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Cal @ USC Post-Game Thoughts

(1)  Defense & Pendergast.  Last week I suggested that we could have a top-20 defense, and I thoroughly endorsed Pendergast.  I guess I spoke too soon.  Was our defense that bad?  The running defense certainly wasn't good at all.  USC was getting great push off the line of scrimmage and earning 6+ yards a pop.  Even when the ball carrier was hit initially, he always seemed to get an additional one to two yards after the contact.  The pass defense is another story.  While Cal did give up some big passing plays, there were also many instances where Cal actually had some down right *good* coverage on the receivers and yet USC still made the play.  There's nothing much you can do about that.  Sometimes despite playing good defense, you still get beat.  It happens.

Defensively, it looked like Cal was playing a LOT of man coverage this game.  Some times it worked, and some times it didn't.  I was a bit surprised to see all this man coverage because I thought Pendergast might try and confuse USC's QB with some more complex and disguised zone coverages to slow down their passing attack (purely my speculation).  I also was a bit concerned about using so much man coverage because USC has many athletic and rangy WRs which I figured we'd have a hard time covering.  USC's superior athleticism showed this game.  Their WRs weren't significantly that much more athletic than our defenders, but they were just that much more athletic to get enough separation for touchdowns. 

Another aspect of the defense which surprised me was actually how fairly conservative Pendergast was.  I was expecting him to be crazy risky and bringing heat all day long to try and rattle USC's QB.  Nope.  Gregory Pendergast rarely blitzed.  Cal developed little pressure on the opposing QB.  Why did Pendergast, whom was blitz happy in previous games, suddenly go conservative?  I think it has to do with USC's receiving threats.  Cal has been aggressive against the lesser teams it has faced this year because our defenders were superior football players to their offensive players.  Cal can afford to risk playing man coverage and blitz 24/7 against UC Davis, Colorado, and UCLA because those teams have piss poor passing (bad WRs, bad QBs, etc.).  But against USC, now Pendergast is facing five star blue-chip recruits.  Guys who have the height, speed, hands, and moves, to make the Cal defense pay for being overly aggressive.  So Pendergast went a little more conservative.  Leave a few more guys back in coverage, and don't send the house.  Unfortunately, USC was able to protect their QB fairly well and thus their WRs had time to get what little separation they needed to catch passes. 

(2) A lone bright spot: Cal CB #1 S. Williams.  So Cal CB #26 Hagan got injured.  Thus, Cal CB #1 S. Williams came in to play.  From what I saw, I really felt like Williams was playing well.  There was one play along the sidelines where he broke up a pass, and if he wasn't wearing a cast on his hand, he might have intercepted the ball on that play.  On other plays, while on an island in man coverage against the USC receivers, he was with them stride for stride and not giving up much daylight if at all.  USC did score one touchdown against Williams.  That occurred in the endzone on the right side of the TV screen.  USC was about 10 yards out from the goalline or so, and ran a double-move route against Williams.  Because Williams was in man coverage and backed up against the goalline, he had to aggressively play that first move, and thus got out of position for the second move.  Williams ended up looking bad, but you can't really blame him considering the situation (you have to be aggressive against the first move when defending at your own goalline). 

In fact, this is exactly what Cal safety #17 C. Conte said after the game:

"We knew 'SC would run a lot of double-moves, and they do run a lot of double-moves in the red zone," said senior safety Chris Conte. "Unfortunately, they were starting off with the ball in the red zone most of the time, so we got a lot of double moves, and it's hard because in the red zone, it's a shorter throw, so you've got to overplay some of the routes and defend against the quick game and the quick slants, and they were hitting us with slants, sluggos, different types of routes, double-moves that are tough to defend in man coverage."

It's just one of things where the defense is in a bad position, and playing defense doesn't get any easier because you have so little margin for error when it comes to giving up yards.  At least Pendergast and the defense knew of USC's tendencies and were looking out for them. 

(3) WR drops be killin' us.  And let's be clear about one thing right off the bat, those aren't on Riley.  Cal WR #1 M. Jones dropped two *easy* slant passes that looked to be big time 25 yard gainers at the very least.  Nitpick if you want, yes one of the passes was a little high (around head height) but Jones got *both* hands on the ball and therefore should have caught it.  And then Cal TE #45 Ladner had another key drop.  Again, the pass a little behind Ladner but he got both hands on the ball too and should have caught it.  These plays certainly might not have won the game, but they could have made a difference, and perhaps enough difference to have significantly changed the course of the game. TwistNHook provides a very eloquent comment in the Portrait of Fail post:

I was particularly frustrated with a few key drops made by Marvin Jones early in the game. When the final score is 1,000-0 as it was today, it is difficult to point out a few moments when things could have changed.

Howver, when the offense is going three and out all the time, it puts the D on the field often, which tires it out. Long, sustained drives a la the Big Game 2009 can help rectify that problem. Now, what I saw early in the game before things got out of hands was Riley making solid throws that were just plain dropped. Jones dropped some passes. Ladner, too.

Would making those catches have changed the game? Perhaps not. However, it would have extended drives, kept the USC D from bottling up the running game (they had like 8 guys in the box all the time, it seemed) and kept the D off the field and fresh.

If those simple passes were caught, Cal gets a first down.  Perhaps that builds a little confidence.  Perhaps Cal drives the field a little bit and gives the Cal defense some time to rest and regroup.  Even if Cal doesn't score, if they gain at least 40 yard and punt, they gain some field position.  Offense and defense are interconnected.  Part of the reason why the defense looked so bad this game was because they had to deal with pretty poor field position all game.  What was the cause of the poor field position?  Offense and special teams.

(4) Offensive line wasn't that good at anything.  Bad run blocking?  Check.  Poor pass blocking?  Check.  Give up a sack against only a three-man rush?  Check. 

A good offense starts with the offensive line.  It starts in the trenches.  Cal was getting dominated in the trenches.  There was no push on run plays.  Runningbacks had defenders in their faces before they had even crossed the line of scrimmage.  USC seemed to be concentrating on the run, but our guys just weren't winning their individual battles. 

So what's the problem?  Is it talent or coaching?  It certainly might be both.  I don't think this offensive line is very good, and today (unfortunately) they didn't do much to prove me wrong.  I wish they would though. 

As for pass blocking, the OL wasn't giving Riley much help at all.  Riley certainly had some bad throws, but the poor kid was also getting pressure very quickly by USC's defenders whom had beat the Cal offensive linemen.  If Cal wanted to, or wanted to have any chance against really passing against USC, then it had to get some good blocking from the offensive line and that just didn't happen. 

(5) Riley.  Call me crazy, but I think we'd be speaking a whole different tune about Riley if we just had the offensive line to better run the ball consistently and pass block.  When I see Riley, I see a guy who is one to two years ahead of his offensive line.  In other words, if we had an offensive line that was just another one to two years more experienced or talented, then we'd be just fine on offense with Riley as the QB.  Sure, he's still inconsistent and will sometimes force the ball when he shouldn't (see the last INT against Nevada, and the screen pass against USC this year).  But what I see is a guy who is trying really to make a play and be that guy, amongst an offensive team which doesn't have a lot of guys making plays.  If the rest of the offense was more talented, Riley wouldn't be taking so many chances to make a play, and nor would he be forcing the ball so much.

Riley was 15/29 against USC.  If you add the three drops as completions, he would have been 18/29 for 62% completion.  Numbers don't tell the entire truth but I think Riley's statistics this season are somewhat telling: he's improved over last year.  Riley is completing 58.6% of his passes this year thus far, compared to 54.7% of his passes last year.

(6) Whether Sweeney should have seen some playing time or not.  A lot of hooplah has been made of this quote by Tedford (via Okanes' twitter):

Jeff Tedford on leaving QB Kevin Riley in for the entire game: "He gives us the best chance to win."

Upon hearing that quote, even I, apparently the biggest Tedford loving sunshine pumper of the world, cringed.  The quote sounds horrible.  Tedford thought, that with the team down 35 points or whatever, that we were going to win the game?!?!?  You could have put Aaron Rodgers in that game and we still probably wouldn't have mounted the second quarter comeback we needed to win.  So why not put Sweeney in the game?  The game was over by half time, and it makes sense to at least give Sweeney some reps against a non-Cal defense in preparation for 2011. 

But that above quote, wasn't the entire quote. 

From Okanes' blog, we get a more thorough explanation of the context:

Jeff Tedford said "He gives us the best chance to win," when asked why he left QB Kevin Riley in for the entire game. He also said he wanted Riley and the first team offense to have some positive results to build on in the second half.

And from Okanes' Oakland Tribune article, we get an even fuller explanation:

With the game clearly out of reach, Tedford still eschewed the opportunity to get a look at backup quarterback Beau Sweeney. He said he didn't want Riley and the rest of the starters on offense to end their day with the negative memories of the nightmarish first half.

"He gives us the best chance to win," Tedford said of Riley. "We needed to do what we needed to do to move the ball and put some points on the board. At that point, we needed to have our guys competing hard and put some points on the board. They don't want to end at halftime like that. They want to get out there and keep fighting."

After reading the FULL quote and context, Tedford doesn't sound like a delusional idiot.  Yeah, perhaps Sweeney should have played at least the last two, three or four drives for some experience.  That's what I would have done if I was a coach.  But I can't completely disagree with Tedford either about wanting to keep the starters in there to score some points and not end the day completely shut out. 

So fear not Cal fans, Tedford is not a complete idiot, and he's still the best college football coach in the nation! 

(7) Call me crazy, but I don't feel like the USC loss was *that* bad.  Oh geez, I know I'm going to get railed for this.  HydroTech is off his rocker.  But you know, as bad as this game was, I don't think it was as bad as the Oregon loss last year.  Against Oregon last year, we were helpless on both sides of the ball.  We weren't even CLOSE at all to stopping Oregon from doing whatever they wanted against us.  While USC did beat us by 34 points, we weren't completely at their will.  We were able to move the ball -- on occasion -- against USC, whereas against Oregon last year we really weren't able to move the ball at all.  On defense against Oregon last year we continuously gave up large chunk after chunk of yardage, I mean it was non stop 10+ yard gains every play.  Against USC this year, we were a bit more hit-and-miss on defense.  We'd have a play where we stop them for minimal gain, then we'd give up 20 yards.  Then we'd stop them for a minimal gain or incompletion, then they'd gain another 20 yards.  If you watch our secondary coverage against USC, we definitely busted some plays, but also had some really good coverage too that just got beat.  We had guys actually around the ball this year -- and sometimes even right there with the receivers, rather than last year against Oregon where we had no defenders within the same zip code of the receivers. 

Certainly losing sucks.  Losing to U$C sucks a little more than anyone else too (aside from Stanfurd), but I don't think the game was quite as hopeless and dark as some other games we've suffered through under Tedford. 

(8) Now what about Tedford?  I've been a big defender of Tedford the past few years because I've felt he's received a lot of unwarranted criticism from very uninformed and uneducated Cal fans regarding certain aspects of the team and players.  But one thing that can't be defended are some of the huge faceplants that Cal has suffered in the past four years at an alarming rate.  In 2006 we faceplanted at Tennessee.  In 2007 we faceplanted at Washington.  In 2008 we faceplanted at Maryland.  In 2009, we faceplanted against Oregon and USC.  Now, in 2010 we faceplanted against Nevada and USC.  At this rate, I'm concerned we are due for three faceplants in 2011.

These huge blowout losses are not acceptable.  I mean, we should all realize that this happens occasionally in football and even to the best teams.  But it has happened far too often the past four years.  In the first four under Tedford, Cal only lost something like three games by over two touchdowns (or something like that).  Now, when we lose, we're regularly losing by more than two touchdowns.  Yikes. 

What has chanced since the first half of the Tedford era and the second half of the Tedford era which has brought about all these big losses?  I think it has to do with the fact that Tedford has started focusing more on being a head coach and CEO of the Cal Football program rather than being the offensive coordinator of the team and playing a heavier hand in what goes on offensively (I'm just speculating here).  But those early Cal teams were so well coached and always played such tight games, when Tedford was calling more plays or just outright calling plays.  Now though, with Tedford seemingly exclusively delegating offensive playcalling duties to his coordinators, Cal offensive play has dwindled (I also think the quality of Cal's players has dwindled too but that's a different matter). 

So where does Cal go forward from here on in regards to its head coach?  Fire Tedford?  Not mid-season.  I think we owe it to him to at least give him two years after the SHPAC is constructed to turn things around again.  However, the way things are going now, and with the way the team looks in terms of talent for the next few years, I'm concerned he won't be able to turn it around.  And so, I think this might be the beginning of the end.  If there is no Rose Bowl or BCS bowl by the end of 2013 (which as of now I don't foresee happening), then I think Tedford could be gone as Cal's head coach by the end of 2013.