EVANSTON, Ill. — Preparing for new coaches is not easy. There are new schemes to learn, uncovered tricks to stumble upon. Not knowing tends to make coaches, fans and players uneasy. Northwestern will need to overcome the uncertainty in three of the first four games (Cal, Syracuse and Western Michigan are all breaking in new coaches) it plays this season, starting this Saturday at Cal, where Sonny Dykes will make his debut after spending the last three seasons at Louisiana Tech. With him comes a high-powered spread offense, semi-humorously dubbed the “Bear Raid”.
The system is different from other up-tempo schemes, but it is not dissimilar to the “Air Raid” system Mike Leach, now the head coach at Washington State, popularized at Texas Tech. Dykes’ offensive philosophy is informed by Leach’s system, but it has been tweaked over the years, modified by experience, as the coach has moved from Texas Tech to Arizona to Louisiana Tech and now, Cal.
“We’ve seen a lot of teams that are up-tempo,” Fitzgerald said Monday at his weekly press conference. “As you watch what they do and study what they do, to me it’s a very challenging offense to defend.”
The Wildcats have spent more time studying Louisiana Tech game film, along with tape from Cal’s spring game, than any footage of Golden Bears’ games from last season. Even the defense, which will switch from a 3-4 to a 4-3 this season under new coordinator Andy Buh, features little relevant game tape from 2012 beyond the benefits of studying individual personnel tendencies.
Senior defensive end Tyler Scott sees consistency between what Dykes ran at Louisiana Tech and the various schemes and formations utilized in Cal’s spring game.
“We don’t have much film other than the spring game,” Scott said. “So far I think they’re pretty consistent with what they did at Louisiana Tech, as far as offensive-wise.”
From what Fitzgerald and his team has seen thus far, one theme has emerged: Cal’s offense is going to play fast, and it’s going to put a lot of “stress” on the defense.
“They play so fast. They play up-tempo, especially their offense,” Fitzgerald said. “They do a great job of jumping on you. It puts a lot of stress on your defense – tempo does and what they do schematically.”
The pace of Dykes’ system is well-documented: last season under Dykes, Louisiana Tech averaged 3.15 plays per minute, according to Football Study Hall, good for third in the country. Tech also scored 618 points last season, behind only Oregon, who lead the nation with 645.
Expecting Cal to replicate that production, by virtue of Dykes’ hiring as head coach, is probably a bit ambitious. Cal has plenty of talent at the offensive skill positions – the team’s greatest strength, according to Scott.”Their strong point, so far, from what we’ve seen, is definitely their skill positions.” – including junior Brendan Bigelow, a speedy back who averaged 9.80 yards per carry last season, and sophomore receiver Chris Harper, an effective target in the slot.
But the Bears’ offense is not without flaws. Among them are a young offensive line, a mostly unproven receiving corps and a true freshman quarterback who, despite his reputable high school credentials, is unlikely to harness the full potential of Dykes’ breakneck scheme by the first week of the season. It will take time – just like Dykes’ offense needed time to transform LA Tech from a nondescript 5-7 entity in 2010 to a high-flying, points-gouging, thrilling 9-3 outfit in 2012.
The potential for immediate Bear Raid success – for Dykes’ new players to pick up his scheme from the get go, and elevate what LA Tech did last season with better athletes across the board – is minimal. Cal won just three games last season, was gashed on defense over its final four games (allowing an average of 47.75 points) and was so uncompetitive and listless in some games (including losing its final two contests by a combined score of 121-31) its 11-year coach and program-turnaround architect, Jeff Tedford, was fired.
The seeds of a dynamic offensive juggernaut are being planted, but it’s unwise to expect Cal’s offense to reach full bloom this year, much less on Saturday. Talks of a classic week 1 “trap game” may be rampant, but Northwestern opened as an 8.5-point favorite for a reason.
It is the better team.