Or, as Nick Kranz put it succinctly, "I think we have the offense to win literally any Pac-12 game and the defense to lose it."
This is not a knock on the defense's effort or grit in any way. Young defensive backs tend to struggle during their 1st year as starters. Of our veterans, only Michael Lowe was good to go. With Sebastian and McClure out and without a consistent base pass rush, there simply isn't a scheme which can mask a two-deep riddled with newcomers.
But despite losing their share of one on one battles, you don't see any quit in these young Bears. Case in point: converted walk-on receiver Griffin Piatt got picked on for long TD receptions. Yet he was involved in two touchdown saving tackles within the final minutes. He ain't backing down. That's heart.
We're lucky to have him and he's absolutely playing out of his mind. Replace two high school All-Americans with a walk-on former WR? It should be a recipe for doom, but Piatt and his young cohorts have done their best to hold the rope.
Knowing that he has milk-teeth and cubs at his disposal, DC Art Kaufman is mixing things up and generally puts our guys into the right position. He's acknowledged that we still need guys to grow up and start making plays. Let's see how he started the game.
Wazzu goes 3x1 and Cal looks to have one safety deep. Against CU, Cal played a lot of Cover 1. Considering WSU runs even less often and less effectively than the Buffaloes, it's a fair bet that Cal will focus on the wideouts.
In case you didn't hear about it, WSU QB Connor Halliday calls all the plays at the line. (sarcasm) Fortunately for us, he weighs considerably less than 245 lbs. To beat Cover 1, he dials up an Air Raid staple, the wheel play. After clearing the boundary corner with a go route, the flat is wide open for a pass the tailback. This is a play which Cal is traditionally unable to defend, just behind the tight end down the middle.
At the snap, Cal rushes four while Wazzu's tailback releases. Cal's LB has a long way to go to cover the flat and it should be an easy 1st down...
...except Cal's boundary corner is still sitting on the flat. It looks like the Cloud variant of Cover 3 where the corner takes the flat while the safety rotates over to take the outside WR deep. Dozier makes a great open-field tackle to stop the receiver short of the first down and ultimately the only 3 and out Cal forced all game long. This a play he doesn't make last year.
For all the gnashing of teeth over Rush 3, Drop 8, it was actually our most effective scheme. When charting plays in the 1st half, we rushed three on four consecutive plays, the results were: incompletion, incompletion -> punt, short gain, incompletion. In fact, we didn't give up any chunk plays when rushing three during the entire 1st half. In the 2nd half, Halliday made the adjustment to start picking on holes in between our middle zones instead of relying on the underneath dump-off.
On the other hand, looking at blitzes:
2nd quarter Rush 5: 30+yard post reception
2nd quarter Rush 7: 20+ yard touchdown on a post route
2nd quarter Rush 6: 20+ yard slant reception
Still don't believe me?
Wazzu goes 2x2 and Cal has five men on the LOS and one safety in the box. It's a Cover 1 look, though Cal has been doing a lot of pre-snap feinting. And Barr is lined up very wide at the bottom of the screen, almost in the slot.
But at the snap, Cal's safety bails deep and towards the top outside receiver. Both of Cal's LBs drop into underneath zone coverage. Scarlett(top), Jalil(middle), and Barr(bottom) are the only pass rushers.
Halliday looks to his right. But the top outside receiver has a DB underneath and Lowe(#5) waiting over the top. The top inside receiver is bracketed by double coverage. Meanwhile, Barr's outside rush forces Halliday to step up...
...Cal's DB looks like he was playing Cloud Cover 3 again as he turns over the outside WR to Lowe and stays in the flat to pick up the releasing tailback. With his outlet covered, Halliday pulls it down and gets swallowed by Scarlett for Cal's only sack.
Seriously. Rush three-drop eight can be agonizing, but it's one of the recommended methods to stop a spread attack. Air Raid QBs thrive on quick reads and quick passes. With wide splits + vertical step pass protection, it's almost impossible to get to an Air Raid QB on most plays - all blitzing does is open up easy passing windows underneath. Dropping more pass defenders makes the quarterback hold the ball and can throw off his rhythm if he's looking for something short to middle range. With good discipline, the defense can keep the primary targets bracketed with double coverage.
Despite taking their lumps in the 1st half, General Kaufman still has a few tricks up his sleeve. Wazzu goes 2x2 on a momentum-critical third down. Once again, Cal has their LBs on the line disguising coverage and one safety in the box. Cal has been using this look to play Cover 3 Cloud all game long.
At the snap, Cal's box safety starts bailing deep. Both linebackers start rushing, but the top LB backs off and picks up the tailback.
It looks like this could be green dog coverage; the LB plays coverage if the TB releases and goes on a delayed blitz if the TB stays in. Meanwhile, Halliday thinks he has a window between where the Cal DB peels off into the flat before the safety picks up the outside WR deep. He throws...
...but this time it was Cover 2. The outside WR is in double coverage with the DB in tight coverage and safety help over the top. It results in an incompletion and a rarer-than-unicorn-tears defensive stop in the 2nd half.
Just for fun, check out this wrinkle with Scarlett(#17) lining up at MLB. He caused a QB hurry/throwaway out of this look on a bull rush. He's been one of the few guys with the physical ability to cause pressure on a relatively consistent basis. Kudos to the staff for getting creative with ways to free him up.
Moving over to other side of the ball, Cal desperately needs to counter-punch and comes out in a 2x2. Wazzu has a three man line, with both OLBs standing up and the bottom one threatening to rush. WSU has been bringing edge pressure all game long which has frustrated the Cal offense up to this point.
At the snap, Goff fakes a handoff to Lasco while the line looks to block for outside zone right. At the top of the screen, Harper stops his route and puts his hand up for a smoke screen. WSU's bottom OLB rushes off the edge while their remaining LBs and safeties all flow playside to cover both the handoff and smoke screen...
...but it's a trap. Adcock and Borrayo wheel away from their 2nd level inside zone blocks to rumble towards the open field. Davis catches the slip screen while Treggs executes a great block on the corner.
Borrayo finishes off the corner while Adcock DESTROYS the trailing defensive end. (Coach Yenser calls this a rat kill)
Davis jukes one safety and then gets a great downfield block by Stephen Anderson (#89) to spring him the rest of the way. This was the perfect playcall to take advantage of WSU's aggressive D and the execution was clinical.
In the 2nd quarter, Cal made an adjustment to Wazzu's blitzes by going away from the slow screen game and leaning more heavily on quick underneath routes to their inside receivers, Treggs and Anderson. Here's what Franklin/Dykes dreamed up out of the half:
Cal goes 2x2 while Wazzu counters with 3 down linemen and two stand-up OLBs. At the snap, the bottom OLB rushes off the edge, while their top ILB blitzes up the middle.
But Cal has the perfect counter; an old Air Raid staple known as Y-Stick. While the X and H (top) run dig routes at different levels to hold the top safety, the Z(bottom outside WR) clears out the corner and bottom safety with a go route. That leaves the Y (inside receiver, bottom of the screen) wide open in the zone vacated by the blitzing LBs. It's too much ground for the remaining WSU ILB to cover.
Anderson makes the reception and heads upfield. Face meets palm as he stiff-arms the WSU safety...
...and seizes momentum by the throat with a long sideline run.
Now Cal goes 3x1 with Hudson on the line at the bottom of the screen as a tight end. Lasco is lined up below Goff. Because most spread shotgun runs use veer principles(run to the opposite side of the QB for momentum), the Wazzu linebackers are shaded towards the top to counter any runs towards the top of the screen.
At the snap, Cal shows off a new wrinkle in the run game. They usually run power by pulling Borrayo. Many defenders are taught to read the guards to find the run. In this case, Cals guards act like they're blocking to the left. Borrayo cuts his man while Crosthwaite seals his man towards the top of the screen. This sucks the WSU linebackers towards the middle of the line. Hudson engages their end and blocks him towards the bottom. Instead of pulling a guard, Cal uses their center and right tackle, Adcock and Rigsbee pull down while Goff flips the ball to Lasco.
Rigsbee wipes out their outside LB while Adcock combos with Hudson to clear out their end. Crosthwaite has sealed their tackle and it leaves a huge hole for Lasco.
Lasco's speed and power does the rest. He jukes one safety...
...runs through an arm tackle, and then outraces the rest of the Cougars to Party In The End Zone.
More love for the War Pigs; they were the unsung heroes of the 2nd half. By shoring things up against the Cougar pressure packages, the Oline gave Goff the time he needed to be clutch.
Cal comes out again with 3x1. This time, it's Anderson #89, on the line at the bottom as a tight end. Wazzu has an unbalanced line. They have two defenders on the line wide to the top, while they have a stack of defenders, three linemen and two LBs, to the bottom.
At the snap, Goff looks to hand off to Lasco. Meanwhile, Treggs stops his route for a smoke screen. Already burned by one screen for a TD, the Wazzu slot corner and safety go sprinting towards Treggs. In the trenches, Anderson #89 pins their end while Crosthwaite #71 pulls. Even so, Cal is running right into the teeth of stacked Cougars...
...and it doesn't matter. Adcock and Rigsbee hold their ground against FIVE Cougars and refuse to allow any backfield penetration. Moore loops around to pick off any 2nd level stragglers while Crosthwaite is out in front of Lasco.
The Wazzu corner wants none of this. Lasco sets him up with a subtle feint to the outside, then turns on the jets to take it home.
For this week's play sponsored by Maalox and Immodium, I give you the quintessential No-No-No-Yes! Moment of the game:
Cal and Wazzu have devolved the contest into a couple of punch-drunk fighters exchanging haymakers. The first one to falter gets smelling salts plus mouth to mouth...and to add insult to injury, probably from a crusty ol' trainer instead of the cute ring girl. It's perhaps the most pivotal moment of the game. So naturally, Cal pulls their other-worldly QB, Goff, and puts in true frosh Luke Rubenzer. Just in case the Cougars need an additional hint, we go double tight end with a seven-man front while screaming, "We gonna run it down your teeth and out your bantha poodoo, you scruffy-looking nerf herders!"
Even people who think football means diving and biting shoulders know that Young Skywalker will use the force to run it. The right side of the line zone-blocks towards the top, but the left side curiously whiffs on all of their blocks. Cal Football 2013 makes this seem highly credible. Luke searches his feelings...and they all say give it to Harper before you are mauled, son.
The reverse is on. Many Cal fans died inside for the plans to this play. It's like trying to bulls-eye a womp rat...yet the insane gamble pays off. Wazzu's defenders can't quite get to Harper while the #WarPigs plow the road...
...Mama, there goes that man again. Mr. Anderson clears out one final defender to allow Harper an easy lane for a crucial first down. Nice job. Now please don't do that to us again.
Because when else do you see back to back kickoff returns for touchdowns? Trevor Davis dreams about it all the time. Now so do we. Special shout out on return #1 to that bad, bad man again, Mr. Anderson, for the key block. The best part about this play? The ensuing sideline warning. Get it together, Rope Coach. You have _one_ job, dude. One job!
And on return #2, this was all about Ray Hudson, #11. Not only does he lock up his man...
...but then he uses his man as a battering ram to knock down a 2nd defender to spring Davis.
Thrilling. Exhausting. Heartening. There's no quit in these Bears and now they're learning how to win. If you can't pull for a bunch of youngsters who are over their head, yet keep getting off the mat time and time again, then I lack the words to reach you. Just try to be nice when your mom brings pot pies down to your basement.
I'm okay with the decision to go Thermopylae and dig in rather than allow a score. Go tell the passerbys that these Golden Bears Will Not Quit, Will Not Die, and WE WILL CARRY HARRY TO FERRY OVER any mongrel-cur-flea-bitten-throw-rug that we need to. (No milkbone for you, Chris Landon.) Numbers only say so much. Our young Bears bent, but refused to break when it counted.
Defensive stats be damned, Cal football is fun again. We're relevant. We matter. And we need to acknowledge the hard work from all of these young men who refused to let a 1-11 campaign break them. I have no illusions about how the rest of the year may play out. But it already feels like we're rolling with house money. This team believes it can play with anyone. In and of itself, that's a huge victory.
We haven't reached our ceiling yet, so get your blood pressure checked and secure all loose items safely. Irrespective of wins and losses, this season is going to be one heckuva ride.
Go Bears! Muzzle the Huskies!