Voodoo. Black magic. Cursed. Jinxed. Star-crossed. I looked up “Cal” in the thesaurus and these were the listed synonyms. Don’t bother checking my work, just trust me on this. For whatever reason, weird things happen when we play Cal. The last two years, those weird things have manifested in an absolute offensive no-show in Berkeley two years ago, and a weird, grind-it-out win that was a lot closer in the last few minutes than it had any business being. The end result is an offense that has averaged 11 points per game against Cal over the last two years. That leads us to the question, is there something that Cal is doing that is causing the WSU Air Raid to struggle like it has the last two years? And what can Anthony Gordon and crew do to reverse that?
(Apologies for the lack of gifs, which forces you to be subjected to my artistic skills and my complete lack thereof. The internet and I are not on speaking terms at the moment. It knows what it did.)
Second snap of the game, and we see what I would consider Cal’s base defense against the Air Raid. They’re going to show four down linemen with nickel personnel, and one of those defensive linemen is going to drop into zone coverage. They dropped a lineman quite often against the Cougs last year, sometimes into zone, sometimes chasing a running back in man coverage. And they would do it whether there were four defensive linemen, five, or in some cases six. They do this for two reasons. The first is for coverage purposes. Adding one more linemen into the coverage helps with the classic “Drop Eight” coverage that has been known to fluster the Air Raid in previous years. The second is to try and force an incorrect protection call by the offense. By making the offensive line slide towards the bailing defensive linemen, it can isolate the rushers on the opposite side, giving them a one-on-one matchup that they could potentially win. Cal doesn’t stunt much on the line to potentially add to the confusion on the line. There were a few twists in the game last year, but for the most part, they are a contain rush team. That may have been Minshew-specific, because he was so good at extending plays outside of the pocket. Even when they had five or six at the line and brought them all, they still maintained rush integrity and tried to collapse the pocket around Minshew. It remains to be seen if they will use the same strategy against Gordon, given his propensity to hold his ground in the pocket.
At the linebacker level, Cal is going to try to keep two in the box as much as possible, occasionally sliding one out to Early or Late to wall off the in-breaking routes. Here, Cal starts with a linebacker aligned to the trips side, then when Travell Harris goes in orbit motion across formation, he slides back into the box into their standard 4-2 look. Cal will want six in the box on most standard downs to help contain Max Borghi in the running game. On passing downs, particularly second- or third-and-long, we’re more likely to see a linebacker in coverage and/or Cal bring in a sixth DB. Cal was not a blitz-heavy team in last year’s game. Which marries with their straight rushing preference. It seems that Cal’s defensive idea against the Air Raid is to be very vanilla in the box, forcing the offense to consistently execute and not giving it any vacant areas from blitzing linebackers.
On the back end, Cal is playing what looks to be Cover 4. The corners make a zone turn, and drop to deep quarters with the outside linebacker and the dropping lineman occupying the flats. Again the mentality here is not to get beat deep, keep everything in front of you, and rally up to make the tackle, preventing any long catch-and-runs. Coach Leach describes the goal of the Air Raid as attempting to control a box that runs sideline to sideline to a depth of 30 yards in the defensive backfield. By putting as many players as possible in that space, the Cal defense is simply trying to limit damage from play to play. Having players the caliber of Evan Weaver certainly helps in that endeavor.
Cal will pick their spots to send a blitz against Anthony Gordon. It’s always a risky proposition simply because of the fact that if you don’t get home, you’re leaving a lot of space for him and his receivers to operate. In this instance, they again drop one of the defensive linemen out into coverage. He’ll be responsible for man coverage against Max Borghi (lol), but lucky for him Borghi stays in to pick up Weaver on the blitz. Cal slants the two interior linemen to the weak side of the formation, then brings both linebackers to the strong side, hoping to overwhelm the left side of the offensive line. Borghi does a good job picking up the first man through, and the ball is out of Minshew’s hand before the second blitzer gets anywhere near the pocket.
Cal is playing Cover 1, so the secondary is locked up man, and that’s probably why we won’t see Cal blitz a whole lot. Their DBs against our fleet of receivers in one-on-one situations is an advantage for the good guys. Cal won’t want to leave their coverage guys on an island too often. The result will be a lot of what happened on this play: a back shoulder fade to Dezmon Patmon for a chunk of yards.
There really isn’t a specific reason (other than devil magic) why Cal seems to have the WSU offense’s number. They don’t do anything remarkably unique on defense. They simply try to keep everything in front of them, don’t allow long catch-and-runs, and force the offense to string together multiple well-executed plays in succession. Which, given the nature of college athletes and their proclivity to make mistakes, is a pretty smart gamble. Even with the “death by a thousand paper cuts” machine that is the Air Raid, if a few of those cuts don’t draw blood, it can throw the whole operation off kilter.
So the cure for the Cal affliction? Execution. Just do what we do. Play our game. Trust the process. Stay the course. Other trite coachspeak things. This is the best version of the Air Raid we have seen since Mike Leach made his way to the Palouse. And yes, I say that as a baptized parishioner of the Church of 2014 Halliday.
Unleash the offense on Cal.