Special thanks to Rob Hwang of the California Golden Bearcast. He joined me on this week’s episode of the Quack 12 Podcast to break down what it felt like to lose to a rival, the state of the Golden Bear roster, and the playcalling of a legendary former Oregon quarterback. Listen HERE!
The installation of the new offense under OC Musgrave has been slow going this season at Cal - they’re in the bottom three of the league in all major statistical categories, including last place in total yards per game and second-to-last in points per game. I think it would have been challenging to install such a complex, QB-driven West Coast offense for a first-time college coordinator in the best of years, and the pandemic-shortened practice time clearly hasn’t helped.
As I pointed out in the offseason, the high percentage of Cal’s returning production from 2019 — the quarterback, entire offensive line, and all but one of the skill players came back — belied that their absolute production had to look up to see mediocre. What gave fans hope that those numbers were misleading was that #7 QB Garbers, who was injured midseason in 2019 but returned at the end, went undefeated in all full games that he played, and showed a lot of progress as a passer after an absurd 2018. Space does not permit a full recounting of Garbers’ up-and-down time in Berkeley; suffice it to say that if he could consistently play at the level he sometimes showed in previous seasons, that hope was justified.
It hasn’t come to be, however - the Golden Bears are badly underwater in their passing offense, with 49 successful dropbacks vs 63 failed ones this year, or 44%, given the down & distance on each play. I attribute much of that to problems with the new scheme, an underperforming and short-handed offensive line, and receiver talent that’s not getting a lot of separation, but a good deal falls on Garbers as well. His footwork is still pretty slow and he doesn’t turn and point his hips properly when he throws, resulting in a lot of inaccuracy: his 120.1 passer rating is 79th out of 90 national QBs with enough passes to track, and the second worst in the league of QBs who’ve played at least three games. Further evidence of problems in his throwing motion is his astonishing split in efficacy between throwing to his left vs his right - that happens with right-handed passers who can throw well across their bodies with open hips, but can’t at all to their dominant side.
What’s more, the offensive line isn’t giving Garbers the protection he needs for an offense like this, and plays frequently break down … or Garbers thinks they’re going to, anyway, and takes off early and often counterproductively. Due to contact tracing and an injury, Cal has had to play 10 different linemen over their last three games. Interestingly, however — and Cal fans can take this as a good sign or a bad one — there’s no real dropoff in performance by the backups compared to the starters on my tally sheet, and other than the above-replacement value that starter #74 LT Craig brings, I don’t think unavailabilities will really matter here. Coach Wilcox has indicated they’ll be at full strength against Oregon.
Because an inordinate amount of passing plays result in a sack, scramble, or throwaway — 30%, which is an outrageous number for a Power-5 team — it makes sense to separate out their broken plays from their throws from the pocket. At the latter they’re a little better than the global average, 36 successes vs 42 failures, or 46%. Here’s a representative sample:
- :00 - With just a three-man rush Garbers has time to set his feet, and knowing he’s got zone defense from the WR motion means he just has to place this ball where only his receiver has a shot. This ball is crisp, accurate, and shows off what he can do at his best … to his left, naturally.
- :19 - I see this type of playcall a lot out of this offense, a bunch of short hitches to make it easy for the QB to make a quick choice for sure, if modest, yardage. But just as often I see decisions like this - there are two ILBs to cover the No. 3 receiver so of course the nickel is going to stay in his zone and make a break on the ball going to the No. 2, nearly resulting in a pick.
- :25 - This blitz is picked up despite almost entirely backup linemen with the help of the TE (6- and 7-man protections are the norm), but Garbers is still throwing off his back foot, and he just doesn’t have the consistent accuracy to drop the ball into the window against the sideline.
- :31 - Rollouts from play-action are common in this offense, taking advantage of the defense clustering in the middle against heavy-run looks, and this was the most on-target throw I saw Garbers make on the hoof.
Scrambling is simultaneously the best and worst thing that Garbers does for this offense. Their efficiency rate on broken dropbacks — 13 success vs 21 failures, or 38% — drags down their average, but on a lot of plays scrambling really is their best option, and Garbers is eager to take it:
- :00 - Cal is by far the most effective scrambling out of empty sets like this one, in which the whole defense clears out into coverage, and Garbers is usually faster than the ILB left to eye him.
- :20 - The gap opens to his right so that’s where he goes, but this time it’s to the boundary and he doesn’t have enough room to get upfield for a positive gain.
- :39 - I really hate this play, four hitches on 3rd down when they know it’s zone coverage from the incredibly long receiver (actually the RB) motion who then becomes a fifth target six yards behind the line. Garbers bounces through his progression, immediately finds there’s no outlet because of course there’s not, and takes off uselessly.
As alluded to above, Cal has very strong and obvious tendencies from their formations and personnel groups. They’re heavily biased to run when under-center (either in the i-formation or without a fullback) or with multiple TEs, and they’re just as biased to pass when in the shotgun with an offset back or in an empty set. The most intriguing thing about this offense is that they’re far more effective when playing against type - their most effective rush plays come out of the shotgun, and their most effective passes are play-action from the i-formation, although their broken dropback rate is at its highest when they’re under-center with multiple TEs. Ultimately the Bears’ strongest tendency is that they’re simply ineffective if they can’t surprise the defense.
Most of Cal’s problems can be traced to failures on 1st downs, where they’re fairly balanced between run and pass but equally underwater at both. That means they’re in short-yardage situations pretty rarely, only about 20% of the time on 2nd or 3rd down, and conversely about half of 2nd and 3rd downs are in long-yardage situations in which their playcalling becomes obvious … and per above, when it’s obvious it’s unsuccessful.
All of which is to say that I think problems with other aspects of the offense mask how effective their run game is: it’s also underwater at 34 success vs 36 failures, or 49%, though that’s better than the offense as a whole, and it’s particularly effective in medium-yardage situations when their playcalling tendencies are most obscure - 77% rush effectiveness in 2nd & 5-7 or 3rd & 4-6.
Cal has a great room full of powerful backs and they’re willing to commit to the run to set up the pass, but they’re limited by some below-average line play. Some examples:
- :00 - Here’s the i-formation with two TEs, so 8 blockers vs matched box personnel from the defense. In heavy vs heavy situations, Cal tends to lose badly.
- :13 - Another full box, with the playside linemen and tight ends not doing much to control the defenders, and the pulling guard and fullback wind up blocking the same guy so the DB is a free-hitter. But #23 RB Dancy is strong enough to get through two tackles for positive yardage - almost 40% of all successful runs by Cal are coded “YACO” like this on my tally sheet - yards after contact are the only thing that turns it from a failure into a win.
- :21 - I like the old-school gap schemes in this offense, but the reverse angle on this play is a clear illustration of why they often fail: the backup RT isn’t controlling his man at all, so the back can’t make it through the leftside B-gap between the tackle and guard that the pulling center is leading him through. That forces him to bounce outside, where the WRs are blocking with inside leverage (since this is supposed to be an inside run) and so the DBs string him out to the sideline. There’s a narrow window for Dancy to cut upfield outside the tackle before the ILB gets there, but I don’t think he has a quick enough burst for improvised plays like that.
- :37 - Oregon fans should recognize this split-zone play with the H-back slicing under the line. It’s pretty nicely blocked, probably because it’s against tendency - the personnel, formation, and situation read pass.
The biggest limiting factor in Cal’s defensive performance is how much injuries, opt-outs, and other unavailabilities have devastated their front. As Rob put it on the podcast, “the depth across the entire front-seven has been atrocious.”
Their DBs remain solid in pass coverage and the team is second in the league in passing yards surrendered per game, but they’re seventh in rushing yards surrendered and underwater in per-play efficiency, with 39 successes vs 45 failures, or 46%, defending opponent run plays.
The Bears have been pretty good at limiting chunk-yardage rushes, with only 5 of those 84 runs going for 10+ yards, but they just can’t stop efficiency runs and are terrible in short-yardage, stopping only 8 of 28 rushes with fewer than 5 yards to go. It was also pretty clear by the second half of their last game against Stanford that their front is getting exhausted by its inability to rotate lineman - they were playing the same three guys on every single snap, #90 DT B. Johnson, #44 DE Z. Johnson, and #47 DE Tevis, and while I especially like the first Johnson (easily identified by the hair coming out his helmet), they were getting blown off the ball on Stanford’s final three drives which lasted 9, 9, and 6 plays.
Here’s a representative sample of Cal’s run defenses:
- :00 - Great rep by the long-haired Johnson controlling both gaps on either side of the RT, then leaning out into the lane and wrapping up the back. Tevis is playing over the center (they still don’t have a true nose guard available) and does a pretty decent job controlling him as well.
- :15 - Cal’s secondary is a big part of why they’re not allowing explosive runs, they’re pretty effective tacklers and know how to maintain the edge on outside runs like this one.
- :24 - The Bears simply don’t have the available personnel to really field a heavy box, and their solution has been to bring an ILB down onto the line and add a third one at depth - I’m not wild about Cal’s ILB corps as backers, much less as front-line run stoppers. The push that the o-line is getting here is incredible, it’s reset 5 yards into the defensive backfield before the back is touched.
- :30 - It’s getting late in the game and it’s pretty clear from Cal’s body language that they’re out of gas.
Coach Wilcox announced some good news for their front this week, particularly that #54 ILB Tattersall and #52 OLB Croteau are expected to return to play, although I think they have better options at those positions. The intriguing thing is if either #58 DT McKenzie or #91 DT Correia can play, as they would be needed relief and substantially more size on the line, although as they’re both true freshman we’ve never seen it.
It’s harder to throw on Cal’s defense, though I think that the DBs are much stronger than the ILBs in coverage and that there are a couple points of vulnerability schematically. They’ve been successful on 43 opponent dropbacks vs 45 failures, or 49%. Explosive play defense has been good but not great - they’ve given up 12 plays for 15+ yards, and six of those were for 20+ yards. The pass rush has been surprisingly good given how depleted they are, with about 18% of dropbacks ending in a sack, scramble, or throwaway (though a large portion of those sacks were against Stanford, and I think their QB is unusually prone to giving them up). Some examples:
- :00 - Great speed breaking on the ball with a lot of ground to cover by #20 CB Drayden, and #24 CB Bynum is well positioned to break up the pass from behind as well. Cal plays a fairly soft zone coverage most of the time and it takes a lot of DB skill as shown here to keep hot-armed QBs like this one from picking it apart.
- :21 - This looks like a zone exchange error, between the two Cal DBs who grade out the lowest (though that’s not saying much) on my tally sheet. My guess is that the outside CB should be dropping to the deep third with the split-out TE while the inside DB is late to come down on the of the slot man going to the sideline. It’s followed by a whiff by the otherwise reliable #3 DB Hicks in tackling.
- :32 - The DB is blitzing and so the ILBs are responsible for the back and the TE on the offense’s right. Both take the back. Errors in linebacker play like this one are distressingly common; #55 ILB Iosefa was thrown into action by an injury to the starter Tattersall for the last two weeks, and is a true freshman. #8 ILB Deng is not.
- :42 - Pretty clearly a coverage sack - Cal blitzes very rarely and almost always drops seven into coverage like this, and if the routes don’t stretch the field (like this unappealing 3-hitch pattern) they can blanket them pretty well and give the front time to get home.
What interests me most about Cal’s defensive structure is that they almost never change it. It’s a 3-3-5 on virtually every snap, mostly cover-3, few blitzes or even fire zone with dropping a backer, and almost no stunts or twists at the line. They swapped their playcaller this year to co-DC Sirmon from co-DC DeRuyter, but I’m seeing pretty much the same structure as they’ve employed since 2017. After that much film study I’ve picked out a couple of ways that their defensive keys can be read to find openings in the coverage.
These plays are illustrative, not representative:
- :00 - Per above, blitzing with man coverage is rare for Cal, but it’s most likely when the offense is behind the chains like this. Pre-snap motion will make the coverage obvious and by extension give away that the blitz is coming … the perfect opportunity for a tunnel screen.
- :23 - The classic weakness in cover-3 is the middle hole. Here, Hicks’ keys tell him to drop deep when he’s attacked underneath and pass off the crosser to Deng, because he’s worried about a drag route going behind him with Drayden occupied by the outside receiver. But the crosser stops just as Hicks is dropping and before Deng can come over, and the QB has easy access. (Thanks to berk18 for breaking this one down with me.)
- :31 - In last year’s in-season preview of Cal, I pointed out a structural weakness when they try to defend trips to the boundary with just 2 over 3. The complementary problem to the field is that, while they’ll have 4 over 3, it’s a huge open space between the ILB and high safety. Unless the ILB reads it pre-snap and starts widening fast, it leaves them open to perimeter screens.
- :39 - Here’s the payoff to the above play’s setup, with the same offensive and defensive formations. Hicks has been burned before so he comes down hard on the No. 3 receiver going out for a screen pass again. That leaves #26 DB Woodson one-on-one with a much bigger receiver.