This story is by BRO contributor, herenowucla.
Cal’s Offense vs UCLA’s Defense: The “Cal Gang” Died
Cal coach Sonny Dykes comes from the Hal Mumme coaching tree. Along with Mike Leach at Washington State, Dykes runs the Air Raid system and has a great quarterback in Jared Goff at the controls. The Air Raid system is almost a pure shotgun based system where the QB is given freedom to coordinate routes and blocking scheme from the line of scrimmage. It’s a very pass-heavy offense, using inside route/outside route concepts that have spawned into many other spread-to-pass offensive attacks.
In watching film of Goff over the 2015 season, it is very clear that he can be a bit careless with his decision-making. He can make every throw in the book, but sometimes the easiest throws are the toughest for him. Cal has a stable of very talented receivers, but on tape they don’t do a great job of getting separation against press coverage. Most Bruin fans have been screaming for press coverage from the UCLA corners for several years now, so if there was ever a game to play that type of technique, this was it.
Cal also doesn’t run the ball very well, especially missing their best running back in Daniel Lasco. Most of their runs come from package plays where Goff makes a read and decides to give to the running back on a blocked run play, so there are not a lot of designed runs in the playbook for Cal. Given their lack of a commitment to the running game, this was also a game where UCLA needed to get pressure from the defensive linemen and/or bring linebackers on blitzes, as a way to make Goff move his feet. When Goff has been given time to survey the coverage he has been really good, so generating pressure on him had to be part of the defensive gameplan this week as well for UCLA.
By and large, UCLA did a great job of handling Goff and the Air Raid attack in this game. On Cal’s first drive of the game, the Bears were able to move the ball with short passes against very little pressure from UCLA. Cal put a 13-play drive together with a mix of runs and passes and converted on 3 of 4 third downs to score first with a field goal. But after that drive UCLA made some very good adjustments and kept the Cal offense at bay for much of the rest of the first half.
One adjustment I noticed was UCLA varying the pre/post snap look by using four men on the line of scrimmage almost exclusively out of their nickel package, after showing five on the line of scrimmage on the first Cal drive. The two linebackers (Isaako Savaiinaea and Jayon Brown) moved back into the middle of the field playing at regular depth. UCLA showed 6 in the box, with 4 down linemen, and man coverage out of mostly cover 2, pre-snap. When the ball was snapped, Brown and Savaiinaea would drop into zone coverage if they read pass and that caused Goff to move to his second read almost immediately. The Air Raid system likes to give the quarterback a short option and a deep option on each side of the field, with the short option usually coming from an inside receiver and the deep option coming from the outside receiver. With UCLA pressing the outside receivers, thus slowing down their routes, the inside receivers were running into a zoned-up linebacker, and thus weren’t appearing to be open to the quarterback. That forced Goff to check down to his third option or wait for another route to come open and that can cause problems for the Air Raid system.
As an example, trailing 10-3 with the ball around mid-field, Cal faced a third-down-and-6 in the later part of the first quarter. This proved to be a drive Cal had to score on, and on this particular play UCLA rushed 4 and dropped 7 in coverage against a 5-wide look from Cal. UCLA post-snap jumped the inside routes with the two linebackers and caused Goff to have to hold the ball, waiting for another route to come open. UCLA rush backer Aaron Wallace came vertically up the field and forced Goff to move his feet, eventually dropping his eyes and the result was a sack, forcing a punt. Wallace gets credit for the sack, but to me that was the epitome of a coverage sack as the coverage was perfect against that formation. The drive’s result was a punt and gave the UCLA offense another chance to put points on the board.
On Cal’s next drive, trailing 17-3, Cal had another drive it needed to score on, but UCLA played off this pre/post snap concept to get another Cal punt. On first down Cal ran a designed run that was fit well by the two linebackers, with Savaiinaea making the tackle after a short gain. After a false start penalty, Cal ran a pass play on 2nd and 12. Both Savaiinaea and Cameron Judge zoned up the middle coverage and the secondary had man on the outside with help over the top. Goff looked to his first option on the far side, which was red from the press coverage, progressed to his second option on the middle cross, which appeared to be covered due to the middle zone, progressed to his third option, which was the flare to the running back, again appearing to be covered by the linebacker, and then finally tried to come back to his near outside receiver who was blanketed by the boundary corner. Goff eventually tucked the ball and tried to run, but was stopped for no gain. This probably didn’t seem like a big play, but it was for the UCLA defense as everything they wanted to do defensively in the gameplan worked on this particular play. Goff was forced off his outside read then couldn’t get to his inside read and couldn’t find his check-down route, all while having to move his feet due to the pressure in his face from the defensive line. On third down UCLA gave up 9 when Cal needed 11 and the result was another forced punt and UCLA’s offense coming onto the field.
Tactically, this match-up favored UCLA because Cal isn’t a good running team and UCLA has a pretty good secondary. Even though there isn’t a lot of press coverage from UCLA with their corners, this was a game where it was mandatory. Goff is a very good quarterback, but the Air Raid system has historically always had an Achilles Heel when it comes to being dependable for long stretches because it can be so one-dimensional. Goff finished with close to 300 yards on the night, but yards don’t tell the story of how well the secondary played for UCLA. Incompletions do however, and Goff’s 19 incompletions in the game represent why the Cal offense was stagnant for most of the night. If you can’t run the ball with much success, which Cal couldn’t do, then incompletions in this system lead to punts. Punts by Cal in this game led to points for UCLA against the Cal defense, and before long Cal was buried and unable to climb out of the hole created.
This game was a prelude to what UCLA can expect against Washington State. I actually think Luke Falk is executing at a higher level right now than Goff, and the Washington State system will be another challenge for the UCLA secondary. If UCLA is going to get through the next 3 games with a skeleton crew on defense it has to continue to get great play from the secondary.
The defensive line played really well against Cal. Kenny Clark was his usual stellar self, but Takkarist McKinley had his best game as a Bruin. Matt Dickerson, Jacob Tuioti-Mariner and Eli Ankou played really well, too. The play of those four and Aaron Wallace gave UCLA the ability to move Goff’s feet with only 4 rushers, and that is critical to beating a pass heavy team.
Wallace deserves special mention for his play in place of the injured Deon Hollins. Wallace is basically an undersized defensive end, so his pass rush tends to be more controlled compared to a pure rush backer at that spot. He’s also big and strong enough to shed or hold up a block from a tackle against the run. Hollins is very much missed when he’s out, but Wallace did a great job filling in for Hollins in UCLA’s scheme in this game.
Also having a good performance were the two UCLA corners, Marcus Rios and Johnny Johnson. They drew the assignment of Bryce Treggs and Kenny Lawler most of the night, with some Manny Harris mixed in. Pressing those bigger receivers is a tall task and they showed they were up for it. It helps them to have Ishmael Adams and Randall Goforth providing support, as those two guys run like corners as well. But when put on an island both Rios and Johnson showed that UCLA can, in fact, play press coverage, which really helps UCLA’s chances going forward.
UCLA’s Offense vs Cal’s Defense: Take Care Of The Ball
Cal came in to the game with the #1 ranked defense in the country in turnover margin. Turnover creation tends to mask a lot of weaknesses in personnel or scheme defensively. The biggest key for UCLA’s offense was to take care of the ball and execute what Cal gave them. Josh Rosen’s reads in this game were really good. UCLA came out with a similar gameplan to what they tried to do offensively against Stanford. Designed throws to get Rosen into a rhythm, and designed runs to try and get Paul Perkins going. On the first UCLA drive, they went down the field in 9 plays using 5 runs and 4 passes for a field goal. Had it not have been for an offensive pass interference penalty the drive would have ended in a touchdown. The second UCLA drive was 13 plays for a touchdown. The third UCLA drive was 10 plays for a touchdown. Early in this game it was clear that UCLA could move the ball fairly easily on the Cal defense, so executing and not turning it over were critical to sustained success.
Inside each of the first three drives, UCLA still used the designed pass/designed runs to move the ball, but what became very prevalent were the packaged plays from Rosen. Sometimes referred to as “Run-Pass Options” or RPOs for short, I call them packaged plays. They are basically plays where the line is run blocking, the receivers are in modified pattern, and the quarterback is making a read based on a specific person in the defense. If the defender shows something pre-snap and moves on the run fake the quarterback pulls the ball and throws to the receiver in pattern. This pop passing game is something that UCLA has struggled with at different points this season, but against Cal it was working really well.
On UCLA’s first drive, as was the case in the Stanford game, the offense looked scripted for Rosen, using designed throws and designed runs to get the chains moving. Of the 9 plays UCLA ran on the first drive, 2 looked to me like read-packages, the others designed run/designed throws. Then on UCLAs second drive, of the 13 plays, 4 looked like read-packages. More specifically, the RPOs came when UCLA was in a trips formation, which if you remember last year’s game at Berkeley, Cal had a hard time defending.
So clearly, UCLA offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone saw something on film that showed Cal’s defense having trouble defending the pop passes out of specific types of formations. Using tempo kept Cal from substituting different personnel and when UCLA had the personnel they wanted in the match-up, they used an RPO to exploit it. By the third drive, UCLA was using tempo and formation to trap Cal. That combined with a growing understanding from Rosen on how to attack tendencies, and UCLA had some very favorable match-ups early in this game that they were able to take advantage of.
Cal’s base defense in this game, and for most of the season, was nickel. Cal doesn’t like to commit numbers to the box. Against Utah and Texas, both heavy run offenses, they took a long time to bring an extra defender down into the box. Utah countered easily and threw around the 7 defenders in the box look, and because Cal doesn’t have great personnel up front they couldn’t create pressure in the second half of that game. When defending UCLA, if the Bruins are executing, the offensive system of Mazzone’s is very difficult to stop.
What most defenses do is resort to all-out blitzing to create negative plays or turnovers, and/or letting UCLA shoot themselves in the foot with penalties. In this game, even though the penalties were still a factor for UCLA, the turnovers were not. Cal was outclassed in their man coverage, and thus had to give cushions to the UCLA receivers. Up front the Cal defensive line couldn’t move the UCLA offensive line around or gain penetration. Bringing numbers into the box and blitzing wasn’t a great solution for Cal because UCLA had established all three dimensions of the offense early in the game -- the running game with Perkins, the passing game with Rosen, and the packaged reads. So by the middle of the second quarter, Cal still couldn’t figure out what was coming and when it was coming at them. Given Cal’s confusion and inability to diagnose, UCLA methodically marched down the field the entire first half, and even though not every drive ended in a touchdown, field goals were still points on the board and the lead widened. UCLA didn’t punt until mid-way through the third quarter with a 33-10 lead.
Efficiency wins when you’re in a track meet, and the UCLA offense planned on needing to score a lot to win. That ended up not being the case, but the execution and effectiveness of the scheme should remind us all that when the offensive system is run properly, it can be very explosive and fun to watch.
It seems like every game Rosen makes strides. I thought this was his best game of the season, especially as the game wore on. Losing your top two running backs and one of your top three wide-outs can force an offense to get conservative. UCLA stuck with letting Rosen make the read and trust the read, and that decision was rewarded with a great offensive performance. Rosen helped UCLA put up 40 points and he threw for almost 400 yards, but in reality UCLA could have scored 60 very easily had they have just finished more drives with touchdowns. This was a really good offensive performance, especially from Rosen as he continues to get better and better each week. It’s scary to think about what this kid will be like for the next 2 years.
Thomas Duarte had a great game, not just statistically, but in his decision-making as well. His ability to build a trust with Rosen, knowing when to stop a route and look for the ball, when to sit on a cushion or in a zone, is really impressive. He’s another guy who seems to get more and more comfortable every week, and with his size and speed he can be a huge match-up problem. It’s good to see him becoming such a big part of this offense.
It’s almost as if the coaches read our analysis last week. Darren Andrews was a mainstay in this game, and rewarded the coaches by having a great night, especially in yards after the catch. I also thought Stephen Johnson was a bigger part of the game-plan against Cal. Johnson had a touchdown catch called back because of a hold, and also had a nice catch on an under route where the far side of the field was cleared out for him. These two guys emerging allow UCLA to move Devin Fuller into an outside role, which gives the receiving group more speed and skill in 4-wide sets.
Cal proved to be worse than a lot of people thought coming into the game, as UCLA was clearly the better team with better talent and depth. Turnovers and execution we’re the keys for UCLA in this game. Taking care of the ball and executing offensively could get UCLA a win if it turned into a track meet. Turns out it wasn’t, and most of that is due to a great performance by the defense early in the game. With Cal out of the way, the next three weeks look very winnable, even with the injuries starting to pile up.
Colorado and Oregon State look like low-end WAC teams. UCLA should be able to out-execute both of them and win handily. Washington State is a bit more of an enigma. They throw it really well, and their coach is just insane enough to have them playing their best ball as the season goes on despite losing to a FCS team to start the year. It’s good UCLA has them at home, and this showing against Cal should give hope to UCLA fans that they can match up with that offensive attack.
Jim Mora has a history of coming out swinging when his back is against the wall, having lost back-to-back games each of the last few years, then running off a win streak immediately following. If this team can execute on both sides of the ball like they did against Cal, I don’t see any reason we won’t be saying the same thing about this year’s team. Get the next three, get healthy for Utah and SC, and UCLA still has a path to the PAC 12 Championship game.