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Archive for May, 2009

Bend But Don’t Break?

Over at CGB, the’re discussing the 10 best moments from 2008. In the process of discussing #3 the idea of the Bend But Don’t Break defense came up and HydroTech objects to the term:

I’m pretty sure Gregory hates it when Cal fans use the whole “bend but don’t break” line to describe the defense. I remember some interview of him where he thought that phrase was inaccurate. In a sense, that line is inaccurate to describe our defense because that line implies that other defenses aren’t “bend but don’t break,” however every defense is a “bend but don’t break” defense in that every defense would much rather give up yards and a field goal rather than a touchdown.

Defenses are all the same. They share the ultimate goal: stop the offense.

What differs in defenses is how they accomplish that goal. Some prefer to be very aggressive. Others prefer to be less aggressive. Cal fans tend to associate “bend but don’t break” with less aggressive defensive play, but to only associate that line with less aggressive defense is to ignore the fact that more aggressive defenses are also “bend but don’t break.” Whether a defense is more aggressive or less aggressive, they both want to minimize the amount of yards the offense gains. They do that via different methods. A more aggressive defense will blitz more often hoping to get sacks, and putting the majority of the defensive duties on their secondary to lock down the WRs to prevent completions. A less aggressive defense will drop more men into coverage hoping to get more incompletions and interceptions while putting the majority of the defensive duties on their defensive line to get a good pass rush on their own. Both methods have their advantages and disadvantages. As of lately, due to the 2007 collapse, many Cal fans have become adverse to less aggressive defense, and have begun to inappropriately use the phrase “bend but don’t break.”

(I couldn’t decide how much of his description to give you and in the end decided to give you the entire thing.)

Sorry Hydro, I think you’re awesome and I love your commentary, but this particular one is ripe for a take down!

My first complaint is that Hydro is over-emphasizing a name. While I generally agree with him that accurate names are preferable, in the end, we do need to come up with a name for things even if they fail to perfectly describe that thing. So yeah, BBDB may not be the best name for the defensive strategy at issue here but we do need a name for each defensive strategy. And just about all defensive strategies use names that are true for all defenses. “Prevent” defenses don’t have a monopoly on trying to prevent touchdowns. “Contain” defenses don’t have a monopoly on containing the opposition. “Pressure” defenses don’t have a monopoly on applying pressure. “Zone” defenses don’t have a monopoly on using zone converages. I could go on and on. The names point out the areas of emphasis, not exclusivity. Just because other defenses attempt to “Bend But Don’t Break” doesn’t mean that it can’t be used to describe a particular strategy.

Which brings me to my second point, there’s no doubt that in 2007 the Bears used a specific defensive strategy that was different from the earlier Gregory defenses and most definitely different from the 2008 3-4 defense. Hydro makes it seem, perhaps unintentionally, that all defenses are the same and we should shy away from naming them. Hogwash! The 2007 defense emphasized more than any defense during the Tedford era keeping the defense behind the play. It rarely put the individual secondary positions “on an island” to go man-on-man against the receivers. It’s reasonable to ask that this defensive strategy be given a name.

Fundamentally, there are different strategies. One could call the highly aggressive defense the “Pressure But Don’t Prevent” because they do accept the risk that they’ll completely blow it on one play and give up an 80 yard TD. What they’re counting on is that 9 possessions out of 10 the opposition gives up the ball quickly without gaining many yards. So there’s no aspect of the “prevent” defense in their scheme, instead they focus heavy “pressure” to force the 3 and out. Is it a great name? No, but it is somewhat descriptive.

So if we’ve got the PBDP versus the BBDB, one has to admit, no matter how poorly they’re named, that they are two different defensive strategies AND (and I think this is what really bugs Hydro, is that people don’t realize) they’ve both got their pros and cons.

I mean, let’s phrase BBDB in the positive. They’re going to minimize the number of points our opposition scores on each possession and decrease the number of possessions that the opposition has to score (because all the time each possession takes off the clock). By making them march slowly down the field, keeping everything in front of them, the opposition is going to take a lot of time off the clock getting down the field and when they get close, because the defense hasn’t been killing itself trying to force the quick out, they’ve got lots of energy when the shorter field is to their advantage.

Doesn’t that have at least some benefit? Isn’t Bend But Don’t Break at least a reasonable name for that strategy?

Now, one could make a number of counter-arguments:

  • That BBDB is a bad strategy.
  • That the Bears didn’t use a BBDB defense in 2007
  • That the fans don’t properly understand what BBDB is
  • That BBDB is a poor name for the strategy

Fair enough, but none of those things take away from BBDB being a defensive strategy and that’s it’s not the same as all the other defenses. So, unless Hydro or someone else would like to come up with a new name and get the rest of the Cal Blogosphere to adopt the name, I say we stick with BBDB to describe the defensive strategy that most people accuse the 2007 Bears of using with lots of zone coverage and emphasizing keeping everything in front of the secondary.

None of this should prevent Hydro from:

  • Criticizing TwistNHook from using BBDB for the 2008 defense
  • Criticizing those who symplify the BBDB defense to “playing soft”
  • Emphasizing the positives of the BBDB defense
  • Reiterating the common goals of all defenses

But let’s just accept BBDB as the short-hand name for this style of defense.

Offensive Line starts

One of the many “joys” of the off-season is finding statistics that will help predict the success of teams in the fall. There’s all kinds of them: Returning points, returning touchdowns, returning yards, returning catches, returning starters, returning tackles, returning sacks, returning pass breakups, returning interceptions, etc.

The thing all of these stats have in common, besides being about “returning” is that they’re easy to calculate. All you have to do is take the players who have stayed with the team and total their numbers for the stats you’re interested in. Any bozo can spend 10 minutes on YahooSports or ESPN or Rivals to produce these number.

What often gets overlooked is that there are a whole bunch of statistics that one would like to have but are more difficult to compile. How about: returning fullback blocks, returning O-Line pancakes… OR how about returning starts?

Particularly for the offensive line where there aren’t any NCAA tracked stats, it’s difficult to determine statistically how much strength is coming back. Leave it to someone like the Wall Street Journal to take the time to compile returning offensive line starts. Here’s the numbers for the Pac-10:

  1. USC 91
  2. WSU 82
  3. UW 67
  4. UA 66
  5. ASU 56
  6. UCLA 56
  7. Cal 53
  8. Stan 53
  9. OSU 37
  10. UO 20

(As an interesting aside, the way this came to me was via Oregon Duck fans who were disconcerted to see that Oregon was so low. When the first article came out they only showed a handful of examples of the better teams and who was statistically strong and who was weak. It wasn’t until yesterday that the WJS released all the data and showed that Oregon was the 3rd worst in D-I football, plus the absolute worst in a BCS conference, ahead of only Ball St. (16) and Memphis (18) overall.)

What these numbers say to me is a few things:

The first is that my concerns about this Cal O-Line are well founded. Starts are not the only metric to judge a line by, but watching them get owned by the D-Line all spring made me a little bit suspicious. True, our D-Line looks great, but it’s bad to see Cal at the bottom of the middle pack in starting experience.

The next is that this might be the year to bet against the Oregon teams. Oregon State lost a LOT last year minus a few skill players on offense. They’re key to success last year was an opportunistic offense with the Rodgers brothers and a very stout defense. Losing 8 defensive starters made me confident they were going to take a step back. Seeing their O-Line is in trouble (who was the Most Valuable Unit in the USC upset) makes me pretty confident that they’ll be a middle of the Pac team. As for Oregon, only 20 combined starts… OUCH! Luckily for them, they’ve got a great system and a lot of reloading talent so I think they’ll still be tough, but this hurt my respect for them a bit.

Of course then there is USC who always seems to have 1 key area of strength to keep them in the mix. Weak offensive year? They put up the nations most stingy defense BY FAR. Weak defensive year and breaking in a QB (this year)? They bring back an O-Line that means they won’t need to throw the ball a lot and when they do, he’ll be well protected. ARG!?! These guys are still way ahead of everyone else as a program.

The final thing is just how much line strength the supposed weaker teams are returning. WSU with 82… WOW! Then with UW and UA both in the mid-60’s one’s got to think that these three teams may be less of a pushover this year than many might be expecting.

In any case, lets hope the talent on Cal’s O-Line will be enough to make up for it’s mediocre level of experience.

USC big TV winner (Oregon 2nd)

Well, the first set of TV scheduling announcements is out. The first set comes from ABC (which also means ESPN). In a few weeks Fox Sports and Versus will make their picks. Finally, during the season the networks will chose games based on “reserved” times they selected when they made their picks. They make those picks 12 days before the day of the “reservation”.

The big winner is, and it’s no suprise, USC. ABC scheduled 12 games and reserved time slots for 8 other games. Of those 12 games picked, fully half of them are USC games. Of the remaining 6 games, only 2 are conference games. Both of those included Oregon (versus Cal and Oregon State). The final 4 games are non-conference games. Washington (versus LSU), Oregon (versus Utah), Stanford (versus Notre Dame) and Cal (versus Maryland) each got 1.

Cal doesn’t come out bad with 3 games total (Maryland, USC and Oregon) which is 3rd behind USC’s 6 and Oregon’s 4. Washington and Oregon State are the only other teams with more than 1, with 2 each, and Washington State and UCLA were the 2 teams left out in the cold (boy, I wouldn’t want to be on the Bruin Nation website this week if I was an ABC exec).

Speaking of which, I’m somewhat suprised the Cal versus UCLA game didn’t get picked up. It has a history of being a close game in the Rose Bowl and you’d think they’d throw UCLA one bone. Here’s betting that the game gets picked up as ABC’s 12 day selection that they reserved for 10/17 at 12:30 PM. You’ll notice that minus USC games, ABC was very reluctant to pick up games midway through the season and the back end of the schedule is very “reservation” heavy. That says to me that ABC doesn’t have a lot of confidence about which teams will rise to the top and wants to hold out on their picks.

Other games that I wouldn’t be surprised being picked up by ABC for a reserved game are the Arizona State game (reservation is for 10/31 @ 12:30 PM) and perhaps the Big Game (reservation is for 11/21 @ 12:30 PM) although it tends not to attract the big networks because it’s mostly unrecognized outside of the Bay Area. I’d add the Oregon State game but there’s no open reservation for that day.

Of course many of these plus others could be picked up by Fox Sports and Versus who tend to grab games that have the potential to be big ones if the chips fall certain ways. As I said before we’ll see their early picks a little later this spring.

What is somewhat interesting is that the Maryland game will be a 7:00 PM game. Usually that timeslot is the domain of Fox Sports. But I guess ESPN2 is wanting to compete for that slot early in the season anyway. FWIW, that means I’ll be selling all but one of my tickets for the Maryland game because the boys are too young for games that late and somebody has to stay with the kids, so my wife is out too. That means I’ve got 5 tickets to sell. Let me know if you’re interested in buying some of those tickets from me ($60 each). You’ll get the privilege of seeing me in my native environment. I’m FAR less level headed in the stands. If I don’t get any bites here at least some of them will end up on ebay/stubhub/whatever (any suggestions for the best site for this?)

Click here to see the TV announcement on the Cal Bears website.

Looking back on ’07: Oregon State

(Today we pick back up my “Looking back” series. In theory it is supposed to just be last season, but because I tried to squeeze both 2005 and 2007 into the last off-season, I still have some 2007 posts to finish off before moving on to 2008. Note that you can go here to see the last post in the series (the Oregon game) or go here to see all the posts in the series)

The pre-game Storyline:
It was the best of times in Berkeley. A #2 ranking for the Bears and USC looked less than invincible after a stunning loss to Stanford during the bye-week. With USC having to come to Berkeley the question of the week was whether Bear fans would prefer the Rose Bowl or the National Championship game (count me in the Rose Bowl crowd). Oregon State should just be a minor road-bump as long as Longshore’s ankle was good enough to play.

The pre-game reality:
The reality that nobody knew at the time was that Longshore’s ankle was FAR more injured than anyone on the coaching staff was willing to admit. With what amounted more to a ankle fracture with bone fragments chipped off than the quoted ankle sprain. Also overlooked was the formidible defense that Oregon State brought to Berkeley. They were #1 in the nation in rush defense giving up only 40 or so yards a game.

The key plays:

  • Jordan Kay misses 48 yard field goal on first drive of game
  • Forsett fumbles on Cal 15 yard line setting up near certain score for OSU
  • After noble goal-line stand by Bear defense, OSU converts 4th and Goal (less than a yard). Bears in early 0-7 hole.
  • Riley throws nice seam route pass for TD to Hawkins to finish nice Cal drive. Score tied: 7-7
  • LSU lost in 3rd overtime to Kentucky setting up Bears to take over #1 spot. Announcement made over PA system and players definitely heard. A distraction perhaps?
  • Larson kicks a 74 yard punt w/ roll.
  • Riley hit as he throws and sends ball up into air for easy interception. Ball returned from Cal 45 to Cal 17 setting up another easy scoring opportunity for Beavers.
  • Cal defense holds OSU to field goal. Down only 7-10.
  • Riley scrambles on broken play and finds Jordan along the sideline to setup 1st and goal.
  • Riley runs option play for touchdown. Bears on top for first time 14-10.
  • Bear defense too relaxed in final seconds and gives up 40 second field-goal drive. Lead is down to 14-13 after giving up more “easy” points.
  • OSU converts 3rd and 15 on 1st drive of 2nd half to extend drive. Bend But Don’t Break defense playing too soft.
  • Bernard finishes a drive he dominated with power running by scoring on a 1 yard TD run. Bears in a hole again: 14-20
  • Forsett robbed of touchdown on a 1st and goal. Knee was never down before he rolled over defender into the endzone. Play not reviewed.
  • Bears fail to convert on 4th and goal. All 4 downs less than 2 yards and all four downs ran Forsett into the line.
  • Bears keep OSU pinned after failed conversion. Punt only out to OSU 26 yardline setting up another scoring opportunity.
  • Forsett finds redemption in 7 yard TD run. Bears back in front: 21-20
  • OSU converts another 4th and inches TD run.
  • Beavers go for 2-point conversion and succeed to be up by a full touchdown: 21-28
  • Best fumbles ensuing kickoff return at Cal 40 yardline. Minus a weak sideline personal foul call, Bear defense holds. However OSU converts fieldgoal. Bears now in 10-point hold with just over 6 minutes left: 21-31
  • After 3 and out, Bears force 3 and out on OSU, giving them the ball back with 3:30 left and 3 timeouts still unused.
  • Bears get first break of day when 10-15 yard seam pass turns into 65 yard touchdown pass to Hawkins. Bears still in it: 28-31
  • Onside kick fails, but 3 timeouts and 3 and out gives Bears the ball back on own 6 yard-line with 1:27 left.
  • Riley amazingly avoids what would have been a game ending safety getting out of the grasp of the OSU defender and throwing the ball away.
  • Riley completes a 13 yard pass to Hawkins on 4th and 17, who somehow avoids 3 tacklers in route to picking up the 1st down.
  • Pass to Jordan down sideline gets Bears in field goal range with 24 seconds left.
  • Bears get pass interference call on DeSean getting ball down to 12 yard-line.
  • The the play that defined the season occured. Riley tries to run for it with too little time left and no timeouts and the clock expires without the field-goal attempt that would have tied the game.

The forgotten

  • What is forgotten about the last play was just how rushed everything had been on that last drive. The Bears had come all the way from their own 6 yard-line with 1:27 left. They had avoided two game ending moments in the possible safety and the 4th and 17. Then to come up with the long play to Jordan, it lulled the Bears into a false sense of confidence despite being so rushed. It doesn’t seem as boneheaded in real-time as it does when repeated over-and-over on ESPN.
  • I had forgotten that Longshore was a game-time decision. While Riley had been practicing with the 1st team all week, it was still hoped that Longshore was going to play right up until 15 minutes before game-time. What effect that had on the team’s chemistry is unknown.
  • For me, I had forgotten just how well Riley played. In my memory, it took him 3 quarters to get his form going. But really, he had a pretty good 1st half. The 3rd quarter was rough for him, but overall, he more than capably played QB.
  • I also forgot just how many good breaks the Beavers got and how many bad breaks the Bears got. Overall the Bear defense stuffed OSU. They got 16 points off of turnovers including one 4th and goal conversion. Really OSU only had two “self made” scoring drives and one of those also required a 4th and goal conversion. Just those two goal-line conversions were enough to turn the game. Add in that the Bears failed on their 4th and goal shot and it was clear who got all the breaks this Saturday. The Bears wouldn’t have lost this game twice.
  • It was interesting to see some signature plays of the 2008 OSU team in action in 2007, in particular the fly-sweep which they used a few times. While it wasn’t as effective in 2007, it was clear it was a play they refined for 2008.
  • Cal’s Bend But Don’t Break defense was in pretty good form on this day overall, but it was interesting to remember just how different that defense was to the 2008 3-4 attacking defense. It was an entirely different scheme that all too often let the dumpoff passes and underneath stuff work while keeping things in front of the secondary. It seemed to speed up the game and keep the clock running, which was great when the Bears were ahead but was to their detriment when OSU took the lead.
  • Not so much a “forgotten” but I hate it when the Bears are up by 1 at halftime. I’d much rather be down by 1. Their seem to be fewer halftime adjustments and corrections when the Bears have a halftime lead than not, and up by 1 is not a lead to “hold on to”.
  • Another thing that was interesting to watch was Forsett in action. He definitely had his upside but he was not the raw talent that Best is or Marshawn was. He broke a big run in the 1st quarter but was dragged down from behind setting up the missed Kay field-goal. I guarantee you that either Marshawn or Best would have taken it into the endzone. At the same time, Forsett had a certain nimbleness between the tackles that was his strong point. It wasn’t the power of Marshawn but he had a way of getting through small spaces in the line without getting touched that Best doesn’t have.

The post-game storyline:
Disaster had struck in Berkeley. An opportunity to be #1 in the nation had been lost and all because our backup quarterback was too inexperienced (some who be more uncharitable and call him any number of explitives that in short meant ‘stupid’) to know when to get rid of the ball. Luckily our knight in shining armor, the man who the 2006 season was built around and had taken the Bears undefeated thus far including a huge win in Eugene, Mr. Longshore himself, would surely be back and in fine form for next week’s game against UCLA. With USC already having a conference loss under their belt (to Stanford) Cal fans still felt this team could get back on track en route to a Rose Bowl with USC coming to town.

The post-game reality:
Longshore was still far more injured than anyone was letting on and the Bears had two very difficult games in front of them. UCLA always brings their best game when the Bears visit the Rose Bowl and ASU was in fine form in 2007. While many had their doubts about a completely untested ASU team at this point, they were still a formidible opponent in the desert that loomed after the showdown in Pasadena.

The 2007 learnings:

  • It was hard to know exactly what to take from this game. Was Riley any good or not? Was the QB the only problem? While everyone acted as if they had all the answers, in reality, nobody knew exactly what to think.
  • One learning that was not yet obvious but would be a constant complaint moving forward was ineffectiveness around the goal-line. This was the first of many goal-line stands where the Bears just couldn’t punch it in. Later in the season the Bears were more likely to kick the field-goal instead, but in either case, it was points left on the board.
  • Another learning was the turnovers. The turnovers really hurt the Bears on this night and there was no reason to see the dropped balls in this game were just a fluke.

The conclusion
There is probably no game in the Tedford era that evokes such strong emotions as this game. Everyone had their pet complaint and issue with the game. Of all of the games I’ve gone back to watch there was something much more “normal” about the game than my memory had. Yeah the Bears had some bad break and bad plays and yeah OSU escaped Berkeley with a somewhat undeserved win (the caveat being they played an excellent game and although being out-manned talent-wise, they did everything possible to put themselves in a winning position), but this was not a disaster game. It was unfortunate, but not a disaster.

Those were yet to come.