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A Gold-ish Night Light on pattern recognition in Cal–Oregon

Because beating Oregon was basically human nature.

NCAA Football: Oregon at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

One of the key, unique strengths of humans is pattern recognition. Don't worry, this isn't another edition of nerd-talk in the Golden Scholars. This might actually be a little bit worse as I make another layperson's attempt at breaking down film, this time from the defeat of the Oregon Ducks at the hands of the California Golden Bears and the re-acquisition of CGB North.

When I have to explain why I'm a football fan to people who dislike it, I always open that it's a terribly injurious sport and how the NCAA is a corrupt system that callously exploits its student-athletes, making it a guilty pleasure at best and a morally reprehensible system that has no place in the modern world at worst... but that I like it nonetheless. And I like it because of the chess match between the offense and the defense, which is where pattern recognition comes into play.

If you keep running the same plays on offense, then the defense will start to pick up the patterns (even those defenders were educated at Stanfurd) and adapt. The Cal–Oregon game had a few cool plays that stood out to me (like the touchdown to Tre Watson on the wheel route at the end of the first half and two plays with unbalanced lines, including the two-point conversion), but today I'm going to take a look at a few examples of pattern recognition.

Exploiting pattern recognition on offense

Up first, let's revisit the concept from the first and should-have-been-only edition of the Gold-ish Night Light—establishing the screen pass and then trolling the opposing defense with a fake screen. It's the start of the second quarter and the Bears are in the redzone operating out of a 2x2 formation—Brandon Singleton (#19) and Jordan Veasy (#15) are to the left of the quarterback and Melquise Stovall (#1) and Vic Wharton (#17) are to the right. Davis Webb (#7) is in the backfield with his buddy Khalfani Muhammad (#29).

Right after the snap, Webb looks to be handing off to Muhammad, but this is a play-action fake and is designed to pull the MLB to the center of the field and away from the action at the top of the screen. Instead, Muhammad stays in to block (and do a little jimmy to fake that he's a running threat). Meanwhile, Webb has his body completely turned towards Stovall (gold vision cone) and Wharton is charging towards the DB at the top of the picture. In a hypothetical world, this is one of the many screen plays that Cal runs; Wharton would block the outermost DB (blue arrow) and leave Stovall in a one-on-one contest against the other DB. Also, in this world, I would be a happy and fulfilled individual, but that’s another story for another time.

The DB who was lined up over Wharton uses pattern-recognition skills and two weeks of studying Cal OC Jake Spavital’s screen-heavy offense to diagnose this as a screen play and brilliantly sidesteps Wharton's “block”. Webb starts the throwing motion in this direction, but it's just a pump fake…

Webb turns his body to his actual target—Wharton—who's gotten behind both DBs and is ready for an easy kabam.

What happens if the play breaks down? What if the DB engages with or follows Wharton? In that case, I'm guessing the fake to Stovall could become a real pass—Wharton would take said DB out of the equation and Stovall would simply be tasked with winning his one-on-one battle with the remaining DB. Alternatively, the next progression may be to Webb's left, where Veasy's fairly open on his slant. Anywho, here’s the play in action:

By establishing screen passes over the course of the game—and the season—Cal sets up big plays off of fake screens, like this one.

But pattern recognition can be good!

Let’s turn two tables with a look at the Cal defense and a look at when pattern recognition is a benefit. Eventually.

First, we have to establish the pattern. We’re in the first overtime and Oregon has the ball on the 20-yard-line. On the left side of the formation, they’ve got two receivers and an H-back behind the line of scrimmage and between the left tackle and guard. On the right-hand side, there’s a running back and a tight end. It looks like Cal could be in man coverage with a big, 10-yard space between the slot receiver and the Cal DB on the 10-yard-line. Speaking of Cal, we’re in our basically-base 4-2-5 Nickel with DBs Cameron Walker (#3), Luke Rubenzer (#17), and Joshua Drayden (#20) clustered near our LBs Jordan Kunaszyk (#59; you probably noticed him at some point in the game) and Devante Downs (#1). My super-expert opinion is that our DBs are positioned here in part to counter the heavy-ish Oregon look from the TE and H-back. And why not stop the run and force a freshman quarterback to beat you?

Oh, what’s that you say, dear reader speaking aloud to his or her computer? You notice that a pattern has been broken? Yes, yes, your oh-so-human pattern recognition skills have picked up on the fact that I don’t have a beautiful HD screenshot from YouTube; due to the short turnaround this week, the Pac-12 highlight video is the only one that I have access to and they inexplicably decided to cut out the precious 0.7 seconds before the snap. The highlight video joins the play in progress and won't have as good of an idea of what's going on. I mean, that's fine for me because I enter most situations with less than a full idea of what's happening, but that would probably be a hindrance to people like you who aren’t used to that life. Instead, I turned to the ghetto method of taking a picture of my TV. Behold, the high standards of the California Golden Blogs.

After the ball is snapped, the running back and the H-back run flat routes away from where they were aligned (i.e, the RB was on the right of the formation and heads to the left while the H-back was on the left and heads right). Note, the arrows are longer to show where-ish the player roughly was positioned prior to the snap sort of.

Both Kunaszyk and Rubenzer briefly trail the TE, who’s running a corner route (pictured above). It looks like there may have been a miscue or some miscommunication that caused these Bears to be so close together here and leave the middle of the field uncovered (green box below). Or they may have just been bonding over being defenders with Zs in their last name and I’m okay with that.

Regardless, either because Kunaszyk reads the eyes of the Oregon QB (Justin Herbert) or because they noticed that they weren't spread across the field, Kunaszyk moves to cover the middle of the field. But it's too late as Herbert throws to "Not That" Jalen Brown, who's streaking towards the endzone on a post route. DB Marloshawn Franklin (#18) tries to make a diving pass breakup, but is unsuccessful and Oregon scores to put the pressure on Cal in OT.

But let’s rewind a second—we’re not gonna go back an hour or a year or even to that brief period of time when I was happy, but let’s take a look at the routes from the two WRs on the top of the screen. The inside receiver runs a go route (and kind of gives up at the end of the play...) and the outside receiver runs a post route crossing behind him. I’m guessing the play is designed by Oregon to cause some traffic with the outermost DB having to avoid the go route, thus helping the post get open. It didn’t exactly happen here as Franklin didn’t look too disrupted, but I could see that as a potential problem for DBs who are neither as alert nor as agile as Franklin.

Let’s take a stroll down misery lane:

And now onto that key moment of patter recognition—namely, the final play of the game. The Bears are once again in our 4-2-5 nickel package with Walker (#3) still lounging with Kunaszyk (#59) and Downs (#1). The Ducks have two WRs at the top of the screen (again, with two Cal defenders looking to be in pretty soft man coverage) and at the bottom of the screen, there’s a TE and a third WR. And look at that—they’ve got DBs covering them, further suggesting man coverage.

Here’s the play after the snap. We’ve got four pass-catchers charging upfield covered by four Cal defensive backs. The running back is running his route after the play-action fake and Downs is in pursuit (see the arrow pointing... down). Herbert is fixated at the top of the screen, leading Walker and Kunaszyk in that direction.

But Kunaszyk has got some pattern recognition skills of his own and remembers the last Oregon touchdown. And our maligned defensive coordinator/linebackers coach Art Kaufman has been drilling Oregon’s tendencies into his players: “Get thee to the boundary hash.” Herbert turns his body away from the field side... winds up to throw... Kunaszyk turns around...

Am I the only one who loves how casually that ref is just strolling down the hash boundary hash?

And would ya look at that... This Oregon play has a similar concept to their OT TD—the inside Duck runs a go route and the outside receiver turns for the slant route behind him. But by picking up on the tendencies and patterns of the Oregon offense (and with some good reflexes), the Bears were able to anticipate where the ball was headed and Kunaszyk was the hero of the game!

Let’s relive the magic!

For now, humans reign supreme at pattern recognition. Robots are catching up, at which point we'll have robo-football and we can all enjoy it without head trauma and exploitative lack of compensation! But we'll have to keep human refs because at this point, Pac-12 Refs ruining things is just part of the game.

(Speaking of ruining things, I probably should have been preparing for a meeting instead of writing this. Oopsies!)