ANALYSIS: Exploiting Flaws
BERKELEY -- If California (1-2) was going to pull off the upset of No. 4 Ohio State (3-0), the Bears would need a near-perfect effort from their defense.
What Cal got was anything but perfect.
In their 52-34 loss to the Buckeyes, the Bears defense was simply overmatched. Cal looked exactly like what it is: An injury-plagued defense in the first year of a new system, going up against a plethora of four- and five-star athletes.
Ohio State head coach Urban Meyer is noted for exploiting weaknesses in a defense with his spread. At Utah, Meyer turned Alex Smith into a Heisman Trophy runner-up and a No. 1 pick in the NFL Draft, while simultaneously guiding the Utes to a Fiesta Bowl win. At Florida, Meyer started the Tim Tebow phenomenon, while also leading the Gators to two national championships.
In other words, Meyer knew well the ins-and-outs of Cal's defensive struggles in their first two games, and developed a sound game plan to exploit it -- without the play of his Heisman-favorite quarterback, Braxton Miller -- by finding ways to get his best playmakers into the Bears' injury-riddled secondary.
On Ohio State's second play from scrimmage, quarterback Kenny Guiton faked a handoff and looked to the flat as if to run a bubble screen. The play action fake has burned Cal on multiple occasions already in 2013, with defensive backs peeking into the backfield only to have wide receivers run by them for huge gains. On this play, the fake worked again, as receiver Devin Smith ran by Damariay Drew en route to a 90-yard touchdown.
"Second play, they got us on the fox, faked the screen and got us on the vertical route. From a scheme standpoint, I don't know what we can do differently," said head coach Sonny Dykes.
The same issue plagued the Bears on Ohio State's next possession, when Guiton utilized play action -- forcing the Cal secondary to pause -- and then hitting Smith again for a 53-yard strike in the end zone.
The two plays quickly put the Buckeyes up 14-0, and essentially changed Cal's game plan. Teams on the road want to quiet the crowd, and the Buckeyes – playing in front of a largely scarlet-and-grey crowd, did just that. Furthermore, on defense, the two big pass plays forced the Bears secondary to play even deeper than they already were, which only allowed Ohio State more room to operate on the shorter field.
The game plan to attack the secondary did not just end with deep pass plays. The Buckeyes found rushing lanes en route to 332 net rushing yards, but were just as effective running to the outside and putting further pressure on Cal's defensive backs.
Utilizing stretch plays, zone reads, end arounds and one option play, the Buckeyes utilized their speed advantage on the outside to create big plays. When the Buckeyes ran outside of the tackles, they averaged 14.9 yards per rush -- including six rushes that went for 12-plus yards.
Perhaps the play that put the Bears away occurred early on in the third quarter. On fourth-and-one, and with Cal only trailing by 11, Meyer called for Guiton's only true option play. Rolling to his right, and with only linebacker Jalen Jefferson in position with a chance of making a play, Guiton found the lane when no defender committed to him, picking up 33 yards in the process. The Buckeyes would score two plays later, build up a 38-20 lead, and really never be threatened for the rest of the game.
"He gets the ball to the right people at the right time," Meyer said of Guiton. "What I was more impressed with him were the downfield throws. A few of those were right on the dot with a couple of excellent catches. I'm not surprised with him distributing the ball right away, but I am surprised that he looked complete."
While Jefferson was the read, what made the play work was the over-commitment to the receivers lined up on the other side of the line. On Guiton's run, Jefferson had no secondary help and no real chance to limit the damage on the play.
The result was 52 points allowed and another loss. The road does not get easier, with the Bears tripping to Eugene to face Oregon's brand of speed football following a bye week.
"We've got to get better," Dykes said. "Oregon, I think they had 25,000 yards today against Tennessee. They're good. They know what they're doing. It'll be a challenge for us."
-- Linebacker Khairi Fortt recorded a career-high and game-high 13 tackles, including 2.0 tackles for loss.
-- The 90-yard touchdown pass from Guiton to Smith on Ohio State's opening drive was the longest play from scrimmage in Buckeyes history and the second longest pass completion against Cal. The Bears gave up a 91-yard reception against Oregon State in 1983.
-- Hardy Nickerson, Jr., tied his career high with 11 tackles for the second straight week. Drew also set a new personal best in tackles with 10. Jefferson's 10 tackles tied his personal best. Joel Willis notched a personal-best seven tackles.
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