Thanks as well to ATQ’s Tristan Holmes for some of the preliminary charting work on Cal.
It took Cal until week 6 to find the best quarterback on their roster, which means we have only the most recent three games’ worth of data on starter #15 QB Mendoza and the ways that his skillset has changed the offense. There’s an enormous difference, both in preferences and success rates, between Mendoza and the starter who began the year, #5 QB S. Jackson, and the backup who came in when Jackson was dinged up, #10 QB Finley.
Over all seven of the Bears’ FBS games outside garbage time, their per-play passing efficiency is underwater at 44.5% (101 successes vs 126 failures, given the down & distance), averaging 6.4 adjusted YPA with 15% of passes gaining 15+ yards. In the just the three games Mendoza has started, all those numbers are up significantly – to 54% efficiency, 7.4 YPA, and 17% explosiveness. Those stats should be taken with a grain of salt, however, since it’s not a big sample and almost half of it comes from a single very high snap count game against USC’s famously terrible defense, and he missed playing two of the three best defenses Cal has seen this year according to F+ advanced statistics.
During the time Jackson and Finley were starting, passes mainly targeted on #3 WR J. Hunter, followed by #9 WR Davis, and to a lesser extent #7 WR Hightower and #14 M. WR Young. When Mendoza took over, targets for Hightower and Young fell to almost nothing, while Hunter and Davis found themselves in an almost perfectly even four-target rotation with #87 TE Endries and #83 WR Grizzell. All four are tall, long-loping pass-catchers who favor slants and in-breaking routes over the middle or fades from inside the numbers to the sideline. Previously the route structure was far more diverse and took advantage of shiftier receiver skills, featuring a lot more out-patterns, sideline go’s, and tunnel screens.
What’s clear from watching film on the last three games is that the passing offense has become heavily reliant on play action to pull up the linebackers and clear underneath coverage, so the receivers can show their numbers to Mendoza and he can hit them with a quick, direct release instead of having to arc the ball or thread it through coverage. Happily for the Bears, most of the time defenses have obliged by biting hard on play action and giving him clear shots for a lot of chunk-yardage passing. Some examples:
(Reminder – you can use the button in the lower right corner to control playback speed)
- :00 – The pocket collapse from both sides and the ineffective pickup from the running back mean Mendoza only has a split second to find Endries over the middle in the hole of OSU’s zone coverage, but he gets it out just in time and with great placement to continue running after the catch.
- :15 – Note the downfield blocking on this shallow cross to Davis, just as it’s about to come into the same area as the back is releasing to – the play is designed for Mendoza to look in one spot only and get the pass off fast, to whichever of them is a better target, before he can get lit up by the pass rush.
- :24 – USC spent almost the entire game in cover-1, with the linebackers biting as aggressively as humanly possible on every play action fake, which is about the dumbest defensive approach I can imagine for this passing attack. The rush is winning up the middle even without their best interior d-lineman (held out in the first half due to a targeting ejection the previous week) and around the edge, but Mendoza delivers the quick slant to Grizzell, who easily outclasses USC’s bluechip nickel in press man without underneath coverage and a late, slow single high safety.
- :37 – The other screwy defensive principle from USC was to blitz the nickel from depth into the run gap whenever Cal went to a 3x1, which meant inside routes like this one to Hunter never had any underneath coverage or safety help.
One of the primary reasons Mendoza appears to be so much more effective in the job, as Rob and I discussed on the podcast, has to do with his quick release (unusual for such a long limbed QB, he has a shortened throwing motion) and courage in a collapsing pocket to hit the proper read just before he’s going to take a hit himself. I think previously OC Spavital’s progression passing system was assuming a lot more pocket time than this offensive line is capable of delivering, and simplifying it to a quick read with a QB who’s confident he can execute it in limited time before pressure gets to him has been big for the Bears.
Where defenses have most consistently found success in disrupting Mendoza’s passing attack is by breaking that sequence – taking away the quick read and getting to him before he can find the next one. Some examples:
- :00 – This RPO into a downfield pass has been a lot less effective because the protection struggles with the assignments (the center should also be flagged for IDP, but he’s not a Duck). The speed with which the blitzing linebacker gets through seems to surprise even him, and it messes with Mendoza’s throwing motion. Trail coverage is a lot more effective here.
- :06 – Cal tries out pull protection to help them sell play action against defenses that don’t automatically bite like USC does, but it’s even less effective at keeping the QB upright. This is Utah’s 3rd most effective pass rusher getting the sack, with their best getting Gatorade.
- :22 – I think the line would have held up another second or so, enough time for Mendoza to continue down his progression to find Hightower who’s breaking open for a much bigger throw on the post, but he doesn’t get past his first read to Grizzell and it gets him walloped for a short gain on 2nd & long.
- :28 – Later in the game, USC had finally figured out that they didn’t have to blitz or even rush four to get through the line, and started dropping more defenders into coverage and cooling it with the play-action bites from the backers. That really killed Cal’s passing production, just two successful downfield passes in their last three possessions compared to 17 in the rest of the game.
Despite Spavital’s background with several pass-heavy offenses, Cal has remained fairly balanced in 2023, with about a 47/53 run-pass split overall and almost perfectly 50/50 on 1st downs. They’re also excellent when rushing in short yardage and they know it, with over 90% success rates on both 2nd and 3rd & short and about 70% run frequencies in those situations. However, they just as readily abandon the run as soon as they have more than three yards to go on 3rd downs: the Bears pass over 80% of the time on 3rd & medium or long. Their success rates are awful either way – a 37% conversion rate passing on any 3rd down (restricting the dataset to Mendoza’s games doesn’t improve this figure), and zero successes at all when rushing in anything but 3rd & short.
On the season, Cal is perfectly even in rushing efficiency – 99 successes and 99 failures. Rob and I spent quite some time discussing how weird this is, and how wildly the Bears’ rushing success rates vary from game to game … and not tracking with how good the opponent’s defense is, either.
Cal’s two main backs are #1 RB Ott and #22 RB Ifanse, with the former getting about three times as many touches outside garbage time. The team as a whole is averaging 5.6 adjusted YPC on designed runs, and about 15.5% of them gain 10+ yards, which are slightly better than average numbers for a Power-5 team.
My conversation with Rob about explosive rushing caused me to dive deeper into the numbers and I found an interesting anomaly he suggested I look into. The Bears have had five truly enormous runs during meaningful play – three against North Texas and two against USC, which are the worst defenses they’ve played – and even though I cap all plays at 40 yards to control for field position effects, they’re so divergent from the rest of the rushing offense that those five plays alone create two interesting effects if they’re removed from the sample. First, doing so would bring the team’s adjusted YPC number for the season down an entire yard to 4.6, which is a below-average figure.
Second, because Ott got all five of those huge runs, they’re entirely responsible for the difference in the personal YPC averages between him and Ifanse … put another way, if a single hypothetical 40-yard run were inserted onto Ifanse’s tally, his average would be pulled up to Ott’s. That’s part of the reason I believe Ifanse has been under-utilized compared to Ott. Ifanse grades out much better in pass protection, and his individual per-play success rate is significantly higher (61% on plays he’s carrying the ball vs 49% when Ott is).
The rest of the room has been far less effective, and plagued by injury as well. Oregon transfer #21 RB Cardwell has been out the entire season, and we haven’t seen Purdue transfer #23 RB Doerue either (Rob intimated we likely won’t, and the staff just won’t make it official). Late last week, both Ott and Ifanse were apparently dinged up and held out of the game, and we saw walk-on #24 RB Stredick (who’s been the third back this year) then #25 RB J. Thomas, and #4 RB Williams-Thomas, who’d also been held out with an injury earlier and we’ve barely seen. Rob said he expected to see Ott because his name has been on team marketing for this Saturday.
Here’s a representative sample of successful rushing plays:
- :00 – I have a hard time believing that Ott is actually the 6’0” and 200 lbs he’s listed as, since he routinely pulls Hobbit acts like this.
- :07 – It’s hard to find a Cal lineman who’s winning a block on this split zone run, and the overhang backer gets a free shot, but Ifanse bounces off of him, reverses, and improvises a 1st down run on his own, one of the reasons I think he’s so valuable.
- :26 – Pitch or toss plays make up about 17% of Cal’s designed runs. I can’t tell if they check into it based on the coverage that the motion reveals but regardless it’s a great call against it, and the motion negates the alley defender.
- :34 – Cal’s outnumbered in the box here and I don’t think there’s a read, so the way they gain an advantage is with the RG blocking two guys - knocking over the DE with his butt before moving up to the second level.
And unsuccessful rushing plays:
- :00 – About 60 of Cal’s 99 failed rushing plays look exactly like this – inside zone where the interior defensive line just wins against the guards, and minimal or no linebacker assistance is necessary, and Ott just runs into the scrum to get nothing.
- :07 – It’s smarter for multiple reasons for linebackers to play patiently and conservatively – they can play the pass if it’s play-action or an RPO, they’re usually not necessary to plug holes inside, and they’re better off waiting to see if the run bounces outside because it’s no trouble to dodge these linemen attempting second-level blocks.
- :17 – I think if Mendoza were a more veteran QB he might have changed the play here, simply mirroring it by having the back run to the boundary with the TE slicing the other way would have been much more effective. When Utah lines up two extra defenders on the line the OL needs to change its assignments at the very least, but doesn’t; they don’t have enough blockers playside.
- :35 – I asked Rob about this on the podcast because it’s weird – I’ve seen Mendoza keep on several option plays, but on a lot more he’s either getting the read badly wrong or he doesn’t have the green light. This might be the most obvious keep read I’ve ever seen and he still hands off for a TFL, down seven points with three minutes left in the game, and it was the second such instance in this quarter.
This is the fifth straight year that Cal hasn’t had the personnel on their defensive line, due to recruiting shortfalls and an astounding string of injuries recounted with Rob on the podcast, to actually field the third lineman in the 3-4 defensive structure that they’re meant to be playing in. So on the vast majority of snaps this year, as in previous years, they play a 2-4-5 regardless of the offensive formation.
This article will be the tenth consecutive (and perhaps final) offseason or midseason preview in which I note that the Bears are significantly underwater in rush defense as a result of this situation, with a 44.5% defensive success rate in 2023 (85 vs 106). Their rush defense success rate falls even further when considering any down & distance situation except 2nd or 3rd & long – it’s 39.5% on 1st & 10, and about 35% on each of 2nd & short, 2nd & medium, and 3rd & short. Some examples:
- :00 – Both the OLBs get deep and are handled pretty easily, leaving four on four with the DL and ILBs since there’s no nose. That’s really just a matter of turning #91 DL Correia, who has the second lowest grades on my tally sheet, and working up to the backers.
- :07 – It’s good to finally see #90 DL B. Johnson back on the field after missing the last two seasons, but as Rob and I have lamented he’s just not back up to the same form as in 2019 and 2020, and now has the lowest grades of the regular linemen. Here he’s easily sealed in side, and starter #53 ILB Elarms-Orr overruns the play.
- :13 – The combos clear out Correia and #7 OLB Reese, then get up to the backers. Against heavier looks like this Cal will stay in their 2-4-5 structure and just bring a safety into the box, but #2 DB Woodson sticks his nose in the wrong gap and the back gets seven more yards.
- :33 – Here it’s short yardage against 12-pers, and earlier in the year they might have finally gone to a 3-4 here, but after even more injury absences we discussed on the podcast, that hasn’t been so the last two weeks. There’s a lot of guys with their fists in the dirt, but look closely and you’ll see it’s just two linemen, two OLBs, an ILB on the line, a safety on the other side, and the second ILB at depth – still a 2-4-5. They’re not able to squeeze down against the blockers to close the gap, and #42 ILB Rutchena, finally back in the lineup last week, just watches the RB run to the endzone.
While I think they’re undermanned in the front (and Rob told me on the podcast that the replacement for their best linebacker who’s now out for the season is a true freshman), I also think that they’re pretty well coached and the bodies they do have are big enough for most jobs against Pac-12 lines as long as they can maintain a regular rotation to combat fatigue. I thought one of the clear issues on film in their most recent game against USC, which went to sixteen meaningful possessions for both teams, was exhaustion in the defensive front translating into giving up more and more run plays.
But such games are rarities, and on most snaps the front slows things down enough for the DBs to kill it before it gets big, which is why Cal continues to be an above average team at limiting opponents in terms of their yardage, allowing about 4.9 adjusted YPC and just 11% to gain 10+ yards. Some examples:
- :00 – Again, Elarms-Orr is on the line to create a bear front. It’s more than ASU can block, or remember to anyway, and he gets the TFL.
- :06 – Nice job by #44 OLB Carlton, who grades out highest of any defender on my tally sheet, taking out two blockers at once on the left side of the offensive formation. He doesn’t get the tackle but he frees up #3 CB N. Williams to do so.
- :18 – Carlton beats the LT here while #98 DL Burrell is holding his own against the RT, that lets them slow play it while the unblocked #92 OLB My. Williams gets in to finish it off rather than lunging for it which might have let the RB spin out the back door.
- :25 – Last week Cal pulled an OLB and played a lot of dime against USC, which actually fared no worse against the run than their nickel, largely because if you’ve got the bodies to beat the Trojans’ OL then just a couple of them will do fine. This play takes so long to develop after #94 Saole-McKenzie works the combo that #9 DB McMorris has time to come down and bonk the LG into the back.
Pass defense is above water in terms of efficiency, at a 51% defensive success rate (94 vs 90). Cal usually plays a zone defense and it’s structured to smother the short efficiency passes that so many teams rely on to march the field, one of the reasons they’re so good against both 3rd & short passing at 66% success and 3rd & long passing at 82% - offenses just throw to the sticks in those situations, and that’s what Cal is built to beat. Some examples:
- :00 – Here’s a good overhead view of Cal’s zone defense working as intended, the QB panics because his first read is taken away and he can’t immediately find something else. He should go long on the post, but instead forces the ball outside on the scramble drill and gets picked off by #15 CB Hearns with his eyes in the backfield.
- :22 – Cal’s showing blitz, but as we described it on the podcast, this is a “vanilla bean” defense at the most exotic so they bail three backers and just bring a DB to rush four, and shut down the crosser pretty effectively rather than leaving midfield vacant on something over-aggressive.
- :32 – He got burned earlier in the game, but Elarms-Orr shows better discipline sticking with his assignment this time. No pressure until pretty late, but the QB can’t find anything and checks it down, which the defense collapses onto as designed.
- :40 – This is Cal’s best kind of defense – sitting back in zone when the offense is playing a conservative passing game on 3rd down. Watch on the replay angle how they keep everything in front of them and then shut down the short pass before it can convert, without biting on any of the threats meant to clear them out deep and open up an underneath throw.
However, as Rob and I discussed on the podcast (and several prior to this), as the group of NFL-caliber “Takers” have filtered out of the program and been replaced with later, much lower talent recruits, effective coverage of more aggressive passing has fallen dramatically. This most recent offseason the staff seemed to me to recognize the talent problem they were in and, despite returning almost everyone from last year’s secondary, took on several G5 and bottom-rung P5 transfers – most of whom have supplanted the returners. In my opinion, it hasn’t really been an upgrade, and the same somewhat paradoxical situation for Cal still obtains: the riskier and more aggressive of a throw that a QB attempts against this coverage, especially in man, the more likely it is to connect.
That’s led to one of the most unusual discrepancies I see each year on my tally sheets – passing yardage and explosiveness allowed figures that are far worse than the passing defensive success rate would predict. This year, the Bears are allowing 8.4 adjusted YPA, almost a full yard greater than their efficiency number typically carries, and more than 18.5% of passes against them gain 15+ yards, which is nearly four percentage points higher than expected. Some examples:
- :00 – The highly conservative nature of the defense leads them to give up a lot of scramble-run conversions over the years, and this seasons is no exception – as long as the QB threatens to throw the ball, the defense will always keep retreating farther and farther back onto even imaginary receivers and just let him walk for a 1st down.
- :09 – Here’s man in the redzone, and Williams is beaten badly off the switch and into the corner. Woodson is in single high, and he’s so committed to playing both sides of the field that he gives up the touchdown rather than help the only man who obviously needs it, despite the freshman QB being completely locked onto this route the whole way. Watch the third angle, the QB does nothing to look Woodson off and yet he refuses to cross the hashes until it’s too late.
- :30 – Play action sucks eight into the box, with nobody providing underneath help to the boundary, and Williams can’t cover Utah’s best receiver on his own.
- :40 – As always, the biggest vulnerability to Cal’s zone defense is the midfield hole, which they allow any receiver to run into unopposed. The TE might as well be invisible to the backers, nickel, and safety until the ball is caught.
The outcome of this “bend and then break” defense, as one wag put it, is that 51% of all yards Cal has surrendered during meaningful play have come on just 10% of defensive plays. Offenses are well advised to schedule shot plays on 2nd and short, as Cal is defending the pass at an atrocious 12.5% success rate in that situation. What’s astonishing to see is how often Cal surrenders not just chunk yardage but truly enormous gains – in raw stats, they give up:
- 20+ yd plays: 4.63 per game, 81st nationally
- 30+ yd plays: 2.50 per game, 101st nationally
- 40+ yd plays: 1.38 per game, 102nd nationally
- 50+ yd plays: 1.00 per game, 125th nationally
What that breaks down to is that any given Cal opponent can expect to get one 50+ yard play, one between 30-39, two 20-29 yarders, and a good shot at one more somewhere between 20-49. I pulled up every one of the 30+ yard plays Cal surrendered this year and watched them again, and it was clear what they all had in common – footspeed in the secondary just isn’t adequate to run guys down once they’ve created separation. Here’s a sample which I trust needs no narration: