When a team finishes with just one win and 11 losses, it’s impossible to point to one specific area that is in need of repair. It’s a sentiment that rings true for Cal — the offense was inefficient, and the defense was arguably the worst in the country when taking into account both the number of yards it allowed and the amount of points it surrendered.
Cal, a team that went 1-11 last season, has already matched its win total from a year ago, beating Northwestern on the road Saturday. The win was due to a multitude of improvements — the defense shut down the Wildcats’ offense in the first half and got a few crucial stops late in the ball game. Just as important, though, was the offense’s efficiency.
Not only were the Bears effective on third downs, but they also took advantage of their opportunities in the red zone — something we didn’t see in 2013. On Saturday, Cal went 4-for-4 in the red zone, settling for a field goal just once. Those three touchdowns were paramount to building a 24-point cushion into the second half.
Perhaps the most important of the three touchdowns came on the Bears’ opening drive of the game, not only because it put Northwestern in an early 7-0 hole, but also because it came on a fourth down. If Cal failed to convert on that fourth down, Northwestern would have survived an 18-play drive completely unscathed.
Give credit where it’s due, because Cal’s coaching staff drew up the perfect play for one of its most dynamic playmakers: Bryce Treggs. And although the Bears snapped the ball from the one-yard line, Treggs was pretty much able to waltz into the end zone, untouched, unharmed, with his smile intact.
With that, let’s go to the tape.
Cal opts for the shotgun formation despite being about one and a half yards away from pay dirt. Jared Goff is in at quarterback. To Goff’s immediate right is running back Vic Enwere.
The Bears use four wide receivers. One is lined up next to their right guard, while three are bunched to the left side of the line of scrimmage, not more than a few yards away from Cal’s left tackle.
One of those receivers — Treggs — starts moving before anyone else. He sprints toward the middle of the field. When he’s directly behind the center, Treggs switches direction and heads back toward the left side of the field.
By sending Treggs in motion, Goff is able to get a quick and easy pre-snap read on the play. The defensive back assigned to Treggs follows Cal’s wide receiver toward the middle of the field and then back to the outside. Goff now knows that Northwestern is playing man coverage. If the defender didn’t run with Treggs, then the defender would have been passing off Treggs to another defender. Goff would have known Northwestern was in zone coverage.
When Treggs starts his motion, Goff is standing tall. Goff’s not ready for the snap — he’s surveying the defense. As soon as he sees the defender shadowing Treggs, he gets into his stance, ready for the snap. He doesn’t need to watch anymore. He knows what he’s working with in terms of coverage.
There’s another purpose of sending Treggs in motion in the backfield. It’s to prevent Northwestern from jamming Treggs at the line of scrimmage. Treggs is a burner, akin to DeSean Jackson. It’s not that he can’t beat a cornerback who attempts to slow him down immediately by putting his hands on him, it’s just that Treggs’ best attribute is his wheels, and you don’t get them going through rocky terrain.
By starting Treggs out of the backfield, Cal has made it impossible for Northwestern to lay a hand on him. Once Treggs gets his engine going, he’s not going to be slowed down by some simple hand-to-chest or hand-to-shoulder contact.
No one even comes close to touching him. One reason for this is Treggs’ starting location. Another reason is this route. He’s not running north to south. He’s strictly running east to west: horizontally across the field. It’s impossible for the defender initially assigned to Treggs to keep up. There are a lot of bodies on Northwestern’s defense lined up within a few yards of the line of scrimmage. There’s no way that defender is traversing all of those players in order to cover Treggs adequately.
This means, of course, that another defender is going to have to switch to Treggs. That defender is No. 23 — Nick VanHoose. At the onset of the play, he’s lined up near Darius Powe, Cal’s lone receiver on the right side of the field. VanHoose is the only defensive back on the side of the field that Treggs will eventually score on.
The problem is that VanHoose has a near-impossible task because as Treggs is sprinting toward the right side of the field, Goff is busy executing a play fake to Enwere. And while he’s faking the handoff, Cal’s entire offensive line and Powe are busy blocking Northwestern’s defensive line to the left side of the field. Nearly everything about this play indicates a handoff to Enwere, who is heading to the left.
Seeing this, VanHoose takes three steps toward the inside of the field. By the time he realizes it’s a play-action pass, it’s too late. Treggs is faster than VanHoose. There’s no way VanHoose is going to stop his momentum, change directions and keep up with an already-moving Treggs.
The only hope Northwestern really has at stopping this play is getting to Goff in a hurry. Goff’s receivers on the left side of the field are running routes toward the middle of the end zone, but there’s no way they’re going to be open immediately. The only way that either one of those receivers will catch a touchdown on this particular play is if Goff is forced toward the right sideline and the play extends for a few seconds.
If Northwestern is able to cover Treggs, Goff has no other immediate options. Add in some pressure, and Cal is doomed.
It’s clear early on that Goff isn’t going to have enough time to look for any options other than Treggs, who is the only receiver in Goff’s eyesight. Northwestern does a good job of getting pressure in Goff’s face.
But because Treggs is so wide open, it doesn’t matter. It’s an easy throw for Goff and an easier catch for Treggs. And just like that, Cal is on its way to a commanding lead.
“You go from being pretty smart to pretty dumb overnight.”
Those words were said by head coach Sonny Dykes as recently as the Pac-12 media day earlier this summer. It’s not the first time he’s said those exact words, and it’s a phrase that has stuck with me for some time.
In the context of that quote, Dykes is talking about wins and losses. He isn’t talking about play calling. I can’t help but relate those words, however, to this specific touchdown, because two plays earlier on that touchdown drive, Cal’s offensive coaching staff called for a fade to Kenny Lawler in the corner of the end zone. Sure, Lawler made his fair share of highlight-reel catches last season, but unless you have a receiver who possesses hands like Alshon Jeffery, it’s a pretty dumb call. It winds up as an incomplete pass.
Dykes and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin more than made up for the decision by going for it on the fourth down and goal. They more than made up for it with their slick play design, which freed up Treggs in a place where space is often contaminated by too many defensive bodies. To be brief, it’s a pretty smart play call. It results in a touchdown.