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Coach’s Corner: Rewatching WSU-Cal 2017 so you don’t have to

It was just as painful as you remember

NCAA Football: Washington State at California Neville E. Guard-USA TODAY Sports

Last season’s tilt with Cal did not go well, and that’s putting it mildly. Riding high at 6-0 and ranked eighth in the AP poll, the Washington State Cougars took a trip to smoky Berkeley and left with a 37-3 shellacking. This season, WSU is again ranked eighth, this time in the CFP, and will host the University of California at Berkeley in Pullman on Dad’s Weekend. The Golden Bears are coming off a big win over Washington, and they did it with their defense. So the question is what did Cal do defensively to hold the WSU offense to three points? I went back to the tape from last year to find out. It was not an enjoyable experience. Y’all owe me some of your Halloween candy.

The answers in the passing game are pretty easy. It was a combination of bad turnovers, bad turnover luck, Luke Falk not playing well at all, and our offensive line struggling to handle a three- or four-man front and/or rush for the majority of the game. Particularly Falk having a terrible game. The first interception he threw was directly at a squatting Cover 2 corner. And it’s not like Cal disguised coverages. They showed Cover 2, and then they ran Cover 2. And then Falk threw a quick out right into the Cover 2. It was... not a great read. But it was indicative of the rest of the night. Just dumb.

The running game is a little more interesting. Two things jumped out at me that seemed to affect the running game adversely. That’s not to say the running game was ineffective. If you remove Falk’s “rushing” stats, the Cougar running backs earned 73 yards on 14 carries. And then you pretty much abandon the running game down seventeen in the second half. But despite that, they left a lot of meat on the bone in the first half.

The first thing I noticed was on the first play of the game. Watch the safety towards the bottom of the screen.

As soon as he even sniffs run, he comes flying and delivers a wallop to Jamal Morrow. That’s a pretty aggressive play from the safety position. But it’s not like we do a whole lot of play action or RPO looks, so it seems a logical play.

Here’s a second example a little later on in the quarter. This is a little bit different since it’s a shovel pass instead of a true run. But then again, the shovel pass is basically our version of a draw play, so I’m counting it. In this case, I think Cal was rolling from a Cover 2 shell into Cover 3, but again, as soon as the bottom safety sees run, he’s coming like a bat out of hell.

So what’s significant about the safety coming up so hard in the run game? Blocking schemes generally don’t account for safeties. When Gardner Minshew is looking for leverage in the box on Saturday night, he’s not counting the safeties unless one of them happens to be in the box pre-snap. Because they are unaccounted for, if they commit this hard to the run after the snap, they’ll almost always have a free run at the back, assuming the play goes in that direction. And the thing is, I’m not entirely sure what this offense would do to counteract it. Play action would certainly help, but we’re not really a play action team. We do a token fake where the running back just shows inside zone, particularly on the outside screens (Randy/Larry), but other than that you know within a half of a second of the snap whether the play is a pass or a run. So here comes that safety if it’s a run.

The second quirk in the Cal defense that caught my attention had to do with how the playside end worked against the tackle to his side. It was almost as if he was slow-playing the running back, allowing him to declare his cut and then reacting accordingly. That’s generally the inverse of how most teams play a non-option running back. Usually you want to force the back to cut into a gap where your buddies are.

Watch #36 here. Cal’s end to the bottom of the screen, working against Cole Madison.

Kind of a weird path to take, but it’s effective. He allows Madison to work upfield and turn his shoulders, then sheds the attempt at a block and outraces the running back to the wide lane. Cal did this several times over the course of the first half (which was all I could bring myself to watch because I’m not a complete masochist) and each time the reaction by the playside end was similar. You see this occasionally from a defense worried about the zone read option, but I’m fairly certain they weren’t worried about Falk running the ball. In fact they probably would have preferred that. I haven’t seen enough of Cal the last couple years to know if this is a thing they do generally or a technique they teach, or whether it was just something they felt would be effective against our outside zone game. But it seems to have worked pretty well.

This, I think, we have a pretty good counter to. The tackle power play that we’ve picked up this year would devastate an end that was trying to slow play the zone. That would allow the pulling tackle to turn upfield and engage the end, making the play look a little bit closer to a Power Lead than the version we’ve primarily run thus far.

Coaches tend to be more critical and look to change things up after a loss. David Shaw basically started gameplanning for the Cougs the day after their loss last year. Which is a huge compliment. On the other hand, we know that Leach believes that it’s more important to execute the correct play rather than overload the offense with different plays. Regardless, it will be interesting to see if the Cougar offense simply does what it does, while hoping for better results, or if they try to throw in a few wrinkles to exploit what they saw against Cal last year. Either way, it should be a better outcome than 2017.

Now excuse me while I cleanse my palate with the first half against Oregon.