A look at two zone-read runs by Cal quarterback Zach Maynard against Arizona State.
In the first quarter of the season finale against Arizona State, the Cal offense used a big pass play from quarterback Zach Maynard to his half-brother Keenan Allen -- recall that blood is thicker than roommates -- to get into field goal range. The Sun Devils responded with a grinding 11-play drive topped off by a touchdown, giving the ball back to Cal halfway through the opening quarter trailing 7-3.
A rush by diminutive back Isi Sofele gained 17 yards, followed by an incomplete pass on a play-action roll-out by Maynard, exactly the type of inaccurate throw that plagued the Buffalo transfer throughout the early part of the season.
The Play -- 2nd and 10 at the Cal 46
With their starting fullback out for the season, Cal lines up in what is essentially their version of a power rushing formation, with two tight ends on the line of scrimmage, a nice blocking surface for the preferred zone scheme. In response, the safety or nickel backs edges a big closer to the box to act as the force player for Maynard if he starts heading outside. Given the placement of the running back on Maynard's left, the defense basically knows that this is going to be some type of zone play going to the offense's right.
For whatever reason, the ASU defense has opted to squeeze the defensive end down the line of scrimmage to give Maynard a keep read instead of playing Sofele with numbers. If there's logic behind that decision, it's not readily apparent, especially given the results.The strongside tight end, Spencer Hagan, often flexed out as a wide receiver in the Cal offense, heads toward the force player, who needs to keep his outside shoulder free and force the run back inside where his teammates can swarm to the play.
The squeezing defensive end doesn't even know that Maynard has the football after some nice sleight of hand from the lanky signal caller pulling the ball at the last second and the playside linebacker has given up his shoulder and been sealed inside. Maynard already has a nice-looking running lane, but shows some nice -- albeit relatively basic -- understanding of how to set up and read the block by Hagan, which will determine whether he heads inside or takes the edge.
The safety flies in and shuts down Maynard's lane inside as Hagan makes contact, but the angle from the safety opting to try to get under the block doesn't nearly respect the foot speed of the Cal quarterback, a decision that will cost the Sun Devil defense some serious yardage.
Hagan gets some pop on the force player with his first strike, then latches on just as Maynard heads outside. As a nice bonus, the safety flies right into Hagan, taking himself out of the play. [Blake Gideon comment redacted]
Maynard's speed allows him to take the edge easily, just as his half brother gets his hands on the field corner -- bad news for the field corner, another player who needs to be able to separate and cut off Maynard.
It's not going to happen, as Allen rides the corner for a good four yards without even approaching a holding penalty and now it's only the sideline saving a long touchdown run.
Well down the field, the cornerback finally gets an angle on Maynard to force him out of bounds.
The Cal quarterback obliges, having made it 25 yards downfield without an ASU defender even coming particularly close to touching him.
Maynard didn't have many run plays called for him at Buffalo, one of the factors that probably aided his transfer, but Golden Bear head coach Jeff Tedford has rightly made the simple zone read a part of his offense, though Cal didn't run it as consistently against ASU as offenses that use it as the staple play.
Still, it's a dangerous one, as Maynard is a well above-average runner for his position and has the speed to put stress on angles taken by the opposing secondary. As a result, it doesn't make much sense to allow Maynard to get on the perimeter where he can cause more damage, especially if the defense isn't even going to scrape the Sam 'backer to help out the force player.
Once Maynard gets on the edge, he can take advantage of the excellent blocking from Hagan and Allen, both of whom do an excellent showing a combination of strength, desire, and technique that helped them win the majority of those battles in the game viewed.
The earlier Maynard rush led to a touchdown run by Sofele to give Cal the lead and the defense was able to consolidate some momentum on the subsequent ASU possession by forcing and recovering a fumble that was returned into Sun Devil territory.
A pass interference penalty put Cal into the ASU red zone.
The Play -- 1st and 10 at the ASU 16
On this play, Cal shows a little bit of a different look in their zone scheme, with the back-up fullback lined up in an offset position where he can either lead the running back or the quarterback as a blocker, giving the offense the choice of helping the numbers on either side. With three wide receivers on the field, ASU has taken off a linebacker, but is essentially giving the same look on defense as the previous Maynard run.
The ASU defense declined to make an adjustment in how the defensive end would play the zone read and he once again squeezes the play to give Maynard the give read. This time, instead of Hagan heading towards the force player, it's the fullback, who has come across the formation.
Inexplicably, the force player doesn't recognize that Maynard has the ball and takes an angle headed into the mass of players at the line of scrimmage, which wouldn't even be effective to catch the speedy Sofele even if he had the ball, as the Cal back looks like he would have been able to take the weakside edge anyway.
As a result, the fullback doesn't even have to execute a block. Again, Maynard threatens the defense inside to help set up his block as the strong safety heads inside to cut him off, exposing the ASU edge with Keenan Allen in the neighborhood.
As it probably would nine out of ten times, if not more, the decision by the strong safety works out poorly, allowing Allen to execute an easy block as Maynard cuts outside. Notice as well that the field corner has taken an angle inside, too, also expecting Maynard to cut up the field.
The corner takes himself out of the play officially when he slips, so Hagan doesn't even really have to execute his block, either, though it probably would have been immaterial, as that match up favors Cal as heavily as that of Allen against a safety.
Another long, untouched run for Maynard, this time stopped by the end zone instead of the sideline.
From the ASU perspective, it's pretty clear that the secondary needs some development taking the proper angles and understanding their individual assignments on these type of running plays, which is essentially to force the ballcarrier inside and/or make a play by beating a block. Maybe that secondary just flat-out isn't very good at football. Both represent distinct possibilities after breaking down these plays.
Again, given those obvious deficiencies in the secondary, it's surprising that the ASU defensive coordinator would opt to continue to squeeze the defensive end and allow Maynard to take the edge so easily. Why not defend with numbers and allow the defensive line and linebackers to make some plays in the running game?
What it means for Texas
Cal loves to get Maynard and Keenan Allen out on the edge, or even screen to another wide receiver and let Hagan and Allen do the blocking. Either way it amounts to the same thing -- the nickel players and cornerbacks have to do an outstanding job of consistently beating blocks by bigger, stronger players, and the safeties have to take correct angles and keep everything in the middle of the field. Not an easy task.
What bodes well for the Longhorns on those plays is the fact that defensive coordinator Manny Diaz can use Kenny Vaccaro as the force player and trust him to either beat those blocks or at least force the play in the proper direction, all without giving anything up in coverage. As for the cornerbacks, Carrington Byndom and Quandre Diggs have shown all season that they are wiling and able to take on and beat blockers.
The difference is the size of guys like Hagan -- who goes 6-5, 200 -- and Allen -- 6-3, 210 himself. At somewhere in the vicinity of 5-9, the advantage in reach could make it hard for Quandre the Giant, while Byndom typically plays the boundary and could draw the match up against senior split end Marvin Jones, a fantastic athlete and overall playmaker himself and another guy with some serious size at 6-3.
Diaz may have to find another option there, especially when Hagan is lined up wide. He's not a major vertical threat there, so the Longhorns could afford to use a player like Demarco Cobbs there with confidence that Cal would at least have a tough time beating him in coverage.
But back to defending the zone read with numbers. If the defense wants to keep from playing games like scraping a linebacker or going with the fire zone, it doesn't make sense to allow Maynard to play to both his strengths and the strengths of the perimeter blockers for Cal. It's actually rather suicidal, as the two runs for 41 yards and a touchdown above clearly indicate.
Keenan Robinson and Emmanuel Acho are both playing better against the run inside -- particularly Robinson, who suddenly developed the ability and willingness to get dirty inside within the last month of a half -- while the penetrating ability of the Texas defensive line and strong play from about six or seven guys in that rotation all point towards wanting Sofele to have the ball on those zone reads.
Expect Diaz to drill sophomore defensive end Jackson Jeffcoat on getting upfield hard and forcing that give by Maynard and the Longhorns to take the ball out of Maynard's hands on the zone read.