Tale of the tape: Garbers launches go-ahead touchdown pass against No. 23 Oregon

Infographic depicting a football play described in "Tale of the Tape"
Connor Lin/Senior Staff

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Despite coming into the game without a single win under their belt, the Bears were able to pull out the upset over the No. 23 Oregon Ducks, beating them for the first time in the Justin Wilcox era. Quarterback Chase Garbers did not have his flashiest game of the season, but, in typical Cal fashion, the defense muscled the load while the offense did just enough to win.

The highlight of Garbers’ game came on a perfectly executed 28-yard touchdown toss to junior receiver Nikko Remigio — a play that ended up being spread nationally throughout social media thanks to the quarterback’s smooth behind-the-back ball fake. Despite the pass being thrown midway through the third quarter, the touchdown would end up winning the game for Cal, as the Bears’ defense masterfully held the Ducks scoreless in the second half.

The Bears came out in a unique formation with receivers Remigio and Kekoa Crawford and tight end Jake Tonges bunched tightly along the right side of the offensive line, while sophomore receiver Makai Polk was isolated outside along the left sideline.

This play was yet another play-action throw, which has proven to be a staple in offensive coordinator Bill Musgrave’s scheme this year. Cal scored two goal-line touchdowns on play-action throws against Stanford, but this time around, Garbers took a deep shot.

Like we discussed last week, a normal play-action involves trying to make the defenders believe the offense is running the ball, which happens via the quarterback faking a handoff to his running back. On this play, however, Garbers went the extra mile and literally hid the ball behind his back after pretending to give it to running back Damien Moore. A postgame interview confirmed that this was the first time in the junior’s collegiate career that he had attempted this type of trickery.

The play-action worked how it was supposed to, as all of Oregon’s linebackers crashed toward the line of scrimmage before retreating when they realized it was a passing play. While we will never know if the hidden-ball portion of the play-action made a difference in the result, it sure looks sweet on television.

To further switch things up, Musgrave called a “max protection,” meaning that Cal would use seven blockers in pass protection, giving Garbers as much time as possible to find one of his three downfield targets. Oregon did not try to counter this pass protection, as the Ducks only sent three rushers after the quarterback, and also had an additional linebacker spying on Garbers to prevent him from using his feet to escape.

Because these numbers don’t quite add up, you may be wondering: How did Cal manage to get one of its three receivers open with seven Oregon defenders in pass coverage?

Sure, it was Remigio who ended up getting open and making the touchdown grab, but the play was only made possible through the attention that Cal’s top two receivers this season, Polk and Crawford, drew away from the top left of the field, where Remigio found an opening. Oregon’s defense was playing in a variation of a cover-3 zone defense, meaning that the deep section of the field was split into thirds between the safety and the two outside cornerbacks, while the remaining four pass defenders split up the shorter strip of the field.

Crawford, who was lined up adjacent to Remigio upon the snap, ran a simple fly route toward the right side of the end zone. You often hear about quarterbacks “moving defenders with their eyes,” and that’s exactly what Garbers did on this play. After faking the handoff, he gave a quick glance over to Crawford, which was enough to move Oregon safety Jordan Happle, who was in charge of the deep-middle zone, to the right side of the field, thus removing him from the important area of the play.

On the other side, Polk ran a post route, sprinting vertically downfield from the left sideline before cutting in at a 45-degree angle toward the middle of the field. Oregon’s star cornerback Deommodore Lenoir was tasked with covering the deep-left zone of the field, but when Polk cut inside, Lenoir followed him, mistakenly sticking with his receiver for too long.

Zone defenses are so hard to execute because when a receiver leaves one zone and enters another, the defender has to “pass him off” to his teammate in the other zone so that neither of them ends up out of position. That process has to happen smoothly enough, however, that the gap between the two zones isn’t big enough for the quarterback to find his receiver. By trailing Polk to the middle of the field, Lenoir left the deep-left portion in front of the end zone wide open, and Garbers took full advantage.

Remigio began his route with a shallow drag across the field, but once he reached the left side, he darted toward the goal line, entering the voided zone that was supposed to be manned by Lenoir. By the time Lenoir passed Polk’s route off of to Happle and tried to peel back toward the left side, he was already too far out of position to get back into his zone. Realizing all three of Cal’s route-runners had gone deep, Oregon linebackers Isaac Slade-Matautia and Mase Funa also tried to recover and catch up to Remigio, but the receiver was already several strides ahead.

Garbers delivered a perfect ball to Remigio, putting the Bears up 21-17, which ended up being the final score of the contest. Cal’s quarterback has clearly made strides in recognizing zone defenses throughout his time with the Bears, and the pass protection on the play was ample enough to let Remigio’s route develop. Cal’s offense had a rough second half overall, but it was plays such as this one that provide a glimpse of what Musgrave’s scheming can provide in the games and seasons to come.

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