Sonny Dykes is only five games into his inaugural season, and his defense has surrendered 225 points. To this point, it has captured the attention and drawn the ire of Cal fans. But instead of focusing on that, let’s focus on the team’s passing game and, more importantly, appreciate it, because it’s a thing of beauty.
Molded from the minds of Cal coach Sonny Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin, the Bear Raid offense has turned quarterback Jared Goff into the nation’s third-leading passer and wide receiver Chris Harper into a top-15 pass catcher.
Still, the buzz surrounding Goff and the Cal aerial assault has dropped substantially since Cal’s season debut against Northwestern back on Aug. 31. But it’s worth noting that since the season opener, Goff’s exceptional play — throwing the Oregon game out the window — has been a constant in a minefield of inconsistency. The freshman phenom compiled 371 passing yards and three touchdowns against No. 4 Ohio State and set a school record for passing yards in a game in the loss to Washington State on Saturday.
Goff’s numbers are always going to be inflated due to the high frequency of passing plays called by Dykes and Franklin and because of the high volume of easy throws the system creates. Against the Cougars on Saturday, Dykes and Franklin drew up yet another easy throw for Goff. The result was an 89-yard touchdown to Harper in the second quarter.
On the play, it’s apparent that the Washington State defense simply loses track of Harper. When catching the ball around midfield, the closest Cougar is 10 yards away. From there, Harper’s fleeting speed and game-changing jukes take over as he beats one Washington State safety and then outraces everyone to the end zone.
But that’s not even the fun part of what transpired on this particular play. Harper makes the defense pay after he makes the catch, but Dykes and Franklin’s intricate play design is the real winner.
Going to the tape, Cal is in the shotgun formation with four wide receivers and one running back all available for distribution from Goff. Running back Jeffrey Coprich lines up to Goff’s right and runs a simple route into the flat as the checkdown receiver.
The lone receiver on the left side of the field is Bryce Treggs. The explosive Treggs runs a deep route in the middle-left portion of the field, bringing a cornerback and safety with him. At the onset of the snap and for the majority of the time he holds onto the football, Goff looks Treggs’ way.
On the right side, Cal’s three remaining receivers are organized with two bunched in the slot and one on the right sideline. Typically, Harper would be the one on the right flank, but this time it’s Kenny Lawler, who runs a crossing pattern over the middle of the field. Instead, Harper is positioned as the slot receiver closest to the middle of the field with Jacob Wark on his right. Similar to Lawler, Wark runs a crossing route over the middle, only his is much shallower — only a few yards from the line of scrimmage.
Harper’s route is designed to get him to the sideline and up the field. The sophomore doesn’t cut to the sideline until a few yards past the line of scrimmage. When he does, he quickly about-faces toward the numbers, before turning vertical. Heading north, Harper finds himself isolated just as Goff turns his head away from Treggs. An easy loft by Goff, a breakaway move from Harper, and the duo finds themselves in the record books.
But let’s get back to the play design. By lining up in the middle of the field, Harper is freed from a matchup with one of Washington State’s best corners. And by bunching receivers together in the slot, it makes it easier for a receiver to slip through the secondary, untouched and uncovered. For someone like Harper, who racked up three touchdowns and 24 receptions in the four games prior to Saturday, it’s almost impossible to remain invisible. More often than not, Harper is one of the focal points of Cal’s offense.
The other focal point of Cal’s offense is Treggs. Goff takes advantage of the attention surrounding Treggs on this play by looking off the safety that should have been on Harper’s side of the field.
Instinctively, the Cougar safety follows Goff’s eyes toward Treggs. But because Goff stares down Treggs for almost the entirety of the play, the right side of the field is vacated and left alone for Harper.