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Can Cal's Defense Find A Way To Stop Oregon's Offense?

Can the California Golden Bears defense find a way to stop the Oregon Ducks offense? Follow more on the game at Addicted to Quack (Oregon's SB Nation site) and the California Golden Blogs (Cal's SB Nation site)

Oregon's offense is a maddening display of speed and execution that has to be leaving many Pac-10 defenders fuming at why they can't stop it. Chris Avery of Bear Insider succinctly explains what makes the Oregon Ducks offense so tough to handle.

The obvious: A no-huddle offense that gets quickly to the ball gives a defense little time to read the offense's formation and get into position.

The non-so obvious: A rapid snap gives a defense little or no time to get new personnel on the field, either to overcome exhaustion or to adapt personnel groupings as appropriate to the down and distance situation.

And more: a high paced offense that spreads the field forces a defense to reach deep into its depth for fresh players - players who may not be a skillful as the starters.

And even more: Because a defense has so little time to read the offense and adjust appropriately, and because plays are run in such quick succession, it appears that defenses get mentally worn down by the challenges being presented so quickly and so many times in a game. This may explain why teams that have been able to stay in the game with the Ducks will break down in the third and fourth quarters and surrender a lot of points.

And lastly: most defenses don't play at this tempo all season long - they play it just a few times a season - and cannot be as prepared for it as the Ducks offense is that plays it and practices it all year.

Jonathan Okanes of Bear Talk discusses how Cal tried to simulate the Oregon practices this week. They have simulated Oregon's tempo, leading to shorter but more intense practices. They've also revived the scout team, which used a lot of the promising 2010 recruiting class like Austin Hinder, Kaelin Clay, Tevin Carter, and Coleman Edmond to simulate Oregon stars like LaMichael James, Darron Thomas and Jeff Maehl.

Tedford said another thing the defense has put an extra focus on this week is tackling. Against most spread offenses, there tends to be more open-field tackling. That becomes even more crucial against the Ducks because of their speed and athleticism.

"They get you in space and have a lot of athleticism and a lot of speed," Tedford said. "Being sure tacklers is a major part of this game. It’s been a major emphasis this week."

The tackling is even more paramount with the back end of the defense. Typcially, defensive linemen dont’ make as many plays in a game like this.

 "There has been a major emphasis this week on the back end with open-field tackling and doing it at a very fast pace, where you get them gassed and they still have to tackle," Tedford said.

With Cal's defensive front probably battered from injury and lacking depth, will they be able to keep Oregon off the field enough for the offense to take advantage? I discuss the intricacies of the Oregon offense over at California Golden Blogs.

[Hurrying the practice pace is] a pretty revolutionary tactic to take advantage of limited practice hours. People forget that unlike the NFL, NCAA football has very short practice sessions, and it exacerbates the problems that college coaches face in trying to get players to absorb playbooks and execute their offenses. With the way Kelly runs shop, there's more time to run more plays and get better execution from their personnel. The result has been a ferocious 55 points per game.

You'll see that while Oregon's offense lapsed at times last year as they struggled getting up to the speed Kelly demanded of his players; with so many returning starters and a year to adjust to this pace, there's been no let-up this season. Cal had to stop practice earlier than usual on Wednesday simulating Oregon's up-tempo pace purely due to the intensity of the pace. I don't know if it'll pay off this year (I'm guessing it won't; one week of this type of practice is barely enough and runs the risk of gassing our players out), but it'll be a good test run for next season.

It'll be something to think about adapting next year--not the Oregon offense itself, but a hurry-up pace to get more reps in for offense and defense (I'm sure as I speak already half the college football teams around the country are planning to do this to catch up.). Not the offense itself isn't a marvel to watch, but I'm sure if Oregon wasn't going this fast, they'd be much more containable. The next few years will bear out whether Kelly can sustain this level of success when everyone else begins adjusting to this type of scheme.

There seem to be a few keys we can look at for the defense to get the stops they need to at least slow down Oregon from handing their usual torrential downpour of 50 some points.

1) Three, four, five play drives by Oregon. We need a lot of these, scoring or non-scoring. Some of this will have to be planned, some of it will have to be luck. The pace is what kills defenses, not the touchdowns themselves. The longer the drives wear on, the sooner the defense will wear out (especially one as thin and as injured as ours). The Ducks need to be taken off the field early and often.

2) Forcing 3rd and longs. Buckeye Football Analysis (now our partners at SB Nation over at Along the Olentangy) has more on the last team to stop the Ducks offense, the Ohio St. Buckeyes.

  1. The key to OSU's defensive success was winning first and second down.  And OSU did that by limiting Oregon's primary play, the zone read.  In fact, Oregon did not have success running this play all night.  Instead they had to turn to their fly sweep and WR screens on the outside to move the ball.  
  2. OSU did so by doing what they have done all year--dominating the line of scrimmage.  Heyward, Gibson, Worthington, and company came up huge controlling Oregon's offensive line and limiting Oregon's running lanes.
  3. In so doing, OSU limited to Oregon to 3d and medium and 3d and long.  And this was critical.  Rather than letting Oregon go to their offensive identity, which is their running game, Oregon had to pass.  And they largely had no success doing so against OSU.  OSU's back seven's mix of coverages controlled Oregon's wide receivers and TE, and Masoli could not read coverages.  Even when he had time he had no idea where to go with the football.  Oregon had to rely on bubble and jailbreak screens to pick up third downs, which was only successful for so long.

Last year Cal put Oregon in their share of 3rd and longs and the Ducks could do nothing with it.  The problem is that Oregon eventually figured out Cal was playing to stop the run, started throwing bubble screens to shorten the field, and eventually they got into the enviable short-yardage situations where it's virtually impossible to stop the Ducks from picking up a first down. Although Oregon is better on 3rd and long than they were last year, Darron Thomas is a much better passer than Jeremiah Masoli, so this problem could be neutralized.

3) Cal's defense has to play disciplined. For all the talk about the pace wearing down defensive personnel physically, it's the mental errors that eventually doom them to defeat.  It's important for Cal to get stops early, maintain contain and keep Oregon off the field, or play for turnovers and make things harder for them.

There are so many different plays the Ducks can throw at their opponents that it'll be tough for the Golden Bears to figure out where to go. It's not going to be easy. The key will be putting Oregon in 3rd and long situations, whether through strong gap control or getting pressure on the quarterback early and often. It'll run some risk, but it's better than a slow fire roasting away our chances at victory as the Ducks keep on picking up the yards.

4) Even if all the following three things happen above, the offense has to play ball-control, which is an entirely different problem and independent of the defense. When Ohio State beat Oregon, they didn't engage in a shootout, but stretched the clock and were patient to pick up first downs and have long sustained scoring drives. The Buckeyes had the ball for nearly 70 percent of the game and Oregon's offense ran only 53 plays.

Can Brock Mansion, Shane Vereen, Keenan Allen and Marvin Jones find a way to take advantage of at best a mediocre offensive line and keep the ball moving and the clock running, and then put points in the end zone afterwards? Because no matter what Cal's defense does, Oregon is going to put up points. If Cal's offense can't match them tit-for-tat, they're just another speed-bump in the Ducks road to Glendale.