the new blocking schemes shown against EWU and Minnesota against our toughest opponents of the last two weeks.

Overall, I have no quarrel with Ludwig's playcalling against USC and I don't necessarily think that he needs to be fired based on the outcomes of the previous two games.  While I do think Ludwig failed miserably against Oregon, I think he did fine against USC.  And I know the offense only scored 3 points in back to back weeks, but I guess I'm not as cut-throat as some of us. 

Also, there seems to be some whining that the offense isn't aggressive enough.  Umm... Riley threw 40 passes against USC.  Cal was passing pretty early on.  Passing generally gets more yardage than rushing.  Passing is more aggressive than rushing.  I repeat: passing is more aggressive than rushing.  Ludwig had the USC defense looking plain silly on a few plays and called a pretty imaginative, and strategic game that was pretty aggressive.  Basically, I think the people who think the offense wasn't aggressive enough are just doing some mindless whining. They're probably thinking that if the offense only scores 3 points that the offense isn't being aggressive enough.  Isn't it possible that no matter how aggressive a team can be, they can still score few points because their players get dominated in their individual battles?  Yes.  And I think that's what happened here more so than some lack of aggressiveness.

(3) Defensive playcalling was better.  I know USC's playaction passes to the outsides were killing our zone.  But Gregory did play gutsier defenses this week with more man coverage than I have seen perhaps in the previous 4 games combined.  Playing man defense prevents the offense's abilities to pump-fake our defenders - which is a weakness of zone defenses.  However, Gregory is still slow to responding with changes to account for the trips bubble screens.  Oregon destroyed us with trips bubble screens.  USC saw this, and did the same thing against us.  Gregory has to install a scheme which allows for more defensive flexibility to allow the players to adjust to defend the trips bubble screens on the fly the first time they see it rather than after the play has burned us for 10 easy yards.

On the positive side, I noticed the defensive players playing much more disciplined gap control this week.  On the whole the run defense was hit and miss, sometimes allowing 10 yards and other times allowing 2 yards on a run.  But I'd rather have it be hit and miss than miss all the time.  Anyways, the players weren't being overly aggressive.  They seemed to be trusting each other to make the tackle rather than leaving their gap assignment to try and make the tackle for someone else.  I liked the improvement I saw between the Oregon and USC game, however, there is still improvement to make.

(4) The audible system has changed and has a "tell."  I noted before that the audible hand signals appear to have changed this year.  There is also a tell to the hand signals.  I don't want to talk too much about this, but I (and perhaps other astute observers) can tell what the play will be from the hand signals almost all the time.  In the instances where I'm wrong, it's because the offense is using fake hand-signals.  The Cal offense has always used fake hand signals on occasion in key situations to set up the defense (the offense knowing the defense might have their hand signals figured out, purposely shows those hand signals to get the defense to think the offense is running that play, but then they run a different play designed to take advantage of how the defense will respond to the dummy signals).  The problem is "occasion" isn't enough and so on the whole it becomes apparent what the hand signals really mean.

Perhaps I am being overly critical though.  I only knew of Cal's past audible hand-signal system because I learned about it from another source rather than from merely viewing games.  While the audible hand-signals have changed this year, the added knowledge I have from the previous system has given me the insight to crack the current system.

(5) The hurry-up offense system has changed from previous years.  In the past, when Cal used the hurry-up offense, the sideline signal QBs would signal in the play itself to the QB on the field.  In other words, the hand signals would say "get in this formation, run this play, etc."  But now, the sideline QBs merely send in a number to the QB (number 1-9).  The QB will then yell out the number to the offense.  And the offense will run that play. 

In other words, the offense, as a whole, has 9 plays memorized.  The QB merely needs to tell them a number, and they can run that play.  This is a much quicker method than the former system.  The former system could use up a good 20 seconds between plays as the QB directed the offense to get into X formation and told/signaled the players to run Y play.  Now the offense can probably run off another play in merely 12-15 seconds. 

(6) The sky is not falling.  The football season is not over.  It is not time to turn off the TV sets and claim it's now basketball season.  We still have 7 games left.  Cal just played out perhaps the toughest two Pac-10 opponents two weeks in a row.  With the schedule lightening up a bit, Cal can certainly rebound.  Cal has the potential to win the rest of the games on season and finish 10-2 overall.  I don't think that most of us would be terribly disappointed with a 10-2 season. 

For those of you that are reacting very negatively to our supposed fall from grace again (and claiming this is 2007 all over again), I propose to you that you may have drank too much of the mass media kool-aid.  The 2007 team and the 2009 team are not the same teams.  The 2007 was legitimately BCS bowl contender with incredible talent on both sides of the ball.  The 2009 team always had huge question marks at offensive line, wide receiver, quarterback, and linebackers.  That's a lot of questions.  So to say that this is 2007 all over again blindly assumes that the 2009 team and the 2007 are of equal caliber, and they are not.  Many Cal fans just began believing whatever the media fed us.  Heisman candidate!  Cal is a top ten team!  USC is weaker this year!  Cal is the best team in the Pac-10!  Many of us fell for it.  It's time to wake up and stop your bitching.  Cal didn't fail expectations (not yet at least).  The expectations were overly inflated to begin with.

Most of us, prior to the preseason rankings, thought we were probably ranked around 20-30ish in the nation.  But the mass media saw Jahvid Best, and Jahvid Best only.  Slowly, I think many of us began believing the mass media  because they wanted it to be true.  Generally, people see what they want to see and don't see what they don't want to see.

(7) Enough with the "What happened to the QB guru?" talk.  Too many people are making a big deal out of this theory.  Below are some of the claims I've seen and my responses.

Claim: Tedford stuck it out too long with Ayoob instead of going with Levy.

Verdict:  Wrong.  If Levy really was better than Ayoob, why didn't Levy beat out Ayoob for the #2 QB spot behind Longshore in 2005?  Or even in 2006?  Bottom line, Ayoob was better than Levy.  Ayoob had better arm strength.  Ayoob had better accuracy.  Ayoob had better work ethic.  I saw the practices.  People will point to the 2005 Big Game and 2005 Las Vegas bowl as proof that Tedford was wrong.  This answer assumes that Cal wouldn't have won with Ayoob as the QB and that's not necessarily true. 

Claim: Longshore sucked and Tedford was crazy for sticking with him

Verdict:  Wrong.  In 2006, Longshore was serviceable.  In 2007 pre-injury, he was excellent.  Obviously, his injuries changed things.  Had Longshore not been injured he probably would have been a mid-second day NFL draft pick.  Mentally, Longshore was one of Tedford's sharpest QBs - perhaps even on par with Aaron Rodgers or even better.  No other Cal QB has ever been called "another coach on the field."  Not even Rodgers.  Who is responsible for turning Longshore into that "coach on the field"?  The tooth fairy?  No.  I'm not going to give the correct answer here because I'm hoping that we can all insert the correct answer ourselves.  If you can't, then you really are delusional.

Claim:  Riley sucks.

Verdict:  Unknown.  Look, Riley clearly wasn't feeling 2008 since we had the QB carousel going (place some blame on Tedford, but then again Riley wasn't exactly helping himself out either).  He claims his confidence was shot and it's understandable and believable.  But so far in 2009, Riley has only had one bad game through the first five games (the pass blocking against Oregon really sucked so I'm not blaming that game on Riley although he did miss a few throws that he should have made).  Let's give Riley 3-4 more games to show that he can rebound and be a serviceable QB.  But to yank the carpet out under the kid for getting mobbed against Oregon when his OL decided to collectively suck to epic proportions, and after one bad game against USC?   That's just too fast.

Claim: Since Aaron Rodgers, all Cal QBs have regressed over time.

Verdict:  Inaccurate.  Longshore got injured, then the fans turned against him and yelled at him that they hoped he got injured.  Getting injured, then having your fan base turn against you isn't exactly conducive to a player's performance.  Plus, Tedford stated that Cignetti ignored QB mechanics when he was Cal's offensive coordinator in 2008.  There's your explanation for Longshore's regression.  It's not like he was never injured and the fans were always supportive of him and he still regressed.

As for Riley, I think the kid was over-hyped to begin with.  While he did have some great throws against Oregon State in 2007, people only remembered the good throws and didn't really remember his slow start that game.  Then he played in the Armed Forces Bowl.  He performed very well.  Cal seemed like a whole different team on offense and defense when Riley entered the game.  Well, not coincidentally, Desean Jackson, Robert Jordan, and Thomas Decoud also entered the game at the same time as Riley.  While Riley did make some great throws, he was throwing to a whole different receiving corps than Longshore. 

Bottom line: Riley was over-hyped off of a few good throws against Oregon State, and because he was not Longshore.  People were calling him the next Aaron Rodgers after 2007.  People fantasized and made him to be something he really wasn't. 

Claim: Tedford has lost his touch with QBs.

Verdict: Unknown but doubtful.  Since Aaron Rodgers Cal has had three QBs: Ayoob, Longshore, and Riley.  Regarding Ayoob, sure, Tedford whiffed there.  Regarding Longshore, as I explained above, Longshore probably would have played in the NFL had he not gotten injured (NFL draft guru Mel Kiper had him rated as the #1 QB in 2007).  People seem to hold Longshore against Tedford without regards to the fact that Longshore got injured and never was the same guy (ankle injury, and pectoral injury; he played through both injuries without the general public knowing this until after his career was over).  As for Riley, I know he's in his 4th year, but I still think it's still a bit too early to say whether he's a bust or not.  The kid needs more time as the undisputed starter. 

So bottom line, since Rodgers, Tedford has whiffed on one QB pupil, had another one lost to injury who had NFL potential, the jury is still in deliberation regarding Riley.  That doesn't really seem like Tedford has lost his QB touch.  If Riley, Mansion, and Sweeney all are busts, then yeah, perhaps Tedford has lost his touch.

(8) It's still not time to fire Tedford, not this week, and perhaps not even by the end of this season.  Tedford is still one of the most winningest coaches in Cal history.  Unfortunately for Tedford, all this success, which would normally produce a Pac-10 championship and a Rose Bowl berth on more than one occasion, has also coincided with the rise of USC as arguably the most dominant team in the NCAA for the past 7 years.  So while I do understand Tedford hasn't gotten us officially to a BCS bowl, or a Rose Bowl, I'm not ready to fire him because of it. 

I know the Oregon loss was bad.  But so was USC's loss to Washington a few weeks ago.  Great teams lose games sometimes.  As for the loss to USC this week, does that mean Tedford should be fired?  Um, no.  Tedford lost to a great USC team who have enough talent alone to win a Pac-10 Championship even with TwistNHook as a coach.  People seriously want Tedford fired because he lost to one of the greatest teams in the Pac-10 and the NCAA of the past 7 years???  Most normal and reasonable people only want coaches fired when they are losing more games that they shouldn't lose than win more games that they should win.  Tedford hasn't gotten close to that yet.  I know how Cal lost the previous two games is concerning, but in general, Tedford has beaten the teams he should beat.

Whether a team wins or loses also comes down to the players.  I know it's sacrilegious to place blame on the players, but let's be real and not ignorant.  Players lose games too, not just the coaches.  It's a social coaching-custom for coaches to blindly accept blame for their players' poor performances regardless of how poorly the players may play despite the (often more than competent) coaching the players receive, but that doesn't actually mean the coaches are always at fault.  At some point, the games come down to the players too.  The coaches can coach coach coach all they want during the week and do their very best to prepare their players for the game, but it's the players who play the game.   Sometimes the coaches fail the players; and sometimes the players fail the coaches. 

Against Oregon, for the most part, I think the coaches failed the players.  Against USC, for the most part, I think the players failed the coaches.

Now, I'm not saying we can't ask tough questions and be critical of the coaches.  We can.  However, I hope we stay within reason and within the bounds of our knowledge of the situation.  No need to over-react just because we lost two games in a row against two of the toughest teams in the Pac-10.  Often, as fans, we become so emotionally attached to our teams that we over-react when something goes seemingly wrong whereas neutral observers don't see anything going wrong.  I think most people who are calling for Tedford's head on a silver platter are just over-reacting right now because they're hurt and because they believed too much of the hype (Jahvid Best!  Heisman!  USC is down this year!  Cal is the best team in the Pac-10!  Rose Bowl!  National Championship!). 

Remember all the questions about this team's QB, WRs, OL, and LBs?  They were always there and never disappeared no matter how much the mass media ignored them and wrote about Jahvid Best and how Cal was a Rose Bowl and National Title contender.