Not only did the Cal football team fail to score more than seven points against Washington on Saturday, it was also unable to generate explosive plays. The Bears’ longest play was 25 yards, a Jared Goff to Maurice Harris connection that took place in the first quarter.
Besides that completion to Harris, Cal’s offense, for the first time this season, featured a dink-and-dunk approach. Goff, whose 9.4 yards per passing attempt ranks ninth in the nation, averaged just six yards per completion against the Huskies.
After the game, head coach Sonny Dykes attributed his team’s failure to stretch the field to the positioning of Washington’s safeties.
“They just played their safeties real deep,” Dykes said. “Most of the time their safeties were 15 yards and backpedaling, where we’ve been playing safeties that were more aggressive.”
Dykes is right. When looking at the tape, it’s clear that Washington’s defense is intent on taking away the deep ball by making sure its two safeties are always on top of Cal’s receivers. But when viewing the film, there’s also another reason Cal failed to get the ball down field. Its offensive line couldn’t handle Washington’s front four, and Goff, sacked four times, found himself under duress for much of the afternoon.
Washington linebacker Hau’oli Kikaha, who currently leads the nation in sacks with 10, tallied three of those sacks against Goff. Against Cal, Kikaha proved to be a troublemaker, dominating with both speed and strength.
His first sack of the day, which occurred in the second quarter, had little to do with his athleticism, though. Instead, it came as a result of poor offensive line play from Cal.
With that, let’s go to the tape.
Facing a third-and-five at their own 45-yard line, the Bears line up in the shotgun. After two fumbles by Goff, they’re already trailing 14-0 with more than 11 minutes remaining in the first half. A first down on this play is crucial in order to extend the drive and give them a chance to get back into the game.
Next to Goff is running back Tre Watson, who is on Goff’s left and is going to swing out toward the left sideline at the onset of the play. Farther to the left and hugging the line of scrimmage is a wide receiver — he’s going to run a deep-in route. On the same side of the field but closer to Goff is Bryce Treggs. Operating out of the left slot, Treggs will run a shorter in-route. On the far right of the formation is Maurice Harris, who runs a streak down the field. And, in the right slot is Stephen Anderson — he runs an intermediate out-route.
Washington, meanwhile, is in a fairly conservative defense. The Huskies rush four players and throw the rest into a soft zone coverage. As Dykes alluded to, the safeties are roughly 15 yards deep. The linebackers are five yards from the line of scrimmage.
It’s really not worth watching any of the wide receivers or the coverage on this particular play, however, as Goff never really has a chance to throw. By the time his receivers are ready for the football, Goff is getting crunched by Kikaha. The only target who has a chance of snagging a quick reception is Watson, but because he’s on Goff’s blindside, he’s basically invisible to his quarterback.
Instead, it’s worth keeping an eye on the offensive line. It only takes Kikaha two seconds to sack Goff. Despite the Bears’ 5-to-4 matchup advantage in terms of offensive linemen versus pass rushers, Kikaha is granted a free shot at Goff.
Kikaha is lined up over the top of Cal’s left tackle, Steven Moore. As the buck linebacker, Kikaha plays the role of outside linebacker. And while he’s often in charge of containment — making sure runners can’t reverse their field and exploit overzealous defenses — he’s also a frequent blitzer.
On this particular blitz, he doesn’t make a move to beat Moore — he just runs right past him. When the ball is snapped, Moore, for whatever reason, doesn’t even look at Kikaha. Instead, Moore is looking toward the middle of the line of scrimmage, which is already sealed up by his teammates, and Kikaha flies on by.
And Goff, who is just beginning to go through his reads on the right side of the field, doesn’t even have a chance. He’s not expecting immediate pressure, he’s expecting time in the pocket to find a receiver downfield.
After the play, the Pac-12 Networks’ analyst tried to explain the reason for Kikaha’s free lane.
“This is going to be a slide protection. The tackle doesn’t take him. The tackle either thought that the back had him, or the quarterback should have readjusted. There was a miscommunication.”
At its most basic level, a slide protection typically means the offensive line is in a zone-blocking scheme. Each lineman isn’t assigned a man to block, they’re assigned a zone. What the analyst is saying is that Moore was either assigned the wrong zone to block and thought Watson, a 5-foot-10 running back, was going to block Kikaha, a 6-foot-3 linebacker, or Jared Goff should have adjusted the protection so Moore knew he was to block the lane Kikaha shot through. Of course, there’s also the possibility that Moore just messed up and should have blocked Kikaha.
We’ll never know. Unfortunately, it’s impossible to know the reason Kikaha went unblocked. Regardless of whose fault it was, it’s a mistake Cal can’t afford to make.
Kikaha, of course, would go on to sack Goff three more times. At least two of those sacks weren’t a product of miscommunication or missed assignment — Kikaha just simply overpowered and blazed past his assigned blocker.