After a nice bounce back game against Arizona, the Huskies head down to the Bay Area in search of their first road win of the season against the Cal Golden Bears. Like many of our Pac-12 North opponents, Cal has been a tough match up over the last few years. While they’ve never been a dominant program under Justin Wilcox, Cal has been a consistently well-coached team with solid defenses that have caused headaches. Much like the UCLA game, there will be some familiar faces on the defense and on the sidelines that will make this game that much more interesting.
As many UW fans will remember, Justin Wilcox has a lot of connections to the Huskies. Not only did he help resurrect our defense after the Nick Holt era, where we first got a chance to digest his schemes, but his coaching lineage also has ties to former UW DCs Bob Gregory and Pete Kwiatkowski when when all three coached on the same Boise State staff early in Wilcox’s career. The Cal staff’s coaching tree connections don’t just stop at Wilcox. DBs coaches Terrence Brown and Tre Watson also either coached or played at UW. All of this is to say that a lot of the scheme that we’re going to see on Saturday should feel familiar because of the shared influences.
Wilcox’s core defensive philosophy prioritizes team defense and schematic disguises with hybrid defenders to elevate his team’s play beyond their individual talent level. He does this by blending conventional 3-4 personnel with 4-3/4-2 defensive structures, much like Coach K’s 2-4-5 defense. With big body DTs clogging the interior, Wilcox and DC Peter Sirmon are looking to control the defensive interior with as few players as possible so that they can get creative on the back end. Utilizing hybrid OLB/DE types on the edge and versatile ILBs and DBs at the second level, Wilcox and Sirmon can mix and match their pressure and coverage schemes to keep offenses off balance.
The key to setting all of their schematic traps for offenses is their heavy reliance on tight zone match coverage. This might sound counter intuitive, but Wilcox’s brand of zone match coverage blends the basic spot drop zone coverage with enough man coverage elements that they are able to get the best of both worlds. In zone match coverage, the coverage defenders take conventional zone drops and keeping their eyes on the QB, but they convert their drops into man coverage once receivers move into their zone. This tightens up the coverage while still being able to rely on coverage handoffs and minimize mismatches. Because they can get tighter coverage while still playing zone, Wilcox and Sirmon are able to mix in a lot of different zone looks, safety movement, and zone blitzes that get the ILBs and OLBs involved in both coverage and blitzes. Offenses that rely too heavily on pre-snap “check with me’s” or isolating specific match ups can very susceptible to this style of defense.
On the personnel front, we will have another familiar face on the field. Former UW LB Jackson Sirmon is at the helm of a solid group of Cal defenders this year. Despite being the target of a lot of criticism during his time on Montlake, Sirmon has grown into an important cornerstone of the Bears defense. Not only is he leading their defensive players in snaps, but he is also their best overall defender according to PFF. With a more focused role as a downhill LB that can clean up runs, rush the passer, and play coverage with very cohesive support around him, Sirmon is now able to play faster and more instinctively than he ever did at UW.
Another key player to keep an eye on is CB Jeremiah Earby. While he’s not listed as a starter, Earby has been heavily involved in their rotation and grades out as their best cover CB according to PFF. Outside of Earby, the rest of the DBs with significant snap counts have been solid but unspectacular. This group doesn’t have any glaring weak links, but I still feel like we have the clear talent advantage on the perimeter.
Up front, Cal has a deep stable of big DTs that may cause some issues in short yardage situations where we are forced into run situations. NG Ricky Correia is listed at a humungous 335 lbs and will almost certainly require a double team to move off the LOS.
Cal will pose a unique challenge to our offense this week as they are our first opponent with a sophisticated and well-coached zone-based defense. While UCLA’s defense was more talented and similarly sophisticated, Cal will rely more heavily on its scheme to create pressure on Penix than UCLA’s did. Instead of simply executing Grubb’s system, I’d guess that Wilcox and Sirmon will try to force him to read the defense post-snap and bait him into ill-advised passes. Penix hasn’t been forced to pass into tight windows over the middle and underneath, so I’d also expect them to play conservative coverages over the top to take away the big plays and force us pick up the yardage the hard way.
Either way, I still think that we have what it takes to score on this defense like how Arizona did just a few weeks ago. The question will be if our defense can do their part.