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Cal vs USC postgame thoughts

Annnnnd this week, not so encouraging, despite the familiar result.

Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Well, it was a solid 20 minutes, at least.

When I said all offseason that this was the year we'd beat USC, I assumed that we would one, be facing them with Lane Kiffin still at the helm, and two, that we wouldn't be facing them with what is essentially our second team.

Am I angry? No. I'm too tired to be, especially at what was basically a perfect microcosm for everything that has happened this season. It's not like the result was entirely unexpected either.

That being said, a beatdown - the worst I've ever experienced as a fan - like this isn't something I'm brushing off. Any time you let a team reach within a hair's breadth of 70, or set a new school record for defensive futility cannot ever be acceptable.

But the team just isn't good right now. Already knowing that means that that's the only takeaway from it for me, and it's hard to get upset if that's the case. I also don't take as much pain from watching blowouts, since that generally just means the team is not able to compete. Heartbreakers and close losses usually bother me far more.

I usually watch games I attend again on DVR, poring over the tape for things I want to add to my original observations. Since I have begun writing here, I have never wanted to watch a tape less - and so I kind of tried to get through this as fast as possible.

As always, the grades are as follows: Outstanding, Exceeds Expectations, Acceptable, Poor, Dreadful, Troll

In which we break down the offense

Unit grade: Acceptable

The offense didn't play that badly. They really didn't. Yes, there were the familiar three and out, stop and start drives, but for the most part, I was very satisfied with their output.

To start off, there were no turnovers. Always a plus.

Three weeks ago, we all wondered why the Bears were continuing to move around the offensive linemen. Well, now we know why - those moves have worked. The line is improving. Facing down a very, very good USC front seven, they allowed only two sacks, slightly up from last week's zero, although the inexperience and youth of Borrayo and Okafor still shows on occasion.

Like last week, Jared Goff's legs helped him in preventing a couple more sacks, an area where he has grown tremendously this year. There were no wicked spin moves to avoid oncoming rushers in his arsenal four months ago, I can promise you that.

There's also the fact that Jared Goff has been sacked on 29 of 466 dropbacks. That's 6.2% of the time, half as much as Maynard, who took 39 sacks on 296 attempts last year.

The increase in run productivity provides more concrete evidence of progress, though - USC entered this game giving up only 3.5 yards per carry and 103.89 per game.


On Saturday, Cal racked up nearly 200 yards on the ground, just about twice what USC had been allowing, on a reasonably efficient 4.4 yards per carry. Even with Morgan Breslin out and unavailable, these numbers are fairly impressive for a group that has underwhelmed all year.

I have pretty much no problem with how Franklin called this one. Every trick in the book was thrown out there - wide receiver reverses, flea flickers, a wide receiver pass, end arounds - in an attempt to win. Just think about that for a second. Despite the 1-8 record, the Bears played to win, and their gameplan left nothing in the bag. How many times did you see something like that these last few years? How many times did Cal pull a trick play toward the end of the Tedford era? How about multiple trick plays in the same game?

The only one I particularly didn't like was the throwback to Goff. All due respect to our quarterback, but he's not fast enough to have that play be effective.

Don't look now, but he has a 7:2 TD:INT ratio the last two weeks. Saturday was a season high for him in QB rating, and he threw fewer near interceptions than I can remember from any game thus far.

Rare are the moments that we have anything to complain about regarding the wide receivers, but there were definitely legitimate gripes to be had on Saturday, as a couple of key third downs were flat out missed by guys who were not looking, or had a chance to catch them and otherwise didn't. Just like the Washington game.

The blocking out there has also been only okay lately, as well. On a first quarter reverse to Harper, Treggs didn't find anyone to help set the edge. Neither did Okafor or Goff, but still. Hopefully all of this improves as they continue to mature in strength and conditioning. Powe was another guy whose production was pretty iffy in this category.

A Jordan Rigsbee botched snap ruined what might have been a scoring drive before the half.

In this space last week, I wondered whether or not the staff should move Chris Harper to the slot, to make room for Lawler. They did both against USC.

Speaking of Lawler, his dramatic rise has been nothing but encouraging, giving us the option to keep Harper more inside, where I think he's better - the Wazzu game was proof of that. And although I predicted this back in spring, I spoke too soon in writing last week that Lawler had emerged too late to be a factor.

Even more importantly, with The King in the fold, Cal will likely return the best receiving corps in the conference next season between him, Harper, Treggs, Rodgers and company.

Am I concerned about Goff's dropping yardage totals? Only slightly. To attempt more intermediate and deep attacks, you have to have protection up front, which, while slightly better in recent weeks, has been largely spotty all year. Furthermore, this is a very YAC based offense, as well - I don't think short routes in themselves are terrible if guys can break tackles and operate in space. Both - our receivers' abilities to do the former and the actual conditions for the latter - have been pretty inconsistent.

Remember, the team hasn't been able to play as fast as preferred this season, either. A lot of underlying reasons for that, of course, but our inability to do hinders the operation Deep Bomb at large, because the defense doesn't accumulate fatigue.

It will be better next year. I'm very confident about this.

Just my opinion - I don't think Richard Rodgers is going to come back this year. No reason to rush him from thumb surgery. Khairi Fortt - if it is a minor biceps issue and not a tear or something - I do expect to see, though.

In which we look at a quick look at some new things on offense

New this week: as far as I can remember, Saturday was the appearance of the Speedbone package, which featured both Lasco and Ervin in the backfield. That's not what's important about the package, though. This was: Bigelow and Muhammad working as upbacks both took several handoffs out of this formation. That in itself doesn't seem notable until you realize that we've handed off to the tailback upwards of 95% this year while using the Bone.

One example play here:


Nothing groundbreaking, but it was a solid package overall - the condensed nature of the Bone forces the defense to pack the box, and handing it off to a speed back that has a running start going wide - while being flanked by a convoy of blockers - gives them a better chance to reach the edge.

Now, normally, when we're in the Bone/Grizzly/whatever, there are just regular wide receivers to give the team a receiving threat. But what if those wide receivers were not wide receivers, but a converted lineman and a tight end? Enter the Jumbone - both names for subpackages are mine, not official - which I believe I saw in the fourth quarter. When I was last at practice in fall, I saw the team play around with this a bit, but never with Bill Tyndall and Jacob Wark outside. The advantages here are obvious, no?

Some more double stack stuff was run this week in the 2nd and 4th quarters, but this time for several consecutive plays. Again, nothing that broke for incredibly long gains, and as far as I can tell, the secret to each play we ran was figuring out which would give us a numerical advantage.

Let's take a closer look.

First play of the drive, Goff sees one, two, three, four, five USC defenders (4 DL, 1LB by the ref at the 31) in the box, and three apiece out on each perimeter stack. Thus, the call is to handoff, since we have five linemen for their five defenders. Result? Six yard gain by Khalfani.


Okay, so that makes it second and four. What does Goff see this time? Another five in the box - four up front, one guy by the ref. Those numbers say to hand the ball off as the numbers still favor the offense, which has a total of seven (five OL, one RB, plus him as the quarterback). So he does. Five yards and a first down.


Next play of the drive, same formation. I'm sure you're all very tired of seeing the DVR bar at the bottom of the shot. This time, Goff sees that the defense has only one defensive back covering the two guys in the stack formation at the top of the screen, so he throws it out to Treggs, who is met by some fast reacting defenders to hold him to a gain of two.


I should note that even when you have the numbers advantage or hat on hat blocking, you still have to win your matchup. Our linemen are doing an average job of that at best, which is why some of these supposedly advantageous situations are not resulting in better or bigger gains.

A third wrinkle I'd like to discuss is the West Virginia/Colorado School of Mines touch pass, which was also shown several times but first on the opening drive. The idea behind this is to bring the wide receiver in motion, snap it, and then flip it to him immediately. It's the same as an end around handoff, but is considered an incompletion if it doesn't work.

@rob_nelson pointed out to me that we had run it against Wazzu, which I did not catch (thanks for that!). A link to that play is here, with a screenshot below. Since I don't know the exact nature of their blocking assignments, don't focus too much on that. What I'd like you to recognize is simply the fact that Bryce Treggs remains blocking at the top, while Harper, the inside receiver, is the one who gets the touch pass.


Now, by comparison to Wazzu, what we saw was run out of a slightly different set, but what I'd like to focus on is the fact that Treggs, the outside receiver, is the pitch guy.


One difference that I can think of here is that in the USC version, we pretty much get an extra blocker, since the slot guy is free to attack someone closer, rather than a cornerback on the opposite side of the field. In essence, because that slot receiver blocks someone who is likely to be in the play, this design gives us nine possible blockers, Treggs as the ball carrier, and Goff, rather than what is basically eight.

There was a third version of this run in the second quarter, with Cal in a 3x1 set, with Bryce Treggs isolated as the one on the left side, and three receivers on the right. As he comes across the field again, the trips set gives him a trio of blockers set up.

The difference is that these above screenshots are run out of 2x2 - this last, unscreencapped variation gives him three immediate blockers instead, plus the running back, making for what is pretty much a four man shield. It only goes for a 5 or 6 yard gain because no one gets up on the safeties, but it's a pretty cool high percentage, low risk play.

Last observation before we move on involves rolling pockets, which appeared for the first time toward the end of the second quarter, helped neutralize the pass rush a bit as well. The entire line would move one way, and Goff would follow them, which helped him hide from pressure, and I'm sure was a part of why we only gave up two sacks.

Now, I believe Tony Franklin is correct when he says The System can be installed in three days. But repetition, mastery and additional twists? Those will keep coming. We're seeing them right now, and I'd be surprised if the offense isn't more varied in its packaging/deployment next season, although the shell of it is probably going to be the same.

In which we talk defense

Unit grade: Troll

A surprisingly strong week last week was wiped out by an unconscionably bad performance in this one. Needless to say, it spiraled out of control very, very fast. Not really much to go off for these guys, and because of the generally poor level of play, I don't have too much to add. They also saw less time than usual, thanks to the special teams giving up scores for them.

What was available on tape sucked.

USC found the end zone on six of 12 possessions, missed a field goal on a seventh, punted only four times, and ran on the clock on the last one. Five of nine on third downs, too.

Three of those punts happened in the second half, when Kessler was already out of the game.

It wasn't fancy, either. As far as I could tell, just a lot of two tight end, zone/stretch right, left, playactions and rollouts. But despite all that, we had no answer, which let the USC quarterbacks throw for a combined 11.0 YPA. Cody Kessler isn't 14/17 good. I'm sorry, he just isn't. That falls on us. He was barely bothered all afternoon.

As has been the trend all year, Cal didn't do a good job of setting the edge, whether it was with an outside linebacker or an end. Nobody was effective in that regard, which was how USC rolled right over us. Their tight ends were very effective in sealing off Barton and Jefferson.

USC's touchdown to Buck Allen in the 2nd quarter was a very impressively designed play - Kessler looked left, saw nobody open on the little bubble screen, looked slightly right, then came back to Allen underneath on a normal one. A couple of different options, plus the Trojans progressed through them well.

Of course, that also continues the very troubling trend of this team not really knowing what to do in covering the running back.

After watching UCLA use Myles Jack pretty much goddamn everywhere on Saturday night I am starting the Johnny Ragin III for running back campaign.

Despite a fairly nondescript afternoon from the secondary, Cedric Dozier came up with a pretty nice pass defended in the first quarter against a much bigger Darreus Rogers. Once again, don't ask me why he hasn't been playing. I do not know. Although they weren't particularly good, I'm pinning most of the defensive efforts on the front seven's lack of pressure/edge control, as well as the special teams.

A bit more appearance from the NASCAR package this week, which came out on third and long situations.

Part of Cal's struggles came from - you guessed it - injury. Once Hardy Nickerson went out, we had a substantially more difficult time on that side of the ball. Chad Whitener has shown some good things at times and did again on Saturday, but with Hardy's improvement these last few weeks and the sheer awfulness of the overall defense without him, it's pretty clear that he's the preferred option.

In which we [insert verb of choice] about the special teams

Unit grade: That which cannot be named/Voldemort (joke can be attributed to Atoms)

That's right. I had to break the damn scale to describe out they did and create a new grade entirely.

Now, that being said, despite the horrendous, abominable wreck that we saw on Saturday, I do not believe that Marc Tommerdahl has to go. I didn't submit a report card to grade any of the coaches at the midway point, but in my opinion, the only assistants who have been noticeably bad are Buh - obviously - and possibly Stewart or Sacks/Cachere. You could build a decent argument for either of those latter names, but I'm not sure they'd be rock solid ones, given all the injuries.

By comparison, there isn't much nearly as much of a case for firing Tommerdahl - outside of the USC game, the only other time this unit has looked clearly bad has been Oregon. In fact, they've been pretty good most of the year, save for the strangely invisible punt return unit.

I obviously don't have to review why this unit received the grade it did, but I will anyway because I'm a masochistic bastard:

  • Not one, but two punt returns taken for a touchdown.
  • First one: the initial guys get there and fail to corral Agholor, Bryce McGovern gets blown up, Lucas King is blocked, which leaves Dan Camporeale (lol) and Cole Leininger to try to stop him. And that isn't happening.
  • Second one looked a lot like what we saw out of Bralon Addison a few weeks back. Simply running circles around the guys on defense. It put USC up 42-14, which made the second half of the game a mere formality.
  • Oh, and a blocked punt. Returned for a touchdown. Awesome.
  • I don't think I've seen a team score three special teams TDs in a single game ever.
  • Decently covered kickoff returns, allowing only 4.3 yards per. So there's that.
  • Two awful shanked punts by Noah Beito, who was apparently brought in to help kick the ball out of bounds and away from Nelson Agholor. Well, he did that part well enough - the problem was that they traveled a total of 36 yards, barely moving a needle in the field position battle. 36! yards!
  • Anyone who sat near me heard me scream for an onside kick all throughout the first half, and particularly when we closed to within 21-14. I'm a fan of the surprise onside kick because I think it can sometimes send a message - plus, USC's return team featured only four guys up on the front line most of the afternoon.

Regarding the onside kick potential, I thought we might go for it because there was plenty of room to do so. The screenshot is taken from late in the third quarter, but USC lined up with this kickoff look pretty much all game long. If you're too lazy to click the picture to see it resized, all it says it that USC had four guys up front and very little support behind them. Looked to me like there was enough space and the numbers to try:


    I'll leave with this press conference quote, courtesy of Ryan Gorcey.

In which there are some various, non-game related notes

#TweetYourSeat is not a scam. I got a jersey for my efforts on Saturday! Granted, it's a Tyler Rigsbee jersey, but still. Pretty cool.


Relatively healthy attendance, considering the situation. Two unsold sections in the south end zone, but not too bad.

Saw two movies this weekend. Do suggest you see Thor: The Dark World if you like action or superheroes. Do not suggest you see Ender's Game.

Apparently the USC bus has no idea how to spell Nelson Agholor.


In which I say some things after the last home game

I've had a fantastic season hanging out in QQ, despite seeing only one win this year.

As such, I am going to be horribly self-indulgent and use this platform to give some thank yous and shoutouts. The season's not over, but this is just about as good a time to do it as any, so sorry if you have a problem with it.

First off, big shoutout to my friend Mike Rollins, who accompanied me to every game except one and was my de facto partner in QQ. It takes some serious patience to want to sit by me for that long, not to mention lending me your ear to discuss damn near everything during the game. Appreciate it, buddy. A side note - Because he doesn't really like the sun beating down on him for 4 hours a game, Mike would like us to switch our seats to the shaded side of the stadium next year, despite the fact that we have nine more seasons in QQ. He's also more capable of affording this than me, so that situation/debate is still developing.

Shoutouts also to everyone around us - Dave, Lucy and Mike who came by and joined the #60000nams campaign today, KetamineCal, CalPaladin, the people who I ran around and high fived whose names I never learned or forgot, so on and so forth. Having a very high pitched, nasally voice and a tendency to scream a lot, I am a fairly annoying person to sit around on gameday. I appreciate the fact that none of you ever tried to kick me out, although I'm sure you had thoughts.

Thanks to everyone who, at some point this season, came up and introduced themselves to me or took time out to tell me they cared about my work. You guys who have wished me well online also fall in this category. Because I am still learning to take myself seriously in this field, I want to thank you for continuing to support what I do. It is very, very humbling.

Go Bears. Always.