In 2017, the California Golden Bears football team is going to have quite the different look. Cal fans—Old Blues in particular—have been clamoring for this change for quite some time, rejecting the flashy razzamatazz of new-era football and longing for old-timey nostalgia of yesteryear.
That’s right. It’s finally upon us.
In 2017, Cal Athletics will begin being outfitted by UnderArmour, with plenty of Old Blues thinking our Nike uniforms are just too darn flashy for their bifocals.
Oh yeah, we’re also gonna have new coaches.
And they’ll have new playing styles and coaching philosophies.
Our new offensive coordinator, Beau Baldwin, isn’t a big fan of using labels to describe his offense because it’s molded to suit his personnel. The offense is dynamic. It’s fluid—and it’s 2017, so there’s nothing wrong with that. And yet, I—a total amateur—am going to try to break down and characterize the Baldwin offense. This is going to end well for me.
Baldwin’s EWU Eagles employed an offense that’s gonna look somewhat familiar to the Dykes era. The Eagles operate almost exclusively out of the shotgun with receivers lined up to spread the field horizontally before the snap. From here, Baldwin deploys staples of the spread offense:
Zone-read running plays (which you’ve gotta figure will be even more potent with former Oregon OL coach Steven Greatwood on our team).
Mesh plays—where two receivers cross paths close enough to high-five at the mesh point.
But Baldwin is pretty clear in stating that, despite the misconception that spread teams are pass-first or pass-only, he aims for offenses with run-pass balance. This is the same kind of thing that Sonny Dykes used to say about his Bear Raid, yet we still threw the ball 621 times with only 414 runs in 2016; by comparison, EWU tallied 421 passes to 442 runs.
So, today we’re going to take a look at how Baldwin’s offenses use the threat of a run to potentiate their passing and vice versa.
The Eagles are participating in the Washington State Cougars’ 2nd Annual FCS-Loss Bowl. We’re going to transition in easy here with a formation that Cal would run and a mind-numbingly mundane play-action pass—shotgun with three receivers, the quarterback and running back in the backfield, and an H-back (think of Malik McMorris in 2016). The Cougars appear to be in a base 4-3 defense—four defensive linemen, three linebackers (all in the box) and four defensive backs.
Right after the snap, this looks like a typical power run play—you’ve got the H-back and the pulling guard (see the curved arrow) as lead blockers with the tailback running to meet his destiny and the football. This pulls in two of the linebackers and the safety at the top of the screen.
How stunningly smart of the Coug defenders to recognize the hallmarks of a power run—they’re so perceptive! Unfortunately, the Eagle quarterback keeps the ball... And the defense’s attack on the run means they left a gaping hole in the middle of the field... But hey—at least that safety recognized his mistake, even if it was far too late and rendered him as useless as me getting on Tinder.
The receiver catches the ball with no one around him...
...and makes the viewers question which team is out of the other’s league en route to a touchdown.
I sit here wasting my free time writing up football strategy (and using crappy Photoshop software) when the game really boils down to a simple one. If there are more people in your jerseys than in the other jerseys, you’ll probably be okay. This is a simple read that a quarterback should make before the snap—how many blockers (and runners) do we have and how many defenders are looking to stop the run?
Let’s rewind to an earlier point in the game. (There’s a totally valid reason why I organized the post this way, but it would just be way too complicated to explain to you simpletons. Definitely not just a computery issue on my part.) The Eagles have five players on the line of scrimmage, one of those “tight end” thingies (which I guess we can learn more about when Baldwin brings them back), an H-back, a quarterback (who’s actually star receiver Cooper Kupp), and the running back. This makes nine players—trust me, I counted thrice. On the other side of the line of scrimmage, there are seven Cougars. Nine is more than seven (I think), so logic dictates that running would be a good idea here—especially when the offense is in the Wildcat formation.
So, let’s run! The “quarterback” takes the ball and runs to his right. He even tucks the ball because ball security is important. (Credit card security is important too, which is why Wells Fargo flagged one of my purchases as fraudulent and now every goddamn store is sold out of Nintendo Switch preorders.) With the nine enumerated EWU players flowing to the right and based on the “quarterback’s” body language, this smells like a run! The Cougars respond in kind with the linebackers and even a safety moving down to stop the run.
With the Cougars going all in to stop the run, this lets one Eagle slip past the defense and turn a numbers disadvantage in the passing game into a one-on-one situation.
The receiver uses a simple shimmy to the middle of the field, then back out to confuddle the cornerback and get himself open along the sideline.
It works out pretty well for Baldwin.
Zone read. Again.
It’s almost over. Both my drivel and the game, with the Eagles leading by three and killing the last two minutes of the game clock. On the 30-yard line, the Eagles come out in the shotgun with a tight end and three receivers. The Cougars, desperate for a stop, look to be in Cover 2 with the two safeties splitting the field in half.
But let’s take a second away from the game and bring up another facet of Baldwin’s offense: a mobile quarterback. In addition to longing for a defense that’s merely bad, Cal fans during the Dykes era have longed for a running quarterback who could add a running dimension to our offense and fully realize the potency of the Bear Raid. Over at EWU, on the other hand, dual-threat quarterbacks have been all the rage. After all, this is where Vernon Adams played his first three years of collegiate football and last year, quarterback Gage Gubrud led the team with 134 rushes, gaining a net of 606 yards. For comparison, our Davis Webb had 33 runs for a net -110 yards. (Curse those pesky sacks!) Having a running quarterback turns the zone read into a powerful weapon.
When the ball is snapped, we see WSU’s tricksy business. There are actually three defenders—including one of those safeties—covering each of the three receivers at the top of the screen while the other safety—#26, poor Hunter Dale—moves to the center of the field as the lone man to stop a big pass. Which isn’t a terrible idea... why commit too many defenders to cover deep when reasonable strategy dictates that EWU should just run the ball to kill time?
Which is what the Eagles do. They run the ball. The quarterback and the running back interface and—as part of the zone read—allow one of the defenders to attack freely, read his movement, and move the ball in the opposite direction. The defender goes for the running back, so the quarterback takes the ball—and the glory—for himself.
A second Cougar actually gets through untouched, which can’t be by Eagle design. However, nothing works out well for WSU (except for that whole eight-game win streak in the middle of the season), so both Cougs actually head for the running back. With a little more coordination, they could have destroyed the play. Instead, the quarterback can run freely downfield, getting as much attention as an uggo on singles night.
But poor, poor Hunter Dale. You remember him, right? The safety from the bottom of the screen? He gets so mixed-up by this play... First he heads to the middle of the field to help cover the pass. Then he heads back to the bottom of the screen to lend a hand with tackling that tailback. At which point he recognizes the fake and has to turn around once again. Good effort, at least?
Sure, the zone read is an effective means of running the ball on its own, but by planting the seed of “we might pass” in the back of the defense’s mind, the Eagles preoccupy the defenders and make their gains even bigger. So, I guess it’s like a protein shake after a good lift?
With legitimate threats both running and passing the ball, Beau Baldwin’s offense is more potent than the sum of its parts because his system forces the defense to cover both the air and the ground, ensuring that the playing field stays level. With plenty of returning receivers and running backs, Baldwin definitely has the pieces to install his multifaceted offense here at Cal. We’ve even got a mobile quarterback or four.
Check back next week (or so) for a look at how Baldwin designed presnap motion to gain strategic advantages for his Eagles (as well as footage from a game other than EWU–WSU in 2016). And another opportunity to feel better about how much smarter you are than me. But that’s fine, because I’ll always have my stunning good looks.