This year the Cal football team has faced some of the most innovative and explosive offenses in the nation. CGB preview articles this season (get ready for links to my prior posts) have been describing concepts like Chris Peterson's Laws of Motion, the history of the modern passing game, and Rich Rodriguez's Philosophy of Numbers, Angles, Grass (well described by Berkelium97). The Golden Bears have faced quarterbacks like Marcus Mariotta, Brett Hundley and Connor Halliday who have been shredding defenses through the air and on the ground.
For two weeks I had been preparing to write a post telling you to forget all about that. That Big Game week was going to be something futilely different. I had been ready to show you clips of Stanford running plays like this:
An offense that clusters11 players in the middle of the field, that ignores number advantages and open space, one that rarely uses presnap motion and almost never snaps the ball with a player in motion. Notice how each Stanford player blocks the man directly in front, no matter how far that player is from where the play is designed to go. The tendency, not just with option football, but with traditional running schemes is to not block the defenders furthest away from the ball. David Shaw's offense actually goes against what every Pac-12 offensive guru preaches. It is even more narrow-minded than traditional smash-mouth football. The concept David Shaw executes is to smash into a wall over and over until that wall breaks, if it breaks. It has resulted in an offense that relies on a single play maker, Ty Montgomery (another link to a previous Breakdown - I have been building up to this week), to move the ball any distance further than 4.3 yards.
Then the LSJU had a bye week... Someone on The Farm had an idea, one that had to do with 11 players moving an oblong air bladder covered in pig skin. On the first drive of the game against Utah, a season's worth of scouting was blown away (lol, scouting, that is what I call watching Pac-12 football). I will breakdown some of these novel plays.
Pull Three Triple Option
Just looking at the formation below we can see something is wrong. Left Tackle #70 Andrus Peat is lined up on the right side and Tight End #84 Austin Hooper is lined up on the left instead. Stanford has trips receivers to the bottom of the screen, #7 is Ty Montgomery who we should assume is the intended receiver an any play he is in the game.
Utah has 6 men in the box on defense, the numbers would say to run since Furd has 6 blockers to account for all of those defenders.
This play is actually an option. Quarterback #8 Kevin Hogan can keep the ball and run to his left, he can pass it to Montgomery who has two receivers blocking for him, or he can hand it off to #26 Barry Sanders. Just to make the play more interesting, three Stanford linemen will pull and lead block for the running back.
The Utah Defensive End at the top of the screen is the hero on this play. He slips past the block of Peat, Stanford's best lineman, and immediately engages a pulling lineman. This gums up the running lanes and allows the linebacker and safety to come unblocked to make the tackle.
Even more unsung are the backside Defensive End and Outside Linebacker, who by staying disciplined prevent Hogan from keeping the ball or passing to Montgomery.
Even with the name and DNA of Barry Sanders it is a bad idea to try to run the ball butt first.
A Second Play Maker Becomes The Focus of the Offense
#27 Christian McCaffrey owned the state of Colorado in high school. Being the son of former Bronco (and Cardinal) Ed McCaffery certainly garnered him attention but his performance on the field won him all the awards, including being considered the state's top recruit. Although he had been making his presence known in games earlier in the season, it was against Utah when Stanford began to feature him.
On this play Stanford has 2 backs in the back field, McCaffery and fullback #36 Lee Ward. They have two recivers towards the top, one receiver at the bottom and a traditional look for their 5 offensive linemen.
The Right Guard will pull and kick out the Defensive End, the slot receiver will seal off the inside linebacker and the fullback will block the outside linebacker. The Utah Safety is the only one who can make the tackle before this becomes a big gain.
The Safety does come up to stop McCaffery and he is helped by the outside linebacker who is hardly touched by the fullback.
The true impact of Christian McCaffery is seen on the next play. 4th and inches, Stanford lines up on the right hash, with the entire team clustered in tight. History tells us that David Shaw will try to impose his will on the game by being physical and overpowering the defense. His tendency would be to call a play where Stanford attacks in a wedge to get the needed inches.
All year long I have been watching plays like this thinking that the numbers and grass say to use the left side of the field. Someone on LSJU's offensive staff finally saw it... There is NO ONE on the entire left side of the field. It doesn't even make it on camera it is so empty. All 11 defenders are "in the box" or right of the right hash. This could almost qualify as a trick play!
A pitch to McCaffery becomes the longest play of the game for the Cardinal.
Power with a Purpose
Now it is first and goal. Stanford brings in extra lineman #74and #98 and running back #22 Remound Wright.
If we divide the field in half we see that Utah has 5 defenders on the left side, Furd will use their fullback and two pulling linemen to gain a 6 to 5 advantage. Their plan is that numbers, size and strength will allow them to push to the end zone.
The play is nearly successful. Only outstanding pursuit by the back side linebacker prevents a touchdown.
Stanford has reached the goal line and the run has been well established, time for a play-action pass. Stanford has two eligible receivers to their left (our right), a Tight End and Fullback. The fullback is a step behind the tight end allowing both to be eligible (though they were almost flagged for an illegal formation because the fullback was barely far enough back).
Both #80 and #36 will block and then release into pass patterns. #36 holds his block a second longer and the result looks much like a screen pass. The idea is to flood the zone of Utah defender #4, forcing him to choose to cover one player or the other.
Ultimately, it is #36 Lee Ward who is open. Linebacker #51 who could have helped was fooled by the play action.
What does it all mean?
It is no coincidence that Stanford's only touchdown in regulation came from their first drive. After the first drive most of these plays were never used again and the ones that got re-used were late in the game and a much reduced efficacy. The rest of the game LSJU used their old playbook. The only other drive of consequence came in the 4th quarter when Stanford repeatedly gave the ball to Ty Montgomery, who gained 30 of the 60 yards on the drive. Montgomery was injured during that drive and it stalled outside field goal range.
Of course the strength of the Stanford team is defense (I looked at their defense and special teams in the Washington Breakdown I linked to earlier). The Big Game will be team strength vs team strength: Cal offense #13 in the nation vs Furd defense #4 nationally; and weakness vs weakness: Cal defense #124 (2nd from last) and Furd offense #82.
I assume that Stanford used every clever offensive play they could muster in the double overtime loss to Utah, so there should be little new for Cal to prepare for. The biggest wrinkle will be the emergence of McCaffery to compliment Montgomery for potential big plays. David Shaw didn't show he could really use both effectively at the same time (the intention was clearly to get the ball to one or the other when the play was called), if there was an option of one or the other getting the ball (as we saw in the triple pull play) then the combo would be very dangerous.
The real question remains the same as in previous weeks: will the Cal offense be able to score when the defense is able to force stops?
I want the Axe. I WANT THE AXE! I WANT THE AXE!