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2011 Cal vs. USC Post-Game Thoughts

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(1)  Story of the Game #1:  The Cal Defense Gives The Team a Chance.  The Cal defense didn't play great the entire night, but for the most part they played well enough to limit USC's effectiveness.  USC's run game wasn't dominant.  USC's pass game was hit and miss.  Barkley (USC's QB) finished the ball 19/35 (54%) and a 5.3 yards per attempt average.  Not good stats.  Cal's defense did a good job containing USC's rushing attack throughout the game, and also getting pressure on Barkley to make him get rid of passes earlier than he wanted.  Cal could have won this game, or at least could have made it more competitive if the offense could get its act together.

(2)  Story of the Game #2:  The Cal Offense Turns the Ball Over Five Times.  Allen (Cal WR #21) fumbles.  Maynard (Cal QB #15) fumbles while getting hit by a defender.  Maynard throws three interceptions.  It's such a cliche to say it, but you can't win games when you turn the ball over so much.  Turnovers means your opponent's offense gets more chances to score points.  Giving the opposing offense more chances to score is not good!   It's not crazy to state that if Cal doesn't have these five turnovers -- or even only has one turnover -- then this is a tight game and a game that Cal even might win. 

(3)  Story of the Game #3:  Cal Shoots Itself in the Foot.   It just seemed like this entire game, Cal was also shooting itself in the foot and committing mindless unforced errors.  Maynard bobbles a snap and has to fall on it for a loss of yards.  Calvin (Cal WR #11) doesn't secure a jet sweep handoff and has to fall on the ball for a loss of yards.  Jones (Cal WR #1) has two easy drops.  Two plays after Allen's almost-a-touchdown reception in the 3rd quarter, he subs himself out because he's winded, McGovern (Cal WR #86) comes in, and McGovern promptly has a brain fart and doesn't block his defender on the subsequent run play which results in that defender tackling Sofele for a loss.  If McGovern doesn't make that mistake, then Sofele (Cal RB #20) easily gets a positive gain (this play is viewable at (6:56 remaining in the 3rd quarter).  The Cal secondary also gets a couple very untimely penalties which gives USC some free first downs.  Specifically, those two pass interference calls were just killer.  They were both very debatable calls -- they weren't clear PIs or clearly horrible calls, but regardless of that fact Cal just can't be gifting 15 yards and a free first down to such a good offense.

(4)  Cal Cornerbacks Need to Be More Aggressive In Their Tackles on WRs.  Throughout the game USC was doing a lot of quick hitch-like passes to their LARGE wide receivers against Cal's smaller cornerbacks.  Obviously, USC was taking advantage of the physicality, size, and strength of their WRs against Cal's CBs.  Time and time again, both Williams (Cal CB #1) and McClure (Cal CB #21) would quickly close the coverage, and then pull up, and just contain the receiver.  Time and time again, it just seemed like the USC WRs would stuff arm, steam roll, and gain an easy four to five yards or more.  If the Cal CBs aggressively close the gap after the pass and wrap up the legs of the USC WR, they can limit the YAC (yards after catch).  Former Cal CB Syd'Quan Thompson was really good at this.  He'd always aggressively tackle the WRs before they even got started running, thus preventing any chance at a gain.  Since Cal's current CBs aren't doing this, the WRs have a chance to gather themselves after the catch, and juke the CBs. 

(5)  I'd Be Nice if Maynard Could Look Off Defenders.  Maynard had a number of almost-INTs.  I think there were... two, maybe three of those.  Maynard could have easily thrown five to six INTs this game.  How can Maynard avoid these?  Look off the defenders.  The announcers kept saying how Maynard would look to one side of the offense, and only throw the ball to that side.  That is true, but not entirely indicative of the problem.  Sometimes, WRs to that side of the field that the QB first looks at are open.  If they are, then just throw them the ball.  There's nothing wrong with not looking elsewhere. 

But Cal's situation is a little different.  Maynard was often zeroing in Allen -- especially on slants and posts.  We all know this.  The USC defense knows this too.  So on a lot of those almost-INT plays, the intended WR would appear to be open after the snap based on the pre-snap look, but then the USC defenders -- knowing that Maynard would be looking for Allen or Jones (Cal WR #1) would cut off the passing lane.  So you can't just look at your intended WR right off of the bat.  As you drop back, give a quick glance to the opposite side of the field to move the safeties and linebackers that way, then look to the intended WR side of the field.  Doing this would help open things up across the field.  However, I don't think this is something that Maynard can do right now.  The game seems to be going a little fast for him still.  He's having trouble doing some of the basic stuff.  Got to get that basic stuff down before throwing in the advanced stuff. 

(6)  Maynard is Forcing the Ball.  The most obvious play here is Maynard's first INT.  That ball should never have been thrown.  I think Maynard had pre-determined before that play that he was going to throw the ball to Jones on that play.  On Maynard's second INT, he was pressured/hit while he was throwing which resulted in a rushed pass and INT.  Nevertheless, that pass still shouldn't have been thrown.  The intended WR was covered, and a linebacker was sitting in his zone right in the passing lane. 

(7)  Maynard is Getting Fooled by the Coverage.  Against Presbyterian he got fooled by a coverage, and it happened again against USC.  Maynard's third interception occurred because he got fooled by the coverage.  One of the idiot announcers (not Jessie Palmer) was saying how the INT occurred because Maynard was looking to that field the entire time.  While Maynard was looking to that side of the field the entire time, that wasn't the problem. 

Here's the problem.  USC was doing a good job disguising its coverages.  Even I, sitting in the nosebleed seats with a gorgeous birds eye view of the defense's pre-snap alignment, was getting fooled by their coverage.  How does a defense disguise its coverage?  To list a few possibilities, they'll line up in what appears to be man coverage pre-snap when they're really in a zone defense.  Alternatively, defenses will show one high safety, but then roll back a second one just before the snap.  USC is great at doing the former (showing man pre-snap then switching to zone).  And that's exactly what happened on that third INT. 

Maynard saw the defense giving a man coverage look.  The CB guarding Jones, the intended WR, was playing far off Jones.  Jones was running a 10  yard curl.  Maynard thought he could get the easy 10 yard gain.  But it turns out that the USC nickelback in the slot -- the guy who was also showing man coverage on Cal's slot WR (Allen) -- was in a flat zone.  After the snap, the USC nickelback bumped the Cal slot WR, and even turned his back to carry the coverage on the slot WR up the field for a few yards, then broke off the coverage to sit in his flat zone.  The defender then saw Jones, the intended WR, execute the curl.  The USC nickelback then just undercut Jones' route and INTed the ball. 

I'll say it again, don't listen to the announcer there.  That INT had nothing to do with Maynard looking to only one side of the offense, that particular mistake was due to a mis-read of coverage. And don't get me wrong, I'm not saying that looking to one side of the field after the snap is always a bad thing, because sometimes it's not, it's just that looking to one side of the field was NOT the problem on that third INT.

(8)  Jones (Cal WR #1) is Playing With Torn Finger Ligaments.  This is something he mentioned on his twitter after the game.  He wasn't offering it as an excuse, and said that he should make those catches anyways despite the injury.  Here's hoping that this injury doesn't affect him throughout the rest of the year.

(9)  The Coaching is There, The Players Just Have to Execute.  I know it was a loss.  I know it hurt.  I know the Cal offense looked inept at times.  But poor performances aren't always indicative of poor coaching.  In my amateur opinion, I actually thought that despite the loss, there was solid coaching in there. 

Pendergast (Cal's defensive coordinator) had the defense pretty well coached and prepared to limit USC's offense, which they did. 

Cal's offense definitely wasn't great but the plays were there.  Individual errors like misreads, fumbles, guys just plain getting beat were the real problems.  The coaches showed that they were adjusting to USC's defense.  When USC started getting quick pressure on Maynard, they started rolling Maynard out.  Building off of the rollouts, they then called a throw-back screen.  This play got blown up to a missed block by Cheadle (Cal RG), apparently. 

In another demonstration of good coaching  late in the fourth quarter, USC played Cover 2.  Cal's eyes in the sky must have saw this and expecting USC to play that same defense again the next play called up a smash pattern.  Indeed, on the next play, USC played Cover 2, and Maynard hit the slot WR on the flag.  The very next play, Cal's offense then called up a four-verticals passing play.  Again, another great play for beating Cover 2.  These play-by-play adjustments show a clear observation of USC's defense and adjustments.  Throughout the game, Cal was also trying to hit a lot of in-breaking routes.  Some might say that was because Maynard is better at completing in-breaking routes -- which does appear to be the case -- but these plays are also good for attacking man coverage and Tampa 2.  When Cal's offense was struggling in the second quarter, Cal switched to a hurry-up offense to try and catch USC off guard.  The coaches are trying.  They're making adjustments.  They're putting the team in a position to win, but the guys just got to execute and win their positional battles.

(10)  Cal's Special Teams Still a Work in Progress.  Blocked PAT.  Fair catching a punt at the 5 yard line.  A botched fake punt.  Clearly, this area of the team needs to be improved.  I'm not sure what else can be done though.  The blocked PAT was a little bit of a protection problem and a really tall dude getting an arm up, right?  What more can be done about that?  The blocker knows he has to block his guy, he's trying, and he just got beat.  As for Jones fair catching a punt at the 5 yard line.  He knows he's not supposed to.  The coaches tell the punt returners not to do that all the time.  He just had a brain fart, I guess.  And as for that fake punt, it was a punt-option play.  Anger (Cal's punter) was supposed to punt the ball, and he didn't.  BearTerritory has the full scoop:

Trying to capture some momentum before being shut out for the second straight half, Cal decided to run a punt-option play after Maynard threw incomplete to Jones and tight end Anthony Miller to bring up fourth-and-seven, but Anger was only able to gain five yards rushing right.

"Actually, it was an option to punt it or run it," Tedford said. "If he had the edge clean, then you go for it and you run, if it's there. Well, it wasn't clean and he made a determination to run and so he should have punted, obviously, because it wasn't cleared out enough. With a team as fast as USC is, they can close the gap really quickly, and I think he made a nice move to get outside and it looked like he had some yards and they closed the cushion really fast."

These are just guys make errors and getting beat.  These are brain farts.  They happen.  Guys just have to not let them happen.  The coaches have given them the keys to success, they just have to utilize them. 

(11)  Losing Sucks But I Don't Think the Wheels Have Fallen Off... Yet.  So Cal is now 3-3. It's where I thought we'd be at this point in the season.  For those that are really hurting, I think the pain is mostly due to the fact that we lost three in a row.  If Cal had gone WLWLWL or LLWLWW or LLLWWW, instead of WWWLLL, then most of us probably won't be so upset about things, right? 

Well, maybe not.  I presume some will probably mention the fact that we haven't beaten USC in eight straight years.  Or that Tedford seemingly has plateaued.  Or that there hasn't been a great Cal QB since Aaron Rodgers, and to a smaller extent 2006 Longshore, and pre-injury 2007 Longshore.  Or that Cal got blown out by Oregon.  These are all fair points.

I am not really upset about the way things have turned out this season.  Of course I want to win every game, but this Cal team has shown improvements over last year.  Cal's offense is improved from last year.  Despite the defense losing a number of starters, it's not horrible.  In fact, it's actually quite literally "average."  It's tied for 57th in the country (out of 120) in terms of yards allowed per play.  Well, actually, these stats do include the Presbyterian game which skews that stats in favor of the Cal defense.  So it's probably a little worse than 57th in the nation.

Cal has also been competitive in every game it has played this season which is an improvement from last year when we weren't at all competitive in a handful of games (most notably the losses to USC, Oregon State, and Stanfurd).  Cal could be winning a lot of these competitive games if the offense just limits its turnovers and scores a few more touchdowns here and there.  I think everyone can agree that Cal could have won every game it has lost so far.  None of the games have been insta-blowouts or 4 Quarters of non-stop Cal getting dominated.  Against Oregon, Cal showed that it could be competitive with a top-10 team.  If the offense gets its act together, Cal maybe wins or only loses by single digits.  Against USC, Cal showed it could beat a very talented USC team if it just limited unforced errors.  Again, if Cal's offense gets its act together then Cal likely wins the game, or barely loses.  Against Washington, the game was there for the taking if ... again, the Cal offense gets its act together. 

Overall, I think a lot of Cal fans' expectations were a bit inflated after Cal's 3-0 start.  Even I admit, I was sunshine pumping after the Colorado game.  But in hindsight, it appears as if Cal wasn't as good as we thought.  Fresno State is sitting pretty at a 3-4 record with top notch quality wins over North Dakota, Idaho, and Utah State (sarcasm!).  Colorado is sitting at a 1-6 record with a win against Colorado State.  And of course, Cal's third win is against Presbyterian.  So in reality, Cal has picked up 3 wins against some pretty poor teams.  But for most people, we just remember the wins.  The errors a team commits in a win tend to go overlooked in the joyous celebration of the win. 

If we think back to what errors were being committed by the team during those three wins, we see that those same errors are still showing up now.  Dropped passes.  Guys getting beat.  Penalties.  Low completion rate.  Even against Presbyterian, Cal demonstrated these errors.  Cal had like four mindless drops that game.  Guys weren't owning their positional battles like they should have.  Maynard threw an INT.  Cal committed ten penalties for 94 yards that game.  Maynard had trouble passing the ball that game.  And that's why I downgraded my season outlook on Cal's season after the Presbyterian game.  Cal really should have won that game by more than 63-12 if it was as good as we thought they were.  I tried to point out some of those errors, but a lot of people thought I was being ridiculous.  Maybe they thought my criticisms were ridiculous given the score, or the fact that Cal won, or the fact that Tedford just became Cal's winningest coach in history (a fact that has quickly been forgotten due to the past three losses), but I think it's quite obvious now that most of us bought into the team a bit too early based on three weak wins. 

So what about the rest of the season?  Cal definitely had the unfortunate luck of facing some of the top Pac-12 opponents to start conference play; hence our 0-3 conference record.  Now that the games against USC, Oregon, and Washington are behind us, I think we can look forward to some wins (dammit, I just jinxed us).  Cal now is looking at games against Utah, UCLA, WSU, and Oregon State.  It's very possible that Cal goes 4-0 in this next stretch.  I'm not quite that optimistic.  I think 3-1 is probably the most likely scenario, but winning is the best medicine.  And should Cal go 4-0 in the next stretch, I think a lot of the pain we're feeling now will be quickly forgotten -- at least until the Arizona State and Stanfurd games.