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Opponent Defense Preview: Cal

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How’s things down in Berkeley, you ask?

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: SEP 11 Cal at TCU Photo by Matthew Pearce/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

After the head coaching change from Sonny Dykes to Justin Wilcox, it felt like almost overnight Cal went from “incredible offense, impressively garbage defense” to “amazing defense, completely forgettable offense.” Since Wilcox’s first couple years when they developed a fantastic defense but had a not-great offense, they’ve turned into a more balanced team whose backbone is still their suffocating defense.

This is the first year under Wilcox that standard doesn’t seem to be met.

Don’t get me wrong, the Bears are still a defensively-minded team and said defense will still almost certainly be one of the better in the Pac-12, but they look so far like they’ve just... stumbled.

It’s just that this defense used to be exhausting to play against. Three games into the season, that doesn’t quite look like the case.

Here’s some thoughts on what they are, and why that is:

Personnel and What to Expect

As is standard by now, the Bears line up mostly in 2-4-5 and some 3-3-5, varying up their fronts appropriately. There’s nothing exotic they’re doing on defense, and that’s been the case the whole time under Wilcox. They’ve looked philosophically a lot like Washington’s defense: Keep the plays in front of you, limit explosivity, and get your fundamentals down.

That last one is where things have slipped a bit this season. Tackling — long something Cal was fantastic at — looks worse from most of them, especially in space. Which, actually, about space: There seems to be a lot more of it to be found against this year’s Cal team than we saw in the past.

Post-snap, much of this appears to be from players just not having that same level of instincts and reactions that allow them to close a gap and/or anticipate quicker. Pre-snap also often adds to this, as Justin Wilcox and DC Peter Sirmon appear to be adjusting to some deficiencies in the secondary by often calling a more conservative zone coverage or occasional off-man that gives receivers a lot of space to work with.

Because the defensive backs apparently don’t have the faith of Sirmon or Wilcox to often pull off successful press man coverage, ironically it then makes their post-snap job harder given the amount of free space and clean releases they’re giving up to opposing receivers — and that’s where their issues tackling in space kick in.

If you’re Wilcox, it’s a very inconvenient 1-2 punch of deficiencies for a secondary to have. Do you want to give up an easy nine-yard completion plus five yards after the catch, or do you want to prevent that and then get beat on long completions in a tight man coverage?

We’ve seen both happen. Against TCU, Cal looked like the better team for a while but weren’t able to put TCU away because, among other reasons, the Frogs successfully spread out the secondary, ran mid-range curl routes, and then side-stepped the closest defender for that sweet post-catch yardage. They played minimal press, just sacrificed a lot of space to the shallow-middle part of the field. (And TCU didn’t win this game through the air. More on that in a second.)

Then against Nevada, they more frequently played tighter man coverage (presumably because Sirmon and Wilcox believed in their talent advantage) only for Carson Strong’s right arm to beat them for long completions.

The secondary also isn’t aided by the fact that Cal’s pass rush hasn’t wreaked a lot of havoc this year so far. They actually kind of remind me of Washington’s without ZTF; they steadily make the pocket smaller but rarely fully collapse it.

Also, I suppose since I just spent many paragraphs pointing out where Cal’s defense has declined, this is a good spot to mention again that any “deficiencies” I point out are all only “deficiencies” by Cal’s standards. They’re still a balanced, defensively-minded team that will probably figure all their crud out by this Saturday with our luck.

With that being said, on to the next flaw!

This one is something that Jimmy Lake should be salivating over — and, frankly, I am too, so long as Lake and Donovan’s offensive philosophy this weekend is aligned with how they approached Arkansas State instead of Montana (a big “if,” I know). That is, Cal’s front six has a heck of a time sealing off the edge against the run. And by “heck of a time,” I mean they’ve not done a good job.

This feels like where they most miss having a guy like *trigger warning* Evan Weaver. Whether it’s discipline or strength, there’s just too often where you see a running back cut to the outside pretty easily — then because the secondary’s so far back you’re hardly met with a swarm of safeties and linebackers. And then that further exacerbates their tackling-in-space difficulties. This was exemplified by a huge touchdown run by TCU on 3rd and very long where Cal simply wasn’t expecting a run — reasonably so — where they had way too slow of a reaction time to seal the edge and then had poor angles and tackling from everyone behind the line.

So remember how I mentioned that despite TCU having an easier Cal secondary to play against, it wasn’t the pass that won the game for the Frogs? Yeah, that’s because they exploited that edge over and over to the tune of, ahem, 271 yards. Well, 200, since 71 of those yards came on Max Duggan’s 19 scrambles.

But yeah, who does Cal think they are, Washington?

Overall, it just feels unlike in years past where there would at least be one part of Cal’s defensive game that you couldn’t really exploit. You wanna rush it? Cool, have at the edge. You wanna throw it but they’re pressing you? Rad, go deep. Wanna air it out but they won’t give you the long ball? Dope, just curl and cross all day and then have fun in the field.

Their opponent’s basic stats are indicative of that:

  • TCU with their 271 rushing yards vs only 234 passing yards — but three passing touchdowns
  • Nevada only getting 71 rushing yards but 312 passing yards and Cal’s offense stalling despite this being the defense’s best performance
  • Sacramento State rushing for only 59 yards, then passing for over 400 — and, despite 43 dropbacks, Cal not getting a single sack

Further ironic is that this isn’t a young team. There’s so many names here that we recognize. The 100 year-old (no, seriously) DE Luc Bequette, OLBs Cameron Goode (two sacks versus TCU) and Kuony Deng (unfortunately injured and not travelling to Montlake), senior safeties Elijah Hicks and Daniel Scott, the latter of whom had a pick-6 against TCU and is the closest to being “The Guy” to look for. Senior corner Josh Drayden and redshirt junior corner Chigozie Anusiem, junior backup to Kuony Deng, Braxten Croteau...

Despite that experience, there’s a few younger guys who might be more noticeable Saturday. True freshman cornerback Lu-Magia Hearns may be thrown into the fire after looking like a bright spot the first three games and sophomore DE Ethan Saunders has flashed at times.

Obviously this isn’t a bad defense. They’ve given up 34, 22, and 30 points, with the latter being much lower except the Bears clearly weren’t playing Sacramento State that hard in the second half when 24 of those points were scored. Those are hardly egregious showings. It’s just the play behind those scores has looked mediocre by Cal’s standards.

Bottom Line

First off: This is Sean McGrew’s time to shine. Shifty lil’ guy who can push through tackles with his two-foot tall center of gravity and then gallop majestically through space around the edge? What’s not to love about setting that up if you’re Jimmy Lake?

This is the perfect game for Lake and Donovan to showcase an aggressive running game — like, a real aggressive running game that spreads out the defense to give your RBs space, not that bunched up I-formation-up-the-A-gap-every-play baloney. A run-friendly offense doesn’t mean an archaic run-based offense. This is the ideal scenario to display that.

As for the passing game, this feels like a situation where Jalen McMillan could build off last week’s monster game. Obviously it’s highly doubtful he gets anywhere near the 175 yards from last Saturday, but he’s so multi-skilled that regardless of the coverages Cal throws at this offense he can kinda take whatever and make something happen. I also wouldn’t mind seeing McMillan or Giles Jackson in on some occasional sweeps just to keep Cal’s defense having to go sideline-to-sideline. Really anything that gets playmakers into space should be the Dawgs’ M.O. Actually, now that I think about it, this defense’s weaknesses are so similar to Arkansas State’s — albeit functioning at a one gazillion percent higher level — that if you’re John Donovan your gameplan’s philosophy should be really similar to last week.

And, of course, this is all moot if Donovan and Lake trot out there thinking to do the same terribleness that they unveiled against Montana and Michigan. But c’est la vie, I’ll just cross my fingers.

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