Opponent Analysis: Creative Cal Causes Reason For Concern

Cal 2010 1

What shenanigans is Clancy Pendergast up to this year? In 2010, he bet the ranch on the Cover 0 defense against a national championship caliber offense and really stumped Oregon’s offense until the Ducks went on their historic game-icing drive in Berkley. In 2011, Pendergast busted out the Cover 0 again, and added a few unorthodox wrinkles to their defensive line in an attempt to stump Hroniss Grasu and the rest of the Oregon offensive line.

This year, we don’t know what to expect, but down in Strawberry Canyon, things are starting to look desperate. Desperate times call for desperate measures, my friends.

Here’s the basics of the Cover 0 defense: every defender is assigned to an offensive player – essentially the same as playing man-to-man defense in basketball.

The most important element for Oregon’s offense is that the free safety is responsible for covering the quarterback (as shown by the dotted red line), while the defenders in the box sell out on stopping the running back.

Here, the slot receiver/H-Back Lavasier Tuinei went in motion across the formation, and will kick out while Darron Thomas and LaMichael James run an Inside Zone Read play. Tuinei drags another defender to the playside, and as the defensive end crashes down to get the running back, Darron Thomas makes the correct read, and pulls the ball.

As you can see, LaMichael would have been bottled up by the Cal defensive front, further confirming Darron’s read. Normally, the quarterback would be gliding down the backside of the defense, but in the Cover 0 defense, Cal’s free safety starts his pursuit of the speedy Thomas. There are three backside defenders, and three backside offensive players (two blocking, one carrying the ball); an instant mismatch.

All three of Cal’s defenders elude their blocks, and make their way to Thomas, even though he made all the right decisions on the play.

Cal had similar intentions in 2011, and brought a new wrinkle to the table. This time around, Cal attempted to confuse Oregon’s rather academic blocking scheme, in which the center identifies a “point,” or the center of the zone attack.

With two defenders lining up in between the center and tackle, a zone blocking scheme would be difficult to carry out, as the center and guard would need to beat their defender in a one-on-one situation. This would be reason for concern if Oregon didn’t have a good play calling coach who had a great line of communication with his center and quarterback. Of course, Chip Kelly calls around the Cal defensive front by pulling his two guards to the outside, pinning the defenders in.

The only problem is that Cal was still running the Cover 0 defense.

Cal’s linebackers crash hard to stop the running back, while the backside defender (orange circle) stays put. Even if the read-man had chosen to crash, the Cal safety would have an easy line of attack towards the quarterback. The frontside Cal defenders are doing everything they can to pin in LaMichael’s rushing angle.

Knowing that they don’t have to worry about the backside play, Cal’s linebackers search for an opening in the zone wall. To further complicate matters for LaMichael, Cal’s defenders use great technique and discard their blocks easily.

LaMichael is swarmed by Cal defenders for a loss.

So how do you beat the Cover 0 defense, and beat the strange defensive fronts Cal brings to the table? There are two methods to use: either think like a basketball coach, and use pick routes to free up receivers against man coverage, or eliminate the read, and bring additional blockers to the playside, screening off the backside defenders.

Cal’s defensive lineman’s weird alignment is an attempt to confuse the offensive line, and is really nothing more than a variation of the 1-5-5 defense, which is also referred to as a psycho or ninja front. Cal stacks the strong side of the line, but not at the line of scrimmage. Chip Kelly essentially decides to run right at the confusion with a power play, instead of a zone play. The power play incorporates “down” blocks towards the center (yellow arrows), and a guard pulling through the hole (orange arrow).

Each level of Cal defenders gets swallowed by double teams (blue dashes), as the tight end Lyerla advances deep into the secondary to set up his block. Both the backside linebacker (sprinting on top of the “O” at the 30 yard line), and the playside linebacker (being blocked by Paulson at the line of scrimmage) are deemed useless, since the quarterback isn’t reading anyone.

Barner hits the hole hard, and as the pulling guard lines up the final block, there isn’t anyone in between Barner and the endzone.

I would anticipate to see the Cover 0 defense, or some sort of unorthodox wrinkle to be in Cal’s defensive gameplan. While the alignment nonsense will be able to negated easily with preparation, the Oregon receivers must be able to get open against Cal’s defensive backs, and Mariota will need to be patient and accurate. As usual, it’s Oregon’s game to lose. Strange things tend to happen to undefeated teams at the end of the season, and it just so happens that strange things happen in Berkeley all the time.

Something strange will definitely need to happen for the Ducks to lose this one.


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Josh Schlichter

Josh Schlichter

Josh is a College Football enthusiast from sunny Southern California. He has written for several self-operated prep sports blogs, as well as multiple SB Nation sites. In High School, Josh played football for four years, and helped create and operate the team's no-huddle system. Most of Josh's football knowledge branches from watching College Football his entire life, and is backed up by his first hand experience in both option and spread offenses. Above all, though, he is a proud student at the University of Oregon. @joshschlichter



  • GratefulD420

    Passing will be a great strategy, unfortunately they held a lot downfield in 2010 (that was a key part of their strategy to make the ref call it.). With MM and team he could definately throw enough to force them out of Cover 0. But why?

    I agree with Josh’s analysis..POWER RUNNING GAME.

    Of course throwing with MM is a possible solution to the cover 0. He and we, the ducks would win. But why would we throw when we can do our most favorite thing…. RUN. No, we won’t be able to run our most staple inside/outside zone reads….. but we certainly have our BEST power running game of Oregon ALL-time.

    Next few weeks we will see #1 Power Game set with BB,Lyera & Long package… DAT, Barner & MM, threaten or kill you on option the other way. Choose your weapon then. This package was developed for Cal, Stanford & SEC. (of course Chip just playing to the players strengths. he sees a personnel mismatch..creates a package and now its a tool. It has been getting sharper. It will be sharper and more precise than the times we’ve seen it before.)

    Can’t wait till a game is close to see this Power Set… when we all know that MM will someday (when we are pressed), take a lateral bubble screen and hit DAT or Huff deeeeeeep. OR when MM goes deeeeeeeep to receive a pass from BB. We all know that MM on the field is a set-up play. Chip just hasn’t had to pull the card yet. Soon my friends, soon.


  • GratefulD_420

    Josh and Kingfatso..all over it. Game plan was an extremely heavy dose of passing! MM and the offense was awesome.

    then again… not really an option when you have to redeploy your new POWER Game TE personnel package back to the depleted D-line.