And the rematch is on.
I don’t blame you if you’re nervous about this game. Here’s why:
Even though they’ve only played one game this year, their look continues to be, just like all of us, primarily nickel. Particularly this was often 2-4-5 with a sprinkle of dime at 2-3-6 as well on obvious passing downs. Most importantly, this year’s Cal defense looks like they’re just starting where last year’s defense left off. Likely, they’re better than 2018. So that’s fun.
If you’re just looking at the scoreboard, ostensibly they gave up 13 points to UC Davis. However, the Aggies were all but gifted 10 of those points thanks to sloppy turnovers and poor play by Cal’s offense and special teams. Without those flubs, it’s conceivable that Cal could’ve held UC Davis to, like, six points.
This defense has no weakness per se, but if you had to pick the strength, it’s probably best to go with the secondary. Simply put, Cal’s secondary is one of the best in the country — certainly the most overperforming. In fact, I’d say if you were to measure them up right this moment, Cal’s secondary as a unit is better than Washington’s. Do I think that will still be true in December? No. Do I even think that will be true a month from now? No. But while the Dawgs’ secondary is a mixture of highly reliable, high-talent players (Elijah Molden, Myles Bryant, Keith Taylor) and mostly reliably, even higher-talent players (Kyler Gordon, Cam Williams, Dom Hampton), Cal’s secondary is a slightly lower ceiling but ridiculously consistent group of upperclassmen who know exactly what they’re doing every snap.
Their go-to safeties consist of the trio of Ashtyn Davis and Jaylinn Hawkins, plus the mega-experienced backup Trey Turner. All three of these players are seniors, so it’s not shocking their names sound familiar. Davis also runs track, Hawkins is the active career interception leader — he had three in the Bears’ clusterf*^& of a bowl game last year alone — and Turner has rotated in 34 games. Safe to say you won’t find these guys messing up much.
Their cornerbacks are somehow just as experienced — or, may as well be but who knows exactly how many snaps each have played. Just like the safeties, they’re all names we’ve become unfortunately familiar with: Cameron Bynum and Elijah Hicks on the outside, Traveon Beck and Josh Drayden rotating at nickel. All of them are also seniors or juniors. All of them also don’t mess up much. They’re aggressive, disciplined, and won’t give opposing offenses much room at all to work with.
The linebackers in front lost Jordan Kunaszyk, currently on roster with the Panthers, but they keep the pillar of this defense (and official smack talker to the state of Washington), Evan Weaver of Spokane. Do you remember that name? If not, is it because you repressed all memories of him returning last year’s pick six that sealed Cal’s upset victory? It’s cool, I would too. They also gain 6’6” (seriously, wtf?) linebacker Kuony Deng, the number one-ranked JuCo linebacker in the country who looked more than serviceable last week. While obviously having the measurables of an outside player, Deng can apparently line up inside too and is listed on Cal’s roster as an inside linebacker.
The outside linebackers are led by Cameron Goode and Tevin Paul, the latter of which is a redshirt junior who broke out last season and looks a more traditional defensive end type. Goode had a season-ending injury early last year but not before returning an interception for touchdown against North Carolina and starting nine games as a redshirt freshman the year before.
In the trenches, they’re anchored by returning NT Luc Bequette, an honorable mention All-Pac-12 last year. Bequette started every game last year and had five sacks. Qualitatively, though, he’s vital to allowing the linebackers to be as dominant as they are plus he plays much quicker and more agile than his size (6’2” 290 lbs) would suggest. And, keeping with the theme, the two starting defensive tackles lining up further outside are seniors too: Zeandae Johnson and Lone Toailoa.
Other than Evan Weaver at linebacker, there isn’t any single guy who’s presence necessarily “stands out” — but that’s more a reflection of how reliable all of their players are rather than an implication that nobody is worthy of doing that.
Overall, this defense is old, lost barely anything, gained a lot, and has lots of mature depth. Of the listed starters on the depth chart, every single player is a senior or junior. In the two-deeps, there are only six underclassmen, about half of which have been in the program a couple years thanks to redshirting anyway.
Simply put, this is a defense that has to be surgically beat over four quarters; they’re not inexperienced enough to count on a busted play, and they’re not untalented enough to be physically mismatched.
First thing’s first: if you’re an offense here, don’t make stupid mistakes trying to do too much. Take what you can get, work for field position, and trust your defense.
Especially given the disparity between Cal’s defensive dominance and offensive mediocrity (imagine saying that in 2015), Washington really has to take advantage of Cal’s offensive missteps. If any golden opportunities are gonna come, it’ll almost certainly be from that.
The main thing that stands out to me is how Washington’s receivers — the seniors we know, anyway — will probably be overmatched. Realistically, even the biggest homer can’t deny that; Andre Baccellia has burner speed and Aaron Fuller has superb body-control and coordination, but it’s unlikely we’ll see either get much separation at all especially given that that’s already their weaknesses.
The one hope I can see in the passing game is Hunter Bryant. Not that anyone will likely have a “big” game here, but if you had a gun to your head and had to pick one guy to do something, he’d be an understandable choice. Bryant’s probably Eason’s only target that’s physical enough to not be manhandled by these defensive backs while also being athletic and fast enough to make some plays against them. In the theme of pushing Cal until the clock runs out and conceding that the passing game will probably be pretty “meh,” I could also see Cade Otton having a couple key catches given his physicality combined with his versatility as a run-blocker, too.
Also, since Cal’s defense is so fundamentally sound, I wouldn’t be shocked if Salvon Ahmed has another mostly pedestrian outing while Richard Newton gets some more core snaps. Ahmed’s value here seems mostly as a change-of-pace guy to stretch the field vertically and set up Newton’s running style, but with Cal’s physicality and Ahmed’s lack of propensity to power through those kinds of players, I don’t anticipate gaudy stats from him. The plus side is that we shouldn’t worry about that, if/when it happens. Given that the Bear’s defense will likely be on the field too much anyway considering their offense is the physical embodiment of “meh,” Newton’s style of play could help expedite the process of wearing them down.
In the end, I’d be surprised if the offense scored more than 28 points if that — but that should be all they need.
Do good things, don’t do bad things, and bow down to Washington.