Another strong performance from the Dawgs, adding to their resume of why they may be the best in the Pac-12, and potentially in the entire nation, as they were one of 6 teams to receive a first place vote. We saw the team take a 14-0 lead before the offense even took the field which set the tone for the rest of the game as it got to 52-12 before the starters were pulled. A very well balanced game by everyone, highlighted by the coaches’ schemes as well as the playmaking ability of the stars. You know it was a good day when the defense had as many INTs as Penix had passing TDs in the first half.
To the Film.
1st Quarter - 12:49 - 3rd & 4
First play up this week comes from Cal’s opening drive where Eddie Ulofoshio snags his first career interception and continues our defense’s hot streak in the turnover column of the box score. Here on 3rd & 4, Cal is set up in a conventional 2x2 shotgun spread formation with the RB aligned to the wide side of the QB. Like we’ve done regularly on 3rd downs this season, we stack the LOS with a MUG front where Ulofoshio and Tuputala line up in the A-Gaps to threaten a blitz. Behind that we are lined up in a single-high man coverage look with our DBs playing a mix of press and off coverage techniques.
This defensive look is the basis of our simulated pressure package and 3rd down strategy this season, and it has been highly effective because of the play calling bind that it puts the opposing offense into. Opposing OCs usually have their play sheet organized by down and distance, and then they’ll call a play from the appropriate section of the play sheet for the situation based on what the defense is presenting. With our MUG look, we are forcing the offense to further narrow down their play call options by forcing them to account for the possibility of a man blitz. This will usually take play action, deep passes, and some screens off the table, and in some cases it’ll also be an automatic max protection call that keeps RBs and TEs in to block. At the same time, a MUG look doesn’t place as many restrictions on our potential coverage calls because we can always bail out of the look, so we can get creative with how we disguise our real call.
The key to this defensive strategy is having good enough CBs to realistically threaten the man blitz. If Cal believed that their WRs could win vertically in 1v1 man coverage on the perimeter and could buy enough time for their QB to deliver the pass with a 6-man protection against our 6 potential blitzers, then we wouldn’t really gain anything from the MUG look and might be hurting ourselves by placing our LBs in bad alignments to play coverage. Its a calculated risk, but fortunately for us, our CBs have played well this season for this to be a realistic threat.
Cal OC Jake Spavital plays our MUG look conservatively and opts for a quick pass against our pressure look. On this play the Golden Bears are running man-beater Slant-Flat route combinations on both sides of the formation while keeping the RB in to pass protect. The thinking here is that the Slant-Flat combo would create a natural “pick” on the slot defender to free up the slot WR, or the slot defender would fly downhill to get an angle on the slot WR and open up the passing lane for the outside WR’s slant route.
It’s a good play call given that we’re playing a version of Cover 1 Man against all of the WRs, but what the play doesn’t account for is that we are dropping Ulofoshio and Tuputala into “Robber” coverage underneath where they are reading the QB to make a play on either of the Slant routes going over the middle. Given our pre-snap alignment, Cover 1 was something the offense should’ve known was an option, but defenses will usually bring the LBs as blitzers, and if the defense does want to run Cover 1 Robber, then its usually a safety that will play the robber coverage with one of the LBs picking up the safety’s man coverage assignment. The MUG look baits the trap by making it appear like the man-blitz version of Cover 1. ZTF and the DL get good pressure off the snap, forcing Finley into a making a quick read where he sees Hampton playing man coverage over the slot and not robber coverage, so he throws the pass assuming it is a Cover 1 blitz. Finley never sees Ulofoshio sitting on the Slant route, and it is an easy interception that Eddie runs in for a TD.
This play is a great example of our defensive scheme setting our players up to make impact plays, and our players seem to be playing a lot faster and instinctively in year 2 of the system.
1st Quarter - 5:46 - 1st & 10 & 3rd Quarter - 14:01 - 2nd & 10
Next up we have a couple of big run plays that expand on our success using the Counter run concept.
First play up we have our very first offensive play of the game. On this play we are lined up in an under center 2x2 formation with 11 personnel with the ball in the middle of the field. TE Quentin Moore is lined up on the perimeter to the bottom of the screen well off the LOS indicating a likely motion. Cal lines up opposite of this formation in their base nickel personnel out of a 2-high shell and designates the side of the field to the top of the screen as the “strong” side of the formation by placing their nickel DB over Germie Bernard in the slot.
As for the play design, Grubb dials up a HG Counter play (H-Back kick out block & Guard leading upfield) with Escort motion. Escort motion, where a backside skill player is motioned at full speed to make a block on the frontside of a run play, is a type of motion that has gained popularity with the more sophisticated rushing attacks in the NFL, such as the 49ers and the Ravens. The two big benefits to using Escort motion are better blocking match up flexibility and the added run fit confusion for the defense. Much like coverage match ups, blocking match ups are an important consideration when designing run plays. You wouldn’t want a TE like Moore (6-4, 255) making a key block at the point of attack on a EDGE player like Xavier Carlton (6-6, 270) without some sort of schematic advantage. That’s where the Escort motion comes into play. Escort motion looks similar to Jet motion pre-snap, so Carlton will need to either widen or slow play his rush in case he has to play backside contain against the potential Jet sweep. Pair the slower/wider rush path for Carlton with Moore getting a running start at the snap, and Moore’s job of kicking out Carlton to widen the rush lane for Dillon Johnson got a lot easier.
Speaking of blocking match ups, let’s take a quick tangent to give a shout out to Nate Kalepo. The beauty of gap plays like Counter and Power is that, when done right, all of the scheming necessary to help a smaller auxiliary blocker like Moore directly results in an awesome mismatch for the pulling offensive lineman leading the RB through the hole. Kalepo absolutely flattens the LB in the run lane to let Johnson run loose at the second level. It hasn’t always been obvious given the amount of Zone run plays we’ve called over the last few years, but Coach Huff has always had an affinity for linemen who were proven road graders on pulling plays. I’ve mentioned it in past recruiting profiles/breakdowns, but being a strong blocker on pulling assignments is indicative of explosive athleticism. It’s awesome to see the pieces finally come together to tap into that type of athleticism on our line.
Anyways, with regards to the run fit, Escort motion, like all motion, tests the defense’s ability to adjust to the formation being presented to them. Prior to the motion, the defense only has to account for six gaps since there are only the five offensive linemen in the front. Cal should have these gaps all accounted for even with Moore entering the picture with six defenders in the box (Cal also plays 2-gap with their NT so six defenders can cover seven gaps). However, run defense and run fits get more complicated than just numbers in the box when the offense is calling gap runs because the offense is introducing new gaps at the point of attack with pulling blockers. Defenses account for pulling blockers by using “scrape technique”. All this means is that the LBs or second level defenders in the box will flow, or “scrape” over the top of the DL, with the pulling blockers and exchange their gap assignment with the backside box defenders. Escort motion breaks this rule because Moore never had a defender assigned to his gap in the initial run fit because Moore was never actually part of the initial blocking front. That’s why you only see the play side LB flow and play up to the point of attack after the snap when the backside LB should have as well. Instead, the backside LB sticks with his initial backside gap assignment and gets picked off by Rosengarten blocking down from the play side. With the backside LB taken out of the picture, Johnson was able to get 12 yards downfield completely untouched and powers forward for a big 20-yard gain to start the drive.
Later in the game we utilized a very similar HG Counter concept, but this time we are using a type of short “In” motion with Westover instead of Escort motion. I’m not sure of the exact terminology for this type of motion with a H-back, but it’s another type of motion that we’re seeing NFL teams use to spice up their run games. On this play we have 12 personnel out of a 2x2 pistol wing set with Moore to the play side and Westover on the backside. Yet again, Cal has the numbers in their favor in the box with a CB showing blitz on the play side. However, a well-designed and well-executed gap play can still overwhelm a defense at the point of attack to set up a big run play.
Like in the earlier HG Counter play, the blocking is designed to have the play side blockers all down block (washing the defensive front away from the target gap) with the H-back (Westover) kicking out the end man on the line of scrimmage (“EMLOS”) to open the run lane, and then the backside Guard will lead the RB through the gap. With the CB showing blitz and the play side OLB aligned inside of Moore, the OL is designating the CB as the EMLOS. Therefore, the RB’s target gap is the D-Gap just off of Moore’s outside hip and all the other blocking assignments are set to open that gap. Moore will double team the OLB with Fautanu, Westover will target the CB, and Hatchett will pull through the hole.
Westover’s kick out block is again the toughest one on the play, but this time it’s because he has to neutralize a speedy CB. Landing a clean hit on a fast target in relatively open space isn’t easy. Just ask any defender. However, the short motion does at least give him a running start at landing the block. What’s most impressive about Westover’s block is actually the fact that he didn’t make it at all. Watching the replay, you can see Westover actually hesitate for a split second when he’s approaching the point of attack. He makes his blocking read on the play and correctly recognized that the blitzing CB was actually taking himself out of the play by rushing wide around the run, so instead of wasting his block on an already neutralized defender, Westover continues upfield to assist with a fast flowing safety.
Counter is sometimes considered a slow developing run play with all of the pulling and down blocking, but the near perfect timing and execution of the blocks show how a well-orchestrated and quick hitting gap run can be. It was a great call that was well-executed for a big gain.
2nd Quarter - 7:25 - 1st & 10
Next play up we have the defense’s third interception of the game, and unlike the first pick, this one is all about Jabbar Muhammad being a talented player making a big play within the design of the coverage. On the play, Cal is running a Switch-Release Post-Wheel concept to the field and a 10-yard Out to the boundary with a 7-man protection. Basically, this was designed to be a shot play from the get go. Against this, we’re lined up in our base Quarters coverage. Nothing special, but that’s the beauty of it.
Muhammad, playing the field CB position on this play, is lined up in an off coverage alignment where he can read and react to how the play develops with minimal risk of getting picked on with a quick pass because of the distance to the far he is from the QB. In Quarters coverage, his primary coverage assignment will be the widest and deepest route to his side until around eight yards off the LOS. Once the WR1’s route hits eight yards or is a clear vertical stem on the route, Muhammad basically transitions his assignment into man coverage. His man coverage through the first four games of the season has been lights out, in large part due to his change of direction ability and speed letting him keep up with every WR he’s faced.
Muhammad’s athleticism is a big factor on this play, but it’s only one part. As you can see better on the replay angle here, Muhammad’s WR is the running the Post on the Post-Wheel combo, and Muhammad’s initial outside leverage leaves him in a trailing position with the WR. Trailing position is OK with this coverage because he should have inside help from Vincent Nunley, but Nunley gets drawn up from his safety alignment by the play action fake. Muhammad, playing excellent trail technique is able to keep tabs on the WR by staying stride for stride with him with a hand on his hip while peeking into the backfield to locate the pass. In a split second, he’s able to identify the ball in the air, under cut the route, and snag the interception. No disguised coverages, and no simulated pressure on this play. This is a straightforward win in 1v1 coverage. Great play by Muhammad.
3rd Quarter - 11:40 - 2nd & 7
Finally this week we have a creative screen design from Coach Grubb to get Rome his final TD of the game. As we’ve discussed and broken down in past games this season, Grubb’s been really focused on expanding less common portions of the offense to capitalize on all of our playmaking talent at WR and up front at OL, as well as to supplement our run game. Against Tulsa it was the End Around concept handing the ball off to our WRs with the OL getting out into space. Against Cal it was this WR Mid Screen.
WR screens are ubiquitous in today’s modern spread-influenced offensive landscape. However, most of these screens are perimeter quick screens that are essentially extensions of the perimeter run game. Bubble Screens and Smoke Screens fall under the quick screen game that became a popular means of keeping defenses honest and spread out horizontally. “Slow” screens, such as the Slip Screen (run with the RB), fell out of favor because of their reliance on athletic offensive linemen and the pressure it puts on a QB, but they’ve still maintained their place in some offenses (like Boise) because they still got the ball in your best playmaker’s hands with a convoy of blockers out on the perimeter. However, the Mid Screen game, primarily composed of the Jailbreak/Tunnel Screen and the Shovel Screen, largely fell by the wayside because it often put the ball carrier in traffic, directly contradicting the core principal of spread offense. However, when designed and executed right, it is a highly effective extension of our run game.
Mid Screens are essentially the passing version of a Draw run play, and they should be used as such. Both plays seek to punish a defense that starts to play the pass too heavily with light boxes, immediate coverage drops from the LBs, and an aggressive pass rush. The goal of a well-designed Mid Screen like this one is to further influence the defense to lean into those tendencies. On this play we line up in a new empty set alignment with Dillon Johnson lined up in the WR3 spot to the field and Odunze and Bernard in a stacked alignment with reduced splits to the boundary. Even with Cal playing a one-high shell, this only leaves a 6-man box, and with Penix being a pass-first QB, Cal knows a pass is likely to be coming. Then, prior to the snap, we put Johnson in quick Away motion to draw Cal’s attention, and OLB, away from their already light box and towards the field perimeter. Now the box count is down to five. From there, the next key is to get Rome’s primary defender to back off and allow a clean release to allow him to sneak behind his blockers. With Rome behind Germie in the stack alignment, Germie can basically shield Rome from any contact at the line and insure a clean release. From there, it’s all about the OL faking just long enough to draw the DL upfield and then release for the few remaining defenders in the middle of the field.
As you can see on the replay angle, the formation, motion, and play design worked perfectly to clear out the middle of the field where there was really only Jackson Sirmon and the free safety in the picture. With Hatchett, Brailsford, and Kalepo all releasing to block for Rome, this should’ve been an easy 3v2 assignment, but not every block can be perfect. The free safety wasn’t picked up by any of the three OL, but Rome’s tough running got us in for the TD. Great play design, good enough execution, and a concept I’m sure we’re going to return to this season as defenses try to figure out how to stop our vertical passing game.
Awgs’ Bonus Play of the Week
Rome Odunze stole the show on Saturday, highlighted by the first Husky Punt Return for a TD in over 4 years! (last one was vs BYU in 2019 courtesy of Aaron Fuller)
Bonus play’s bonus: Peep Tristan Dunn