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The Autzen Massacre: What Went Wrong With Cal's Offense in Oregon?

A few weeks ago after opening week, Smart Football wrote this post about what makes a football offense terrible, and this really stuck out to me.

- Line play, in every phase: It’s a cliche, but it’s still undervalued. The most important coach on the staff is the line coach. I didn’t say most important assistant, I said coach. The head coach gets things organized, brings in the boosters, the OC calls the plays, but the line coach makes the whole operation go. If you’d like to know how Boise State was able to stymie Oregon’s fancy spread, the answer is simple: they whipped Oregon’s line, which was starting four new guys. Similarly, with all these spread offenses you see a lot who want to throw the ball, but they don’t understand pass protection or focus enough on it. There’s both a "who" and a "how," and awful offenses can do neither. Runningbacks are nice, but beyond Heisman-winning breakaway speed, the run game won’t go if guys can’t block. (Note that with modern zone plays, it is not always about driving guys off the ball, it is about technique and leverage. This only increases the need for good coaching on the line.) And even the most high-flying offenses have been grounded by a lack of pass protection.

After extensively reviewing the gametape of the possessions when Cal's offense could've made a difference in the game (i.e. before the score was 32-3), I'd say that's about an accurate description about what happened yesterday. We all think Jahvid Best can be otherworldly in the open field, but if his O-line doesn't block for him, he is mortal, and so are the Bears.

If you just want the bullet point details instead of the gruesome summary of what I saw, just read below and move on with your day. You will be much happier not clicking after the jump.

  • The coach I would be questioning the most isn't Andy Ludwig or Bob Gregory, but Steve Marshall. Oregon's front seven played physical and Cal's offensive line played soft and slow, and it showed, all game long.
  • The Bears were unprepared for some of the angles Nick Aliotti threw at them in terms of blitzes, but often it was just straight man fronts overwhelming the O-line.
  • The playcalling was occasionally headscratching, only because it became terribly obvious by down and distance (which can't always be controlled) and formation (which can be controlled) near the end when Cal was going to throw and when Cal was going to run.
  • I'm not sure Matt Summers-Gavin should've seen action, much less started this game. He looked ineffective for much of the game.
  • He wasn't the only one though. Every starting O-linemen had their shares of whiffs or weak blocks, mainly in man but also in zone. Cheadle, Guarnero, Schwartz, Tepper all struggled.
  • Will Ta'ufo'ou's presence was missed. Brian Holley played well for us the first three weeks, but his inexperience showed.
  • The tight ends blocked well. So that's good.
  • Marvin Jones did not. For a guy who's always being signalled in to block, that's bad.
  • Jahvid Best's got one big issue to work out before he plans on being an NFL back. But also I'm not sure if Ludwig utilized him well at all.
  • Cal's pass offense did not exploit the zone holes, partly due to playcalling, partly due to protection issues.
  • Cal was in a lot of long yardage situations. They had one 3rd and short, a few 3rd and 5s, but they were in a lot of obvious passing down areas which had a lot of Ducks dropping into coverage.
  • I was really surprised at how conservative we were with our gameplan. Other than that cross route Tucker dropped, the Bears went downfield a handful of times, but a lot of the throws were very short.
  • Any play when the O-line played well, the skill players made a mistake, and vice-versa. That's a recipe for offensive disaster. It's like Tedford said Sunday night: "Typically, it was one thing, one guy. It really becomes evident, it’s just so important that 11 guys play together. You have 10 guys doing the right thing and one guy doesn’t do his thing . . . it’s a lot of opportunities we didn’t capitalize on.

Although Kevin Riley made several throwing errors, Verran Tucker dropped a big pass and made a stupid penalty, these things worry me far less than what has become the glaring weakness in our 2009 Golden Bears. How our offensive line adjusts from this game will determine how the rest of our season goes.

After the jump, here's my brutal play-by-play notes and "analysis". I put "analysis" in quotes because I'm a football novice and probably don't understand the nuances of football blocking techniques. I just report what I see. If you see things I get blatantly wrong, correct me in the comments. Bad knowledge is just as dangerous as no knowledge.

What else do you think went wrong with Cal's offense in Oregon, and can it be corrected in time for USC?

First drive, after the kickoff fumble.

1st & 10, ORE 22, 14:56:
Cal Offense: Shotgun max protect, Vereen shifts from weak to strong
Oregon Defense:  4-3 under, seven drop back

Tepper slow to respond to snap; his man (Kenny Rowe) blows by him; note Rowe is not a typical DE, more of a converted linebacker

2nd & 18, ORE 30, 14:20

Offense: Ace slot right, back strong
Defense: Nickel? Five drop back agains the receivers

Cal has SEVEN people in pass protection (including Best & the TE) on four (FOUR!) and Riley STILL gets pressured at the end. This time it's Schwartz's man.

3rd & 18, ORE 30, 14:10
Offense: Ace slot right, back strong
Defense: Nickel? Five drop back against the receivers

Tough throw by Riley to make in all that coverage. A screen would've been nice here considering Oregon was dropping lots of men into coverage.

Second drive, Cal up 3-0 in the first quarter

1st & 10, CAL 41, 13:08
Offense: Ace, two receivers right, two tight ends shift from right to left
Defense: Nickel of some sort

Good blocking to the left to give Best room to run to the right

2nd & 4, CAL 47, 12:38

Offense: I-Form, fullback offset strongside
Defense: Not clear.

Tepper pulls from the left tackle spot, not really sure if Holley had trouble blocking here

1st & 10, ORE 48, 12:12

Offense: I-Form, fullback offset weakside, tight end to the left, Riley audibling?
Defense: Playing to defend run, eight people in the box

This feels like a play where they were trying to run something off-tackle or sweep. Best kind of stumbles here, hard to decide whether he could've made it to the edge. The redshirt freshman Boyett does nicely filling Ward's role as safety trying to plug gap.

2nd & 6, ORE 44, 11:33

Offense: I-form, fullback offset strongside
Defense: Looks like a 4-3 under, but Aliotti plays a lot of nickel with an extra safety

Uhh, Summers-Gavin, when you have no one to block, and no one's coming to blitz, might be nice to try and help your linemen. Guarnero loses Ferras, who flushes Riley out of the pocket and into a throwaway.

3rd & 6, ORE 44, 11:25

Offense: Shotgun spread, two halfbacks (Best & Vereen), Vereen goes in motion to the left
Defense: Oregon rushes 3, drops 8, and still had Verran wide open on the cross route.

Crossing route, pump fake. Pass might've been a little ahead and a little high for Tucker, still could've made the catch.

Third drive, Tied at 3 in the first quarter

1st & 10, CAL 49, 5:45

Offense: Shotgun 2 TE set (Best lined up a little behind Riley)
Defense: Blitz from the weakside

I'm not sure if Best was a decoy here on the swing, but the receiver screen to Ross is thrown maybe a step too early and the throw takes awhile to get there. Summers-Gavin whiffs on a block downfield on the eventual tackler.

2nd & 8, ORE 49, 5:09

Offense: I-form, 2 WR right
Defense: Seven in the box, could've been a big play if the blocks were executed right.

Man blocking fail. Jones goes in motion to block. This is a mess to begin with. Guarnero loses his man again, forcing Holley to help, then Summers Gavin can't get on his man downfield either. Leaves two Ducks uncovered to make the tackle on Best.

3rd & 5, ORE 46, 4:30

Offense: Shotgun 2 RB, 3 WR
Defense: Oregon brings 5, maybe a LB blitz?

Pretty good pass protection, Riley didn't have to leave the pocket unless it was by design; he flushes out to find Ross on a comebacker

1st & 10, ORE 39, 4:00

Offense: Ace 2 WR left, TE right, someone else lined off the line behind TE
Defense: 4-3 under, 9 men bite! Single coverage downfield left!

It's Cheadle's turn to get owned. Cal sets up perfect play action, maybe Riley holds the ball a second too long before trying to hit the corner, but Cheadle can't let Brandon Bair brush him aside like that. Riley forced to run when he might've had single coverage downfield.

2nd & 8, ORE 37, 3:31

Offense: Shotgun spread
Defense: 4-3 under

Jones goes in motion to the left, goes out into the flat, Riley throws behind dangerously, spinning off his back foot. Again Tepper's failure to cover his man (although he does keep him from getting to Riley) might've made Kevin throw that one a little earlier than he'd have liked to avoid the sack, but still.

3rd & 8, ORE 37, 3:27

Offense: Shotgun 3 WR left, TE right
Defense: Nickel, but here's the first interesting wrink: 2 LBs come in showing  blitz; one comes with the rush, the other stay backs (as well as a DT), maybe to defend against Best coming out of the backfield?

First call that really left me shaking my head. 3rd & 8 and you go with a WR screen? It might've worked except Summers-Gavin and Guarnero again with a mental error, only brushing at the tackle between them before going into downfield blocking instead of pushing him back; defender goes on to pummel Riley as he's throwing the ball, leading to a low throw and giving Ross no chance to escape Oregon defenders.

Fourth drive, Oregon up 11-3 in the second quarter

1st and 10, CAL 44, 14:46
Offense: Aces, TE left, 2 WR right, someone lined a little left & behind TE (I think it's another TE, can't be sure)
Defense: 4-3 over?

Again Jones comes in motion, decent blocking here and nice moves by Best.

2nd & 5, CAL 49, 14:08
Offense: Aces, 2 WR right. Again, someone lined behind TE to the right, TEs shift from right to left, second time I've seen that.

Summers Gavin with the false start. Sigh.

2nd & 10, CAL 44, 13:47
Offense: Wildcat, QB left, TE right, 2 WR right
Defense: 4-3 under

This might be the best offensive play of the game. O-linemen seal toward right has a lot of the Ducks D biting right, Best fakes and goes left, freezes up Paysinger, then picks up the 1st down with ease.

1st & 10, ORE 45, 13:18

Offense: I-form, fullback offset strongside, Tight ends behind each other,
Defense: NINE Ducks in the box.

This is on Cheadle, didn't execute his take down block well enough to knock Simi Toeaina out of the play, who gets up and makes the backfield tackle on Best. Holley also misses his assignment and Guarnero was a step too late on his downfield block. Three Duck defenders were in the vicinity of the Best before he hit the LoS.

2nd & 14, ORE 49, 12:38

Offense: I-form, Tightend lined left, WRs right
Defense: Corner is shading the running back all the way.

Riley audibles, again Jones comes in motion toward the line, again a run. Methinks Oregon is getting the hang of that motion thing, Talmadge Jackson reads it all the way, although the facemask penalty is what slowed Vereen from hitting the hole.

1st and 10, ORE 29, 12:13

Offense: I-form, TE lined left, fullback offset strongside
Defense: Eight in the box.

Second biggest play of the game for Cal's offense for me. This would've set up 1st down in the red zone. Perfect playfake with the box stacked, put Cal on one-on-one in the end zone, total interference. Tucker with the stupid taunting penalty negating it.

1st and 10, ORE 29, 12:03

Offense: I-form, 2 TE, WR right, again TE moves to the left, then TE from the right motions to th eleft
Defense: 4-3 over, EIGHT IN THE BOX

I replayed this one about ten times trying to figure out what happened. Someone was supposed to block out Paysinger. At first I thought it was supposed to be Guarnero. But it could also have been Summers-Gavin, who looked like he was pulling toward that hole but then sort of stayed behind Guarnero in some weird sort of block. (If you guys have ESPN360, go to 59:54, then watch the play develop, anyone know enough about the O-line blocking techniques to tell me what was designed?). If Paysinger gets blocked out Vereen probably goes 10-15 yards.

2nd and 12, ORE 31, 11:25

Offense: Wildcat formation, Riley lines up left, two WR right, TE right.
Defense: 4 man front, plus something else...

They run the same play they ran five plays ago, from the same formation. The difference is that the backside guard is pulling from the right (Cheadle) to try and seal the left side for Best to have the outside space. Looks good. Except Cheadle slips. Fuck. Then Holley tries to make the cut block on the defender Cheadle was supposed to take (when he probably should've aimed downfield at the faster incoming d-back) and whiffs. FUCK. And thus, the D-back Holley was supposed to take out finds Best and drags him down quickly.

3rd and 11, ORE 30, 11:08

Offense: Best moves from the backfield to the left side of the LoS, WRs right, TE left
Defense: Nickel

Questionable playcall #2: Why are we using a 3rd and 11 with a tight end screen? All these short passes make me wonder how much Ludwig trusts RIley's ability to throw the medium-range pass. The blocking here is slipshod, probably because no one has any idea who and where to block against defensive backs.

Fifth drive, the Riley/Best fumble

1st and 10, ORE 40, 10:00

Offense: I-form, fullback offset strong, TE right
Defense: looks like a 4-3 over

Most important play for Cal's offense. This play made me cringe, not only because of the fumble, but because if that handoff is executed right, Best is zooming through the crease, with a great chance to break through to the second level. Seven of the eight Ducks were blocked perfectly man-to-man, and Jones's guy would've been well out of the play. Still not happy that almost every time Jones has been motioned toward the line it's been a run, but a minor gripe compared to the fumble. This is the crucial play that has us standing between a tied game and the eventual rout.

Sixth drive, Oregon up 18-3 in the 2nd q

1st and 10, CAL 23, 8:13
Offense: Ace, two tight ends shift from left to right. Let me guess, it's going to be a run.
Defense: Predictably Oregon stacks eight in the box.

Yep, although there's good inside zone blocking this time opening the inside for Best to cut in and cut left. Great downblock by Anthony Miller coming from right to left. Secondary with good pursuit.

1st and 10, CAL 33, 7:50
Offense: Originally I-formation fullback offset strong, but Best moves into the slot.
Defense: 4-3 under

Best comes from the slot for the direct handoff (we saw a variation of this against EWU). Again Summers-Gavin has trouble blocking out his assignment, Brandon Bair, who gets off him rather easily and chases Best down to prevent further damage.

2nd and 7, CAL 36, 7:08
Offense: Aces, 2 WR left, 1 WR right, TE right
Defense: If I didn't know better, this looks like a 3-4...I must be seeing things.

More motion so the receiver from the right goes left into a trips formation. It got a first down because it recognized the pressure that was coming, but again, these screen passes make me wonder how much Ludwig trusts Riley's midrange game.

1st and 10, CAL 48, 6:45
Offense: I formation fullback offset strong, 2 WR right, TE right

Riley took way too many steps, didn't really look for alternatives other than deep, then launched that football into orbit. Great coverage by Glasper. Left tackle (Tepper? Not sure whot he number was) also allowed another defender to get a lick on Riley.

2nd and 10, CAL 48, 6:33
Offense: I formation, 2 WR right, TE left
Defense: Oregon brings nine in the box, anticipating rush. Try the pass again?

Again Marvin Jones goes in motion to the O-line, and maybe Oregon takes it as their cue that a running play is coming, since that's what happened on almost every receiver going into motion toward the O-line play. Jones makes a critical error not seeing the incoming linebacker, and he spends most of the play looking for someone to block. He's right behind you Marv, making the tackle on Vereen! Guarnero spends his time on this play blocking the ground from the sun, missing on two Duck defenders who help out on getting Vereen.

3rd and 9, CAL 49, 5:57
Offense: Shotgun, 3 WR right, 1 left
Defense: Oregon rushes three and drops eight into coverage.

Isn't the best way to break down this particular coverage zone to go toward the sidelines, like around that 8-10 yard receiver? Anyway, Riley telegraphs Anthony Miller, and that ball should've been picked.

Seventh drive, Oregon up 18-3 in the 2nd q

1st and 10, CAL 36, 3:45
Offense: Two WR right, WR left, FB goes in motion to make I-form fullback offset weak.

Riley audibles, Man blocking, Cheadle opens up a hole but can't hold onto his man and the defender closes it up!

2nd and 8, CAL 38, 3:08
Offense: Two WR right, WR left, TE right, RB weak
Defense: 4-3 over

Quick throw to Anthony Miller.

3rd and 2, CAL 44, 2:41

Offense: WR right, TE split on both side, I-form fullback offset strong
Defense: Oregon stacks 8 in the box

Quick snap, Holley whiffs on his outside block that allows the outside LB to rush up on Best in the backfield. Think we're missing Ta'ufo'ou right now?

Eighth drive, Oregon up 25-3 in the 2nd q

1st and 10,  CAL 20, :59
Offense: Shotgun, RB weakside, 2 WR & TE right
Defense: WLB blitz, 4-3 over

This is on Best for not picking up Rowe rushing blindside, although Oregon did put two defenders close to Tepper, so Best probably felt he needed to help out. I'd worry about the guy unblocked first though. Still, shouldn't we be using Jahvid as a quick dumpoff receiver rather than putting him in pass protection?

2nd and 14, CAL 16, :20
Offense: I form, FB strongside, 2 WR split and TE right
Defense: 3 down linemen

Solid gain and blocking from Best. They're using the Bend but not Best D versus the Jet.

3rd and 5, CAL 25, :12
Offense: I form, FB strongside, 2 WR split and TE right

They're just running out the clock here.

Ninth drive, Oregon up 25-3 in the 3rd q

1st and 10, CAL 20, 15:00
Offense: Best weakside behind Riley in the shotgun, TE right, 2 WR split left
Defense: Could be a dime package

There's that sideline throw to break the zone! Luckily Riley threw that when he did, because Summers-Gavin again struggled to protect against his man.

1st and 10, ORE 30, 14:46
Offense: Shotgun, RB strong, TE right, 2 WR split left
Defense: Not sure

Corner read this right, had a chance at getting a pick.

2nd and 10, ORE 30, 14:41
Offense: Shotgun, RB weak, TE right
Defense: 3 down linemen, Strongside linebacker blitz picked up, it was the tackle Bair who came in untouched.

Oh my lord. Three down linemen and Riley still gets hit???  Tepper with a real weak effort containing the edge and Best is nowhere close to picking up that block. Not sure who the FAIL goes to there. I know Jahvid wants to go to the NFL, but so far I've seen two really questionable decisions by him in pass protection, and in the NFL running backs have to learn to pass protect to stay in the game.

3rd and 10, ORE 30, 14:36
Offense: Shotgun, 2 RB, 2 WR right
Defense: Again, 3 down linemen, 8 drop.

Riley hit AGAIN as he threw with three down linemen rushing; other players are in the box, but all of them drop. Inexcusable. Schwartz can't seal the right side against Tukuafu and Tepper allows his man to at least get in the throwing path. The worst part is Best was open, scorching on the flat again down the sideline.

4th and 10, ORE 30, 14:31
Offense: Shotgun, RB right, 2 WR right
Defense: 3 down linemen, three up in the box, full on blitz by the linebackers

This time it's Cheadle who's out of position to defend the rushing linebacker and only gives him a brief brush by, and this throw by Riley looks rushed.

Alright, that's about as far as I want to go. In all, here are the mistakes I enumerated, for each blocker.

Matt Summers-Gavin--8
Chris Guarnero--5
Justin Cheadle--5
Mike Tepper--4
Brian Holley--3
Mitchell Schwartz--2
Jahvid Best--2
Marvin Jones--1

That's 30 clear blocking errors on the first 41 offensive plays, almost all of them drive killers (to be fair, some blockers committed their mistakes on the same play, so the average percentage of bad blocking plays was around 55-60%, it wasn't one blocking error per play. Still pretty bad). If you expect to win games making that many mistakes at the line of scrimmage, I have beachfront property on Mars I'd like to sell you.

It's why I find it hard to blame quarterback play or our running game for not getting going. How on Earth can you blame the quarterback and skill players when your linemen keep on missing man assignments, when your guards aren't pulling properly, and you aren't able to contain and seal in the zone?


Finally, I'm not going to absolve Andy Ludwig on this. There were several things I noticed that I didn't particularly like, it made those warnings we heard from Utah and from Oregon before the season all the more unsettling, and Saturday made this mocking animation from Off the Pond seem depressingly prophetic.

*Any time the Bears max protected (stacked up two tight ends or had the fullback in the game), they ran the ball. They stacked the box and we stacked right back against them. I think we tried to play fake and go deep once or twice. Any time Riley lined in shotgun, we passed the ball (it's pretty much automatic at this point that we pass the ball out of shotgun, we maybe do one draw a game, none today).

*I also didn't like that Cal always had a lot of people (fullbacks, tight ends, even tailbacks) staying back in pass protection when Oregon barely blitzed at all and got most of their pressure with four down linemen, so often Cal had six or seven blocking four. You're robbing yourself of intermediary and short passing options when you have Jahvid Best or Shane Vereen blocking on passing downs, and you're allowing the coverage to play tighter on the receivers and making it tough for Riley to get rid of the ball, making it more likely for him to get sacked.

*Now you might be saying "WTF MAN OUR O-LINE GOT KILLED Y U WANT LESS MEN BACK IN COVERAGE." Well, fine, don't listen to me, listen to Aaron Rodgers.

Rodgers on Wednesday said the best thing might be for coach Mike McCarthy and offensive coordinator Joe Philbin to let the front five on the offensive line fend for themselves.

"I think one of the things that happened last week was because of struggles (in protection) in Week 1, we’ve kept more guys in (to block)," Rodgers said. "Our backs were staying in a little bit longer, and so our stuff was all down the field because we didn’t have any of our check downs out.

"The push, hopefully, this is week is, ‘Hey you guys got to hold up up front.’ We need more options underneath the coverage. When they’re dropping off so far, you need some check downs."

It might seem counterintuitive that the guy who’s been getting killed — 10 sacks and 19 hits in two games — wants less protection, but the logic is that by keeping in running backs and tight ends less often, Rodgers will have more options to get the ball out quicker if he’s facing pressure. Against the Bengals, many of his throws were deep because there were so few short options.

*The shifting of the tight ends was interesting, and the tight ends did seem to do their job well in blocking, but it didn't matter with the big five in the middle committing mental error after mental error.

*Almost any time Marvin Jones motioned toward the line, Cal ran the ball and Jones blocked someone on the edge. Not such a great job this week.

*With T.J. Ward out with an injury, we did not test the deep middle at all. How much of that had to do with the wind I'm not sure, but Cal probably had chances to strike up if Riley has time to make his reads or if the O-line pass protects better. The receivers had single coverage on the secondary much of the game except on obvious passing down situations.

*We did not test the sidelines as much as I'd have liked to see. Every time Riley rolled out toward the sidelines he got a first down, and on the first play in the second half Tucker sprinted out for 50 yards on a throw right in the middle of the zone. So Oregon's going to kill us going outside? Let's do it too! Far too late an adaptation by Ludwig.

*Hydro indicated in his Minnesota postgame thoughts that Ludwig had created a whole set of new looks for the offense and there are plenty more blocking schemes in place that give defenses more looks to guard against. While all these new looks are neat and can throw good teams off balance, the fact is throwing in these new wrinkles forces your offense to depend even more on execution. As you can probably guess, no wrinkles and looks in the offense could've saved Cal from themselve on Saturday.

*It begs the question: Was Aliotti a step ahead the entire way? It might've felt that way in the end, but through the middle of the game I'd say Ludwig beat himself more than Aliotti did. The Bears played very conservatively trying to use their blocking to open it up, and we stubbornly kept on trying these long developing plays when it was clear the Cal O-line was off their game. Whether Aliotti knew about Ludwig's tendencies is up for debate, but it's safe to say the Oregon's front seven was masterful at confusing and taking apart Cal's blockers.

*I'd have liked to see more dumpoffs to Best (who we didn't screen or swing to once), or quick slants inside and hitches outside, anything to get the ball out of the pocket as quickly as possible. That Riley was still backing up into throwing routes like he had the New York Giants O-line in front of him reeks of obstinance by the coaching staff. When your O-line isn't playing well, adapt to the situation and make the best of it.

*That being said, I can't really lay the hammer down on Ludwig. The offensive line put up a FAIL, and even if he'd adapted and adjusted properly to the situation, that probably only changes the scoring margin from 39 to 19 or 25.

In either case, Marshall's got a lot of work to do before one of the best defenses in the country comes calling on Saturday. You could argue how much crowd noise, or getting confused by audibles, or just not being able to react to the Oregon defensive gameplan factored in, but the O-line did not execute, and Riley, Best, and Vereen paid the price. A performance like this against USC, and our offense is going to do something it's never done in the Tedford era--get shut out.

Possibly coming later: What's with the defensive meltdown? We'll see if I feel up to it.