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Was The Cal Defense Shutting Down The Oregon Offense The Best Performance Of The College Football Season?

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How were the California Golden Bears defense able to be so effective at shutting down the Oregon Ducks offense? Clancy Pendergast's unit played extremely efficient football using man coverages, simple assignments, and great playmaking by guys like Chris Conte, Mike Mohamed, Derrick Hill, Cameron Jordan, D.J. Holt, Mychal Kendricks and more. Read more perspective about Cal football at the California Golden Blogs.

Chris Conte was one of many defensive heroes in Cal's shutdown of the mighty Oregon Ducks offense.
Chris Conte was one of many defensive heroes in Cal's shutdown of the mighty Oregon Ducks offense.

Before we move ahead to Big Game Week, let's take one last look at the numbers and see how adept the Golden Bears defense were at keeping the Oregon Ducks out of the end zone.

  • Oregon had only been held under 400 yards and 5.6 yards per carry once (against Arizona State, and they still managed 42 points). Cal's defense held them to season-lows in rushing yards (162), total yards (317) and yards per play (3.8).
  • Oregon picked up only 20 first downs (another season low), and needed four fourth down conversions to make it happen. Oregon was put in third down 21 times and converted only eight times.
  • Oregon had never scored less than 42 points a game this season. Cal's defense held them to eight, minus that Cliff Harris punt return. Despite having the ball for a mind-boggling 84 plays, they only got to the Cal end zone once, and that was off a Shane Vereen fumble deep in Cal territory (Oregon scored on the next play to Jeff Maehl).

So what did Cal do that was so effective? Well, there were a couple big factors.

  • Spying the quarterback. I argued earlier this season that Colin Kaepernick needed to be spied or shadowed so that someone would have the responsibility of defending his outside running ability. That didn't happen, Kaepernick rolled it up, and Nevada ran away from the Bears.
    But that's exactly what happened here, with safety Chris Conte following quarterback Darron Thomas on the play. Thomas was held to only 34 rushing yards on 16 carries, with Conte racking up eight tackles.
  • Cal's defensive line manhandling Oregon's offensive line. Mychal Kendricks (playing as a down lineman/linebacker), Cameron Jordan, Trevor Guyton, Derrick Hill, Aaron Tipoti all had big games; Hill had the huge fumble recovery in the end zone in the third quarter to bring Cal within two. Without them winning their individual assignments, the inside linebackers D.J. Holt and Mike Mohamed wouldn't have been able to do anything).
  • HydroTech at the California Golden Blogs went into further detail about Cal's defensive strategy: "Basically, Conte is saying Cal played Cover Zero (aka zero-coverage) the entire game, which is a man defense where there is absolutely no safety help in the secondary.  The safeties are instead playing their own assignments within the box.  Meaning the CBs are playing on islands -- by themselves and 1 on 1.  Every defender had his own guy he was assigned to defend, hence the 11 on 11 football ("everyone just accounted for a man").  There was no doubling up on offensive players.  There was no "reading" offensive players (which is what Gregory's defenses did).  Thus, when Oregon runs its zone read, no Cal defenders read the play to see who gets the ball.  The defender assigned to the QB just immediately goes for the QB.  The defender assigned to the RB immediately goes for the RB. Having this strict assignment defense, rather than a read and react defense, quickens the defense.  They just go.  Get your guy, and have faith that your teammates will get their guy. 

    It's not hard to scheme against Oregon's offense, it just takes execution.  And that's what Cal's defense did so well for 90% of the game.  They executed extremely well. The defensive line was getting FANTASTIC push against the Oregon offensive line.  Cal defenders were doing a great job solo tackling.  Cal defenders were playing tight coverage on the WRs down the field (except for the TD pass and two other passes downfield where the Oregon QB missed open WRs)."

  • That above principle is Cal's defense playing man coverage. When LaMichael James went to one side of the field, one of the inside linebackers (Holt or Mohamed), the one on the side of the field James was trailing towards began marking him down. Then the other inside linebacker went for the quarterback on a blitz. Mohamed racked up 14 tackles and Pac-10 defensive player of the week honors, Holt nine.

Todd McShay provided a brief demonstration of those strategies below. (HT Redonkulous Bear)


With the game hanging in the balance in the fourth quarter, Oregon decided to ball control right back at the Bears consuming clock and eating away the victory on a nine minute drive (much like last year's Civil War to punch their tickets to Pasadena). Cal's inability to salt away the victory came from their offensive struggles and special teams incompetence as their defense finally wore out. However, I'm sure three more complete teams--the TCU Horned Frogs, Auburn Tigers and Boise St. Broncos--are all salivating at the tape of Cal-Oregon and are ready to find their antidote to Chip Kelly's high-powered attack.

It's hard not to be proud of the Golden Bears defense and Clancy Pendergast's efforts (notching him Rivals coordinator of the week honors), who just need an effective offense to go along with them to pull off the upset of the season in Strawberry Canyon. But if they can manage this type of performance again this week, they'll probably be happy with the consolation prize of defending the Axe.