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A Golden Spotlight on Stephen Anderson's unbalanced formation reception

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Cal used an unbalanced formation play action fake to set up the classic four vertical concept

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Russ Isabella-USA TODAY Sports

Cal's loss on Saturday to Utah was one of the most frustrating in recent memory.  The number of dropped passes alone were inexplicable, let alone the six turnovers.  I guarantee that the Cal coaches and players walked away from the game feeling like the better team, which makes the loss all the more difficult to stomach.  Still, the fact that they had a chance to win with under a minute left—given all of those mistakes—is reason for optimism.  The offense made too many mistakes to win, but the defense played a winning game for the sixth straight time this season.

It was not all bad for the offense.  They still managed to put up 24 points against a good defense, which is impressive given the drops and turnovers.  Perhaps the most interesting development was their extensive use of an unbalanced line.

The unbalanced line is a staple of many offenses, from the old unbalanced single wing to a key element of Paul Johnson's prolific flexbone spread option methodology.  The reasons for using an unbalanced line vary by scheme, but more broadly the technique is used to create leverage, create a difficult adjustment for the defense, and/or to create confusion for the defense.

In this case, Cal gives themselves leverage for the run game.  They have three offensive linemen to the right, and a soft edge to that side.  In terms of players (regardless of position), Cal is actually even—four players to the left of the center, four players to the right of the center, and the center, quarterback, and running back over the ball.  Utah was playing a one high safety look against Cal's tight end looks, and one high safety defenses can have trouble evening themselves against unbalanced formations.  As we will see, Utah ends up playing with four defenders to their left, six defenders to their right, and one defender over center.  Rather than run the ball, however, Cal uses the threat of the run from the unbalanced line to their advantage in the play action passing game, combining the unbalanced line, a play action fake, and the classic Air Raid four verticals concept.

GS unbalanced 1

Stephen Andersen is lined up at the "left tackle" position, given Cal three receiving threats to their left, one to their right, and three offensive linemen to the right side of center. Utah responds with six defenders to the three receiver side and only four to the single receiver side (despite the fact that Cal actually has four players to the right and to the left of the center), illustrating the difficulties that defenses can have in adjusting to unbalanced formations.

GS unbalanced 2

After the play action fake, we see that Jordan Rigsbee has pulled from right to left. With that action, Cal has evened their offensive line and can form a "normal" play action pocket. Thus, the unbalanced line has created confusion, while not disrupting pocket dynamics. The pull also helps to sell the run fake.

GS unbalanced 3

We see the beginnings of the Air Raid classic four vertical concept. Utah is playing the man free trail technique that they used so well throughout the game. Here, the play fake has helped Anderson to gain a step on his defender. He will continue to the opposite hash, thus creating the traditional four vertical spacing.

GS unbalanced

A perfect pass by Jared Goff fits the ball between the Utah linebacker and safety (who had shaded towards Kenny Lawler on the play).

In major college football, there are few concepts or formations that surprise defenses. The key to this play was not the unbalanced line—it was the great execution by Cal. But the unbalanced line, the threat of the run towards that unbalanced line, the tight end lined up as a tackle, and the difficulty for the defense to recognize and adjust to such a formation on the fly against a hurry up offense are all elements that add up to a successful play.  The ability to package old concepts in new and varied looks is part of the fun of watching Tony Franklin orchestrate the Cal offense, which continues to find ways to be confusing to the defense while remaining (relatively) simple for the offense.

Keegan Dresow spent four seasons as the head coach of the Avedøre Monarchs of the Danish American Football Federation, is the author of Offensive Football Systems and Gridiron Cup, 1982, and is the operator of