Cal offense versus UCLA defense
Shane Vereen. Shane Vereen. Shane Vereen. Shane Vereen. Shane Vereen. Shane Vereen. Shane Vereen. Shane Vereen. Shane Vereen. Did I mention Shane Vereen? Oh yeah, Shane Vereen.
For some reason, whenever Shane meets the Bruins, he ends up making them hurt. In his two seasons he's averaged 8.16 yards per carry against UCLA and was arguably better than Jahvid Best at shouldering the load against them. While I doubt he'll have as much success as the feature back when the Bruins stack the box at him, the Bears need to call up his number when they're searching for yards. Vereen just seems to make the aggressive front seven pay, regardless of how well the offensive line is blocking for him. He finds the cutback lane and bounces back and away from the Bruins, or he just finds the right angle to hit the hole. Akeem Ayers will need to show he can track Vereen or Isi Sofele before we decide to put it up in the air.
His most consistent game of the season should hopefully come on Saturday. Unless Andy Ludwig decides to take the ball out of his hands like he did against Nevada. I dare you Andy. I DARE YOU. I want more three and outs!
Taking advantage of one-on-one matchups. UCLA's defensive schemes will be interesting to monitor. The Bruins have made a concerted effort to stop the run, and they'll probably be extra cautious this week with Vereen being the best back they've faced this season (it's hard to figure out what their shutting down of Texas and Wazzu mean, because one team barely runs the ball at all and the other team doesn't seem to know how to do it).
This should open up the passing game and give Kevin Riley opportunities. Riley has 358 yards, five touchdowns, and no picks in his starts against the Bruins (and of course, two wins). Not great, but it's good to see the lack of picks. He doesn't kill us, but he doesn't let them breathe as easy as we should (both of those games). The return of a healthy Keenan Allen tag-teaming with Marvin Jones facing off against a decent UCLA secondary with Sheldon Price should be real fun to watch.
Based on what I saw from the Washington State game, the UCLA defense likes to sit in zone coverage often and make the quarterback hit the right spots. Riley has done this before, particularly in the first half in the 2009 game. I figure that the flats, the corner routes, and the seams will be the places for him to hit it off. Ayers again will be the catalyst--if he can shut down the middle of the field and keep the underneath routes from opening up, then Riley will have to throw some passes up and Jones and Allen will have to get to them.
Stretch the field. Make the linebackers further back. In the Arizona game, Ludwig did very little with the pass other than call play-action rollouts, some screens and shallow routes. That allowed the Wildcats front seven to get further in and challenge the offensive line and running game, and eventually many of our drives stalled. If we can provide a strong vertical passing game with some decent long throws, we can force UCLA's defense out and give Vereen bigger running lanes.
Offensive line needs to get back to basics. Through four games, I've yet to see a great game by the offensive line, and they're running out of games to get it together. They either look slow at the snap, miss guys, or don't slip off to the second level quickly enough to open up the next level of holes for our running backs. They've been improving, but they're doing it real slow. It's not fast enough for me, and I'm a generally patient guy (remember, I'm one of the few remaining Kevin Riley fans on this site).
Perhaps this is the scheme, or should I say schemes. I feel we're asking these guys to do too much when they should probably be running two to three simple iterations of power, inside zone, outside zone. Just from a cursory review of the gametape, I've counted at least six to seven different types of blocking schemes out there (in terms of who's pulling or where the holes are opening up), and we haven't looked great in any of them. Perhaps the talent isn't there; if that's the case, I would hope that we've been focusing more on honing technique and getting guys to just handle blocking guys out with active hands or stronger moves. The run blocking needs to be better for longer, or we're not going to beat anyone of significance offensively.
(It should be noted that pass protection has significantly improved while the run game still remains average in its production level. UCLA isn't a great pass rushing team, and while there might be a few big blitzes, I think we should be ok after dealing with much tougher edge rushers from Arizona and Nevada.)
It'll be crucial against UCLA for their execution to finally be hitting on play after play rather than every other play. Especially with a new center in Dominic Galas coming in and Matt Summers-Gavin likely to log bigger minutes, I hope our offense playcallers and offensive line coach have the guys better prepared to execute base assignments and focus on the accessories further down the road.
3rd down. In many ways, Chuck Bullough is like Bob Gregory--he'll rarely send extra pass rushers on 3rd down because (a) he doesn't have many good pass rushers outside of Ayers and (b) he wants to keep guys back and force the quarterback to make a tougher throw. Jeff Tuel took the Bruins apart last week when UCLA blitzed or didn't blitz, which leads you to believe the Cougar offensive line did a yeoman's job in keeping guys in front of them and allowing their leader to make some big throws.
If Riley has really mastered the offense, he should thrive with a complete receiving corps led by Jones and Allen he should thrive in this situation. The Bears need to be prepared in pass protection, because they'll probably send pressure right at the new center Galas or the right tackle position (the weaker of the two tackle spots). It'll be critical for these positions to hold up if Riley wants the proper pocket to step into and deliver his throws, because he needs a good pocket for him to make good throws inside it.
Cal defense vs. UCLA offense
Stopping the Pistol. There are a few added wrinkles of UCLA's pistol attack that differ from Nevada's attack, at least based on these excellent video cutups of the Texas game.
1) They utilize the third option a lot more than Nevada. In other words, they try to have a triple option going (quarterback keeper, running back handoff, or wide receiver sweep/reverse) in most of their plays. Sometimes Nevada sent a third man into the play, but the Wolf Pack were so thoroughly gashing Cal with the quarterback and running back tangoing with the ball that they didn't need to go that far.
UCLA rarely seems to give the ball to the wide receiver, but his use as a decoy was essential. On a few of the critical plays it drove edge defenders away from the play to focus on him, and opened up bigger running lanes for Johnathan Franklin and Derrick Coleman.
2) The offensive line techniques are somewhat similar to Nevada. They like to pull a blocker (generally the tight end) from the backside to lead for either the quarterback or running back depending on who keeps it. Sometimes they pull multiple blockers. Sometimes they seal off to get the veer play going. Ultimately with an inexperienced line they've needed to keep blocking techniques simple, but they're starting to get the job done.
3) Kevin Prince doesn't read the defense as much as Colin Kaepernick. Most of the time it's a designed run play from the snap, and Prince will quickly handoff to the running back to set it into motion. When he does fake the handoff, it's pretty much like the play-action option that Nevada uses. When he does take off to run, Ryan of Bruins Nation notes that he's very careful with absorbing hits and making sure he slides down to avoid serious contact from Pac-10 defenders.
4) Despite what people think about UCLA totally selling out to radical formations, Norm Chow isn't totally giving up on his pro-style ways. This Bruins offense is a pro-Pistol hybrid which focuses on getting the ball out quicker to get the run going while still trying to run a pro-style vertical passing game. This passing game is the last ingredient that's necessary to get UCLA's offense rolling, but unfortunately for our little brothers down south, they just haven't managed to do it yet.
As for stopping it? I could just point you to the article I wrote a few weeks ago about stopping Nevada's Pistol.
Discipline people. Discipline. That's what I want to see.
I want to see the defensive lines shed double teams. While I'm not expecting Cal's line to come out and dominate, there should be a good deal of penetration or at least occupying two linemen so that the inside linebackers don't get blocked out of the play. Nevada's offensive line is solid, but they shouldn't be constantly winning the line of scrimmage play after play.
I want to see the outside linebacker, whether it be Mychal Kendricks, Jarred Price or Keith Browner hold his assignment and keep Kaepernick close to him. You'd think Price and Browner would be picked on a little bit, but since they'd probably easier to block than Kendricks I could see Kaepernick trying to read Kendricks a little. You don't want the offensive line to shade too much to reading only one guy because the support from behind (the inside linebacker, the safety) for the unblocked guy will also shade toward that side of the field.
So while Price and Browner could be the main focus of Kaepernick's eyes, I'd expect them to be more the targets of designed handoffs where they might overrun the play and get taken out of the game. Kendricks will be far easier for Kaepernick to read than the Nevada offensive line to block.
I want the inside linebacker to rotate right behind the outside linebacker to provide the second level of support, as well as evade the blocking linemen (most likely the tackle on that side of the field). Here's where Mike Mohamed's limited status comes into play. He might be at full strength, but without the practice reps in reading the pistol offense, he's not going to be as capable at spying Kaepernick. With Mohamed, Cal's defense could hold steady. Without him, it's anyone's guess.
Based on what happened against Nevada, just a few addendums.
1) If the outside linebackers/defensive ends crash toward either the quarterback or the running back, the players behind them have to contain the running lane of the other player. If the OLBs/DEs come inside, the ILBs should rotate outside and the safeties should be ready to come in as the second level of support. I'm sure Pendergast will try to mix it up after the debacle in Reno.
2) If everyone plays contain defense on the edges (defensive ends/outside linebackers and cornerbacks as well), this could force more inside runs. That could force either Prince, or Franklin/Derrick Coleman into the teeth of the defensive line, with the inside linebackers needing to provide solid support.
Mike Mohamed should be 100% for this one. So the defensive rotations and reads should be much crisper on-the-field if it's him and D.J. Holt doing their thing. I don't know Mohamed will be asked to spy Prince (no one was spying the quarterback in the last game), but he definitely has the skill to shadow him. How the experienced defensive line matches up with the inexperienced Bruin offensive line will be key. If they can disrupt things inside while everyone else provides support on the outside, it'll go a long way to shutting UCLA down.
3) Cornerbacks will be on an island. The Cal secondary had a great game against the Arizona Airraid. With the safeties likely to be playing run support, Darian Hagan and Marc Anthony need to be ready to provide solid one-on-one coverage and not let Prince beat them. If the Bears want to shut down this offense, the passing game has to be kept in check (something that didn't happen against Colin Kaepernick).
If Cal loses to UCLA, they will be 0-2 for the second straight year and out of the Pac-10 race, and almost certainly be at risk of scrambling for a bowl berth. If they win, the ship has been righted, and they can get back to business for the rest of a manageable conference slate. Safe to say this is a must-win if the Bears want to do significant things this season, and it'll be important to have a good showing and show progress on both the offensive side (sustaining drives and creating big plays) and the defensive side (containing the Pistol and playing disciplined football). With some big recruits in attendance, it'll be important to make a good impression and show this program is at least sticking on the winning track.