by Kevin Bruce
By my eye that was a fascinating defensive performance with all the elements of a real thriller…opening scene crime, bumbling detective, follow the clues, ah-ha moment, chase the bad guys and finally finish them off. I’ll get to the details but that was a classic road game in the Pac-12 when you take a “W” anyway you can and feel good about it. Ok here we go…
Wilcox opened the game with shades of Pendergast-past. It was a 2-5-4 with our nickel package on the field. I liked the concept except keeping Cam Smith on the sidelines just isn’t in my playbook. So Lamar started and promptly missed his first two tackles…one for the first down and the second he grabbed the arm & ball stripping Muhammed and creating a fumble. If you can’t make the tackle that’s a pretty good recovery. That was the first of a +3 day including AJ’s pick six. So keep this in mind we held a tough Cal team to 386 yards outgaining them by 16 yards, got +3, pick six, 2 FG’s and it took everything we had to hang on 27-21. Wheew what a ride!
So the opening crime scene was our pass defense oriented 2-5-4 nickel package scheme against a Cal team that wanted to run the ball first. They ran successfully for most of the first quarter living off a standard trap play with a double team down block on the DT with the Rush End/OLB getting trapped by guard or center. The alignment was an even alignment of our two DL playing 5 technique (strong side) and usually a 3 or 4i to the weak side. You exploit this setup with power runs, double teams, traps and “A” gap quick hitters then work the play action passes. Should ring familiar.
This may be a bit unfair but hey this is a metaphor so Coach Wilcox as the bumbling detective (kind of the Colombo model here) figures out that giving up a touchdown after two drives and the TOP (8:35) for most of the first quarter that Cal really is going to run the ball then he has the ah-ha moment. Wilcox moves back to his basic 3-4 Hybrid scheme gets Cam Smith onto the field more, remains in a man coverage by the CB’s (both man-up and man-back) but changing the safeties’ roles so that the FS and SS are exchanging mid-field duties depending on formation, motion and down-n-distance (not quite a “halves” coverage). So when in nickel we had man coverage with the CB’s but safeties in a zone flex (e.g. read the inside threat first then to the outside) and nickel back taking the inside crossing or pass threat if no run. LB pass coverage was almost all zone except for trips on one side wing a tight slot formation. This was the play when Felix locked onto the RB and attacked the quick screen (missed the tackle but slowed up Muhammed). So this was a good call by Wilcox to move to his go-to defense to start the second quarter or this game has a different outcome.
The more I watch us in our base defense I see a fair amount of read-n-react type of play. I really want us to attack more. My belief is that we need to attack gaps more on the snap. Since Wilcox won’t twist the line then hard slants will work but some guys will have to cross the face of the offensive lineman hard to get upfield more and not hung up on the LOS. Also by attacking the “A” gap the MLB has to account for the other side of the “A” gap. After the ASU game Wilcox said that “And then once the ball declares we’re getting off blocks and finishing tackles…” Folks that’s read-n-react unless he calls for a stunt, blitz etc. To my thinking I set up his 3-4 Hybrid base scheme with a gap attack basis. This calls for folks to know the weak points we create and be ready to respond. One reason we have such difficulty putting consistent pressure on QB’s is we don’t attack upon the snap of the ball, we then hesitate to read and then get upfield toward the QB. Way too herky-jerky and costs us probably at least .5 to .75 seconds. And that’s a lot of pocket time for any QB.
Before this sounds way too negative I need to point out that we held Cal to 2 of 9 3rd downs but allowed 3 of 5 fourth down conversions. Nice 4th down pick by Seymour btw and good QB pressure when Goff launched his floater that AJ snagged for six. Nice run back too…wow he’s something else. He reminds me of a defensive version of Lynn Swan or a slightly faster version of Marvin Cobb. Chris Hawkins lead the team in tackles with 8 which is first time someone other than a Smith had such an efficient tackling day. So here is a shout out to a very net effective job on defense by this group. And an air five to Coach Helton for pulling this group together…I’m impressed.
Kevin Bruce played linebacker at USC from 1972-75 and was a member of two national title teams. He is now a member of the FWAA.