Cal Offensive Scheme
Despite going through a lot of change this year with its staffing and personnel, Cal's offensive capability has remained potent with its so-called "Bear Raid" scheme.
Last year the eventual No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft Jared Goff torched an outmatched ASU defense to the tune of 542 passing yards and five touchdowns with no interceptions in the Golden Bears' 48-46 regular season-ending win at Berkeley Nov. 28.
Since that time, not only has Goff moved on, but so have a majority of the team's top wide receivers, and even its coordinator, Tony Franklin.
In Franklin's place is first-year offensive coordinator Jake Spavital, a 31-year-old whom the Sun Devils are very familiar with. Spavital was an offensive quality control coach under current ASU head coach Todd Graham at Tulsa in 2008, just a year removed from his playing days as a quarterback at Missouri State.
Last year Spavital was the offensive coordinator at Texas A&M when the Sun Devils lost their season opener to the Aggies in Houston, 28-17.
Cal head coach Sonny Dykes was on the staff in the late 1990s at Kentucky under Air Raid pioneer Hal Mumme, and became an early adopter as wide receivers coach, and later, offensive coordinator at Texas Tech.
The Cal offense is very similar to the one ASU played against Texas Tech in the second week of the season, but there are some differences. At a base level though, they are both spread, no huddle, hurry-up schemes that play fast and are on the pass-heavy side.
Spavital's spread offense background started with Auburn coach Gus Malzahn when both worked for Graham at Tulsa. Later, Spavital worked under current Aggies coach Kevin Sumlin as a graduate assistant at Houston, then in the same role at Oklahoma State. His first big break was becoming the quarterbacks coach at West Virginia under Dana Holgorsen, another Texas Tech Air Raid assistant in the early years of the offense.
Cal's offensive scheme almost entirely revolves around 10 personnel (one running back, no tight ends) looks with shotgun offset backfield and either 2x2 or 3x1 wide receiver looks, or 11 personnel (one running back, one tight end) with the tight end in an H-back alignment and a 2x1 wide receivers looks.
Spavital doesn't use a lot of pre-snap window dressing in terms of motions and shifts and there aren't a lot of bunch trips formations with the receivers, though often twins receivers will be stacked or closely aligned. Occasionally he'll put three receivers into the boundary or three on the field side out of 11 personnel and slide a running back into the flat behind the three receivers running routes.
The bulk of Cal's attempts to confuse and misdirect opposing defenses come quickly after the snap. This is an offense that throws a lot of bubble screens to the perimeter of the field, usually to one receiver with another receiver blocking ahead in 2x2 sets, or to the No. 3 slot receiver bleeding to the flat with the No. 1 and No. 2 blocking, or to the back in the flat two or three receivers flooding out ahead.
All of this is designed to get defensive players focused on attacking the blocks and firing off to make plays on the bubble screens. Then, Cal is going to play action the bubble screens, show blocking from its lead perimeter receiver only to slip it past the defender on big play shots down the field.
Defending this requires tremendous focus and attention to detail, especially by teams that play a lot of press man coverage, as ASU does. It's easy to get lulled into thinking the lead receiver is going to be blocking only to find him a split second later behind the defender in open space. What some teams do to try to defend this is switch the defensive assignments between the corner and safety, with the rear defender taking whomever passes the line of scrimmage defender. But there are potential communication or key read mistakes from this. ASU is going to have to be disciplined, particularly senior cornerback De'Chavon Hayes, on the field side.
Another classic thing we'll see from Cal is an attempt to take advantage of a favorable matchup in man coverage by slot receiver on the boundary side of twins (two receivers on the shorter side of the field) against ASU's Bandit (boundary) safety. Because the bubble screens tend to bring the boundary safety tighter to the line of scrimmage, it gives this player an ability to simply run by the boundary safety in man coverage on a vertical route, usually a straight go route.
ASU has lost these matchups in the past with former safety Jordan Simone and others who, while good players, are not ideally suited to run with receivers on vertical routes down the field from tighter alignments. In this game the Sun Devils have an uncertain situation at Bandit if they play senior Laiu Moeakiola at Spur, as expected.
Earlier this season they started junior Chad Adams at the position, but he didn't play against UTSA. Instead, we'll probably see junior college transfer J'Marcus Rhodes in his first start put into this difficult position, or perhaps even true freshman Kyle Williams, a great athlete who hasn't played at all at Bandit. Both of these guys can run with receivers, but only if they identify the play very quickly post-snap.
Another big play concept we'll see from Cal comes out of a 3x1 formation in which the Bears will work the No. 2 receiver across the field from one side to the other on a vertical, in an effort to catch the safeties out of balance or visually unaware of the route.
When Cal wants to take some of its biggest shots down the field, it will protect with seven for senior graduate transfer quarterback Davis Webb, a player ASU fans may remember from 2013, when he led Texas Tech to a win over ASU in the Holiday Bowl.
The Bears will keep both the h-back and 240-pound running back Vic Enwere in to block when there is no hot receiver on a shorter route, and they'll run three verticals staggered down the field to test the defensive integrity. Sometimes they'll intentionally move Webb out of the pocket to buy more time down the field.
When they don't protect with six or seven, there is always going to be a shorter check down option for Webb, and he's excellent at feeling the rush and delivering the football in the face of pressure. ASU didn't sack Goff once last season because of how quickly he could read things and get the ball out, but ASU did get to the quarterback three times for sacks against the Aggies last year, and there may be some opportunities in this game against a Cal offensive line that has been very spotty. But it's a very risk tolerant strategy and one that has often backfired.
Cal receiver Chad Hansen (No. 6) is one of the best skill players in the Pac-12. He's a high volume target who is going to test ASU vertically and also aggressively stem defensive backs only to return to the football. Hayes could get caught with his back to the play against Hansen.
The Bears do run the football, with Enwere more of a physical between the tackles rusher in their man and zone blocking schemes, and a backup who is much smaller, being a speed athlete that can get onto the perimeter. Cal uses a heavier personnel grouping close to the end zone that brings a heavy defensive tackle on the field and uses just one tight end to try to jam the ball in the end zone. They'll also run some jet sweeps and swing the ball to the flat to keep the width of the field defended. Webb is not the run threat of Texas Tech's quarterback, and that's another big difference in defending the two teams.
Primarily though, this is an offense that will swing for the fences against ASU and you can expect many throws that are more than 20 yards down the field. Assignment integrity will be stressed severely for the ASU defense.
Cal offensive players
QB Davis Webb (No. 7) -- A big quarterback at 6-foot-5 and 230 pounds, Webb isn't mobile like Texas Tech quarterback Patrick Mahomes. Webb is rarely going to intentionally scramble. He trades off the scrambling for being much more comfortable in the pocket and he feels pressure about as well as any quarterback we've seen in the country. He doesn't take his eyes off the receivers, which is a sign of someone with great situational awareness. Webb doesn't have the most classic throwing mechanics but has a big arm and tends to be accurate down the field. He's going to stress ASU's defense vertically.
WR Chad Hansen (No. 6) -- One of the best all-around wide receivers in the Pac-12, Hansen reminds a bit of former Colorado wideout Nelson Spruce, but may be even a bit more athletic. At 6-foot-2 and 195 pounds, Hansen plays on the perimeter, either 'Z' or 'X' positions. He has beguiling speed and can get behind defenses, but is also used as a possession player working back to the football after stem expansion. He can lose defensive backs in coverage and this is going to be a tough assignment for Hayes and to a lesser degree, ASU sophomore cornerback Kareem Orr.
WR Melquise Stovall (No. 1) and Bug Rivera (No. 26) -- Two undersized 'Y' slot receives at 5-foot-9 and 5-foot-8 respectively, Cal uses Stovall and Rivera on a lot of underneath leverage routes. Stovall, a true freshman, also tends to get the ball on jet sweep actions. Both players -- especially Rivera -- have to be watched on twins into the boundary in which Cal targets the ASU Bandit on vertical concepts.
WR Jordan Veasey (No. 15) -- At 6-foot-3 and 225 pounds, Veasey plays the bigger slot 'H' position. Cal likes to work Veasey and its others at this position from the No. 2 alignment across the formation on verticals that test the opposite side -- usually the boundary -- safety to try to generate coverage breakdowns. Veasey is physical and has good wheels for his size, a player who makes contested catches, and can do is in the end zone.
WR Demetris Robertson (No. 8) -- A true freshman who was a five-star prospect and Top-25 national recruit in high school, Robertson is a truly great athlete at 6-foot-0, 175 pounds. Right now he's early in his development as a route runner as and a result, Cal likes to get him the ball in the flat on screens or on jet sweeps where he can creatively make defenders miss. The one thing he can do is run by defenders on the perimeter and his speed has to be accounted for by defensive backs.
RB Vic Enwere (No. 23) -- The 6-foot-1, 240 pound junior from Texas is very big, with good feet but not fast. He's almost exclusively an inside runner but he can make defenders not hit him on center despite his size. He's a very good max protection blocker and Cal frequently uses Enwere in this role when it wants to protect with seven and throw the ball down the field. He'll occasionally get thrown the ball out of the backfield, but it's not where Enwere is at his best from an athletic standpoint.
RB Tre Watson (No. 5) -- A major style contrasts to Enwere, the 5-foot-10 195 pound junior has very good initial quickness and much more speed. He's sudden and can win on the edge and get on linebackers quickly when run blocking is well executed up front. Watson is also better able to make defenders miss in space when Cal throws it to him on the perimeter.
Cal offensive line -- This is an average to decent group overall, with four returning starters, though it struggled to handle the physicality of Texas a week ago. The scheme mitigates to some degree the need for offensive linemen to hold up as well in the passing game because the ball is either out quickly, or Cal is protecting with six and seven against four or five man rushes. ASU had no sacks against Cal last year. Both offensive tackles have had holding penalties to avoid giving up sacks, the left guard (No. 66 Chris Borrayo) is the replacement starter from last year and is a limited athlete who has been moved around in the run game and Cal's not been able to get things going on stretch or outside zone because of some issues with its physicality and range.
ASU defense against Cal offense
This isn't a tough team to prepare for, particularly after ASU's already played Texas Tech. They are very similar offenses. But even though it's not hard to study for Cal, an offense that doesn't use a lot of different formations or motions and shifts, the Golden Bears are difficult to execute against. They put a lot of points on the board and that's all that matters.
Cal is averaging 47 points, 580.3 yards (first in the Pac-12) and 453.0 passing yards (first in the Pac-12). If opponents bring pressure, Webb tends to get the ball out quickly. Sitting back is also perilous because he's very accurate and typically savvy. But Webb had a bad interception pinned deep in his own territory when pressured by Texas, and also threw a pick in the end zone against San Diego State when pressured.
The best approach by ASU is a varied one, in which it attempts to keep Webb unsure of the coverage shell and whether pressure will come or not. That's hard because of how the Sun Devils tend to change their alignments when blitzing. Ultimately ASU's success on defense comes down to eye discipline and key read awareness on the perimeter and in its secondary. Defensive backs have to be assignment sound or else Webb will take advantage.
Cal defensive scheme
It's hard to have a defense that does well statistically when paired with a potent Air Raid type offensive scheme. That said, the Bears made a significant improvement from their first-year under veteran defensive coordinator Art Kaufman when they went from 5-7 to their 8-5 record last season with a core nucleus of veteran players.
Cal allowed an incredible 45.9 points per game in 2013, the year before Kaufman arrived. In his first year that number was 39.8 points and then last year, their first 8-win season since 2009, Cal yielded just 30.7 points.
The problem for the Bears is this year it appears they'll take a significant step back due in large part due to the fact they've lost their top six tacklers from last season and have had to largely rebuild their defensive personnel, especially in the front seven.
Cal is using a base 4-2-5 defense with a true nickel cornerback-sized player as the fifth defensive back. They have four down defensive linemen who play left and right ends, so they don't flip the front to field/boundary or formation strength, which is different from most Pac-12 and FBS defenses. It's also a clear sign that they don't have a talented edge pass rusher that they want to isolate situationally.
Where the Bears do align relative to field and boundary is at linebacker and safety. The put a lot of responsibility on the WILL (boundary) 'backer to cover running backs releasing on routes to the boundary, and also on the boundary safety play closer to the line of scrimmage to be a run support player in frequent single high safety looks.
At cornerback they'll play a lot of press man into the boundary but primarily are in off man or zone on the field side, and Cal doesn't switch its cornerbacks relative to the ball's location between the hash marks, so both players have to be able to execute all techniques used at either spot.
This is a defense that has struggled mightily against the run this season. The Bears are giving up a league-worst 39.7 points per game and an overwhelming reason is their abominable 296.7 yards allowed per game on the ground. That's nearly 100 yards more than 11th place USC at 197.7.
The Bears are especially bad at handling outside and stretch zone run plays because they're so overmatched in terms of size in the base nickel personnel grouping. Cal trades off shifts across the formation by receivers and h-backs, which means they can be put into situations in which their nickel defender has to try to get off blocks by tight ends and h-backs on plays to the field side, even when it's the formation strength side.
It's a losing proposition and Cal has been mauled on these plays, with a whole new group of defensive linemen who can't get off blocks and can't anchor, and perimeter players who are consistently out-sized and out-muscled to the wide side of the field where outside and stretch runs provide an opportunity for running backs like ASU junior Kalen Ballage to gash the Bears on sweeps and wide zone runs the Sun Devils like to use. Even inside zone, power and delay draws, all things that junior Demario Richard is well suited for, have been problematic for the Bears.
To make matters worse, this is a defense that doesn't run blitz with aggressive slants, so it's not forcing the action but rather, typically being dictated to. It loses the play-side edge and gets out-flanked by strength and numbers pretty consistently.
In 2015 the Golden Bears were among the Top-15 defenses nationally in turnovers gained, and fumble recoveries and in the Top-25 in passes intercepted and defensive touchdowns. They played physically and were very good at the linebacker level, but neither thing has been on display this season other than the t-shirts worn by staff members on the sidelines that declare, seemingly in a pleading voice, "toughest team wins."
Cal defensive players
LB Devante Downs (No. 1) -- A good and mobile athlete at 6-3 and 250 pounds, Downs is a junior WILL backer who aligns into the boundary. He's very important as a run stopper on inside plays as well as into the boundary and he's relied upon by Cal to cover running backs on wheel routes or in zone into the flat. Some of those assignments are tough and exploitable.
FS Khari Vanderbilt (No. 7) -- A 6-foot-1, 195 pound senior who primarily plays on the field side, Vanderbilt is the team's best coverage safety on the back end. He has been a career backup until this season but is establishing himself as one of the more important players on the field.
S Luke Rubenzer (No. 17) -- An Arizona native and former prep quarterback, Rubenzer is the Laiu Moeakiola of Cal, a player who isn't especially athletic but thinks and understands the game at a high level and is regularly in a place to make plays as a result. He's better coming up than dropping into coverage, is pretty good at tackling and also generating turnovers. When he's asked to cover receivers in space, it's a tougher burden for the 6-foot-0, 195 pound junior.
LB Raymond Davison (No. 31) -- With Cal losing four inside backers from last season including top leading tackler and arguably top defensive player Hardy Nickerson, there's not much in the way of experienced talent at the position. A 6-foot-2, 225 pound junior SAM/MIKE, Davison had 35 tackles last season in a backup role but is now relied upon as a key run defender for a unit that's struggled in that phase.
Nickel Cameron Walker (No. 3) -- At just 5-foot-10 and 185 pounds, the senior Walker is asked to do some really challenging things on the field for his smaller stature and playing style. He's better suited to be a coverage or zone nickel defender but Cal needs him to play against the run near the line of scrimmage on the field side and he's tended to be easily moved off the ball or absorbed by blockers.
S Evan Rambo (No. 21) -- Just a sophomore, Rambo is a bigger strong-safety type who is better against the run and closer to the line of scrimmage. He's still learning and has been susceptible to coverage busts and some assignment errors. He's physical and athletic though, just inexperienced and being forced to learn on the fly.
DT James Looney (No. 9) -- One of the most experienced returning players, Looney is 6-foot-3, 280 pound junior defensive tackle who has a nice get off and is probably the most powerful of the team's defensive linemen. He's not going to generate many sacks or tackles for loss but he's at least capable of getting off blocks and making some plays.
DE Devante Wilson (No. 95) -- A 6-foot-5, 260 pound senior end who started most of the team's games last season, Wilson lacks a motor and has inconsistent reliability. He showed a nice combination of power and quickness with a sack against San Diego State but did little the rest of the game.
CB Darius Allensworth (No. 11) -- The best coverage defensive back on the Cal roster, Allensworth started all 13 games last season and led the team with 11 pass breakups. he's also the second-leading returning tackler on the defense behind Rubenzer, with 41 stops a season ago. At 6-foot-0, and 190 pounds, he's a solid all-around player and one of the team's most capable defenders.
ASU offense against Cal defense
Even though Cal has frequently loaded up the box with eight defenders in single high looks, they're prone to be out-manned physically at the line of scrimmage and particularly on any type of run plays moving toward the field side: outsize and stretch zone, any types of sweeps, or even run-replacement throws, pitches or options.
This is a game that will see ASU's edge blockers, particularly senior tight end Kody Kohl and his position-mates, be able to head-hunt undersized defenders and help win the edge. Ballage should have a huge game against a leaky run defense that doesn't hold its integrity well on any play in which it is stressed laterally at the line of scrimmage. Ballage is at his best reading defenses on sweeps working laterally and getting his foot in the ground and exploding vertically when reading the hole.
ASU quarterback Manny Wilkins should find more of his first reads open in this game because Cal doesn't blitz a lot, and plays off coverage to the field side. This also is an opportunity to target the middle third of the field at depth, especially when Rubenzer is the deep safety in Cover 1 or Cover 3 looks that Cal shows.
Cal special teams
-- Cal tried to block several punts this season with five man pressures to the halo level and nearly got one against two opponents. That could be a challenge for ASU.
-- Going against one of the top return men in the country at San Diego State, Cal gave up a 100-yard kickoff return for a touchdown.
-- Cal has been mediocre both with its punting and kickoff coverage, meaning this is an opportunity or ASU to win the starting field position battle in a meaningful way that impacts the game.
Even though a lot of the key players and both offensive coordinators are new to this year, all indictions are this will be a repeat of the shootout between the two teams last year in Berkeley in which there was 937 yards of total offense and a combined 94 points. If anything, there may be even more offense in this game because Cal was the better of the two defenses last season and has dropped off significantly to start this season, giving up 40 points to San Diego State as a prime example. ASU can't really be counted on with its passing defense, as it gave up 350 yards and four touchdowns in the first half alone to Texas Tech, and Cal's passing scheme and capability aren't that different. But the Sun Devils should be able to run all over the Golden Bears and have plenty of offensive potency. This game might come down to red zone conversions because field goals won't get the job done, and if there is a clear turnover differential. My pick is ASU on top, 55-52.