Tale of the tape: How the pistol formation unlocks Cal football’s personnel

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Phillip Downey/File

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Cal football has become an exciting team to watch week in and week out, and the play-calling of offensive coordinator Beau Baldwin is no small part of that. With the hiring of a defensive-minded head coach in Justin Wilcox, it seemed possible that the Bears would do  away with the high-flying, spread-it-out style we’ve seen over the past few years. But Wilcox apparently had no intention into turning the Bears into a ground-and-pound team. After plucking Baldwin from FCS Eastern Washington, which feels more and more like a master stroke, the offense is still managing to put up Bear Raid-esque numbers without the defensive incompetence that used to come along with it.

Baldwin inherited an unorthodox personnel group, and although it’s taken some time for him to design his offense around some bizarre sets of strengths and weaknesses, it’s looked incredibly cohesive over the past few weeks. They’re often derailed by an offensive line (which, to be fair, took the jump from horrific to just bad), but when the offense has time to operate, Baldwin has gotten to show off.

Baldwin is also the running back coach, and he has his hands full with a lot of different players to juggle. He had three to start with in Tre Watson, Vic Enwere and Patrick Laird, the last of whom was an afterthought coming into the season. Of course, Laird had a massive game in Cal’s week one victory over UNC, and Watson was knocked out for the season in his second game. Things were down to Laird and Enwere, two players with very different skill sets.

Junior running back Patrick Laird (28) has shockingly emerged as an offensive focal point after being a complete afterthought coming into the season. He’s incredibly quick, has excellent balance and an array of jukes and spins to make defenders miss. He is a tad undersized, however, and can’t always fall forward to move the chains.

On the other hand, senior running back Vic Enwere (23) is a pure power back. His size makes him incredibly hard to bring down, and he’s got great vision for finding paths through the defense, but he’s not speedy, doesn’t have great hands and struggles with making guys miss in the backfield. For him to excel, he generally needs to be in a pro-style offense.

The first few weeks, things were going well, with Laird taking snaps in shotgun and Enwere taking them when quarterback Ross Bowers moved under center. But about week six, teams seemed to figure out the patterns and play-calling, and Enwere and Laird were getting routinely stuffed.

Things changed when Baldwin started routinely going to the pistol formation. Both running backs can play, as it combines element of shotgun and pro formations, allowing the play-calling to be much more varied and less predictable. Let’s take a look at how that worked for the Bears against Oregon State in Cal’s last win.

Cal was playing well but was having a difficult time separating itself from Oregon State down the stretch. The Bears finally went up by 10 right at the end of the third quarter, and five minutes into the final period, Cal finally had a chance to put Oregon State away.

On first and 10, just 11 yards out from the end zone, the Bears line up in the pistol with Laird. A weak side run goes for just 3 yards as the hole opens up late, and Laird can’t cut toward it in time.

Laird shuffles off the field, and Enwere (23) comes in. They line up in essentially the same position, except that now fullback Malik McMorris (99), who’s playing as a blocking tight end on the play, has switched sides of the field and lined up next to tight end Kyle Wells (87). Wide receivers Jordan Veasy (15) and Vic Wharton (12) are both on the left side of the field, with Wharton on the inside.

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A few weeks prior, the defense would have stuffed the box as soon as Enwere hit the field, and they would have been headed downfield as soon as the snap came in, especially when they saw Bowers starting to hand off the ball. In a shotgun formation, play action is more of a threat with Bowers, but he hasn’t seemed totally comfortable passing in the pro formation. The pistol allowed Bowers to hand off the ball with the defense having to respect the threat of the pass and stay back on their feet.

Oregon State outside linebacker Kee Whetzel (37) has adjusted to Cal running on the last play and is closer to the line of scrimmage on the right side. If he was blitzing or not respecting the pass, he would have easily blown up the play, but he is flat-footed as the handoff occurs.

McMorris pulls to the left and bowls over White, opening up a hole into the secondary for Enwere. Kamryn Bennett (72) gets into the second level because of good blocking from Patrick Mekari (79) and Addison Ooms (57) and takes out the Beavers’ über-talented inside linebacker Manase Hungalu (55), who likely could have made a quick adjustment and found Enwere before he got to the goal line, had Bennett not quickly moved up the field.

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At the last second, Ooms also hits the second level and makes a big block on outside linebacker Hamilcar Rashed Jr. Beaver safety Jalen Moore is incredibly late to make a lateral move to meet Enwere before he meets the goal line, and he’s far too late. He attempts to launch into Enwere with his shoulder right at the 1-yard line, and Enwere bounces right off, leaving Moore on the ground. The Beavers’ other safety, David Morris, is another two steps behind. Touchdown Cal, and the Beavers are officially buried.

The Cardinal have been uncharacteristically mediocre in rush defense this year (75th in the nation), so Cal may do well to run on Stanford when it has a relative advantage. But head coach David Shaw and Willie Shaw Director of Defense Lance Anderson are as good as anyone at diagnosing play-calling based on personnel and making good adjustments. Cal will need to give them multifaceted looks to remain unpredictable, and plays like this could go a long ways toward that.

Andrew Wild is the sports editor. Contact him at [email protected]. Follow him on Twitter @andrewwild17.

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