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Opponent Defense Preview: Cal

Doesn’t it feel weird talking about Cal’s good defense? I like it.

Idaho State v California Photo by Ezra Shaw/Getty Images

Sup, and welcome to the first of two defensive previews going over the Bay Area.

The most important thing about Cal? This isn’t Sonny Dykes defense.

Personnel and What to Expect

The first thing with Cal’s defense is to not put too much stock in their points per game allowed stat; this is because that’s massively inflated due to what I will call a questionable-at-best decision to play Brandon McIlwain so much at quarterback, who has single-handedly gifted opponents 30 points on either pick sixes or scoop-and-score fumbles, not even mentioning the amount of non-pick-six interceptions he’s thrown that have put the Bears’ defense in a routinely difficult position. And that’s not even including extra points.

But I digress.

Now that we have that down, the basics:

While Cal as a complete team is kind of in no man’s land right now — not bad, but not quite reliably good — their defense in two years under Justin Wilcox and DC Tim DeRuyter is so, so much better than the turnstiles they had under Sonny Dykes.

If you’re one of those people who still can’t quite get their minds around this after Dykes so thoroughly branded defense as an afterthought, consider:

(Now, remember that whole “If only the Cal offense *coughBrandonMcIlwaincough* would stop giving opponents free points” thing? Yeah.)

While much of their roster is more under-the-radar types and, as such, isn’t gonna out-athlete most of the Pac-12, they’re relatively versatile depending on opposing offense’s tendencies; any given week, you’re likely to see them either in a 3-4 (for run-heavy, short-range dominant passing offenses like BYU) or, more often in Pac-12 games, based in a 2-4-5 nickel except in obvious running situations.

The most apparent thing I’ve watched in Cal’s defense is that, if they know a team’s gonna rely on the run and have little to no mid-range or deep threat, they’re gonna be successful on more drives than not. Case in point: Arizona and BYU, the former of which only scoring 10 points via their offense — all of which was scored during the first quarter, with the field goal making up those 10 points being scored after the offense only went 36 yards after a turnover on downs. In BYU’s case, take seven points away from Cal’s points allowed, since a touchdown was scored via a fumble returned for a touchdown.

So. If a team decides to go all Oregon-circa-October-2017 on their asses, Cal’s gonna win —save an astonishingly inept performance by their offense — because they’ll only need more than 10 or 11 points per the Arizona and BYU games to do it.

This reliability against run-heavy offenses (or, more accurately, pass-inept offenses), can of course be attributed to the performances up front (duh), especially the linebackers, since the Bears frequent a two-gap front when they know that’s coming.

Of these, the inside linebacker tandem of Sr. Jordan Kunaszyk and redshirt Jr. Evan Weaver, from Spokane, has evolved into a disruptive force for opposing offenses. Both have NFL size (Kunaszyk at 6’3”, 235 lbs and Weaver at 6’3”, 245 lbs) and, Pro Football Focus’ flaws notwithstanding, have found themselves on the PFF Midseason All-Pac-12 teams. While Kunaszyk rates higher per PFF and has 1.5 sacks and three forced fumbles, in the eye test Weaver seems to be the more dominant one purely in terms of being everywhere always, all the time, forever. In that way, he really reminds me of a bigger version of Ben Burr-Kirven.

The linebackers’ success is all the more impressive considering what they lost — Mountlake Terrace product and 2017’s multi-week Pac-12 Defensive Player of the Week winner, Devante Downs graduated and is in the NFL, while Cameron Goode was lost for the season after a September injury.

On the outside, Sr. Alex Funches stands out for how capable he is not just in the pass rush but in coverage — something you don’t frequently see from outside linebackers.

Allowing the linebackers to do their jobs so well is the line, which is overwhelmingly upperclassmen. Defensive ends Luc Bequette and Rusty Becker, a redshirt junior and redshirt senior, respectively, are frequently disruptive. And while you’re not gonna hear NT Chris Palmer’s name called often on tackles, etc., he clogs up the middle pretty well to give the linebackers the go-ahead to do their job, as we’ve established already.

Also, fun fact, Palmer’s backup, redshirt freshman Siu Fuimaono, is from Okinawa and is, not surprisingly, the first person from Kadena to get a scholarship to play football in FBS.

Rounding it all out is their secondary, who’s anchored in the middle by a group of upperclassmen and whose corners are young but experienced.

To begin with, safeties Quentin Tartabull, Ashtyn Davis, and Jaylinn Hawkins are all redshirt juniors or seniors, with Ashtyn Davis rounding out the trio of Pro Football Focus Midseason All-Pac-12 members on this defense. Alongside them are corners Camryn Bynum and Elijah Hicks, both of whom are just sophomores, but who were thrown into the fire last year and have come away from it well-equipped. For nickel situations, Traveon Beck will be the first guy up; Beck is very fast but also very small at 5’9” (“Okay Gabey, that’s smaller than average but he’s at nickel where that kinda makes sense so I don’t get why you’re mentioning it”) and only 160 lbs (“Oh. Oh I get what you were saying now”).

Still, quarterbacks have a lower Passer Rating (guess how much that is) when targeting Beck than against any other Pac-12 defensive back (it’s 8.3, wtf). In fact, of the five lowest Opponent Passer Ratings in the Pac-12, three belong to Cal defensive backs: Along with Beck, fourth and fifth best go to Elijah Hicks, and Camryn Bynum. Byron Murphy is one of the others in that list.

Although the linebackers are probably the most important unit on this team, the defensive backs will rarely be found blowing coverage and are more likely to force a quarterback to make a tight-window throw than give him an easy-to-hit target.

In general, this team is quite experienced, disciplined, tackles well, is spatially sound, is pretty bend-don’t-break-ish but also creates more havoc in the middle than most teams like that... In other words (minus the havoc thing), they’re pretty much Washington-lite.

And, as long as Wilcox and DeRuyter are around, they’ll probably just be improving there.

Bottom Line

This is true of most teams, but nowhere is it more true than against Cal that the Dawgs will have to establish a mid-range passing game pretty early. That doesn’t mean we need to see Browning throw any deep, low-percentage bombs downfield all the time which would more often than not leave Washington in poor position moving forward, but just that, if the linebackers don’t respect the possibility of throws going more than, like, five yards, they’ll beat up on the run game all four quarters.

I fully expect Washington to be able to do that — at least semi-successfully — but, since the Huskies’ offense is more about efficiency over explosiveness, anyway, there’ll probably be quite a bit of drives that stall around midfield. That being said, if the Dawgs can get some points off explosive plays or re-energize drives off them, it could cause a long night for Cal as their offense’s subsequent urgency won’t be able to keep up with Washington’s secondary.

Considering both those options, the result will probably be somewhere in the middle, and I wouldn’t be shocked if the Huskies have their fair share of boring, frustrating drives in the process.

As always, any lurking Cal fans feel free to chime in!

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