IN-DEPTH: The Battle Up Front
BERKELEY -- There are those who attribute California's opening-week loss to No. 22 Northwestern to two ill-timed, fluke pick-sixes. There are still others who blame the loss on the ejection of defensive end Chris McCain -- a ruling later overturned. There were also several crucial drops by Bears wide receivers, soft coverage over the middle of the field and injuries to the linebacking corps.
As far as Zach Yenser is concerned, though, the loss came down to his offensive linemen.
"There's no doubt. I told my guys on Sunday, when we talked about the game: We singlehandedly took at least 10, at the most 14 points off the board, because of the two drives we stopped with three false starts on one drive and then the third-and-six with us jumping off and making it a third-and-11 and giving up a sack," says the first-year offensive line coach. "When you're third-and-11, the D-line's ears are pinned back, they know what you're going to do, and that came back on us. We singlehandedly took 10 points off the board."
This week, despite his first-half suspension being overturned, McCain will not play, due to a head injury. The same goes for wide receiver Kenny Lawler.
Tailback Brendan Bigelow, though, will be healthy, and is fully cleared to play, meaning that the Bears' ground attack will be at full strength.
While Cal only tallied 93 rushing yards in the opener, averaging 2.66 yards per carry, there is one stat that Yenser finds the most damning. Of the Bears' 35 rushing plays (including four sacks), only 14 runs went for at least four yards. That won't cut the mustard.
"We talk about efficiency, so our goal is 80 percent of our runs, we want to be four yards or more," Yenser says. "That's kind of how we talk about it run game-wise, because you can have a huge average – we can average seven yards a carry, but break an 80-yard run -- and the average is weighted, so we talk efficiency up front, and we want to be 80 percent. 80 percent of our runs, we want to be 4 yards or more."
Beyond the run game, the penalties levied against the line were flat-out unacceptable. The Bears were penalized 10 times for 79 yards, with 20 of those yards and four of those penalties coming on false starts by offensive linemen. Two of those came from one of the most veteran players on the line – redshirt sophomore left guard Jordan Rigsbee.
This week in practice, Yenser and offensive coordinator Tony Franklin were adamant that the line get its act together. For every penalty, for every false start, the entire unit did up-downs.
"For false starts, there's no excuse for that in college football, to have false starts, and we had five of them, so that's unacceptable. It's a big reason why they lost the ballgame," says Franklin. "Every one of them were responsible. It's just a bad deal, bad coaching. That's the bottom line. We did a bad job coaching."
The right side of the line, in particular, struggled, with right guard Matt Cochran being flagged for a false start, and much of the edge pressure on freshman quarterback Jared Goff coming at the expense of right tackle Steven Moore, who, along with Cochran, was playing in his first collegiate game.
"We've changed a few things," says Yenser, who, along with Franklin and head coach Sonny Dykes, noted more slanting on the Wildcats' defensive line posing challenges to the new offensive front. "We've done a couple things up front, and the biggest thing is just not having those guys think. I think it's going to help a lot, with three of those guys getting their first starts under their belt and just relaxing and coming back. They've come back this week and completely responded. We took it personally. We felt like, up front, heck, we singlehandedly gave up two drives with our false starts. Then, you go back and you watch the run blocks that we didn't finish. We know we've got to play better, and we've got it in us."
This weekend's opponent – Portland State – is similar to Northwestern in how the defensive line plays, with more slanting to expose soft blocking.
"They're probably, and we were watching film, they're definitely probably more athletic than the guys we just played," Yenser says. "Now, the guys we just played were bigger, stronger, more sound, older. These guys are probably, I'd say, quicker. I would definitely say more shifty, a little bit more slanting."
While the Wildcats brought their safeties into the run support game, the Vikings' defensive backfield is young and relatively inexperienced. Last season, the current corners and safeties tallied a grand total of 3.0 tackles for loss, and no sacks.
The defensive line, though, returns "We knew, coming in, it was going to be challenging to run the ball. Their safeties got down to the box to help support the run and that's what opened the post up behind them, some of the deep throws," says Dykes. "What we tried to do was take what they gave us, and they were consistently getting their safeties involved in the run game, so that gave us a chance to get over the top of those guys."
Opening up the deeper routes allowed Goff to pass for a record 445 yards, but it took him 63 passing attempts to get there.
"I don't care if he throws for that many yards; I wish it'd be on about 20 attempts," says Franklin. "That would make it a lot better. The yardage stuff is always a weird thing. Sometimes, you're efficient and you have 300 yards, and sometimes you're not efficient and you have 600 yards. We need to be efficient when we have the ball, and not make the mental errors that we made last time."
That efficiency starts up front, against a veteran defensive line featuring three seniors and one junior. Among the starting four are two FBS transfers in junior defensive tackle Joe Lopez (Oregon State) and senior defensive end Nick Alexander.
Lopez played over 300 snaps as a sophomore in Corvallis, playing 10 games in 2012 and six in 2011. He played against the Bears in the 2012 season finale, tallying one tackle and 0.5 TFL, dropping C.J. Anderson for a loss with the Beavers up, 55-14 in the fourth quarter.
The other big-time transfer on the line is former Boise State Bronco Nick Alexander. The 6-foot-4, 250-pound senior spent three years on the blue turf, but only played in two games for the Broncos.
Last season, Alexander earned a starting spot with Portland State immediately upon arriving on campus, playing in 10 games with 17 tackles, six TFLs, 3.5 sacks, a forced fumble and two quarterback hurries.
The other two starters – senior tackle Zack Ka'ahanui and senior defensive end Bryant Long -- combined for 21 tackles, 3.5 tackles for loss and one sack last season.
"They're definitely a well-put together team," Goff says. "They've got some really good athletes. There's a lot of guys there that are really good athletes that ended up transferring there from other schools, or were good players in high schools that could have played at other schools. They're very athletic, very fast, their corners are fast, their defensive line is no slouch. We're treating it like any other game, just trying to go out there and prepare, just like any other game."
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