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Film Study: Cal Bears

Getting it done (mostly) on 3rd down

NCAA Football: Washington at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

As we cruise into the bye week, we take a look at some key plays from last week’s win over Cal.

The offense was good, but had some hiccups, especially early on. The defense was improved, with Mishael Powell being a welcome site, and clearly the best corner the Huskies have on the roster.

We analyze four 3rd down plays that made a big difference in the game, with the Dawgs getting in the endzone on two very critical 3rd down conversions in the second half.

To the film:


3rd and 6

We’ve been spoiled all year with the offense firing on all cylinders and the execution looking real crisp, at least at home. Execution has been a little more problematic on the road, and Cal was able to keep us out of the end zone for the whole first half, a first for us this season. Cal’s defense focused on eliminating explosive plays, and when you can’t get explosive plays, poor execution can really bite the offense. Here on the last 3rd down play of our first series we got a perfect example.

Lined up in an 11 personnel wing trey formation with the trips into the boundary, Grubb calls an RPO. We say that its an RPO because of what the skill players on the perimeter are running, but that’s just an assumption. Assuming that it is an RPO, this particular RPO is a variation of one of his favorites, and we’ve broken down a version of it previously on Film Study. The concept pairs an inside zone run with a TE screen to the boundary flat and an option route from the single side WR. Some times we’ve seen the TE flat screen used as a decoy and some times its the primary pass read.

On this play, we call the run towards the strong side, and because of the mechanics of the QB/RB mesh, Penix opens up away from the screen. This means that Rome’s route should’ve been the primary pass read. The problem here is that there seems to be a miscommunication and Rome is blocking instead of running a route. That’s perfectly fine if the run was being run to his side, but given Penix’s frustrated look after getting tackled in the backfield, we can assume he was expecting to be able to throw to Rome. It’s not a mistake that we see from Rome very often, but it was definitely something that could’ve been a key play had our defense not played better on the road than in weeks past.


3rd and 7

Flipping to the other side of the ball, we get a good look at our resurgent pass rush. Defensive pressure on Plummer was a huge factor throughout the game. Some of it was better individual performances, some was scheme, and some was due to Plummer being a more statuesque passer. This play shows a little bit of everything.

Here on 3rd & 7, Cal lines up in a basic trips formation and we match with our dime package (4-1-6) in a 2-high shell (tough to tell on the broadcast angle, but they’re there) with a lot of bodies on the LOS. Inge & Morrell are digging into their bag of tricks to generate simulated pressure in this passing situation with a zone blitz. With Turner on the LOS over the #3 WR, Powell on the LOS over the tight #1 WR on the boundary), and the 5 box defenders all on the LOS, there are 7 potential pass rushers against Cal’s 6 potential blockers. In these situations, the offense typically slides their entire protection in one direction to help the QB identify where his pressure might be coming from if they can’t block any one.

Ideally, our alignment would’ve encouraged Cal to slide the protection towards ZTF, who is dropping into coverage on the zone blitz, so that we can get more 1v1s on the backside of the slide without needing to commit all 7 defenders to the rush. However, Cal correctly identifies Turner as a blitzer based on Hampton’s alignment directly over Turner (a dead give away that there’s a slot blitz coming). This brings the RB over to block Turner, and the OL can focus on the three remaining DL that are rushing.

While the schematic trick didn’t work perfectly, it still set up a 1v1 between the RB and Turner that flushed Plummer towards the sideline. That subtle movement changed Jeremiah Martin’s pass rush angle and he was able to slip away from the RT’s block to force the throw away. Also, credit Powell with a nice jam on his man at the LOS. He’s a physical player.

Great play all-around.


3rd and 10

Next up, we have our favorite play design of the Cal game. While Cal has been known to have a well-coached defense, this play design really seemed to have confused them. As we’ve discussed throughout this season, Grubb loves to attack defenses with “edge conditions” and their adjustments (or lack of adjustment) to unusual situations. Following the 80/20 rule, all schemes are designed to account for the things that they will see most frequently. In our era of spread pass-heavy offenses, defenses are designed to maintain numbers advantages in space, so when an offense moves away from space.

Cal’s defense is much like ours where they set their alignments based on the field/boundary rule. Their nickel DB is always set tot he field, much like our Husky. This is because offenses usually have two or more receivers towards the field, and in order to maintain the coverage advantage in all the space towards the field, the defense needs to leave the NB there. However, on this play, Grubb calls an FIB (formation into boundary). This is when we put our receiving numbers into the boundary. Without some sort of defensive adjustment, the defense’s alignment and coverage numbers are all screwed up. Not only did they not shift their alignments, they also were playing out of a 2-high shell. In effect, this left them with 3 DBs covering our one WR to the field, and we have a 4v4 to the boundary (including the RB in this because he’s to the boundary), and that is only if you are including Cal’s DE/OLB, LB, Safety, and CB in the mix to cover our receiving threats.

Knowing that Cal’s defense is not lined up to account for everyone in man coverage, Grubb calls a nifty version of 4 Verts here that attacks the weaknesses in their zone. Using short motion to bring McMillan into the #3 spot in a tight bunch formation, we use Westover and Polk to draw the zone coverage away from McMillan’s outside release. Westover runs through the collision with the DE and presses Sirmon to keep him inside on the hash, Polk makes sure he takes an inside release to draw the CB away from the sideline and force him to carry the clear out route, and McMillan settles perfectly into the hole along the sideline for Penix to rifle a pass into the endzone for a TD.


3rd and 2

Last play up this week is an homage to our offensive line. On our last TD of the game, the offensive line played lights out and protected Penix for a ridiculous 5 seconds, allowing him to find Newton as the 5th receiver in his progression.

Coming out in an 3x2 tight bunch empty set and facing a 3rd & short situation, Grubb’s playing into our tendencies a little by calling Mesh over the middle. Cal knows this, and they are well set up to defend it. Not only do they drop potential pass rushers into the empty pre-snap void in the middle of their defense, they are also able to get physical with our primary underneath drag routes to throw off the timing. Outside on the perimeter we have McMillan running a go route to see if he can get a good 1v1 look, and Newton is on the other side trying to do the same. With good coverage on the Mesh concept underneath, Penix moves off to his 4th read in McMillan. However, McMillan drew a DB in coverage and was getting locked up pretty decently. Newton on the other hand was playing against a ILB in man coverage, and he was able to break his route off and get wide open along the sidelines. He took the play over from there for the TD.

Like I mentioned before, this play was completely built on the OL’s performance. Similar to how a defense has “coverage” sacks when the back end holds up for so long that a DL can’t help but get free for the sack, this was a pass protection TD. There is no reasonable way for a defense to hold up in coverage for 6 seconds, and our linemen have done an excellent job in protection all season. Penix is going to need to spend some of his NIL money on a nice dinner for the big boys up front.