Winning in football can be reduced to the following formula: talent + execution = probability of success. Sonny Dykes, Tony Franklin, and the Golden Bear coaching staff seek to elevate execution through the repetition and mastery of proven concepts that take advantage of the strengths of the talent on the roster. This is why "system" offenses are often so prolific; players gain confidence and play faster when they have been performing the same tasks for years. The benefits such a system and identity often shine during high stress situations, which can undermine the execution of a team that lacks such confidence in assignments and schemes.
"Good talent + good execution = success" was exemplified on the following play, with Cal facing a 3rd and 8 in the 4th quarter of a tied game against Colorado.
Colorado starts in a two high safety shell. A two high safety shell provides flexibility to a defense. Take for example, how a defense might defend an out route at or above the flat zone by the #2 receiver (the second receiver from the outside). The cornerback jumps this route in a cover two or two read defense; the outside linebacker covers or undercuts this route in a cover four, disguised cover three, or man under variations; the safety may defend an out route in various pattern matching defenses where he remains in man coverage on any vertical stem (7-10 yards depending on the defense) by the number two receiver.
Colorado, however, does not stay in a two high safety shell. They tip their hand just before the snap. One of two high safeties creeps towards the line of scrimmage, while the other walks towards the center of the formation. They have disguised the coverage for most of the pre snap period, but now their options are more limited. Realistically, in this one high shell, only one defender will defend the out route by Stephen Anderson: the outside linebacker/nickelback who is aligned just to the inside of Anderson. This is because Colorado must account for a vertical route by the #1 receiver (the widest receiver); the safety has too far to run from the middle of the field to cover this route by himself (or to help with an out route by #2), thus meaning that the cornerback must cover a vertical route by #1, therefore leaving only one man who can possibly defend an out route by #2: the inside linebacker/nickelback.
Goff is given information such as this that is easy for an experienced quarterback to process. He knows that it is 3rd and 8; 3rd and long is a typical blitzing situation. There are only three down lineman to start the play, so Goff is expecting pressure from players posing as pass defenders (and even if Colorado only rushes three, there is still no one other than the outside linebacker/nickelback in position to help with the wide flat). The alignment of the defense gives away where that pressure will come from. Colorado now has 5.5 possible pass defenders to the short side of the field. The short side is often used as a blitz side because defenders have shorter to run while disguising who is blitzing. Colorado only has 2.5 possible pass defenders to the wide side. Pre snap, knowing his route combination to that side (fade by #1, 10 yard out by #2), this is where Goff will look first. The single high safety and probable blitz allows him to narrow his thinking to a few possible coverages; man free or a cover three blitz package. In either case, the outside linebacker/nickel back pressed on Anderson is the flat defender, as explained above. Seeing as this player is already lined up with inside leverage to Anderson, Goff knows (pre snap) that Anderson has the route and the leverage to win to the outside.
At the snap, the play unfolds as expected. Signs of man free coverage abound, the most obvious of which are the single high safety staying deep, and Colorado's middle linebacker (#44) turning his shoulders to run to the sideline, mirroring the movement of his #3 receiving threat, Daniel Lasco. Anderson maintains his outside leverage on the outside linebacker/nickel back, who appears to be playing a trail technique, designed to keep himself between the quarterback and his receiving threat. The benefits of this technique are that it takes away quick, in breaking routes by leverage while forcing the quarterback to fit vertical throws into tight spots between the defender and the free safety. The weakness of this technique is that it gives the offense outside leverage, if the offense has the quarterback to throw such a route, the line to pick up the blitz for long enough for a first down route to develop, and the receiver to maintain the separation (the talent aspect of the "talent + execution = probability of success" formula).
The play continues to develop as anticipated. Goff keeps his vision down the field to ensure that the cornerback and/or safety will protect their deep assignments first, and to further ensure that he has the coverage he expects. For all intents and purposes, however, the route is already open; Anderson has kept his outside leverage, the cornerback's momentum is down the field covering a vertical route, and there is no one who can help with Anderson's out breaking route.
The engine of any offense is the line; here, Cal has picked up the blitz, allowing Goff sufficient time to make his throw. As Goff releases, Anderson's separation is evident.
Anderson catches the ball. The coverage was good, but the offense was better. And that is why this play exemplifies Cal's offensive success. This was not bad defense. Colorado required the offense to pick up a disguised blitz and forced their quarterback to complete an out route from the hash to the wide side of the field, which is one of the most difficult throws a quarterback can make, considered a benchmark in terms measuring arm strength.
This was Cal executing a basic scheme with talented players and winning one on one matchups. And that is why Cal fans should be excited for more points in year three of the Dykes regime. The more experienced the players become, the more automatic their reads and reactions become, the faster they can play, and the more they can focus on fundamentals and winning one on one matchups. With so many returning players with another year to develop physically and to become even more comfortable in the offensive system, it is hard to imagine that Cal's talent and execution will not both take another step forward.
Keegan Dresow is the head coach of the Avedøre Monarchs of the Danish American Football Federation, the author of Offensive Football Systems, and the operator of totalamericanfootball.coms.