In a season that has seen many growing pains for the California Golden Bears and their fans, the defense has certainly been identified to be the main culprit for everybody's misery. The change to defensive coordinator Andy Buh's 4-3 defense -- along with a seemingly endless list of untimely and unfortunate injuries -- has resulted in fans prematurely calling for a coaching change just games into his tenure.
With a defense that has yet to give up fewer than 37 points in a game, who can blame them?
Coming into Saturday, the Bears were 125th nationally in scoring defense, giving up an average of 45 points per game. Unfortunately, the challenge would only get more difficult when Cal would take the field against No. 11 UCLA. The Bruins would put up another 37 points, behind quarterback Brett Hundley's three touchdowns and career-high 410 yards passing.
Yet, despite another blowout in a ridiculously tough first-half schedule, the defense managed to actually hold its own against UCLA. After giving up 209 yards on the ground to Northwestern, 245 yards to Portland State, 332 yards to Ohio State and 264 yards to Oregon, California's second-string filled defense held the Bruins to 78 yards rushing on 34 carries. The 2.3 yards per carry was the lowest of the season for UCLA.
"We got better," said starting middle linebacker Hardy Nickerson, Jr., who led the Bears with nine total tackles and 2.0 tackles for loss. "We stopped the run. They got us on some passes, but overall, I think we got better as a defense."
Part of Cal's success against the run can be attributed to the loss of UCLA running back Jordon James to injury, along with several offensive linemen. But, California's defensive scheme to defend the Bruins' rushing attack worked well due to an excellent push up front, most notably from nose tackle Viliami Moala. On UCLA's zone read plays -- a valuable staple of Bruin offensive coordinator Noel Mazzone's playbook -- the Bears held UCLA to a mere 1.8 yards per run. The linebackers were far better in gap assignments against the Bruins than in any other game this season, and I doubt that James would have had much more success given the circumstances.
"We wanted to try to take the run game away, and I think, for the most part, we did," Dykes said. "They had 78 yards rushing, and we wanted to make them one-dimensional and throw the ball. [Hundley] did a good job of doing that. He completed a high percentage of his throws, and we didn't tackle in the open field as well as we needed to, when he did complete those check-downs, particularly to the backs, but I thought he did a good job avoiding our pass rush, when we got pressure, extending plays."
In fact, UCLA's most successful rushing plays were quick backward passes in the flats, which resulted in the Bruins' longest ground gains on the night. When you consider that, UCLA's straight designed rush plays averaged far less than 2.3 yards per carry, and something the young Bear defenders can hang their hats on.
But it was not just the run defense that improved on Saturday night. Buh got some very positive performances from members in the secondary, as well. After a number of players in the back end of the defense were forced out for medical reasons, California utterly struggled to find cornerbacks who could hold their own against the fast, physical wide receivers in the conference. With redshirt sophomore Stefan McClure out for the season, the defense is now strung out to its very thinnest, yet some performers emerged against UCLA.
The most notable performer was cornerback Kameron Jackson, who had three interceptions against Hundley in last year's upset win. Jackson returned to the field full time weeks after suffering a terrifying injury in the Oregon monsoon to play very well at the Rose Bowl. When Hundley targeted Jackson's man on defense (typically the playmaker Shaquelle Evans), Hundley was only 1-for-4 for 15 yards, with Jackson defending 1 pass. Evans would eventually finish with 6 receptions for 68 yards and 1 TD, but those catches mainly came off of zone defenses. When Jackson matched up on him, Evans really couldn't really break away.
The other notable performer was cornerback Adrian Lee, who didn't quite match up stat-wise in the end, but still was in position to make plays. Lee gave up the big 43-yard pass early to wide receiver Jordan Payton, but that can be attributed to Payton's size advantage more than anything else. After that, Payton would only have one more catch against Lee, going for 9 yards. Lee was also in position on an incomplete pass in the end zone intended for Evans, and was in position to make an interception that was negated due to a pass interference penalty. With experience, Lee will clean up the mistakes he had on those long passes, and will eventually come down with more turnovers than penalties against. The coaches will like what they see of Lee on film.
Improvements can still be made in quite a few other areas of the defense, though. The tackling was abysmal, and allowed UCLA to keep drives alive. The Bears also failed to force a turnover.
"I thought we settled in and tackled better late in the game; it's been a problem for us all year," said head coach Sonny Dykes. "It's something that we haven't been particularly good at – open field tackling. It's something that you see us work on it all the time at practice. We just didn't do a very good job of making those open-field tackles, particularly early in the game. Once we settled down, I thought we tackled better."
But still, Dykes will be pleased with some of the answers he got on Saturday night on defense.
"I thought we played well enough at times to give us a chance to win," he said of his defense. "If the offense would have played – I think that's been our issue at times, this year. When our offense has played well, our defense hasn't, and when our defense played well, we've struggled offensively, like we did tonight."
The run defense against the spread worked effectively, and he might have found two cornerbacks that he'll get to (and have to) depend on moving forward.
Cal's defense allowed three touchdown passes and a career high in yards for a quarterback who projects to be drafted early next April. But, it also is a defense that is inching its way through the adverse times.
BY THE NUMBERS: Baby Steps
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