X’s and O’s: Northwestern versus Cal

WNUR’s Nick Scoliard goes to the blackboard to break down Cal’s fake field goal and Trevor Siemian’s long completion to Christian Jones.

Here we are, back again for another Wildcat football season. After an impressive bowl win and a preseason national ranking, the ‘Cats come into the season with more pressure than they have ever had. Their first opponent, the California Golden Bears, put up a better fight than expected, keeping the ‘Cats too close for comfort until the last part of the game (it’s nice to see the Wildcats actually do well in the 4th quarter). The Bears got on the board first with the gimmick of all gimmicks, the fake Field Goal: (Purple for Northwestern assignments, Yellow for Cal assignments, Brown tracks the football movement)

California Golden Bears Fake Field Goal

After the ‘Cats were able to stop the Bears drive on third down, new Cal head coach Sonny Dykes didn’t want his first drive to end with a boring field goal. He put the Wildcats on notice by calling a risky fake field goal call. Usually, the fake FG will consist of a snap to the kicker or to the place holder to run or pass themselves. A few fake FGs involve hiking the ball to the place holder and then dumping it to the kicker who throws to a receiver. However, on this play, not only did the place holder, WR Jackson Bouza, dump the ball to the kicker, Vincenzo D’Amato, but he also ran past three defenders, and was wide open for a lob pass from D’Amato.

California Golden Bears Fake Field Goal Touchdown

D’Amato executed the lob perfectly, and Bouza walked into the endzone. The fake FG is a rariety, and special teams rarely practice defending against it. However, there are sometimes when special teams act lazy on the field, which leads coordinators to call an onside kick, fake punt, or a fake FG. The coordinators were either determined to finish the first drive with a touchdown, or they saw the ‘Cats were getting a little lazy. Either way, I doubt that the ‘Cats will be caught off guard the next time a team tries to run this.

Fast Forward to the middle of the second quarter, where, after the fake field goal, the Wildcats put together two great scoring drives; on the first, Treyvon Green burst through the line for a 33 yard touchdown, while on the second, Siemian lofted a perfect back shoulder throw to Tony Jones. After a 3rd down conversion to Christian Jones in the middle of the field, the ‘Cats quickly came to the line and hiked it.

Trevor Siemian Christian Jones Northwestern Wildcats

Cal was looking to confuse the ‘Cats offense, by overloading the right side of the line. The left defensive end was going to slide off and cover Mike Trumpy, while a defensive back would come from the other side of the field. The key to blitz schemes like this is to overload one side of the line. The defense can continually rush the quarterback with fewer players than the O line if they blitz intelligently. In this scenario, the defense was hoping that the left tackle would be confused with his assignment, whch would give enough time for the defensive back to slip into the backfield unnoticed. Fortunately for the ‘Cats, Mick McCall called my favorite Madden play of all time: Four Verticals. Four Verticals is a common play in every NFL and college playbook, but it was made famous with Drew Brees, who won a Super Bowl and crushed passing records using this play. It horizontally attacks the defense, by allowing for 4 players spread out around the same yard line at a time. Man coverage on a defense like this is hard, as many of the receivers will be able to outrun the defenders on the sidelines. Cover 2 or 3 would be tough because it would have enough defenders for the receivers. The way to curb this play is Cover 4, or quarters coverage; basically putting all defensive backs to cover deep. This allows for short check down throws, like Trumpy’s route to lead to a bounty of yards after the catch, as the defenders are yards ahead of the receiver.

On this play, the Bears are playing a Cover 1 Robber: One safety deep, with one LB playing a robber technique. The LB is instructed to follow the QB’s eyes, and cover the middle of the field. This works great for spread football, which is usually what happens when Colter is in the game. However, when Siemian is in, the offense turns incredibly pro style, and involves 5 wide sets, like the one above. The robber technique is pointless in this scenario, and really just means that the linebacker has to anticipate the throw in the middle of the field. There is no threat of a run up the middle or a bubble screen because of the 5 wide spread being used. It’s an interesting play call against Siemian’s offense, and McCall makes them pay. When Siemian hikes the ball, the blitzing defender lurches toward Siemian. Before he even passes the line of scrimmage, Siemian hits Christian Jones down the middle with a bullet, placed perfectly in front of his man defender, but before the safety in zone coverage.

Trevor Siemian Christian Jones Northwestern Wildcats Cal Golden Bears

The play leads to a nice 36 yard catch, with Jones fighting off defenders to gets some YAC. With the ‘Cats executing these pro-style plays perfectly, it seems right that they have that number next to their name on the scoreboard. With execution this good, the ‘Cats will be a Big Ten machine.

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