One of the hallmarks of Clancy Pendergast's defenses is the amount of rotation he uses along the defensive front.
The big question is: Will he be able to rotate his front enough on Saturday?
There are two parts to that question, though. The first: Can California's offense actually get going at the tempo they played with all the way back in Week One against Northwestern? The second: Does Pendergast have the bodies?
"Their front is the strength of their defense," says Bears head coach Sonny Dykes. "They've got a bunch of good players. They've played some different people, rotated them through, and they do a pretty good job keeping them fresh. They're big inside, and they really do a nice job using their hands. That's an impressive thing about them: They really get off blocks well and use their hands well. They have speed on the ends, so they're a good combination between power on the inside and speed on the outside."
Heading up that defensive front for much of the season has been freshman All-American defensive end Leonard Williams, but the 6-foot-5, 290-pound sophomore was listed as "questionable" with a shoulder injury, on Ed Orgeron's most recent injury report. If Williams can't play – or even if he's not at 100% -- that would be a huge blow to the front, as Williams has started all nine games, leads the team in tackles (56), tackles for loss (11.0-44 yards) and owns 5.0 sacks, four quarterback hurries and one forced fumble.
George Uko, though, is still a factor, with 22 tackles of his own, to go along with 5.0 TFLs, 4.0 sacks, one QB hurry and one forced fumble.
"It's a new style of defense, and they play a very aggressive style," says Dykes. "They'll blitz. They're constantly moving their front around. They're good at penetrating. When you penetrate a lot, that creates problems in the run game, and obviously the passing game, as well."
That speed blitzing off the edge forces quick throws, as evinced by USC's 13 interceptions (second in the Pac-12). Nearly half of those, though (6) came in the past two weeks, against Utah and Oregon State.
Also missing for the Trojans will be outside linebacker Morgan Breslin, who, due to hip surgery, will be out until a possible USC bowl game.
Even without Breslin for much of the season, though, USC still has a conference-leading 29 sacks on the year, which can't be music to Jared Goff's ears.
"They've got really, really good front four, and they're big and physical," Goff said. "Linebackers as well, and the secondary. They have some of the best recruiting classes year-in and year-out, so they're going to have a lot of athletes out there and they're going to have a great defensive game plan.
"They bring safeties down, they more around pretty good. They've got really good athletes over there on that side of the ball, and they fly around. I know they bring some pressure at times, and they like to play a little bit of man, so against us, who knows what they're going to come out with?"
Pendergast has, in the past, shown a weakness against spread or zone-read teams. While there are some zone-read concepts in Tony Franklin's playbook, the offense is not entirely based around a running quarterback, though Goff is mobile. In the past, against those zone-read teams, Pendergast's schemes have relied on quarterback spies without disciplined eyes and defensive ends who got sucked up into the middle, leaving the edges open. When Goff has run this year, it's been to the inside; not the outside, meaning that whatever perceived weakness Pendergast's schemes had – be it due to the scheme itself or personnel – won't come into play.
"They did a pretty good job against [B.J.] Denker when they played Arizona -- he didn't get a ton of rushing yards – and when they played against Chuckie Keeton, same thing – they did a pretty good job containing him when they played Utah State," Dykes said. "They've done a nice job against those guys. They hadn't really played somebody who majors in that, but like everybody, I'm sure they've made some adjustments and they're doing some things differently than they had in the past when they've faced running quarterbacks."
Despite Goff running a bit more in recent weeks, though, Dykes isn't yet comfortable enough with the freshman quarterback's physical durability to send him into the breach, despite the fact that he has – at least in his prep career – proven to be a moderate threat with his legs.
"It's not something we're planning on doing a lot," Dykes said. "He's not equipped to do that quite yet. I think there'll be a day, when, physically, he's a little bigger, a little stronger and can hold up a little better than he can right now. We just don't want to get him banged up right now."
Though Williams is uncertain for Saturday, his backup J.R. Tavai is far from a shrinking violet. Tavai is a 6-foot-2, 270-pound junior, who had 10 tackles against Arizona and 11 against Utah, playing in place of Breslin. With Breslin and now Williams possibly out, Tavai could slide down to end and let Jabari Ruffin take up the slack at the SAM linebacker position. Ruffin – a 6-foot-3, 225-pound redshirt freshman, has played in eight games this season, with 10 tackles.
The absences of Breslin and possibly Williams, though, don't change Dykes's outlook.
"The thing about USC: They've got good players," he said. "That's the thing: When someone goes down, good players step up. They've got a lot of guys that are capable pass rushers. Breslin's a little different. He plays with such great effort and he's a pretty impactful guy, but they've got good players. They'll replace him with somebody else, and he'll come in and do a good job.
"They're a little bit like we are. I don't know that they have a ton of depth, but the people they have are good players."
What can Cal bring to bear against that depleted front? Maybe -- just maybe -- a running game.
Over the first seven games of the season, the Bears averaged a paltry 2.85 yards per carry on the ground, but over the past two games – with a reformulated offensive line – Cal has averaged 4.75 yards per carry, in large part thanks to the return of Daniel Lasco and the emergence of hard-running Darren Ervin (listed as "probable" on the week's final injury report).
"I think it's probably a combination of things," said Dykes, who's team has faced the seventh and ninth rushing defenses in the conference over the past two weeks in Arizona and Washington, respectively. "I think our running backs are finishing runs better. I think we're blocking a little bit better up front, and I think part of it's the teams we've played against recently. Like most things, there's not an easy answer. It's a combination of things."
Lasco's shoulder has still bothered him a bit, but he's soldiered on through the pain. Dykes is confident that both of those backs – Ervin and Lasco – will be effective on Saturday against a USC rushing defense that ranks second in the Pac-12.
"I think they'll both be fine, I really do," Dykes said. "Shoulders are shoulders. They get a little bit banged up, they get a little banged up during the game, guys play through them, and it just takes them four or five days to recuperate afterwards, so that'll be the process with those guys probably for the next several weeks – trying to feel healthy enough to practice a little bit and get ready to play on Saturday."
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