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Trojan Horsed: How The Cal Defense Gave Up 42 To The USC Offense

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Today, I begin taking a look back at the Xs and Os of the disappointing 2010 Cal football campaign.  I'll start with the bottom of the barrel, the embarrassing 48-14 loss in the Coliseum against the USC Trojans.

We were all left seething after "42-0". A lot of just couldn't process it as it was happening, spouting out the usual pablum that follows a blowout like this one, such as "the players quit" and "our team is mentally soft" and "Tedford plays not to lose against USC". I knew most of those cliches were bogus, so I wanted to figure out exactly what happened in this game that led to such a calamitous first half result..

Note: I'll be publishing a full 30-40+ page review of the game (or maybe just the first half) very soon. Stay tuned for updates!

Here are some of the nitty-gritty details. Check it after the jump.

So what were some of the issues?

  • As has been mentioned many times, the offense didn't help them out at all. Cal's offense ran 24 plays and picked up a grand total of three first downs (USC, by contrast, ran 45 plays and picked up 15 first downs while racking up a hundred thousand yards). Their first four drives went three-and-out, they punted on their first five drives, they turned the ball over on their subsequent two. They gave USC's offense great field position, as they only needed to march half the field to get to the end zone.

    Still, this theme of offensive suckitude reared its head all of last season. The Cal defense still managed to be pretty game on most occasions, despite working long hours and garnering minimal benefits. So what were the specifics?
  • Matt Barkley had an efficient day. I still don't think he's an NFL-type quarterback (he throws a weird-looking ball that hangs up in the air a little too long), but he managed this game effectively. He made one ridiculous touchdown throw backpedaling in his stance. He looked off defenders surveying him with his eyes to one read, forcing them in one direction so he could throw to the now open receiver in the space vacated by the defender.

    It was probably my eyes playing tricks with me, but Barkley seemed to take even wider steps in his drops on bootlegs and rollouts to avoid any potential blitzes. He was only sacked once in the first half, and never really felt any pressure on his big touchdown drives.
  • Cal's three down linemen got manhandled at the line of scrimmage. All of them, all the time, on almost every play. Safe to say that this doesn't happen often last season, but when our big three boys are having trouble getting to the running back, there's trouble brewing for the rest of our team. Full credit goes to the USC offensive line for the victory--they seemed to have all the answers for that incredible first half outburst.
  • Derrick Hill is usually a force to be reckoned with, but USC's center Kristofer O'Dowd and Khaled Holmes did an excellent job handling him. His backups at the nose position (Kendrick Payne and Aaron Tipoti) didn't fare much better. Even when Hill got into the backfield, there was precious little support for him from his ends or his linebackers.
  • Probably most shocking of all was how little Cameron Jordan was a factor in this one (only three tackles). I don't know much about how Tyron Smith performed against other defensive ends/linebackers, but I'm sold on him having an NFL future at right tackle after watching his performance against Jordan. He had quick feet, kept his body low, had great head leverage, locked his arms up, and generally nullified any effect Cal's best pass rusher could have on the game.  Jordan's array of pass rush moves were generally defeated. He was not a huge factor in run defense, other than tailbacks fearing his presence on the field. 

    When Smith was spent, Holmes also did some nice work on Jordan too, and both of them teamed up on occasion to double team him to take him out of the play. Stanley Havili had some nice pin blocks on running plays to sandwich Jordan further into Smith's grasp. 
  • USC used Cal's aggressiveness against them. Here's where I play defensive coordinator. USC seemed to know coming in that Cal's defensive linemen wanted to plug the gaps and make plays in the backfield, but they were confident enough they could handle their line one-on-one regardless. So when they couldn't get into the backfield on one-on-one blocks, the offensive linemen that weren't blocking defensive linemen (usually two or three guys depending on whether there was a tight end) filtered to the second level and took out the linebackers, and there wide open holes for the Trojan tailback on the play. The result was a wildly successful Trojan run attack that averaged nearly nine yards a carry in the first half thanks to wide gaping holes. I'll explain this a little bit more over the week.
  • I'd have liked to see a more disciplined effort from our D-linemen in holding open gaps for linebackers to make plays, particularly for two excellent tacklers in D.J. Holt and Mike Mohamed up the gut and skilled guys like Chris Conte and Mychal Kendricks to make plays on the outside. Our aggressiveness up front, especially with our ILBs playing inside run on too many occasions, took them out of plays when the blocking was ready for those maneuvers, and made it much harder for our remaining unblocked defenders to handle the ball-carrier.
  • I know Pendergast's scheme dictates more run at the quarterback, but at some point you have to adjust and realize that the guys up front aren't going to let you get past them with the gameplan you've implemented. Adjust.
  • After watching the gametape, I can see why Al Simmons was released. Most of the errors committed by our defense seemed to emerge from the secondary. Poor ball awareness, bad pattern reads, weak tackling angles, getting pump faked and falling for quarterback lookoffs, curious technique--defensive backs seemed to always be making mistakes. USC's wide receivers are exceptionally talented, and Matt Barkley did have some nice throws he fit into windows, but come on. Giving up five passing touchdowns in one half isn't acceptable at all, and many of those throws could have been defended with better coverage skills. Getting burned by a double move or a pump fake gets old after it happens four or five times. 
  • As HydroTech noted in his postgame thoughts, Pendergast didn't blitz an incredible amount, but he did blitz from a lot of different angles. Some of it worked. Some of it did not work (in one case, it backfired spectacularly, but more on that at a later time). We blitzed the inside linebacker, we overloaded with safeties, we sped rushed off the edge. We got one sack on the second drive and forced a three and out with one such blitz, but after that everything was gobbled up by superb USC pass protection. 
  • A Bob Gregory gameplan would've kept us in the game longer. Now let's be clear. Cal would not have won this game with either defensive coordinator because of how putrid the offense was. But Gregory never gave up that many points in one half. He made sure our defense was disciplined in its assignments, forced opponents to grind up the field, hit the soft zones consistently, not make mistakes, and if you did all those things, so be it. Most of the time it worked, sometimes it failed.  But we sure as hell wouldn't have gotten cleaned up like we did that dreadful Saturday. 
Next week, I go into deeper discussion of particular plays in the Cal-USC game, and hopefully get this publication ready for you to read and enjoy.