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Opponent Defense Preview: Cal

The conundrum that is the Cal defense goes up against Browning, Gaskin, and Co.

NCAA Football: Utah at California John Hefti-USA TODAY Sports

While last week saw the Huskies go up against a team known for its stout defense, physicality, and toughness, this week the Dawgs play the opposite.

That is, they play the anti-Utah who out-Utah’d Utah. Let that act as a warning not to get too comfortable with Cal.


Let’s start with some basic stats:

The Cal defense is allowing an average of 41.75 points per game. Their red zone scoring defense is 91st in the country, allowing an opponent scoring percentage of .889. Of the scores allowed from within the red zone, 17 are rushes, nine are passes, and six are field goals.

Although the Golden Bear defense hasn’t in recent years been considered particularly physical or stout, they have their moments. For example, stopping Utah at the goal line three times with the game on the line? Then again, giving up 47 points to Oregon State? Huh?

Speaking of outplaying Utah in the trenches, if there’s one guy to keep an eye on on the line, it’s probably DT James Looney. He blew up against Utah and does what a good DT does: occupies blocks and double teams to clear up space for teammates. He’s not gigantic — 280 lbs — but he makes up for that in speed.

On the other hand, Cal is last in the country in rushing defense; they’ve given up 24 rush touchdowns and average 287 rush yards per game. Opponents are averaging six yards per rush. Whew.

My initial instinct would be to attribute this to a smallish line that tends to lose the leverage battle, as exhibited in their struggles getting past the line for tackles for loss. That said, the Bears are decent at generating turnovers and roughly 23 of those are interceptions. With that in mind we can reasonably conclude that the Cal line, although they struggle with finishing sacks, is much better suited for the pass rush — that’s as much a statement about their ineptitude stopping the running game as it is the opposite.

The fault in their running game struggles also lies with the linebackers. Against Oregon they were not infrequently caught out of position and they don’t take the best angles. As well, the tackling fundamentals are a weakness against slippery or stronger runners. Especially when we’ve seen the aforementioned Looney do so much work to occupy opposing blockers’ efforts, it’s disappointing for Cal that the linebackers haven’t been able to shoot gaps and bring more havoc with their opportunities.

The relative strength of the Golden Bear defense (relative being the key word) is probably in the secondary. They showed against air-it-out (but confusingly inconsistent) Texas that they can keep up. They have nine interceptions on the season, which is 28th in the country.

It’s also where former quarterback Luke Rubenzer resides; his perspective as a quarterback — he was partially in competition for the job last spring, although the frontrunners were always Chase Forrest and Bothell native Ross Bowers, at least until Webb came into the picture — gives him insight into understanding opposing quarterbacks and thus how best to disrupt them. Rubenzer, in fact, had Cal’s lone interception against USC last Saturday.

Unfortunately for Cal, another one of their important names, Darius Allensworth, is questionable for UW. Or, in Sonny Dykes’ words when asked about Allensworth, “We’ll see.”

Although there are some depth issues and a good offense like UW should be able to dominate in this matchup if they play smart, the Golden Bears’ secondary is a group that will capitalize on poor throws. Take, for example, an underthrown deep ball against USC or a rushed pass against Oregon in overtime, both resulting in interceptions.

Bottom Line

Against a defense allowing six yards per rush and barely registering any tackles for loss? Yeah, I’ll take it. I fully expect to see the Husky offensive line win the trenches and then Gaskin and Coleman take advantage of the poor angles and tackling when they get into the defensive backfield.

It wouldn’t surprise me if we saw both Gaskin and Coleman get well over 100 yards in this game. I also think this may be one of those instances where Husky fans really appreciate Coach Pete’s focus on defensive fundamentals when we see the lack thereof in another team.

Also, Cal’s defense isn’t young, but they also aren’t experienced. Unfortunately for them that’s sort of the worst of both worlds in some ways. There’s primarily juniors and seniors on this defense, but many of them are in their first year starting or making meaningful contributions; as expected, there’s been a noticeable learning curve and improvement over the season so far.

In that respect Washington should also have the mental edge. The cerebral nature of UW’s offense should end up outsmarting Cal in many plays and that, along with the discrepancy of strengths in fundamentals between the Huskies and Bears, should be the difference.

Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.