Well I’ve seen two games in person at Memorial Stadium in 2005 and neither of them have been pretty. Thankfully, both have been wins. Here’s my analysis of the 35-20 victory over Illinios:
The bears started this game on a good note, scoring a TD on a dominating first drive. Things were looking good! But then the Illini did the one thing they could do to win the game: control the ball. They went on a 6 minute scoring driving that mostly utilized the option. It was clear from the pre-game press conference quotes that Tedford didn’t quite know what to expect from Illinois. They had a new coach and are rebuilding. It was also clear 5 minutes into the game that Tedford hadn’t expected the option (for the football novices out there, the option is a run play that includes the possibility of the quarterback running the ball (it’s his “option”)). The Cal defense just wasn’t ready to face this archaic offensive (in both ways) play. Illinois used it all the way into the endzone to tie the game at 7 a piece.
The Cal offense came out for their second possesion VERY flat. Why, nobody really knows. It might have had something to do with the fact that they’re used to their defense getting them back on the field quickly, but instead spent a LONG time watching Illinois ground out that TD. It might be because Ayoob doesn’t think he looks as good in the blue home uniforms as the white away uniforms. No matter what the reason, 3 offensive plays (again, in both ways) later we were punting away. The worst part about this wasn’t the lack of scoring, but the fact that it only gave the defense a minute or two to talk over how it was going to defend against the option.
That allowed Illinios to grind out a second, option heavy, nearly 7 minute TD drive that lasted into the 2nd quarter. By the end of this drive the defense was looking really tired and possibly worse, really confused. Illinois was mixing in some creative passing plays to their already effective option attack and it all had the Cal defense scratching their heads.
This was the first moment this year I was worried we might lose. At all the other moments when the opposing team had scored or made good progress, I had faith that we’d make the necessary adjustments. This week, I just wasn’t so sure. While I had hope, we looked so tired. In addition, we were missing a lot of tackles. Our previous two opponents were much smaller teams. Maybe we just couldn’t bring down these big corn fed Big-10 conference (the name is no coincidence) players. Our only hope was a long offensive drive to give the defense time to rest and to talk about what adjustments to make.
1:34 seconds later, we were punting again and I was REALLY worried…
But then something happened, something that would change the game. Cal tried putting their pass defense guys on the line to bump the recievers off the line.
You see, the big wrinkle to the option that Illinois ran is that most of the time the option is run out of a run offense with, at most, 2 wide receivers. Illinois was running the option out of a 4 wide receiver “spread” offense. The Cal defense was respecting the pass threat and hence wasn’t putting the needed pressure to stop the option. But what Cal didn’t realize was that those receivers were mostly decoys and we didn’t need to give them that much respect. What we needed to do was play man-on-man bump-and-run pass defense and spend the rest of our energy stopping the option. Of the three remaining series that Illinois had in the first half, only one did they make any progress (it resulted in a field goal). It just happened to be the one that Cal tried backing off the tight pass defense.
So at half time, hope was on the rebound. While there were still many questioned to be answered, like where the heck our offense had gone and why did Ayoob suck even after they strong performance at Washington last week, there were many things to be hopeful about, like the fact that our run offense always is stronger in the 2nd half and that we finally seemed to have a hope in stopping the option. All that was needed was the right adjustments in the locker room, a good pep-talk and supportive fans.
And that’s exactly what happened. Halftime score 7-17, final score 35-20.
Looking forward, I still have lots of confidence that we’ll win our next two games against New Mexico St. on the road and Arizona at home. Neither of these teams look too intimidating and I doubt either will have a wrinkle that confuses us more than the option did. What was very clear in the too close for comfort victory over Illinois is that this team has a lot of talent. We had so many injured players on the sideline that we should have been asking FEMA to step in (not that it would have helped). But the backups played surprisingly well. You could tell that the team as a whole was very well rounded athetically and ready to make big plays. Additionally, my words last week about the strength of our running game and the value that has in the 2nd half proved to be true yet again and am sure we’ll use it to our advantage in the coming weeks. Finally, this team is learning something new every week and is getting better every week. My hope is that by the time we get to the meat of our schedule in October, we’ll be ready to stick it to them!