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A Golden Spotlight on Cal’s Use of Misdirection Against Oregon

Let’s go Duck hunting.

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

This past summer when all of us CGB writers were gathered in the basement of TwistNHook’s parents’ house discussing the schedule, I volunteered to write a Golden Spotlight for the week after the USC game. USC had made an extremely questionable hire at head coach, meanwhile Cal had brought aboard Davis Webb, Jake Spavital, and several promising recruits. Cal’s chances of winning this year’s USC game seemed to be as good as any in recent years. I figured we would either win for the first time since 2003 or lose in heartbreaking fashion. In any case, I wanted to shine the golden spotlight on what turned the tide for or against the Bears.

After about ten minutes of this year’s Cal-USC game, I began to reflect on my decision to volunteer to write this Golden Spotlight and...

For the sake of my own mental health, we’re not looking back at that USC game. Instead, we’ll go back to the Oregon game. While my post doesn’t have elegant graphics, witty humor, or Leland’s stunning good looks from last week’s golden spotlight, it does have...well, two more play breakdowns.

Watching the Cal-Oregon game, I noticed the Bears were using some very clever misdirection to obscure the intended receiver, who then found himself wide open.

Let’s look at the first example: we’re in the closing minute of the first half and Cal lines up with two receivers on the field side, one receiver on the boundary side, an H-back offset and behind the left tackle, and the running back to Webb’s left.


Oregon is in a 4-3 set with two LBs behind the D-line, and a LB who appears to cover the H-back. The CBs appear to be playing man against the WRs while the safety sits deep in the middle of the field.

Pre-snap this looks like it could be a run to the boundary side (since Watson would move that direction to receive the handoff) or a pass to one of the three wide receivers. As I have diagrammed below, the receivers run (from top to bottom) a post route, a go route, and a slant. The post and go will keep the safety in the middle of the field while the slant route will draw the strong-side outside linebacker towards the WR.

Offensive line run-blocks to the boundary side as Webb fakes the handoff

After the snap the receivers run their routes and the offensive line run-blocks towards the boundary side of the field. Webb fakes the handoff and the LBs freeze for a split-second while they diagnose the play.

It’s not a run, though! The offensive line switches to pass-blocking and Webb rolls out towards the field side. Seeing this rollout, the LBs immediately drop back to the goal line to cover underneath the WRs. Following the WRs’ routes, all the DBs and LBs will move to the field side of the boundary hash. It looks like Oregon has pretty well covered the receivers’ routes...

Webb rolls out to the field side; LBs respond by dropping into covering underneath the WRs.

As everyone’s eyes move towards the center of the field to watch Webb, Watson sneaks towards the boundary to run a wheel route.

The LBs forgot about someone!

Having read this as a pass, no one bothers to pick up Watson. Webb throws an easy touchdown.

Here is the play in motion. Watch Watson hurdle the weakside defensive end en route to the end zone.

Too easy. TOO EASY.

Why did this play work? First, once the defense realizes that this is a pass instead of a run, no one pays any more attention to Watson. Second, by rolling Webb out towards the middle of the field and by moving all the WRs to the field side, the offense further draws the defense’s attention away from the sideline where Watson runs his wheel route. To recognize that Watson will catch the ball, the defense would have had to look left (to read if it’s a run), look right (to watch Webb’s eyes on the pass), and look left again (to find Watson). By the time Watson catches the ball, no one is within five yards of him.

Let’s look at some more misdirection. This is one of my favorite plays of the entire season (except for one big, glaring flaw—see if you can spot it).

After a brief and utterly agonizing defensive lapse, Cal has regained the lead with a touchdown. The Bears go for two to stretch the lead to seven. Things are about to get weird.

Notice anything funny about this image below? (hint: it’s not the flagrant flaw I mentioned earlier)

Webb lines up...under center!?

Yes, the Bears have dug a play out of Tedford’s playbook and lined up under center. The Bears have two wide receivers on the offense’s right side, a tight end and a fullback on the left, and one more wide receiver on the left. This play is not even close to beginning. We still have eleven Ducks to confuse...

Cochran moves out to receiver while Watson moves back to RB.

The tight end Aaron Cochran splits wide to the right and the inside receiver Tre Watson moves into the RB position to form an offset-I formation (the fullback is on the offense’s left, so the strength of the formation is to the left).

We’re still not done confusing Ducks!

Ray Hudson moves to create an offset-I to the right.

Fullback Ray Hudson slides over to the right to swap the strength of the offset-I. Let’s take a brief moment to reconsider what’s going on. Cal initially moved one player to the offense’s right, lined up a RB in the offset-I, and then moved another player to the right. All this movement has focused the defense’s attention where? You guessed it, to the offense’s right. So what could the Bears be planning here? Cal has been running wild on Oregon all night. With an offset-I and a tackle split right, this is almost certainly a run to the right. Right?

All three of those Ducks behind the D-line are looking to the offense’s right. They’re probably expecting a run in that direction...

Look at where those Oregon players behind the D-line are looking in the above image. To the offense’s right. Surely they’ve figured out from all that movement that Cal is going to run in that direction. NOPE. It’s a pass. From top to bottom the receivers run a quick corner, a fake screen (watching the DB’s flat-footed non-reaction to Cochran’s screen is priceless), and a slant. What the defense is not expecting, however, is the pass-eligible tackle to run a route.

But it’s a pass to the pass-eligible left tackle!

Of course, part of the defense’s confusion may be due to the fact that Cal lined up in an illegal formation (there’s our fatal flaw!). Count the men in the backfield.

Let’s count the players in the backfield: ah-one, ah-two, ah-three, ah-four, and...ah-five. Ha. Ha. Ha.

We had already been flagged once for an illegal formation (of course, it also was a play run from under center), so we were very lucky to get away with this one.

As Webb fakes the handoff to Watson, JD Hinnant sheds the DE and gets ready to sneak past the defense.

After the snap Webb fakes the handoff to Watson, while the left tackle J.D. Hinnant briefly blocks before releasing and moving downfield.

Great blocks by Watson and Hudson give Webb plenty of time to spot Hinnant.

He slips away undetected for an easy two-point conversion.

Too easy. Of course, it’s always easy when the refs let you get away with an illegal formation.

Let’s see this in motion. Look how eager Oregon is to stop a play to the offense’s right. After the snap there isn’t a single defender on the boundary side of the left hash.

Too easy. TOO EASY. Just like the decision not to shine the golden spotlight on the USC game.