Ole Miss presents a whole host of challenges for the Bears when they pull into Berkeley Saturday night. It's one of the best passing attacks that the Bears will face all year. It's the first of a five game run where the Bears face some of the best quarterbacks that college football has to offer, and there's a lot of respect for what Ole Miss has with their receivers from defensive coordinator Tim DeRuyter.
"We can’t replicate that (with the scout team), because that’s as big and fast and physical of a group as you’ll see," DeRuyter said, "We played them a couple years ago when I was at another school, and they looked the same. You go out in pre-game warmups, and you’re like ‘wow, this doesn’t look like your typical wide receivers,’ but they’re very physical, we’re gonna have to work our tail off, mixing coverages in to give our guys a chance, and in one on one situations, we’ve got to win our share of 50-50 balls."
They have to do this against three excellent receivers in AJ Brown, DK Metcalf, and Damarkus Lodge, as QB Shea Patterson (who DeRuyter compared to Johnny Football) has started to come into his own during the first two games of the 2017 season, averaging 459 passing yards over the two contests.
What makes Patterson special is his feet, as he was the 3rd ranked player in the 2016 class and top ranked dual threat QB. He hasn't been much of a runner this season, though he's plenty capable, but both the threat of his feet and his ability to get outside the pocket and extend plays plays are a big reason why he's effective.
On this play-action pass, Patterson holds the read option fake for a long time, giving the impression that he could take off up the middle. It draws three extra defenders up for an extra half second or so, as well as draws the defensive backs up enough for Lodge to get behind the defense. Patterson has an excellent arm, as the ball is in the air for over 50 yards on the play. It's a very good throw, just a little behind, but it shows the arm strength Patterson has.
Patterson can get outside when he needs to, and that play-action look is one they use a lot, either for quick passes on slants or for deeper stuff. Phil Longo has noted that he wants to keep the offense simple, and he has, but this is just wide receivers being attentive and a QB making time on the outside. It's improvisation, and the caliber of athlete Ole Miss has at wideout, they get the job done.
Then there's the 50-50 balls that DeRuyter talked about. Good pass protection leads to a one on one matchups that Ole Miss takes advantage of, especially with Brown, who's a very good YAC receiver. Patterson throws a perfect ball and Brown is too fast for the defender. Straight out of the Tony Franklin playbook, though on this play they keep the RB and TE in to pass block, as the TE crosses over to help sell the run fake.
Of course, there is a point where the offense gets too simple and too predictable. That's happened a bit in the run game, where Ole Miss is averaging 78 yards on the ground per game against sub-standard competition. They have the line talent to be better, but they haven't been getting the running backs to produce like they should. As good as they've been at pass-blocking, the run game has been a challenge to get going. That simplicity faltered once in the pass game (though this is admittedly a bit of nitpicking as Patterson has completed 77% of his passes so far), as Patterson went for the quick hitting slant off a run fake, and a safety stepped under the route. He doesn't look before making the throw, as the wideout runs the route a bit deeper than anticipated and the safety is right there.
Defensive Keys for Cal
1. Keeping contain and getting pressure
Keeping Patterson from getting outside and extending plays is a big deal, something Cal did well in the second half against UNC, and keeping Patterson uncomfortable. Cal also got pressure at the end of the Weber State game from Josh Drayden, and it would be unsurprising to see some of those blitzing looks again.
2. Taking advantage of the mistakes, forcing turnovers
If a play like the one above happens, Ray Davison has been excellent in practices at stepping under routes in the pass, and he could make a play similarly. Tim DeRuyter noted that if the defense can get three turnovers a game, then they'll be one of the best in the country, so that's the target.
3. Fix the mental errors and don't bite on play action
"This week has been a big difference from last week," safety Quentin Tartabull noted, "When you're in the moment, you don't realize the lack of preparation put out there, looking back, we're making sure we don't leave nothing in the film room unknown, nothing on the field unrecognized, so our preparation since Saturday has been amazing."
Every coach this week has talked about the players being hungry to correct their mistakes from Saturdays, and that's through preparation. The Bears struggled against play action looks a bit a week ago, and that can't happen again with an even faster wide receiver group coming their way.
4. Physicality and Winning one on one battles
There's no getting around it, as DeRuyter noted, the Bears have to win one on one battles on the outside. If they can be physical, press a bit (which they're capable of), get the receivers out of their rhythm and timing, they can make winning these battles a bit easier.