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Cal vs. Colorado Post-Game Thoughts

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(1) Cal upping the tempo of the offense?  Towards the end of the game when Sweeney was the QB, I noticed the live signaling QB using a new signal which I haven't seen before.  At first I thought the signal might be some sort of option play, or a new blocking scheme,  However, the placement of the new signal was not in the proper order of operations to be an option play or blocking scheme (assuming the order of operations has not changed since I last learned them).  Then I noticed that despite the game being well in hand (Cal winning 45-7), that Sweeney was *NOT* running the playclock down to mere seconds in order to end the game quicker.  Most teams in Cal's situation would do this.  Instead, Sweeney was snapping the ball very quickly after going under center and with 10 seconds, or more on the play clock.  That's when I realized, I think that Cal was upping the temp of the game.  After watching a few more plays, I think that is what Cal is doing. 

Could this be something new that Ludwig was experimenting with late in the game?  Perhaps.  However, Cal has never been an up-tempo team; Tedford's offenses have always been slow.  The Cal QBs are never rushed at the line of scrimmage and take their team to read the defense pre-snap.  So history is not in favor of Cal utilizing an up-tempo offense.  After all, utilizing an up-tempo offense doesn't allow your QB to read the defense as long, or allow the defense to accidentally un-mask their coverage pre-snap. 

So if using an up-tempo offense isn't a part of the regular gameplan, then why did Ludwig start doing it at the end of the game?  Perhaps to get more plays in and get more reps for the backups who were playing later in the game. 

(2) Riley might need to get the ball out earlier on those deep balls.  I think Riley had two deep throws to WRs on deep go/streak routes that were a little under-thrown.  I think the problem might be that Riley is waiting a bit too long to see if the WR can beat the defender, rather than just throwing the ball and having faith that the WR will beat the defender.  Because by waiting to see if the WR beats his defender, the WR gets further down the field, making the throw longer for Riley.

(3) Change in defensive philosophy from the UC Davis game.  I'm sure all ya'll are lovin' this new defense.  I am too.  It is very entertaining to see an aggressive defense.  However, I always hold my breath a bit on the blitzes expecting Cal to get beat deep or to blitz right into a screen.  Apparently, Colorado couldn't make Cal pay for its defensive aggressiveness. 

Anyways, the big change that I seemed to notice between the UC Davis game, and the Colorado game, was that Cal defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast seemed to be playing more zone coverage against Colorado.  Yup.  You read that right.  Zone coverage.  Are you breaking out in hives yet?  It seems Cal fans have developed a huge negative reaction to zone defenses due to Gregory's seven and eight man zone coverage schemes. 

So why play man coverage against UC Davis so much, and zones against Colorado?  Well, quite frankly, UC Davis just can't match up against Cal.  The Cal defenders are more athletic and skilled than the UC Davis receivers.  Cal can afford to just man up against the receivers.  However, Colorado is not UC Davis.  Colorado has more athletes on the offensive side of the ball.  I think Pendergast had a little more respect for Colorado and its receivers, and thus decided to go with more zone coverage looks this game. 

Another reason why Pendergast probably chose to go with more zone coverage looks is because Colorado's QB likes to scramble (listen and watch Pendergast's post-game interview where he discusses the Colorado QB's ability to scramble).  Zone coverage defenders have their eyes on the QB and thus can function as  a "spy" on the QB in case the QB should break the pocket protection and scramble.  Alternatively, man coverage defenses can give up easy QB scrambles because man coverage will often turn defenders' backs to the QB by running off the defenders with deep routes.  So clearly, Pendergast was concerned about the Colorado QB's ability to scramble.  This makes you wonder if Pendergast will roll out similar schemes against Oregon and Washington (both of whom have scrambling QBs). 

Our astute friend of the blog, Ken Crawford, noticed this zone defense too.  In his Colorado On the Road Home podcast, he said:

The other area that was a little bit concerning was I saw a few too many blitzing schemes that left a few receivers pretty darn wide open.  I'm a little worried that the Bears are going to get beat bad a few times this year.  Now Colorado didn't pull it off.  But i saw the fundamentals that scared me there, of leaving some people open -- particularly in the flats.

What I think Ken was noticing, was Pendergast's blitzing with zone coverages (not to be confused with "zone blitzes").  I'll admit, I haven't had time lately to review all of the game, so my analysis here might be off, but I think Pendergast was utilizing some 3-deep, and Quarters coverage against Colorado (at least that's what I appeared to perceive as I watched the game).  And that's why some of the Colorado receivers were getting a few relatively unchallenged catches in the flats.  I don't think there's much more to discuss here other than, that's going to happen.  Pendergast will blitz and leave three or four guys in deep coverage to prevent the deep play, and the offense will get the ball out quickly to defeat the blitz by throwing underneath the deep coverage to underneath receivers.  I guess that's the best a defense can hope for in that situation if they can't get the sack on the QB -- just limit the offensive gain.

(3) Addendum: After reviewing the first quarter, Pendergast used a couple of zone blitzes.  When using them, he'd bring a cornerback on pass rush, and drop a defensive tackle into the hook zones -- essentially acting as a spy on the QB also.  Ironically, Pendergast rushed only three pass rushers a handful of times too, and still got fantastic results.  One of those three-man rush plays was the play where Cal cornerback #2 Anthony almost got an INT (first quarter with 7:08 remaining on the clock -- video here).  On another three-man rush play (3:55 remaining on the clock in the first quarter -- video here), Cal linebacker #13 Price registered a sack and also forced a fumble which Cal recovered.  On this particular play, it looks like Cal linebacker #30 Kendricks is on a delayed blitz, but he's actually just acting as a spy. 

So why is Pendergast seeing so much more success with the three-man rush rather than Gregory?  First of all, I think Colorado is pretty bad.  Second, Pendergast is putting more speed on the field by using more linebacker and cornerback blitzes rather than just sending NTs and DEs at the QB.  And third, it looks like Pendergast is having the pass rushers play 1-gap and really attack the pocket as opposed to a more controlled 2-gap pass rush.  It's worth noting that a very aggressive 1-gap pass rush comes with a higher risk of a QB escape and scramble through an undefended gap, however Pendergast defends against that possibility with the use of the zone blitz and playing a DT as a spy (a defender who shadows the QB and prevents a QB scramble) in the hook zone (the short area of field at the line of scrimmage in the middle of the field).

(4) Anger utilizing the "Aussie kick."  This occurred when Cal was driving north, and punted.  Cal was around mid-field and clearly too close to Colorado's endzone for Anger to unleash the full fury of his leg.  Usually we're all used to seeing Anger boot a gorgeous spiraling beauty 60+ yards down the field.  However, this time Anger kicked the ball putting an end-over-end spin on the ball rather than the usual spiral.  The purpose of doing this is to control the bounce of the ball when it hits the ground.  Ideally, the ball will hit the ground close to the goal line, take a slight hop backwards towards the coverage team, whom can easily catch the ball and down it close to the goal line. 

I don't recall if this is something that Anger has done in previous years, but it's nice to see him use this style of kick.  It will make him more attractive to NFL teams.  Perhaps this is something which Cal special teams coach Jeff Genyk has worked with Anger on executing?

(5) Cal's new kickoff coverage scheme.  Last week I didn't quite catch enough of this to get a good look at what's going on.  Well this week I purposely watched the Cal kickoff coverage team instead of the kick returner to see what was going on.  The new coverage scheme sends nine Cal defenders at the kick returner to form the coverage net.  This net slowly collapses around the kick returner to limit his ability to escape.  The other two defenders who aren't in the coverage net are the kicker (Tavecchio) and one lone deep defender acting very much like a safety.  That lone defender this game was Cal cornerback #1 Williams.  

Should the kick returner break the coverage net, the Cal kicker (Tavecchio) helps play containment, and tries to force the kick returner towards the sideline, thus utilizing the sideline as a barrier.  The last lone defender, Williams, will then try and go in for the tackle. 

A beautiful example of this can be seen at 10:29 remaining in the 2nd Quarter.  On this Cal kickoff, the Colorado kick returner breaks the coverage net, leaving Cal's kicker (Tavecchio) and the lone deep defender (Williams) to make the play.  Tavecchio forces the kick returner to the sideline, and Williams comes in to deliver the knock-out tackle.

(6) Cal's run blocking becoming a concern.  A lot of talk has been made about how Vereen isn't looking good this year.  I'm not entirely sure that it's Vereen.  I think it's the offensive line.  Because, as the offensive line goes, so does the runningback.  It's not the other way around.  Vereen rushed for a total of 59 yards against Colorado on 16 attempts (3.7 yard average).  That is a bad average for a college runningback (NFL is different, and that's a pretty decent average). 

I'm not entirely sure what the problem is with Cal's offensive line, but it's just not really opening up huge holes for Vereen & Co.  Vereen's longest run against Colorado was for 12 yards.  We have yet to see a long run by Vereen all year -- and yet we've played arguable some of the worst teams on our schedule (aside from perhaps Washington State).  Granted, the defenses seemed to be stacking the box a bit, but our schedule isn't getting any easier from here on out.  I'm seriously worried we're going to see some 2.0 yards per carry, and 3.0 yards per carry games from Vereen in the future.  Again, those averages speak more about the offensive line, than it does for Vereen.

(7) Riley's completion percentage to date: 65.9%.  He's 29/44 on the year.  He's had a few easy misses, and one should-have-been-an-INT in the Colorado game.  But thus far, I think Riley has been fairly good.  I wouldn't say great.  But I wouldn't say poor.  I would say he looks better this year than previous years.  Could this really be his breakout year???

Riley is going to have to be spot on this year if Cal's running game doesn't turn out to be its usual threatening self.  Because then defenses are going to focus on stopping Cal's running game and forcing Riley and the receivers to beat the defenses through the air. 

Oh yeah, and Riley's yards-per-attempt are just outrageously sick right now too: 10.34 yards per attempt. 

Just plain sick.  Give a tip of the hat to Cal WR #1 Jones, and Cal WR #21 Allen.  Those guys are both deep threats and are partly responsible for such an outrageous statistic.

(8) Genyk adding a few new special teams wrinkles.  First of all, Cal's punt protection and coverage is that new chic spread look.  Instead of forming a slight inverted "u" protection, Cal now spreads out its blockers along the line of scrimmage forcing the defense to spread out, and increasing the distance from the defenders to the ball (thereby decreasing the chances of a block due to the higher travel distance required). 

Second of all, Genyk has also changed the way the end-men of the PAT team block.  In previous years under Alamar, the Cal blockers at the end of the formations of the PAT team would step inside with their inside foot, block inside with their inside arm, then push out any defenders trying to go around to the outside with their outside arm.  In short, it was an inside-outside block technique.  Now though, the end-men of the PAT team just step inside with their inside foot (like usual) but block *only* to the inside.  They'll instead just extend both arms inside, and put them on the shoulders of the blocker directly inside of them, thereby forming a barrier by which defenders cannot run through.  This technique though seems to leave a greater chance that a defender might be able to block the PATs by coming around the outside.  (For a great view of this new PAT blocking protection, see the PAT after Cal's first touchdown.  The game clock has about 7:22 remaining in the first quarter, and the TV coverage provides a gorgeous endzone view which is perfect for viewing PAT blocking and defense.)

Then of course, there is the new kickoff coverage, and punting technique which I mentioned earlier. Clearly, Genyk really is a man of detail and has truly, and greatly, altered the look of Cal special teams.