BTTV: Off the Leash
BERKELEY -- While many have been critical of the lack of running game for California (166 rushing attempts to 214 passing attempts), on Saturday, the Bears will face a team that runs just 25.8% of the time, and once you take out the nine sacks that Washington State has allowed (third-most in the conference), that percentage drops to 23.8%.
What does that mean for a Cal defensive line, which has only been responsible for just 8.5 tackles for loss in four games, and a team that has tallied just four total sacks?
"Oh, yeah, now, we can let all the dogs loose so we can really just go up field and go get him," says defensive tackle Viliami Moala. "It's time for us big men up front to go eat first."
Like the Bears, the Cougars run exclusively out of the shotgun, giving Connor Halliday a bit of a head start when escaping from pressure.
"I like him. He's kind of got a gunslinger mentality. He's got a nice arm. He'll fit some balls into some pretty small windows at times. I think he's a good player, I really do," says Cal head coach Sonny Dykes. "I think he's gotten better. You look at the tape last year of him playing, and the tape this year, he's really improved. I think their whole offense has. You can tell it's their second year. Everything happens faster now than it did a year ago. That's the simplicity of the style of offense they play, is that that simplicity allows their guys to play really fast, and I think that's the biggest improvement they've made, is the speed at which their players are playing at, and that includes the quarterback and his decision-making."
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Last season, the 6-foot-4, 190-pound Halliday started five games and played in nine, passing for 1,874 yards with 15 touchdowns and 13 picks, going 151-for-290 (52.1%) with four 300-yard passing games. This season, Halliday is 148-for-223 (66.4%) with nine picks to 10 touchdowns and 1,472 passing yards in five games.
In 2012, Halliday took 22 sacks in his nine games, getting dropped 7.1% of the time he dropped back to pass. This year, Halliday has been dropped eight times, or just under four percent of the times he drops back to pass. Pressuring Halliday will be Objective One for the Cal defensive line, and not just pressure that results in sacks.
"I think it's really important. It's important, any time someone's main part of their offensive scheme is the pass, it's obvious you want to get pressure, but you have to get smart pressure," says Bears defensive ends coach Garret Chachere. "You have to make sure everyone runs in the proper lanes. You've got to make sure that your exuberance to get to the quarterback doesn't leave your scheme unsound. It's obvious, the amount of times they throw the ball, you don't want a quarterback sitting back there, just being patient, feeling good about himself all the time and feeling like he's got all day to throw the ball, because that's not good, either. If he's got all day to throw the ball, we've got some issues. The idea is to always get to the passer. The idea is to always constrict the pocket. The idea is to do what defensive ends do, and that's in a run situation, to play the run well."
So far this season, Bears opponents have passed on third down and seven yards or more to go a total of 19 times. Opposing quarterbacks have completed 10 of those passes for a total of 88 yards, or an average of 8.8 yards per completion, with one drop, one pick, one touchdown and one offsides penalty thrown in.
Cal has not tallied a single sack in those situations, something Dykes says is plain unsatisfactory.
"I've been a little surprised we haven't been more productive, honestly," Dykes says. "A lot of sacks come as a result of getting people in third-and-longs and having them drop back to throw, and we just haven't done a great job of getting people into too many third-and-longs this season, and when we have, people haven't always dropped back and thrown it."
Of the 29 times opponents have faced third-and-longs against the Bears, they've run the ball 10 times, gaining an average of 6.9 yards per carry, and only taking one tackle for loss and one run for no gain.
"A lot of that has to do with what we've seen and with what people have done to us," says Dykes. "We just haven't seen a lot of straight, drop-back passes. Most of the stuff has been off play action, or some of it's been moving the pocket. We've seen a lot of different things besides just straight drop-back pass, and quite frankly, we haven't put people in a lot of those situations."
Of the eight sacks Halliday has taken this year, only two have come in third-and-long situations. That said, the Cougars are ninth in the league in third-down conversion (38.6%), but Cal is also ninth in the Pac-12 in third-down defense, allowing opposing teams to convert 36.8% of the time.
"Our production hasn't been great up there. We thought it would be a little bit better. It needs to get better," Dykes says. "We need to pressure this week and get some sacks. That's going to be a big thing for us this Saturday, is getting pressure on the quarterback. Any time you face a passing team, who's good at what they do – and Washington State's good at doing what they do – you've got to make the quarterback a little bit uncomfortable, so we've got to be able to get some pressure."
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