Cal is probably the biggest mystery team remaining in the Pac-12. They’ve only played three games, one against a bad UNC team missing its starting QB, another against an FCS team that started and ended ugly, and a road win against a BYU which is also quite a mystery as no one is quite sure how the Cougars beat Wisconsin. I’m therefore left to cobble together conclusions from incomplete data, and I feel less confident in my judgments about Cal than I was about Stanford or will be for any of the remaining games on Oregon’s schedule. My process was to fully chart the Cal-BYU game, then take the observations from that game and look for any contradictory data from the other two (there wasn’t), then try to gauge BYU by watching their game against Wisconsin; so most of this film study will be of the game in Provo but with other observations as context.
I share the prevailing sentiment that Cal’s offense is not the strength of the team, but I disagree with many observers who think the problem is a quarterback controversy. They have at this point benched their starter from last year, #3 QB Bowers, preferring redshirt freshman #7 QB Garbers, who plays a similar game, albeit with more athletic talent and less experience. They also use #5 QB McIlwain for wildcat packages, but these aren’t occasional, as he was in for about 30% of snaps against BYU and Idaho St. I think both are effective in their own ways and the rotation between the two isn’t hurting the offense. This appears to be a well coached unit that’s simply lacking an abundance of talent and has no game-changing playmakers.
Other than those wildcat packages (which I’ll get to in a bit), this offense reminds me quite a bit of Oregon’s circa 2008-09, in that there are some spread and zone-read concepts and an attempt to build in explosive rushing (reminder - you can right-click or long-press any of these videos and play them at ¼ or ½ speed):
The first play is a classic inside zone read with an unblocked defensive end, with 2017’s leading rusher #28 RB Laird taking it up the middle as the backer is cleared out pursuing the RPO pass option to the TE … also credit the LT for recognizing the corner blitz. On the second play (at :07), we see another IZR but with the QB pulling the ball … both the LG and H-back whiff badly on the backer, but Garbers is gifted enough athletically to outrun and break a few tackles. On the third play (at :22), Laird runs the ball off-tackle on a power-blocked rush with a pulling guard, but again I believe there is a read element on the backside. On the last play (at :28), Cal is in a pro-set and I believe this is a midline read of the MIKE; none of the outside blocks are great but #10 WR Hawkins is fast enough to make BYU pay for their overpursuit angles.
But ultimately Cal’s non-wildcat rushing offense was pretty anemic, partly because they just weren’t running that often (such plays were only about 20% of all snaps), and partly because of plays like these:
On the first play, the o-line simply isn’t opening any holes against BYU’s front four (something Wisconsin was able to do more reliably), and Laird doesn’t try to bounce outside but rather relies on his size to try and push for a yard. On the second play (at :11), the pro-set read is disrupted behind the line because Laird can’t make his block. The third play (at :21) is an attempt at fancier zone-blocking in a pin & pull, but it’s clear Cal’s o-line doesn’t have the legs for it. The broadcast cut out the snap of the last play (at :26), but I decided to use it anyway as it’s the best illustration of the limits of outside running in this offense - the WRs just aren’t that effective at blocking the secondary (another thing Wisconsin didn’t have much trouble with against BYU).
After 2.25 games’ worth of surprisingly low rushing production from Laird, Cal started mixing in quite a bit more of #29 RB Dancy against Idaho St. The film of that game is of poor quality so I won’t include any here, but I should note here that Dancy carries the ball awfully low against his hip and I think it’s a fumble risk.
Garbers’ doesn’t do a ton of downfield passing, but he has a decent arm and some good receiving options:
The first play highlights I think Cal’s most talented (but weirdly under-utilized) receiver, the grad transfer from Michigan #18 WR Ways … he’s got the press-man CB beat 2 yards into his route and elevates perfectly to high point the ball and get a toe in before going out of bounds. The second play (at :13) shows Laird in his strangely more effective role in 2018, as he slips through the line on a post route and turns the hapless linebacker around. The third play (at :36) is a pretty basic switch route to #9 WR Noa, who’s uncontested due to poor safety play. On the last play (at :55), I think Garbers has overthrown this ball a bit, but #2 WR Duncan makes an impressive catch and toe tap (actually, I think he came down slightly out of bounds, but to Coach Wilcox’s credit they snap the ball very quickly on the next play before replay can get involved).
Most of Garbers’ passing plays, however, looked more like these:
On the first play, Garbers does a nice job ducking out of a sack, but #17 WR Wharton isn’t coming back to the ball enough to box out despite having a few yards to give ahead of the sticks, and I don’t understand why Cal’s RG is doubling the 2i when BYU is obviously showing blitz instead of taking the defensive end and preventing the pressure in the first place. The second play (at :23) is a good illustration of Garbers’ strengths and weaknesses - he’s athletic enough to escape pressure again and throw the ball away, but given the game situation a savvier QB would have run or taken a knee to keep the clock moving and forced BYU to use its final timeout. The third play (at :35) is also emblematic - the hard count baits the defense into jumping offsides and the QB is well coached enough to take a deep shot on his free play, but it’s airballed to #83 TE Bunting because of pressure coming from poor blocking on the right side of the line (who hadn’t jumped). The last play (at :47) looks like a miscommunication to me, where Garbers thinks Laird is coming back for the ball, but even if he had the backer is already breaking on the pass before it’s released and probably would have broken this up anyway.
Cal throws outside screens much more often than Oregon’s previous opponents in 2018, but they’re a pretty mixed bag:
The first play is set up well and gets a good gain, but only two of the three blockers get the job done. On the second play, (at :07), a long windup for an easy throw telegraphs the play and some lousy outside blocking results in a hard hit and a fumble. The third play (at :45) adds an end-around component and Noa maintains his block better, but Wharton gets flagged for a hold on his (BYU’s safety is also bailing way too far out and hesitating when he finally comes up). The last play (at 1:05) shows the limitation on these long horizontal passes, as Garbers can’t deliver an accurate ball and only a heroic effort by Noa picks up the 3 yards for a 1st down.
Finally, Cal’s wildcat package with McIlwain, which they’d usually start out in short yardage situations:
I won’t annotate these as they speak for themselves: he’s a pretty powerful runner and the benefit is Cal gets an extra blocker, frequently #99 FB McMorris who’s an impressive sight but a little too slow to make a game-changing impact.
But what really makes it work is that after Mcilwain picks up the first down running, they’ll often keep him in and give him a fuller playbook, which includes his strong throwing arm. BYU was often baffled that this formation wasn’t just a one-trick gimmick:
On the first play, the defense has loaded the box and just forgets to defend the slot … if this throw had let Noa catch it in stride it could have gone even bigger. The second play (at: 07) shows that McIlwain has the accuracy and patience to make a tricky throw into coverage. The last play (at :15) shows his Tebow-esque rock step, which is this formation’s version of play action to get the linebackers to come up, then rolls out and really rockets the ball into a poor reporter on the sideline.
I’m fairly impressed with Cal’s front seven in their 4-3 defense. This was a bigger, more physical group than I’m used to seeing from Cal over the last decade. Probably the most telling stat is that they limited BYU to just 91 rushing yards, which the Cougars more than doubled the next week vs Wisconsin.
Even though we have some sample size issues, I’m reasonably certain Cal’s rush defense is the real deal, both because of that front seven and remarkably fast safeties shutting down outside runs:
On the first play, the defense isn’t even really ready for the snap, but the #6 S Hawkins and #24 CB Bynum on the outside to shut down the quick snap outside power toss. On the second play (at :06), #59 LB Kunasyzk keeps up with the sweep, and #3 CB Hicks make the tackle by quickly getting off his block (which is thrown by BYU’s QB lined up as a wideout … actually, this is a pretty weird play). On the third play (at :13), #96 DE Paul’s push into the backfield is so quick that it screws with the RG pulling across the formation and the back bounces right off of him, and #27 S Davis is fast enough in cleanup that the WR can’t block him. On the last play (at :22), Cal does what Wisconsin couldn’t and gets Paul into the backfield to disrupt the outside run.
I noticed three recurring weaknesses in Cal’s rushing defense, however:
On the first play, Cal knows that a short-yardage pile push is coming, but can’t get enough oomph to throw it back (this was one of seven failed short rushing defenses against BYU). On the second play (at :10), Paul and #89 LB Weaver are the only men left after the rest of the front seven is washed out but they’re too slow to catch the back, meanwhile the DB correctly gets into run support but attempts a comically poor ankle tackle and gets bounded over. On the third play (at :25), #36 LB Funches doesn’t set the edge and there’s no one behind him on the contain assignment - Weaver has to dive for him and get dragged four yards. On the last play (at :30), Cal simply doesn’t have enough defenders strongside as they’re anticipating the sweep, and gets cleaned out by the TEs and pulling guard - had the back bounced to the sideline instead of inside to Weaver he’d have a touchdown (there were five other examples of this schematic problem I spotted in this game, and almost this exact play but run out of the pistol is a prominent part of Oregon’s playbook).
The aspect of Cal’s team I’m least certain about is their passing defense. They have very good looking stats and their opponents didn’t try to throw deep on them very often, but the nature of the camera angles in football broadcasts is that I can’t tell if that’s because of great coverage, and there is reason to believe that their opponents so far just hadn’t made that a big part of their gameplan until they get into desperation mode and start throwing wild balls.
Cal has some impressive pass defenses when the pass rush gets home:
I trust these don’t need explanation - the QB is hurried or sacked and the coverage does a great job breaking it up or picking it off. The trouble is, in two games against FBS opponents these four are pretty much the only plays I saw Cal get any pressure rushing only four, or even five. Otherwise, in order to make the QB even slightly uncomfortable they need to bring all the linebackers.
And that’s a problem, because Cal’s linebackers are heavily used in their pass defense, and I think this is one of their weak spots:
The first play shows how Cal defends both TEs releasing, by sending the backers downfield with them and leaving the entire middle of the field empty for either a checkdown pass to the RB or a QB scramble (both of which we know Oregon likes a lot, and Justin Herbert isn’t a 25-year-old who runs like a wind-up toy). On the second play (at :08), Kunasyzk has coverage on the TE’s slant route, but he’s got so much mass it’s hard for him to get started and is well behind him whole way. The third play (at :26) is another crosser, but Kunasyzk and Weaver don’t hand off responsibilities for the TE and the RB running his hot route and almost rub each other out of coverage of either. On the last play (at :39), this time it’s Weaver who’s too slow to change direction and maintain coverage.
But what makes it really hard to assess how good Cal’s pass defense really is should be a problem familiar to Oregon fans by now - a whole lot of drops:
On each of these, we’re seeing similar things - a clean pocket because Cal isn’t getting pressure when they send fewer than six, and a catchable though certainly not perfect pass get mishandled by the receiver. Every 15+ yard pass I’ve got in the BYU game looks like one of these, but again, it’s hard to know what to make of that.
I think if Oregon hits some deep passes early on Saturday, this could be a pretty long night for Cal as I don’t think they have the offense to play from behind - they’re 2-7 under Wilcox in games where at some point they trailed by 7 or more. On the other hand, they lead the Power-5 in interceptions (and that’s with only three games), and if they’re as good as they appear at pass defense they could put Oregon’s defense in some pretty dire straits.