On Sunday morning, Cal’s defense, which had gone through many of its own trials and tribulations throughout the week, was no match for UCLA’s rushing attack. The Bruins gashed the Bears for 244 rushing yards and two touchdowns, the final of which put a dagger in Cal’s heart early in the fourth quarter. Throughout the contest, UCLA employed a wide variety of offensive tactics, constantly keeping the Cal defense on its toes.
For a little bit of football 101, let’s give a brief rundown of the read-option, a type of play that appears in an edge defender’s nightmares. When an offensive coordinator has a true dual-threat quarterback such as UCLA’s Dorian Thompson-Robinson, it would be a waste of talent not to let him create plays with his feet. A read-option essentially gives opponents a two-headed monster to worry about, as depending on how the defense reacts to the play, either the quarterback or running back could be off to the races.
In a basic read-option, a quarterback has two choices: hand it off to the running back or keep the ball and run it himself. But there’s a catch. In both scenarios, the quarterback makes it look like he’s handing the ball off, but as he extends the ball, his eyes are “reading” a key defensive player, who has to choose which of the two to try to take down.
If the defender takes an angle toward the running back going downhill, the quarterback has the option to pull the ball out at the last second and run it himself, usually to the outside. But if the defender respects the quarterback’s ability to run and keeps outside contain, the quarterback will hand it off to the running back, who now has one fewer defender to evade.
On this specific play, Cal outside linebacker Braxten Croteau was forced to make the call. Croteau, who was intentionally left unblocked by the Bruins, chose to take outside leverage with the goal of preventing Thompson-Robinson from breaking off a big run, which he did several times en route to 109 rushing yards in UCLA’s season opener against Colorado. Once Thompson-Robinson noticed Croteau’s positioning, he left the ball extended, handing it off to UCLA running back Brittain Brown.
Cal’s defense stuffed the middle of the line well, but Croteau’s absence left a wide-open hole on the right of the offensive line, allowing Brown to bounce it outside. Although the successful read-option already guaranteed Brown a decent chunk of yardage, the facet of the play that allowed the touchdown to happen was a key block by UCLA slot receiver Kyle Philips. Cal safety Daniel Scott was originally tasked with guarding Philips in man coverage, but the receiver was able to throw him off balance just enough so that when Scott finally got a hand on Brown, it was too late.
Cal inside linebacker Kuony Deng was also able to recover from a block enough to attempt a diving tackle, but Brown was already far enough ahead that Deng was unable to trip him up. Cal safety Elijah Hicks had the best chance to bring Brown down before the end zone, but being down three possessions with less than a quarter to play, Hicks attempted to rip the ball out of Brown’s arm instead of taking out his legs. The turnover attempt was unsuccessful, and Brown was able to wiggle free from Hicks’ last-ditch tackle effort before stumbling into the end zone for 6 points, dashing any hopes of a Cal comeback.
The read-option is a vital facet of UCLA head coach Chip Kelly’s offense, and the Bruins have executed it quite well so far in 2020. UCLA froze Cal’s edge defender, who may be either a lineman or a linebacker depending on the formation and play call, nearly every time it ran the option, essentially giving the Bears one fewer defender to stop the run on those plays. The same thing happened for the Bruins on their first touchdown of the morning when Cal defensive end Brett Johnson bit on Thompson-Robinson’s fake handoff and tried to take down the running back, allowing Thompson-Robinson to pull the ball out and run right past Johnson into the end zone.
While option plays can most definitely be stopped, Cal went into the game with a defensive line that was missing a starter and, on top of that, hadn’t practiced in two full weeks because of contact tracing protocols. Thompson-Robinson will likely be the best dual-threat quarterback the Bears face all season, but the execution of Cal’s front seven has to be better moving forward no matter whom the opposition starts under center.
Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].