Tale of the tape: Play-action pass creates easy Cal touchdown in Big Game

Infographic depicting a football play described in "Tale of the Tape"
Aasha Turner/Staff

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Despite a heartbreaking loss to Stanford in the 123rd Big Game, Cal’s offense arguably had its best outing of the season. The Bears outgained the Cardinal in both total yards and first downs — a byproduct of netting an impressive 6.0 yards per play, which likely would’ve won Cal the game, had it not been for an abysmal special teams performance.

Early in the third quarter, Stanford had just scored its second touchdown of the day, going up 17-10, and Cal was aiming to answer with a drive similar to its dominant opening possession of the game. On fourth and 1, with the Bears at the 3-yard line and knocking on the door of the end zone, head coach Justin Wilcox took a gamble on his offense, deciding to go for it rather than kick the chip shot field goal.

With true freshman running back Damien Moore having just broken through for a 54-yard gain a few plays earlier in the drive, the Stanford defense was forced to respect Cal’s rushing attack. Plus, on fourth down and just one yard needed to convert, a run up the middle would be the obvious play call, especially with a back as strong and physical as the Bears’ Christopher Brown Jr., who often requires several defenders to bring down.

Positioning nine of its 11 defenders within a yard of the line of scrimmage, it was clear that Stanford’s top priority was stopping Brown from rushing between the tackles. Knowing this, Cal offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave drew up a play-action pass, which involves a quarterback faking a handoff before pulling the ball out and throwing it. The goal of a play-action is to get the defenders to crash towards the running back, thus leaving them out of position against the receivers and quarterback.

Musgrave also put Garbers’ legs to use by employing a bootleg variation of the play-action, which entails the quarterback running out of the pocket before either throwing on the run or carrying the ball himself. By running towards the right side of the field, Garbers separates himself from all the defenders who clustered in the middle of the field, hoping to stuff the Brown run they thought was coming.

Right when the ball is snapped, Brown acts like he is about to take the handoff from Garbers, drawing nearly the entire Stanford defense towards him. One of these defenders was outside linebacker Stephen Herron, who wasn’t initially blocked coming off the line of scrimmage. Herron too, however, believed Cal was running the ball, so he charged right at Brown, who then delivered a key block to prevent the linebacker from turning back and pursuing Garbers.

The magic of the play comes in the form of receiver Nikko Remigio’s perfectly executed delay route, which helped him make up for an earlier muffed punt that was quickly followed by a Stanford touchdown. Remigio, who is lined up in the slot between tight end Jake Tonges and receiver Kekoa Crawford, serves as Garbers’ primary target going into the play.

Upon the snap of the ball, Remigio’s initial goal is to “sell” his defender into believing that the play-action is actually a handoff. Thus, Remigio begins blocking Stanford safety Jonathan McGill, as a receiver would typically do on a run play. After noticing McGill bite on the fake handoff and try to get into the backfield, Remigio slips out of the block and sprints into his slant route, leaving himself wide open for an easy pass. Once McGill realized that it was a play-action pass, he tried to recover and get to Garbers but found himself a few steps too late as Garbers lofted a perfect floater to Remigio for six.

Cal’s two outside receivers, Crawford and Trevon Clark, are essentially there to draw their respective cornerbacks away from the play, though Crawford would’ve been Garbers’ second option had Remigio been covered. If the Bears can continue boasting a strong running game, Musgrave will likely utilize bootleg play-action passes even more than he already has. Garbers hit Crawford on that exact type of play earlier in the game for Cal’s opening touchdown, so it’s clear that the team is confident in Garbers’ ability to throw on the run.

With a bruising running back such as Brown keeping the defense honest, the Bears would be wise to use the play-action often. The more you can keep a defense guessing, the better.

Shailin Singh covers football. Contact him at [email protected].