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Opponent Defense Preview: Cal

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It turns out Cal’s defense doesn’t suck this year. Crazy, right?

NCAA Football: Oregon at California Kelley L Cox-USA TODAY Sports

Happy Wednesday, goobers.

Wednesday means it’s defensive preview day.

That means today is defensive preview day. Holy crud.

Let’s get to it:

Personnel

The Cal defense seems to switch it up most often between a 2-4-5 and 3-4 and will at times line players up asymmetrically on the line.

What really stands out about them, though — if you remember the Cal of 2015, 2016, etc. — is just how much better at fundamentals this defense is than when Sonny Dykes was their head coach. Whereas in the past they were poor tacklers and gave up easy yards after catch due to taking bad angles all the time, now they kind of remind me of Washington-lite; they’re simply solid. Still, this is just their first season under the emphatically defensive Justin Wilcox, so the Golden Bears have plenty of room to grow.

Who stands out in the trenches is senior James Looney, nose guard Luc Bequette, plus a lot of versatile linebackers who are called on to make plays in the backfield. Among those is Devante Downs from Mountlake Terrace, who has already been the Pac 12 Defensive Player of the Week twice and has more tackles than anyone in the Pac except for Arizona State’s Christian Sam. Downs also has three sacks, five tackles for loss, two interceptions, and two forced fumbles. It seems like he is everywhere always and does everything.

Assisting Downs are guys like Raymond Davison, with the Bears’ second most tackles, Alex Funches, Cameron Goode, and, out of Spokane, Evan Weaver. Of those, Funches is disruptive in the backfield while Davison and Goode will play more of a role once the ball’s out of a quarterback’s hand.

If they have an especially stark weakness, Oregon may have discovered it last week. The second half of that game, the Ducks ran the ball over and over and over and over and over and over and over... and over and over and over again. Backup quarterback Taylor Alie never threw the ball more than nine yards. Still, Cal couldn’t do much to combat it.

Where Cal should be more optimistic is in the secondary’s playmakers, including Jaylinn Hawkins and Traveon Beck as well as Quentin Tartabull, Camryn Bynum, and others.

They aren’t perfect but what stands out in this unit is an improved ability to generate turnovers in the air. They already have more than half the interception total of the 2016 Cal team (six currently, 11 from last year). Shea Patterson of Ole Miss threw half of his current interception total against Cal (that would be three).

What is also notable is, like the linebackers in front of them, the defensive backs take far better angles than they did under Sonny Dykes. Still, they gave up multiple explosive 45+ yard touchdowns against Ole Miss — evidence that there’s room to improve. It looks to me like this secondary (and pass defense as a whole) is a unit where the vast majority of the time, they’re going to keep an offense from getting free easy yards but they still can be vulnerable against big plays if exploited right.

Even after giving up those points, however — and I think this is the biggest difference of all between the 2017 and 2016 defenses — is that this defense perseveres like it didn’t used to. Against Ole Miss, they gave up two big touchdowns and were down nine points before shutting the Rebels out for the rest of the game. Despite losing to Oregon, they gave up 17 points in the first quarter and then didn’t give up another score for 22 minutes of gameplay.

While they’re still not an elite defense, it looks like they’re a lot harder to wear down both mentally and physically. In the past, if an opponent scored a couple times or got ahead, that team could somewhat rely on that landsliding into victory as the Cal defense resigned. That’s not a characteristic of Justin Wilcox’s team.

Bottom Line

Run it. Run the ball. Run power. Run so much power you make the audience go “They’ve got to have a different play call next ti — nope, still power.” Run so much power people question if they traveled back in time to the 1940s. That’s what I want the Huskies to do, both for efficacy and because it would be entertaining if just for the novelty value of 100% Pure Power Running Football.

When Washington does go to the air, I think we’ll probably see Hunter Bryant get the ball a few more times than he has in the past. His combination of size and disproportionate athleticism has the greatest potential of any of the Huskies’ receiving targets to cause a slip in what is typically a solid Cal coverage defense. I also think we could see a couple posts from Pettis or someone since Cal has shown that’s where they’re more likely to slip up if going against an accurate and on-time quarterback.

Which is brings us to that very thing:

There will be a couple slips from the Cal defense if Washington attacks deep, and Jake Browning needs to showcase his accuracy and anticipation when those occur. We already know the Bears don’t give up big plays from bad angles and tackling like they did in years past; we probably won’t see any mid-range passes or dink-and-dunk ball end up getting 30 yards after the catch. If UW creates explosive plays, it will be from posts and go routes where Browning has to throw on time and on a dime. (Hey, that rhymes! Hey, so does that!)

This will be harder because Jake will probably be under more pressure from the pass rush than last year, plus he’ll be made to pay more if that pressure turns into him making bad decisions. Luckily for Washington fans, he doesn’t do that too often. Hopefully that doesn’t change this Saturday.

Basically, the Washington offense will have to play a mini version of what opposing offenses have to play against the Washington defense: play smart. Play solid. Don’t expect the defense to give up. No stupid throws, don’t get cute trying to dance around and make a big play happen when there’s yards right in front of you, catch what comes your way.

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