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Opponent Defensive Preview: Cal Golden Bears

How can the the offense maintain the fireworks and shake off the Cal Curse?

NCAA Football: Washington at California Darren Yamashita-USA TODAY Sports

For whatever reason, Cal always seems to be a thorn in our team’s side, and its almost never for a straight forward reason. Even last year, when there wasn’t some sort of freak thunderstorm, Cal somehow found the number of our revamped offense and made it an uncomfortably close game. However, with our high-flying offense in year two of the new scheme, and another year to dissect Cal’s strategies to slow us down, let’s take a look at what the match up will look like this weekend.

The Scheme & Personnel

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Washington at Cal Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

Over the course of Justin Wilcox’s 7-year tenure, UW fans have gotten accustomed to his team’s style of play. They typically have a fundamentally sound, overachieving defense with an average offense that attempts to cater to their defensive strength. This year is no different on the defensive side. As many are aware, Wilcox’s defensive scheme is rooted in former UW DC Pete Kwiatkowski’s defensive scheme when the two coaches worked together at Boise. At a high level, the 4-2-5 defense that they both run blends conventional 3-4 personnel with 4-3/4-2 defensive structures and prioritizes “team defense” that can let a less talented roster punch above their weight. They do this by leaning on big body DTs anchoring the middle of the defense who can protect the speedier and more versatile players at the second level and in the defensive backfield. This approach has afforded Wilcox & DC Peter Sirmon the flexibility to get creative in their coverages and pressure schemes that can wreak havoc on opposing offenses.

Much like Michigan State’s coverage philosophy, Cal will utilize a lot of zone coverage to limit big plays and keep eyes on the backfield (both to make plays on the ball while its in the air and to enhance their run support reaction time). They will also mix this up with a number of zone blitz packages and relatively few static looks pre-snap to keep the offense guessing.

On the personnel front, UW fans will again see a familiar face in Jackson Sirmon, who will leading the Cal defense as the starting MLB. Sirmon won’t be the only familiar name on the Cal defense though. The Golden Bears return five of their starting front six from last season’s squad, as well as CB Lu-Magia Hearns III and S Craig Woodson in the secondary. The experience across the defense will be important to their defense’s success with so much of our vertical passing game being predicated on confusing and manipulating the safeties.

Keys to the Game

COLLEGE FOOTBALL: OCT 22 Washington at Cal Photo by Douglas Stringer/Icon Sportswire via Getty Images

With so much of our offense flowing through Penix and the passing attack, pass protection will be an obvious key to the game. Parker Brailsford and our revamped iOL performed well on short notice last week against Michigan State after Matteo Mele’s injury, but there was still a fair amount of pressure leaking through the protection. The Golden Bear’s defensive line isn’t quite as talented or productive in the pass rush as the Spartan DL, but the pressure packages were also less exotic than Cal’s tend to be. Brailsford will need to be diligent about making the appropriate adjustments against all of their simulated pressure. If the pass protection can hold up, I expect our WRs to make dominate downfield with their penchant for for making big plays even through contact and in contested catch situations.

In the run game, Cal has shifted even further in the direction of Coach K’s 2-4-5 scheme with only two true DL positions on their depth chart with two OLBs playing on the edge instead of a true DE, so there may be an opportunity for our run game to gain some traction. We seem to have found a blueprint in the run game that caters to our OL and RBs with a steady dose of Inside Zone and Counter. We may be able to get movement on Inside Zone against Cal’s lighter defensive front, but the two ~240 lb OLBs manning the edges, attacking them with Counter could lead to wide open rush lanes. Leaning on the Counter run scheme also happens to be extra effective against many simulated pressure looks. Defenses typically ask the LBs to scrape exchange and flow with pulling blockers to plug gaps, but that is almost impossible if all of your LBs are on the LOS for simulated pressure. Establishing a solid run game going isn’t key to our offense, but it would go a long way in taking pressure off of our pass protection.