Breaking down the Bear Raid before the Big Game

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Ariel Hayat/Staff

During his weekly press conference Tuesday, Cal football head coach Sonny Dykes was asked about the importance of Saturday’s Big Game in terms of getting rid of the negativity that has lingered since his 1-11 inaugural season. Dykes, though, didn’t indicate what role he thought the Big Game played in eliminating any sort of lingering negativity. He didn’t even mention Saturday’s game against Stanford in his response.

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“Most of that stuff, I think, is gone,” Dykes said. “I think people that’ve seen us play this year know we’re a different team. Our program is certainly in a different place than it was a year ago. We’re proud of the progress we’ve made.”

Dykes is right. The negativity is gone, regardless of what happens Saturday. The Bears are by no means a perfect team right now, but remember what the climate was like prior to last year’s Big Game? A year ago, Cal was searching for its first Pac-12 win. On Saturday, the Bears are searching for bowl eligibility.

The reason for this is Dykes’ offense, which was the reason he was hired in
the first place. One year after the Bears finished No. 34 in yards per game and No. 99 in points, they’re now ranked No. 13 in yards per game and No. 9 in points.

The reason for that leap? A number of factors, the most important being the emergence of running back Daniel Lasco, stellar quarterback play from Jared Goff and the wide array of options available at Goff’s disposal.

With that, let’s go to the tape.

When Cal got throttled by Washington on Oct. 11, the offensive line took the majority of the blame. Goff was sacked four times throughout the game. He fumbled on three of those sacks. In an earlier Tale of the Tape, I examined Cal’s offensive line failures in that specific game.

If you follow offensive line coach Zach Yenser on Twitter, you might be aware that he occasionally uses Vine — a video platform — to post clips from the game tape. He posted this video after the win against Oregon State. In this Vine, you’ll see Chris Borrayo absolutely level his opponent and bully him away from Goff.

A common problem often identified by Dykes last year was that the offensive line wasn’t finishing their blocks. They’re doing a better job of that than last year, which has aided their performance. But the offensive line has been aided by the emergence of a running game spearheaded by Lasco, who doesn’t necessarily need a clean hole to rip off a large gain. Instead, Lasco can bounce off would-be tacklers, and he always seems to fall forward after contact to pick up an extra yard or two. Last season, without a powerful downhill runner, Cal’s running game sputtered.

This year, Lasco — who spent a portion of last season injured — is the focal point of the entire offense. Lasco has accounted for 25 percent of Cal’s total offensive yardage. The next closest player is wide receiver Stephen Anderson, who has accounted for 12 percent of Cal’s offense.

Coincidentally, Anderson has been a major contributor to the running game this season. Because Dykes’ offense doesn’t utilize tight ends, he has often relied on Anderson, who stands at 6-foot-3 and weighs 215 pounds, to line up as an extra blocker.An example of this occurred on the first of Lasco’s three touchdowns against Oregon State earlier this month. Anderson lined up on the left of the line of scrimmage, and when Lasco began to cut to the outside of the field, it was Anderson who sealed two blockers in heavy pursuit of Lasco. Then Lasco used his acceleration to rumble into the end zone untouched.

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Lasco’s running ability has been on full display this entire season. He averages north of five yards per carry and leads the team in rushing attempts with 166.

While Cal’s running game is primarily a one-man show, its passing game relies on a multitude of receivers. Bryce Treggs leads the team in receptions with 43, but trailing him is Chris Harper with 41, Anderson with 39 and Kenny Lawler with 37. Even when those four receivers aren’t targeted, Trevor Davis, Darius Powe and Maurice Harris have combined for 60 receptions. The Bears’ wide receiving corps might just be the deepest and best unit in the country.

Much of Cal’s passing offense revolves around short passes and screen passes to the wide outs. The Bears’ seven primary receivers all feature enough speed for those plays to work as designed, consistently picking up enough yardage to make them more efficient than running plays. This, in part, has to do with Cal’s offensive line and the ability of linemen to block players in space.

In this play Yenser posted after Cal’s win against Oregon State, watch as a Cal offensive lineman demolishes a player in hot pursuit of Lawler, who is in the process of turning a bubble screen into a positive gain.

Cal’s receivers are more than just screen catchers, though — they’re also well suited to bring in Goff’s deep balls. Goff does more than just dink and dunk his way down the field — he averages more than eight yards per pass. One aspect of this vertical passing game is the fade, a typically overused play in the red zone. The fade, in the simplest of terms, usually involves a receiver running straight ahead, drifting toward the sideline, and a lobbed throw by the quarterback. As a fan of football, I usually hate fades. They’re a tough throw and a tough catch. But with Cal’s wide receivers, especially Lawler, who Dykes nicknamed “Vicinity Kenny,” the fade is a high-percentage play.

In the play below, you can see the point at which Goff begins to throw a fade to Lawler. Lawler isn’t open on the play, but the expectation is for Goff to lead Lawler with a lofted pass and for Lawler to go up and get the ball.

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Lawler and Goff execute this with ease.

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While the catch by Vicinity Kenny is spectacular, the throw by Goff is just as pretty. For the most part, Goff’s been spot on with this touch and accuracy. Much of this has to do with his footwork. As fellow Cal football writer Riley McAtee broke down earlier in the season, Goff’s footwork, at times, has been “Peyton Manning-esque.

On this 27-yard completion during Cal’s win against Washington State last month, Goff has plenty of time in the pocket. But his feet are always moving as he eyes scan the field.

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When Goff is set to release the ball, he powers off his back foot.

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I’ll be the first to admit I was skeptical of Goff’s playing ability coming into the season. What Goff has done this year is erase any kind of doubt about his future at Cal. Now the debate is centered on his NFL prospects.

He’s accurate — take a look at this ball placement: low and away from the defender. Treggs isn’t necessarily open on this play, but because the throw is in a place only Treggs can reach, it isn’t a risky decision.

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And he can also hit the deep ball. His 75-yard touchdown pass to Anderson against Colorado demonstrated his arm strength. On this particular play, Goff threw the ball off balance and across his body, but it still reached Anderson nearly 40 yards down the field.

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The pass to Anderson is placed perfectly, and it allows Anderson to continue his momentum down the field and away from his defender.

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When Stanford comes to town for the 117th Big Game on Saturday, Cal will be the underdog, despite both teams owning five wins. If it wants to upset the Cardinal — and in the process clinch its first bowl berth since 2011 — the Bear Raid will need to show up. Cal’s defense is in the middle of another horrendous season, having shown minimal signs of improvement from a season ago. Luckily for Dykes, his offense has improved significantly, erasing the negative headlines and feelings from a season ago.

Sean Wagner-McGough covers football. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @seanjwagner.