The 18th-ranked Arizona Wildcats have been preparing for Cal for more than two weeks now, studying game film intently with hopes of gaining any little edge.
But it's not the Golden Bears that concern Arizona's coaches. It's the Wildcat.
"They're always looking for innovative ways to get you out of position, to get some space," UA defensive coordinator Mark Stoops said.
Cal periodically runs the Wildcat formation - a single-wing, run-based offensive wrinkle that's exploding in popularity in both college football and the NFL - to keep opposing defenses honest. The Golden Bears' tailback lines up at the quarterback spot and receives the snap; he then can either keep the ball or hand it off to another runner, located next to him in the shotgun formation.
And the regular quarterback? He lines up at wide receiver, away from the action, and watches.
The goal of the Wildcat formation, just like any other offensive approach, is to create mismatches.
It's a concept as simple as it is popular. Teams throughout the country have instituted some form of Wildcat look in short-yardage and goal-line situations. Even Arizona runs a version of the Wildcat, albeit with a speedy quarterback - and not a running back - under center.
"If you've got a guy who can run it, it's good to put in every now and then. They have to change their defense, and they have to prepare for it. It makes it tough on the other team," UA quarterback Nick Foles said. "It's a new thing, and new things are always pretty successful. Lots of teams are adding it to their packages, and it works a lot."
Here's everything you ever wanted to know about the Wildcat:
Origin of the Wildcat
Let's get one thing out of the way: The Wildcat formation has nothing to do with Arizona's mascot.
Kansas State first ran the offense in the late-1990s, with speedy quarterback Michael Bishop calling the shots. The modern Wildcat formation didn't catch on until 2006, when Arkansas offensive coordinator Gus Malzahn installed the "Wild Hog" attack as a way to get running backs Darren McFadden and Felix Jones on the field at the same time. McFadden lined up at quarterback, with Jones next to him at tailback.
So how did an offense popularized in Kansas and Arkansas get the Wildcat moniker? Well, it's complicated: Washington high school coach Hugh Wyatt instituted a double-wing scheme that he named after his team's mascot, the Wildcats, in 1998. K-State, also the Wildcats, also lays claim to the naming rights.
Wildcat in the NFL
The Carolina Panthers originally used the direct-snap attack in 2006, when injuries to their quarterbacks forced the team to use tailback D'Angelo Williams under center. Offensive coordinator Dan Henning took some of those principles to the Miami Dolphins when he was hired to run the offense in 2008. Working with quarterbacks coach David Lee, who coached under Malzahn at Arkansas, Henning devised the Wildcat attack for tailback Ronnie Brown. The scheme was a rousing success. A handful of NFL teams now run some form of the Wildcat - the Chargers' LaDainian Tomlinson even got into the act two weeks ago, scoring a touchdown from the QB position.
Working west …
Cal offensive coordinator Andy Ludwig brought the Wildcat with him from Utah, where he used the scheme with tailback Matt Asiata last year.
The Golden Bears ran the scheme sparingly earlier in the season before unveiling a series of plays against Washington State on Oct. 24. Cal ran five plays from the formation, with backs Jahvid Best and Shane Vereen and wide receiver Isi Sofele gaining 52 yards. The team broke out the attack again Saturday against Oregon State; in fact, Best's severe concussion came on a play in which he took the direct snap, darted left and leapt over a Beavers defender and into the end zone.
"They do a good job with it," Arizona offensive coordinator Sonny Dykes said. "It's a good way for them to get misdirection-type things with their backs. … It's a good way to get some quarterback run game when you don't have a running quarterback. That's kind of what everybody's doing."
Declawing the Wildcat
Stopping the scheme isn't as easy as it seems.
Mark Stoops said some coaches are tempted to add one more player to the "box" - the area between the tackles - to shut down a sure run. But that requires more shifting, and new assignments, on the fly.
"It's easy for the average fan to say, 'Just add another guy down there,' but there are 10 other guys and their 'fits' have to be exactly right," he said. "That's where you have to be disciplined and have that system."
Stopping the Wildcat is no different than shutting down a lead-option attack, Stoops said. Players must stick to their assignments without overcommitting.
"It always comes down to good team defense, being sound in our adjustments and being on top of things," he said. "That's where we've grown defensively: We're understanding that no matter what they do, there's always a system to fall back on."
The Arizona Wildcat
Even Arizona is getting into the act.
The UA has been practicing a modified version of the Wildcat, in one way or another, since the start of training camp. Backup quarterback Matt Scott has taken over as the trigger-man since losing his job to Foles in Week 4; he played single snaps in wins over Stanford and UCLA, and was the Wildcats' leading rusher in last week's win over Washington State.
Scott has an edge: He can throw the ball.
"I'm just hoping to see more of it," Scott said. "I think it worked well last game, and it'll work well from this game on."