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Inside The Drive: Examining Cal's rush defense

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Cal has had difficulty stopping the run, highlighted specifically in Washington's first scoring drive.

sub-optimal tackling
sub-optimal tackling
Stephen Brashear/Getty Images

With the bye week in the rear view, we're gonna use the space of this normally retrospective post to look forward to an aspect of Cal's defense that could have a huge impact on the game. Every attention will be payed to Air Raid vs. Bear Raid heading into this game, but it might be on the ground where WSU finds some explosive plays.

The Bears' rush defense ranks 114th in S&P+, having surrendered nine TDs on the ground and giving up 4.34 yards per rush. The Cal defense itself has played a very bendable style, allowing a Success Rate that ranks 107th in the nation. It's a breakable style, too -- they have yet to keep a team that reaches the red zone from scoring.

Let's look at a Washington drive against the Bears that went 71 yards on five plays. All. On. The. Ground. (Gasp).

Clock: Q1, 3:12
Spot: UW 29, 1st-and-10
Offensive personnel: 11 personnel, Doubles Right
Play: Rush right for 12 yards

CalUW1

UW opens the drive with a running back next to the QB in shotgun and a TE offset in the backfield. Cal will set up in a 4-2-5 they deployed for most of the game.

The Huskies don't really get any kind of push on this play, but do effectively double down on both of Cal's tackles. The Bear left DE was free on the play, but chose to scrape down the line, abandoning contain, before he was blocked by the pulling TE coming across the formation. The RB makes a good read at the line and bounces it.

The WRs up top deke a screen and bait Cal's Nickel into running up, leaving the safety one-on-one with the RB, who then promptly takes a bad angle and can't make the play. The corner didn't pay enough mind to the screen fake to get out of position and drifts in to make the tackle.

Clock: Q1, 2:49
Spot: UW 41, 1st-and-10
Offensive personnel: 12 personnel, 2 TE Right, Twins Left
Play: Rush right for 3 yards

CalUW2

UW is essentially in a Slot Right formation with stacked receivers to the left, using a second TE as a fullback. Bringing the TE into the backfield brought both the corner and safety from that side of the field to the edge of the box. The Huskies pull a backside guard who does little more than clog the hole created by the playside guard getting out to second level.

The playside tackle locks up Cal's DE and gets good position, and the TE in the backfield blasts the corner out of the way, creating just enough room to eek out a couple yards before the shallow safety fills.

Clock: Q1, 2:20
Spot: UW 44, 2nd-and-7
Offensive personnel: 11 personnel, Doubles Left
Play: Rush middle for 15 yards

CalUW3

UW runs the same play as Play 1 of this drive, but to the other side and motioned the RB from Pistol to off-set before the snap. Playside guard gets a good combo block on Cal's left DT then stands up the LB looking to fill. The other LB, No. 22,  sat in what looks like a massive cut-back lane. He drifts to his B gap, then just kinda looks around and watches things happen, only noticing the RB was through the hole a few steps too late.

Clock: Q1, 1:55
Spot: Cal 41, 1st-and-10
Offensive personnel: 11 personnel, Empty 4 WRs left, Motion to Trips Left
Play: Rush right for 27 yards

CalUW4

UW has a nice little inside zone scheme against the Bears that was really set up by formation movement. UW RB No. 12 starts as the fourth receiver on the near side, then motions into the backfield. Cal rolled coverage, like you should, and the LB was a little late getting back into the box following the motion, where UW has a numbers advantage. The center forgot to come off his double and pick up the LB that filled A gap from the backside, so the RB bounced right. The playside LB filled and got caught up in the wash.

If the backside LB was in position at the snap and reads it with the same speed, he likely blows this up in the backfield. The corner got his butt kicked by the tight end and No. 12 is off to the races.

Clock: Q1, 1:37
Spot: Cal 19, 1st-and-10
Offensive personnel: 10 personnel, Ace 
Play: Rush middle for TD

CalUW5

Despite the previous four rush attempts and UW's QB struggling, Cal decides playing three DBs on two WRs is preferable to having anyone between the hashes at second-level in the red zone. Coach Petersen is known for formation adjustments that create match-up advantages, convincing Cal only one defender in the middle of the field is a good idea is pretty solid evidence of that. The center whips the DT in front of him, the playside guard gets out in the face of the only linebacker capable of making a play, who then misses a tackle colliding with his safety giving chase.

You would think UW would just keep pounding Cal inside with the success they had on this one drive. The first play of their next possession on offense was a fly sweep that was dropped for loss of six yards, a decently blocked rush attempt to a different RB that got hung up after three yards, then their QB was hit while throwing for a fumble, recovered by Cal.

The Husky RB (No. 12, Dwayne Washington) had five carries on this one, highly successful drive, and only five more all game. He averaged 10.9 yards per carry.

***

The Bears have an improved secondary this year, it would be really difficult for that unit to have not gotten any better, but it's still far from spectacular and hasn't really been tested by any quality passing threat. The linebackers didn't look sharp against Washington at all, who was using relatively straight-forward blocking schemes the entire time.

I would put Wazzu's OL toward the top of the PAC-12, and they are significantly more polished on the interior in their zone running concepts than UW showed. If those backers are late to fill and the Cougs can get decent push on the defensive line, WSU's Gerard Wicks and Keith Harrington could have a real opportunity to gash Cal's 4-2-5 defense.

***

BONUS!

Utah took another whack at the dead horse in Autzen last Saturday when they housed a trick punt return up 48-13 on the Ducks. The next day, Seahawks fans watched Richard Sherman use the same tactic to bring a return into the red zone. Here's the generic concept for that play, which is really pretty simple.

FakePuntReturn

The return team will set up in what looks like return left. You can have an extra lineman, or two defenders on the right side gunner too, it doesn't matter for these purposes -- it totally depends on personnel. That goes for punt formation too, it can be anything on the interior, as long as they have two gunners -- which are the guys out wide -- this should work.

It's not abnormal for a return team to use two defenders against the gunner, it's actually fairly common. Especially on the backside of the return (or on a guy who's exceptionally fast) where there won't be any chance of big bodies getting in the way.

The two on the backside in the graphic above allow themselves to get beat. Sometimes they'll get a jam in and let the guy think he's won, but mostly they'll just half-ass their coverage and the gunner thinks he's an all-star for a few seconds. The inside defender floats back to where the punt is actually tracking, while the outside defender plays chase for a few steps before peeling off and becoming a lead blocker.

The interior guys all play like return left, with one or two on the right side intentionally letting defenders past them and becoming lead blockers themselves.

Gunners don't look at the ball, they target the return man and try to time blowing him up on the catch. The big guys on the kicking team follow suit, with one or two specifically tasked with destroying whatever wall the return team wants to set. If the return team is walling left, that's where the targeting guides the human bombs.

The return man drifts left, maybe falls down, maybe it goes over his head, maybe he plays like he misread a short kick, whatever it is, he thanks The Academy when he's done.

You try to have the snapper or punter -- somebody -- yell "right", "left", "middle" at the kick, which are often planned directional kicks in the huddle to begin with, but yanno...college kickers. That's a fairly difficult thing to effectively communicate to a whole team during a play and kinda falls under that "minutia" label that isn't extremely important until it really, really is.

Football is a copycat sport. With the popularity of this trick play, don't be surprised to see someone else try to pull it off this season. As if you needed another reason to be terrified of punt coverage. Just pay attention to how they defend the gunners. Are they using 2-on-1 frequently? Did one of them lollygag off away from the play like your kid in Pee-Wee football....

I just imagine the punter's heart sinking as he watches the play develop; screaming in vain as his herd of troops stampede in the wrong direction, each second of hangtime he's worked so hard on perfecting spent maturing the increasingly horrifying prospect that he's the only person that's gonna be able to keep this thing from being housed.

[Editor's Note: Sorry for making you look at UW doing good things.]