Washington's offensive showing against Stanford was poor enough to inspire "our offense is broken!" type semi-panic. The average possession seemed to compose of a 0-2 yard rush on first down, a rush for 0-2 yards on second down, and then Cyler desperately running around trying (and usually failing) to save the day with his arm. The loss not only exposed the weaknesses of the offense, it also served as a sort of worst case scenario. Washington's offense had been far from prolific against various underwhelming out of conference foes, but it took a defense of Stanford's quality to absolutely break it.
Fresh off that performance, it's easy to look at Cal, a team that has averaged over 50 points per game despite having already played three conference opponents, and wonder how Washington can possibly keep up with the craziness. The obvious answer: Cal's defense is averaging 545 total yards allowed per game (124th of 128 FBS teams). Over the last three conference games, that figure leaps to 689yapg. Ah!
The Cal defense was very bad last season (529yapg, 124th out of 125), but in context those struggles were much more excusable. It was the very first year under Dykes, and the whole team had to deal with a completely unreasonable number of injuries throughout the year.
The Golden Bears have also ranked 122nd in scoring defense, surrendering just over 40ppg. Last year? 124th with 45ppg. No one expected this unit to suddenly perform at an elite level in 2014, but we've seen very limited progress.
It's worth mentioning that Cal's offensive approach and output (50ppg) will always hurt the defense's total yardage numbers by keeping it on the field more often (ala Oregon). Based on yards allowed per play, Cal looks a bit better at 93rd (5.95yapp), compared to 119th (7.08yapp) in '13. Still, in conference, that number jumps to 6.65yapp.
Most of that damage has come against the pass. Cal is seriously dead last in the nation against the pass, with 427 yards allowed per game. Yes, the game against WSU sort of blew that number up, and yes, the bit about the offense putting extra pressure on the defense factors in. And I suppose in yards allowed per passing attempt, Cal's 7.2yappa (YAPPA!) is slightly better than Washington's 7.5. They've still given up 21 TDs and over 2100 yards through the air!
It's been brought up that Cal is much stingier against the run, and the raw totals back that up. The Bears are a super solid 31st in the country with a mere 117 rushing yards allowed per game. Per carry? Still 47th at 3.64. Cal has not been gouged by the run in any contest.
However, none of Cal's opponents really built their offensive approach around pounding the football. Colorado toted the ball 43 times, and were allowed a pretty modest 175 yards (4.07ypc), but Arizona had 32 rushes and WSU 25. When Arizona and WSU did run, they were held to just over 3ypc, so it's inevitably a chicken-or-the-egg debate: did they stop running because Cal stopped the run, or did Cal have an easy time against the run because WSU and Arizona were focused on lobbing the ball downfield and never gave priority to the run?
Saturday's game should help answer those sorts of questions. The Huskies are going to run the football a ton. Even with Cal's poor record against the pass, we've seen nothing to suggest that Cyler can thrive without a successful run game, and the coaching staff seems to feel the same way.
Perhaps Cal's rush defense is the real deal, and Lavon Coleman and Dwayne Washington will suffer flashbacks to the Stanford game as they're dropped for a few yards on 1st and 2nd down. If so, I'll eat my crow, but I don't see Cal's per carry average of 3.64 holding after 40-50 Husky rushing attempts.
A return to facing the good ol' 4-3 front. Brennan Scarlett (Jr., 6-4, 260) starts at one DE spot, with DT Austin Clark (Sr., 5-10, 270) and DT Mustafa Jalil (Jr., 6-3, 295) on the inside and DE Todd Barr (Jr., 6-3, 250) filling out the edge.
Barr has been the most impactful of this group, with 4 tackles for loss and 2 sacks through five games. Trevor Kelly (Jr., 6-2, 300) has registered eight total tackles as part of the line's rotation.
While it's tempting to say that Washington's veteran offensive line should be able to win the line of scrimmage fairly easily, it's worth noting that they have yet to truly dominate the LOS in any game this season. Experience often correlates with success in college football, especially in the trenches, but this line has been middling all year long.
It's time to accept that the big step forward many of us expected did not occur. Progress will need to come gradually, game by game, over the course of the year. However, even adjusted expectations should not allow for too many struggles against this limited front. Considering that the Cal D has totaled only 8 sacks in five games (3 in three conference games), if more than a sack or two are allowed, it will be a disappointing performance.
Jalen Jefferson (Jr., 6-2, 220) starts at WILL. He's 3rd on the team in total tackles with 32, and tied for 3rd with 2.5 TFL. MIKE Will Barton (So., 6-0, 225) has been the most productive defender on the roster. His 35 total tackles pace the team, and while his 3 TFL are good for 2nd. SAM Jake Kearney (So., 6-3, 220) completes the trio.
This LB corps is definitely the strength of the defense. If Cal makes a play on defense, it will probably be Jefferson or Barton if it's not Todd Barr.
While the Husky offensive line's significant weight gains haven't seemed to do a ton of good so far this year, even against undersized teams like Georgia State, I suppose I'll mention that Cal's biggest LB is 225 and no one on the starting defensive line breaks 300 pounds. The difference in physical stature and physicality between Cal's front seven and the Stanford front seven that the Husky O-line most recently faced is extremely stark.
I hope Coach Smith and Coach Strausser have been working hard on improving the power run game.
Cedric Dozier (So., 5-10, 175) and Cameron Walker (So., 5-11, 180) will start at corner. While both are similar in size, one will defend the oft-targeted speedster Jaydon Mickens while the other will presumably often cover the physically imposing but minimally productive Kasen Williams.
SS Michael Lowe (Sr., 5-11, 205) is the most experienced of the bunch, while FS Griffin Piatt (So., 6-3, 200) has been the most productive (33 total tackles, 3 interceptions).
Cyler hasn't thrown a pick yet, but several of his balls have been pickable. Assuming these guys paid any attention to the film, they'll be looking to jump weakly thrown screens and under thrown balls in general. Look out for Piatt in particular.
Over the last three weeks, his unit has immediately been aerially bombarded and spent the entire game chasing around four or five receivers. It'll be interesting to see if they still make the same critical errors when they're no longer in nickel, spread out all over the field to defend five WRs.
Even though Cal's biggest weakness is in defending the pass, I don't think Washington will find success trying to mimic what Arizona or WSU did through the air. A cursory glance at any film of the Husky offense, or any stat sheet, will confirm that Washington is not built to attempt 40+ passes in a game.
Cal has held up well against the run so far, but Washington has actually done a pretty solid job of establishing the ground game up until the Stanford game. That was fairly understandable given that Stanford is the top rushing defense in the nation, and had been even before shutting down Coleman and Washington.
Cyler may not be very productive, but he is has avoided throwing a single interception, a major contributing factor to Washington's outstanding +11 turnover margin. Even with Goff limiting his interceptions to only three, Cal's margin is merely even.
Need to convert on 3rd and 16 after two negative running plays? Cyler is not that guy, at least at this stage in his career. But get Coleman going, avoid getting horribly predictable with the play-calling, and Cyler is capable of having an Illinois-type game.
In that contest, the Huskies pounded the ball 58 times for 245 yards and 2 touchdowns. The 4.22ypc was not exactly explosive, but the defense had to constantly put men in the box to account for that threat, and Cyler managed his most efficient game of the season: 16 of 22 (72%) for 219 yards and a touchdown. Out of five games, it is the one contest in which Cyler averaged 10 yards per attempt.
Goff can throw for 350+ yards and still lose to a quarterback that has thrown for fewer than 200 as long as the defense generates turnovers and plays stout in the red zone, and as long as the offense executes that same sort of maddeningly persistent game plan that we witnessed win the Illinois game.