In football, execution is everything, as a coach can only out-scheme his opponent or out-teach techniques to win on the football field.
Doing the little things? That's pretty straightforward. Any NCAA football player should have or develop the basic skills necessary on a field: tackling, shedding blocks, running precise routes, and even something so fundamental as catching the football.
In California's 62-28 loss to USC, the Bears did not consistently execute, nor did they ‘do the little things.' Predictably, one led to the other, leading to an avalanche of Trojan points -- a perfect metaphor for California's 2013 season. Like every other Cal-USC contest in recent years, the game was decided in the first half, as the Trojans had shut the door 41-14 at halftime.
Where the Bears especially failed in execution was on special teams. In the first half the Trojans tied an NCAA record, scoring three touchdowns on special teams -- two on punt returns of 75 and 93 yards by Nelson Agholor. A third touchdown came as a result of a blocked punt, in which the kick came off of sophomore Cole Leininger's foot parallel to the ground.
In all aspects of the special teams miscues, the execution was clearly lacking: The Bears' units failed in gap assignments, allowing Agholor to run free and easy to the end zone. Leininger twice failed to gain hang time on his punts, initially allowing Agholor to work with that much room to begin with. On the blocked punt, the line failed to even bump USC's punt rushers, allowing four Trojans to run full speed into the protection wall, rushing Leininger into his line-drive kick to begin with.
"When you sit down and look at today," said head coach Sonny Dykes, "we cut it to a 21-14 lead and had some momentum. We finally had some confidence taking the lather off their defensive line a bit, and had them a little tired. We did some things offensively to move the football, then gave up 21 points on our punt team. I've been doing this a long time, and that has always been a strength of ours. our team last year at Louisiana Tech led the entire nation in net punting. We start three practices every week with our punt team; it is a big deal to us. That was 21 points at a pretty critical point in the ballgame when we had some momentum, and felt like we had an opportunity to be in the game."
Dykes went on to say that, in 18 years of coaching special teams, Mark Tommerdahl has played one freshman for one half of football on punt cover. On Saturday, he had six.
But while you will read plenty about how terrible Cal's special teams executed on this day, some focus needs to be given on why Cal had to punt on those possessions to begin with. All it takes is for one small mistake to kill a drive, and the Bears failed to make the routine plays when the opportunities presented themselves.
Case in point, 2 plays before Agholor's first TD return:
|-36||2||9||Goff 7-yard pass incomplete to Powe (dropped)|
One might not consider this a huge play in the scheme of the loss, but Darius Powe's drop was, frankly, huge. At that moment, the game was still scoreless -- the Bears had first possession, and had just picked up a first down to gain some traction on offense. On second-and-nine, Goff threw a pass slightly behind Powe that would have wound up short of the first down marker, but Powe dropped a very catchable ball. While it would not have been a first down, a catch would have set up a very manageable third-and-short. Instead, with the drop, Cal faced a much tougher third-and-nine which -- as I noted last week -- is pretty much death for any offense. Against USC's ultra-blitzing defense, third-and-long essentially would end no differently. On that third down, Goff was hurried into making a bad throw, and the Bears were forced to punt to their demise. Obviously, there was no guarantee that Cal would convert a third-and-two. But their odds of doing so would have been much higher. Just one example of a player not ‘doing the little thing' which would help indirectly contribute to a punt miscue.
Continuing with that theme of miscues leading to punts, let's look at the play right before USC's punt block for a touchdown, when the Trojans were up 28-14.
|-17||3||6||Goff 7-yard pass incomplete to Harper (dropped)|
Another drop leading to a failed play, though this was not because of a ball going through the hands but because the receiver did not look for the ball quick enough. On a passing down, Harper ran a slant route into an open part of the field. With no defender on him in busted coverage, Chris Harper still elected to turn around after his cut. But by then, Goff had already thrown the football, and Harper was unable to track the ball before hitting him straight in the facemask.
In most situations, you want the receiver to look after making the cut. But in this case -- a big third down at an important moment of the football game -- Harper would have been wise to try and locate the ball as soon as he realized the field was open in front of him. A catch in that situation would have resulted in a big gain and a new set of downs. In stead, the Bears would attempt the punt, and we all know what would happen next.
One more time, let's look at a crucial play right before a big USC special teams play.
|48||2||12||Goff deep pass middle to Anderson incomplete (Dropped)|
With the score 35-14 and Cal's margin for error essentially zero -- if they wanted to stay in the football game -- a Bears receiver made another error that would have extended the drive.
Yes, Goff was hurried on throw forcing it a bit outside. Yes, Stephen Anderson did have to adjust his body mid-play to try and make the catch. Yes, it was an incredibly difficult catch to be made. But it was a catch that a receiver has to make if they're going to give themselves a chance to win. Anderson managed to get one hand on the ball but was unable to get both hands on the football. It was undoubtedly a tough play, but a play that must be made.
Ultimately, the special teams miscues are a result of poor execution, and the three touchdowns allowed reflect that. However, those punts happened because of a series of small mistakes that occurred just plays earlier on offense.
As the staff recruits players to fit their system, as injured players get healthy heading into 2014 and as young players gain more experience as time progresses, those execution mistakes and small miscues should disappear.
As senior Jackson Bouza said after the game, "Inside the locker room and inside our facilities, we see a change everyday. I'm proud of that."
As Dykes said after the game, of Cal's top 44 players, only three are seniors – one of those being Bouza. He compared that to No. 5 Stanford's 15 seniors on the defensive two-deep.
"We were forced to play a lot of young players before they were ready to play," Dykes said. "There are always some freshmen that are so good you need to find a way to get them on the field. Our guys are good players, but a lot of these young guys have been forced to play because there is nobody else."