Usually the Cal football team is in a good position to prosper when it finds itself in a shootout. With Jared Goff at quarterback, the Bears usually have the advantage in high-scoring contests.
But that was not the case against UCLA on Oct. 22. True freshman quarterback Josh Rosen lit up the Bears’ defense which, up to that game, had shown significant improvements this season. In each of Cal’s five wins this season, there was a big play on defense that forced a turnover to spark the Bears and get the offense going.
But Rosen threw for 399 yards on 34-47 passing for three touchdowns. Cal’s defense looked more like last year’s and didn’t have the dynamic playmaking identity it established in the first half of this season. The Bears couldn’t get pressure on Rosen, cover receivers or tackle effectively enough to limit yardage. The Bruins had 90 total offensive snaps and 31 first downs.
While Rosen and the UCLA offense were moving the chains all night, the Bears did not have as easy of a time scoring. Thursday was a game in which Cal struggled to get the run game going, averaging just 3.7 yards a carry. With the lack of a run game combined with falling behind early, the Bears relied heavily on Goff’s arm to save the day.
And the Bruins knew exactly what to expect. Because of the limited running threat, UCLA’s defensive line focused on getting to Goff rather than to the running back, while the safeties and linebackers were able to step back and prepare for the deep pass. Because Cal was trailing by multiple possessions for most of the game, it had no choice but to stick with pass plays in order to preserve the clock and pick up yards quickly. Goff threw the ball a season high 53 times and was also sacked five times, tied for a season high.
Goff did not play a terrible game and he did make impressive plays throughout the night. But no matter how good Goff can be, it is hard to find success when the opponent’s defense is set up specifically to limit his impact.
Only on a few occasions did Cal draw up a play that caught UCLA’s defense off guard and allowed Goff to capitalize and make a big play. Of those few, one of them was Goff’s 42-yard connection to wide receiver Maurice Harris off a flea flicker play.
Down 33-10 midway through the third quarter, the Bears’ usually reliable offense wasn’t working. Might as well switch things up, right?
Cal lines up in the pistol formation which is often how the team likes to get the ball to its running backs, which in this case is Daniel Lasco. There are two extra players in the line of scrimmage which indicates extra blockers, while wide receiver Kenny Lawler is in his usual spot at outside receiver to Goff’s right and Harris is next to Lawler in the slot.
Even before the snap, the Bruins are leaning towards defending the run. The linebackers have to account for the extra blockers while the safeties are closer to the line of scrimmage to protect the second level.
To further sell the run and to force UCLA into committing to its fake, the Bears have left guard Chris Borrayo (#66) run to his right to block somebody. Now all of sudden, Cal looks like it’s running something really well-thought out.
The key behind the success of the flea flicker is in the offensive line. They went out of their way to open up a running lane and force the linebackers to get ready to close up the hole and attack Lasco.
Lasco could probably even gain a few yards from this booby trap running lane the offensive line generated. Because of the fat hole that Lasco is threatening to run through, the safeties in the back are responsible for limiting the yardage in the event that Lasco beats the linebackers.
When I played right-field in high school, my baseball coach always told me “first step back” when there’s a flyball coming my way. Outfielders don’t have anybody behind them to back them up. So if a ball flies over an outfielder’s head, that’s not good defense. As soon as the ball is hit, the difference in space an outfielder who takes the first step back can cover is several yards more than the outfielder who misjudged the ball and took a step forward.
This is the same case for the UCLA safeties. Except instead of a flyball getting past them, it’s Harris.
Because of the extra effort the offensive line made in selling the run, the Bruins’ safeties had no choice but to step up and account for Lasco. All it takes is half a second. The safeties were positioned to provide run support, which gave Harris the opportunity to get behind the secondary. And at that moment, safety Jaleel Wadood (#2) knew, he blew his assignment.
Even with the well-executed play fake, the Bruins defensive line still almost got to the quarterback. As soon as Goff got the toss back from Lasco, he had to fire almost right away. Harris had nothing but green in front of him. But the pass thrown to him was slightly underthrown and floated a bit too much. Harris had to slow down a bit and leap for the catch where he was tackled right away.
Had Goff had just an extra second to step into the throw and hit Harris in stride with a line-drive pass, it probably could’ve been a touchdown. UCLA was fooled and not able to predict what Cal drew up.
Unfortunately for the Bears, plays like these came sparingly Thursday. For the majority of the night, the Bruins had Cal’s offense figured out. Defenders, for the most part, were in position to blow up plays and limit Goff’s receivers. But on this flea-flicker play, the Bears were finally the ones who were a step ahead.
Ritchie Lee covers football. Contact him at [email protected]