BERKELEY -- When Sonny Dykes was named the new head coach at California, the focus of the fans was on his high-powered, "Bear Raid" offense to go with a freshman quarterback. Yet, while the offense got the headlines throughout the offseason, the real questions for the Bears lay on defense.
Cal (1-1) entered 2013 with a thin secondary, unfortunate injuries and inexperienced players littering the depth chart. Those concerns only become amplified with the reputation that the Bear Raid offense has, meaning way more time spent on the field against diverse sets of high-powered offenses.
Those concerns certainly came to light in the Bears' 37-30 victory over FCS opponent Portland State. The defense played Jekyll-and-Hyde -- Cal displayed poor tackling and block-shedding fundamentals in the first half, but then made the necessary adjustments en route to a solid second half. The numbers speak for themselves: The Vikings accumulated 434 yards of offense in the first half, to only 119 in the second.
The key, as Dykes said in the postgame, was shifting players into better position to make plays.
"We just had to make sure we leveraged some of their formations better," Dykes said in the postgame. "We changed some gap assignments and moved our linebackers so we couldn't be leveraged as easy."
In Portland State's first matchup, the Vikings rolled up 405 rushing yards in a 57-17 drubbing of NAIA opponent Eastern Oregon. With that in mind, the Bears came into Saturday with the expectation of stopping Portland State's run-spread formation. That emphasis on stopping the run bit Cal hard on the second play of the game, when Alex Logan bit on play-action, letting wide receiver Kasey Closs run by him en route to an 81-yard touchdown reception.
"He got beat on a vertical, and it's the same vertical they beat us on in the Northwestern game," Dykes said. "That's something we've got to work on."
The quick strike rattled the Bears for a bit, forcing the defense to spread out of position and give up bigger plays, especially in the run game. That, combined with the poor tackling fundamentals noted earlier, allowed the Vikings to run roughshod through and around the California defense.
Even with a focus on the run game, the Bears only tallied a total of 5.0 tackles for loss, and the game's leading tackler -- Hardy Nickerson, Jr. -- didn't make any of his 12 tackles in the backfield.
"It was a really disappointing start to the football game," said defensive coordinator Andy Buh. "It took us, as a defensive staff, and as a defensive unit, to settle in there. They had showed us a formation that we hadn't practiced, and it took us a good two or three series to get it ironed out and the adjustments made. We just couldn't get those adjustments down to them fast enough."
In the first half, Portland State utilized quick pitches and stretch plays to their advantage, rushing for 176 yards on 21 carries (good for 8.4 yards per carry). Of those 21 carries, 8 went for double-digit yards, 7 rushes went for first downs, 1 went for a touchdown. Only twice did the Vikings get 0 or negative yards on a carry. In other words, the supposedly undersized and less-talented Portland State gave the Bears a complete clinic.
"When you break down a team that runs the pistol, and you're breaking down their entire season, you put these kids through every scenario in a week's time," said Buh in the postgame. "They didn't do the zone read, which is really surprising, because that's something they do really well. They came in with just their stretch, and that gave us an issue, because that's not something we'd seen them do over the course of a season."
The success in the run game resulted in great passing opportunities, and Viking QB Kieran McDonagh took full advantage going 10-for-17 for 258 yards passing in the first half. All in all, Portland State stormed out to 23 points on 434 yards in the first half alone.
The dreaded performance caused Dykes to almost lose it in the locker room.
"I challenged our guys at halftime," said Dykes. "I got after our team and challenged them to play better and to compete better. I was not happy with our demeanor in the first half. That falls directly on me. I did a poor job preparing our team.
"It involved a lot of four-letter words, screaming and hollering."
But after the simple emphasis on tackling better and shifting linebackers to improve angles, the Bears' defense finally stepped up and answered.
After Vincenzo D'Amato hit a 23-yard field goal to put the Bears up, 37-30 in the fourth quarter, SAM linebacker Jalen Jefferson helped to make sure the Vikings didn't get up off the mat, coming free on the inside on third-and-one at the Cal 32 to deliver a thunderous sack on McDonagh for a loss of eight yards.
"I wasn't even supposed to be my sack," Jefferson said. "We were in our base, and at the last second, Hardy told me we were blitzing to the run, so I ran a blitz and had a wide open hole.
Portland State's one offensive score in the second half came off of a turnover in Cal territory, providing a short field for the touchdown. Their rush game became relatively ineffective, gaining only 69 yards on 18 second-half carries (3.8 yards per carry). After giving up 8 carries for double-digit yards in the first half, the Bears allowed just three in the second half. Only 3 rushes resulted in first downs in the second half. 6 carries went for 0 or negative yards. The lack of a run-game further affected the Vikings' passing attack, as Portland State managed to go a combined 3-for-12 for 50 yards and an interception in the second half.
Even though the game was separated by only seven points for much of the fourth quarter, the California defense finally figured out enough to keep their Portland State's offense at bay -- enough to not seriously threaten tying the game without the help of a fluke.
And all it took was some pre-snap shifting of players and a simple reminder to not abandon the fundamentals. Had the Bears found ways to adjust on angles earlier, it would be safe to say that the game would not be as close.
Of course, Cal did manage to find ways to adjust and slow down FCS opponent Portland State. Against the Bears next two opponents -- No. 2 Ohio State and #4 Oregon -- the challenge figures to be a bit greater.
Cal's defense got a taste of a true run-spread offense, even if it lacked Braxton Miller and DeAnthony Thomas. But, with all defenses, fundamental tackling, shedding and taking the right angles are the basic keys to stopping anybody, and the Bears had to be reminded of that on Saturday.
ANALYSIS: Fundamental Concerns
BearTerritory.net Top Stories
Game Day Central: Cal vs. USCGet ready for Cal's Thursday tilt with USC with all of our previews, videos, interviews and more.
BearTerritory.netYesterday at 10:42 AM
What to Watch: 3 Things on Offense vs. USCFrom blitzing to an unreal secondary, there's no shortage of things to watch this week when Cal takes on USC at 7:30 p.m. on ESPN at the Los Angeles Memorial Coliseum.
BearTerritory.netWednesday at 10:53 PM
What to Watch: 3 Things on Defense vs. USCWhat are three things you should be keeping your eye on during Cal's defensive stands against USC on Thursday night?
BearTerritory.netWednesday at 12:08 PM
Stovall Pulls Double-Duty on Friday for ClassWith much of the Cal football team still taking midterms, receiver Melquise Stovall had to give a 40-minute presentation for a freshman seminar on the same day as the Friday-night…
BearTerritory.netTuesday at 11:42 PM