Containment a concern against Miller

Outside linebacker Brennan Scarlett and the Cal defense must balance patience and aggression when facing mobile Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller.

BERKELEY, Calif. – Sitting on the bench after suffering yet another injury, outside linebacker Brennan Scarlett knew he could offer the California defense a presence coming off the edge that was too often lacking last season. Modeling his game after Indianapolis Colts defensive end Dwight Freeney, the sophomore worked on his pass rush moves during the summer and eventually secured a place in the starting lineup.

Though he only has one-half sack through two games, Scarlett has certainly made quarterbacks aware of his massive 255-pound frame, leading defensive coordinator Clancy Pendergast to compare his athleticism to a young Willie McGinest.

The challenge this week for Scarlett and his teammates will be resisting the urge to relentlessly attack because Ohio State quarterback Braxton Miller is capable of making them pay.

Miller is the nation's fourth-leading rusher through two games, averaging 151 yards rushing per game. The sophomore has scored on runs of 65 and 37 yards, proving to be the perfect triggerman for new head coach Urban Meyer's spread offense.

"He's athletic and he's fast," Cal head coach Jeff Tedford said of Miller. "He's fairly physical as well. He can cause problems for you."

Cal has already seen the problems a dual-threat quarterback can pose, after being shredded by Cody Fajardo of Nevada in the season opener.

Fajardo had 97 yards on the ground and a touchdown, but the consensus is that Miller, averaging 6.9 yards per carry, is more dangerous because of his superior speed.

"He is the most athletic (quarterback) I've seen," linebacker Robert Mullins said. "(Former Nevada quarterback Colin) Kaepernick is very similar in how dynamic and good on his feet he was."

Too many times against Nevada, the defense lost containment as it was fooled by the option looks the Pistol offers up, most notably on Fajardo's 49-yard touchdown run. That has been a common issue in recent years, be it against non-conference foes or Pac-12 opponents like Oregon and UCLA.

Scarlett says those offenses are set up in such a way that they lure defenders into doing too much.

"You think he's about to hand it off, the running back is about to cut back it looks like into your gap, and you're thinking ‘Oh man, I got to get down there.' You want to get the tackle for loss, but realistically, you'd rather take those could yards than having the quarterback keep it and go for a first down 20 yards," Scarlett said.

"That's the hardest part is being patient."

Beyond designed runs, there is also Miller's ability to scramble and extend plays. Those are just as challenging, regardless of what Pendergast calls.

"You can't lose control because at any given moment he may take off to run," Mullins said. "From looking at film, that looks like one of his first priorities is to run. To be a smart defender, you can't jet out of the box on a third and long because he might run the ball."

Said Pendergast: "He can get out on any play, so it doesn't matter if you're being aggressive or if you are playing some kind of zone coverage. He can get out on any play. He can cut back, he can stay front side, he run right up the middle, he can reverse field, he can reverse field and throw it. He can do a lot of different things, so it is very much a read-your-keys-type game."

The scout team offense has been using redshirt freshman running back Darren Ervin to simulate Miller. Ervin played some quarterback in high school and has the necessary speed, but simply can't duplicate how crucial Miller is to Ohio State.

Defensive end Deandre Coleman said, "He's basically team three-fourths of the team." That actually underplays Miller's role, as he is responsible for nearly 70 percent of the total offense yardage and all but four touchdowns.

Redshirt freshman outside linebacker Nathan Broussard, who could play more snaps opposite Scarlett with starter Chris McCain dealing with a shoulder injury, said the trick is to punish Miller and get him thinking instead of playing.

"We definitely have to get him thinking in the beginning that there is always going to be a defender there, and if he pulls it, he's not going to get many yards," Broussard said.

That is easier said that done, a challenge that will demand Broussard, Scarlett and the rest of the Cal defense to be at its absolute best.

Dan Greenspan is the publisher of Cal Sports Digest and writes about the Pac-12 for Fox Sports Next. Follow him on Twitter @DanGreenspan.


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